One of my favorite cartoons about the First Thanksgiving shows several Pilgrim and Wampanoag women in the foreground setting a table for a huge feast, while in the background their husbands (both Native American and Pilgrim) are playing a rousing game of football. Obviously worn out from cooking, one woman turns to another and says “I sure hope this doesn’t get to be a tradition!”
So how old, really, is the connection between Thanksgiving and football? A lot older than most of us would guess. As early as 1928, the Saturday Evening Post cover below suggested the centrality of football to America’s Thanksgiving. Notice the almost perfect symmetry between the two figures.
The cartoon below suggests that the Thanksgiving-football connection is even older, however. This very busy cartoon by Samuel Ehrhart appeared in Puck in the year 1912. (Puck was a popular national humor magazine published between 1871 and 1918.) Notice how the crowds are flocking to see the advertised football contest pitting “Ye Pilgrims versus Ye Indians” at 2:00 p.m. Even before WWI, then, Americans had come to take for granted the link between Thanksgiving and football, and the cartoon’s gag consists of imagining our ancestors from the 17th century as enjoying the same pastime.
But the Thanksgiving-football connection actually goes back much further than this. One hundred thirty-eight years ago—in 1876—the newly formed Intercollegiate Football Association (with all of four member schools) determined to hold its first championship game in New York City on Thanksgiving Day. In no time at all the annual Thanksgiving Day championship game had become the country’s premier sporting event, drawing crowds upwards of forty thousand by the early 1890s.
In 1891, a writer for Harper’s Weekly observed that in New York “a great and powerful and fascinating rival has come to take the place of the Thanksgiving Day Dinner . . . the Thanksgiving Day Game.” Soon big “rivalry” games were becoming Thanksgiving traditions in Washington, Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles. Significantly, they were also spreading into southern cities, and it is no exaggeration to say that the growing popularity of Thanksgiving Day football helped to reconcile southerners to the Yankee holiday. By 1893 the tradition was so entrenched that the New York Herald could lament, “Thanksgiving Day is no longer a solemn festival to God for mercies given. . . . It is a holiday granted by the State and the Nation to see a game of football.”
Football wasn’t the only option for those inclined to pleasure on this once “holy day,” however. By the end of the century there were car races in Chicago; bicycle races in Los Angeles; balls, parties, golf tournaments, and theater matinees in the nation’s capital. While a West Coast journalist insisted that “the mingling of sports with prayer harms no well-regulated normal community,” a Chicago newsman predicted that “the churches will have to devise some more attractive program . . . if the religious feature of Thanksgiving Day is to be preserved.” The year of this warning was 1897.