As we wrap up labor day weekend, people all across America are done with spending a day standing in a parking lot. Taken out of context it sounds like the strangest possible activity for a Saturday. Who would want to just hang out in a parking lot all day? The idea is made better when you add food and alcohol to the mix, but still, why would you want to spend all that time making meals and snacks ahead of time, packing a cooler with drinks, then loading it all into your vehicle along with some chairs, tables, and of course a TV? At least when you do this (minus the TV hopefully) for camping you are getting out into the great outdoors to go fishing, hiking, or swimming. But to spend all this time and energy to stand in a concrete wasteland underneath an overpass seems crazy.
In order to lessen the crazy concept you have to fill in a few more details. Once you arrive with all your food and drinks and TV you are surrounded by thousands of other people doing the exact same thing, wearing the same colored clothing as you, all in a communal, sharing mood. Everyone has done exactly as you have in order to tailgate before their favorite college team takes the field to play football. Even with a full picture, it still seems like an odd activity, so where and why did tailgating start?
First, we need to define tailgating. At its most basic form, tailgating is any event where people show up with food and drink to watch an activity. A few sources date the first form of tailgating to the Battle of Bull Run in 1861 when people traveled from DC to Virginia to watch and cheer on their "team," either Union or Confederate, while having a picnic. While it fits the definition, I prefer to disqualify this event and move on to trace the history to a more civil event that aligns with the commonly known form of tailgating. This would necessitate adding a few words to the definition: "a non life threatening" activity. This definition would also rule out the ancient harvest celebrations cited in a number of articles because they typically lacked a big event for the townspeople to gather and watch. These affairs were more akin to a fall festival today, but in those times they were celebrating the end of summer and enjoying each others company one final time before the harsh winter took hold. With the advent of the furnace we hold celebrations throughout the winter.
According to Stephen Linn, author of "The Ultimate Tailgater's Handbook: what to wear, what to eat, what to do, where to do it," the first tailgate dates to 1869 at College Field in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The Rutgers versus Princeton game was "both a fine game and a fine party." At this point in time, there were no vehicles for which to tailgate with and the dreaded parking lot was yet to be designed, but it aligns closer with the tailgating of today. People gathered together, eating and drinking, prior to going to watch a game. They probably had better attendance at the events than we do today because early tailgating was typically a byproduct of necessity. Fans traveled long distances and in some instances the limited parking encouraged them to arrive early, so they brought food with them to satisfy their appetite prior to the game.
Even with the invention of the automobile, tailgating did not suddenly spring into being. It took several decades before we arrived at today's version of tailgating. The invention of more portable grills and wheeled coolers made it easier to transport your kitchen to the parking lot itself, spurring a tradition of arriving early to enjoy a meal and beverage with friends and family before the game. In more recent years, parking lot owners have equipped their large concrete expanses with satellite dish's to ensure no one will miss a game while they prepare for their own team to take the field.
Depending on what city you are tailgating in, you could identify more with the early Civil War fans or the fall harvest people. In Nebraska, I like to think we are very friendly and welcoming fans. Our family always invites opposing team fans to our tailgate to join in the festivities. In some cities though, hatred of the opponent runs deep and no amount of festivity will bring them together. Most people however refer to their tailgating experience as something of a reunion. It's their opportunity to get together with old classmates, friends, and family before the game to eat, drink, and converse.
The tailgate has become a social experience more than a day devoted to football. A survey quoted on American Heritage found only 30 percent of tailgaters ever go to an actual game. In my experience, most are barely even watching the game on their TV if their team is doing well. The tailgate will live on as long as football is a sport, giving fans a reason to gather and support their team, but even more to gather with family and friends over a buffet of unhealthily but delicious food. If nothing else it provides a better use a few weekends each year for all the concrete parking lots taking up space in our downtowns.