How Harvard Invented Modern Football

(FDR was an avid football fan, and FDR Suite-mate Lathrop Brown managed the Varsity Team in 1903, so to celebrate the big Game this Saturday, I thought it fit to do a little digging into the history of the contest. I was pleasantly pleased to find an extended article by Morton Henry Prince, Class of 1875, in something called The H Book of Harvard Athletics, printed in 1923, and donated to the Restoration by the descendants of Chester Robinson ’04. Prince who served as secretary to the first Harvard Football Club and who witnessed events first hand, relates how Harvard’s unwillingness to change its traditional ways led directly to rise of football as we know it.

An early football game, along the lines of that played at Harvard in the early 1870s. Note the round ball, and complete lack of uniforms and equipment!

An early football game, along the lines of that played at Harvard in the 1860s & 70s. Note the round ball, and complete lack of uniforms or equipment!

By Morton (Henry) Prince ’75

To understand the history of football at Harvard, it is necessary to realize that during the 1850s and 1860s, the College played a game that had been played for many years in the preparatory schools of Massachusetts, particularly those of Boston. The rules were simple and through tradition were well established. Theoretically, any number could play on a side, but practically only ten or fifteen played because not more than twenty or thirty turned out each afternoon for a game. Instead of goal posts, the goal, over which the football had to be kicked on the fly, was only an imaginary line across the whole width of the field at the end. But after the game had become well established in College and match games were introduced a rope was strung across on supports about five feet above the ground.

The players were assigned to positions of “tenders,” “half-tends” (referring to the goal and corresponding to the present “full backs” and “half backs,”) and “rushers.”

The ball was round, and made of a non-elastic rubber fabric material similar to that of which rubber boots are made. The rubber only made it airtight. Kicking was the predominant feature of the game, but under a certain condition a player was allowed to run with the ball, “baby” (dribble) it, or throw it or pass it to another, and these tactics were liberally used. A player holding or running with the ball could be tackled. On the other hand, striking, hacking, tripping and other rough play was forbidden. Of course the ball could be caught or picked up.

The condition which permitted the player to run with, “baby,” throw, and pass the ball was that he be pursued by an adversary. If he ran with the ball he was obliged to stop the moment his opponent ceased the chase, and kick the ball. It may seem curious that this rule worked, but it did. The reason is that the pursuer always called out when he stopped chasing and if the runner did not at once also stop, the cry was taken up by the whole pack of opponents. He was then obliged by tradition to go back to where he was at the crucial moment, before kicking. It is obvious that under this rule there would develop the tactics of a player of the same team running by the side of the player with the ball, who, when tackled, passed the ball to his running mate, who in turn could run if chased, otherwise he must kick or throw the ball. The style of play as developed under these rules and by tradition was remarkably open, and remarkably individual, leaving nearly everything to the skill, initiative and agility of each player….

When winter came the success of the three seasons (two autumns and one spring, 1871) of sport had been so exhilarating that the football enthusiasts felt that the game ought to have wider support and that all the students ought to be invited and encourage to join and learn to play. Accordingly, a mass meeting was called in Holden Chapel, and the Harvard University Football Club was formed on 3 December 1872, and the set of rules that were adopted were essentially those as handed down by tradition…

In October of 1873 a letter was received by the caption of our team from Yale inviting us to send delegates to a convention, to be held in New York, of the five colleges which had shown the most interest in football, namely Harvard, Columbia, Rutgers, Princeton and Yale. The purpose of the call was to form an Intercollegiate Association and agree upon a code of rules. However, there was an essential problem: one fundamental principle of our game, determining the whole character of the play, was, I may repeat, that a player was permitted to pick up the ball, run with it, throw it, or pass it. He could also seize and hold an adversary to prevent his getting the ball. Quite contrary to this were the Yale rules, which were essentially the same as those of Princeton, Columbia, and Rutgers: no picking up, carrying or throwing the ball was allowed, nor was holding or pushing with the hands. The game was all footwork. The styles of game were consequently vitally different, as different as Soccer football is from the present game.

Regretfully, our Captain was instructed to decline Yale’s invitation.

Of course our action drew down upon Harvard considerable adverse criticism, as it was interpreted by Yale as an aloofness at meeting the other colleges in sport. Yet Harvard persevered: “ We must either sacrifice entirely the principle of our game and learn a new one, or abandon all thought of intercollegiate matches. We have chosen the latter alternative.” And with this, the incident was closed, but only for the time being, for the introduction of the Rugby game in the following spring in order to play McGill gave an entirely new aspect to the intercollegiate question and was destined to put American football upon an entirely different basis. But this became possible because of Harvard’s refusal to join the Intercollegiate Association and play the “Association Rules.” If Harvard had not refused it is highly improbably that the modern game played today – the American Rugby – would ever have been evolved. Instead, all universities colleges and schools today would be playing the Association Rules – practically soccer. But as it happened the ancient rivalry between Harvard and Yale with the irresistible desire to play each other finally induced a compromise and acceptance by the two colleges of the Rugby rules with which, as we shall see, Harvard at that epoch had become fortuitously experienced, and for which she had even learned to a acquire a secret taste….


The Momentous Beginning - Harvard/McGill 1874

The Momentous Beginning – Harvard at McGill 1874


The Harvard season of 1874, which began in the spring, was destined to be historic for American football because in it occurred the Harvard-McGill game, the first game of intercollegiate Rugby played in this country and the contest which lead directly to the present intercollegiate game. This contest, therefore, and the circumstances attending its inception and the historic event itself deserve to be more fully recorded.

Harvard was surprised and pleased to receive from McGill University in Montreal a proposal for a series of matches. As McGill played under the Rugby rules (slightly modified) it was proposed, in order to overcome the difficulty, that two matches be played, one under the Rugby rules and one under the Harvard rules. Of course we eagerly fell in with the idea of the two matches…

We at once set to work studying the principles of the Rugby game, practicing plays, and working out what could be done under the rules and particularly what tactics under the Harvard rules could be adapted. This gave us, as it turned out, some advantage, for with Yankee shrewdness we discovered that certain of our own plays could be introduced which, though we had not suspected it, had not been thought of by McGill. When in the match we used these plays, the visitors were dumbfounded, and for the moment questioned their propriety, but at once recognized their legality when it was pointed out by the umpire.

In the Magenta [now the Crimson] for May 8, 1874, appeared this notice:

“The McGill University Foot-ball Club will meet the Harvard Club on Jarvis Field, Wednesday and Thursday, the 13th and 14th at 3 o’clock. Admission 50 cents.”

It’s worth noting that the fifty cents admission was charged for an entertainment fund. There was no athletic fund in those days. We had – noblesse oblige – to entertain our visitors and make their visit enjoyable and one to be remembered. How strange that must sound to modern ears. Think of entertaining Yale, or Princeton, or Cornell! Yet not a bad idea!…

At last the great day for football arrived.

In those days of early football the Harvard team was not outfitted with uniforms. No one in the memory of man had ever donned a uniform for football in any college. So we always wore our oldest clothes, which consisted of a pair of trousers and any old shirt. But on this occasion we did a bit better to present a respectable appearance and exhibit a semblance of a uniform. Each member of the eleven donned dark trousers, a white undershirt (which some thought had the advantage of ripping when seized) and a magenta handkerchief tied in a traditional fashion upon the head as was customary with the crews. And thus appareled, to our later mortification (we thought it fine at the moment) the Harvard eleven appeared on the field. In the first match under the Harvard rules, which was not a rough game, the clothing stood the wear and tear, but in the Rugby game it was soon reduced to shreds and patches. When the McGill eleven appeared on the field neatly uniformed after the English fashion, the contrast was remarked upon to our discomfiture.

A crowd of about 500 spectators, mostly students, lined the sides of Jarvis field. All were keyed with intense interest. It needed, however, but a few moments of play to relieve whatever anxiety there was and for it to become obvious that our easy going Canadian visitors had not taken the trouble to practice the game and were totally unfamiliar with it.  The match (three games) was speedily over. Harvard won all three.

The second match on the next day was a different affair. We now had to meet our opponents at their own game. Instead of the round “rubber” fabric ball used in the Harvard game, the ball was the English oval, leather-covered ball, substantially the same as that used today in the present American game. The match was hard fought and evenly contested for it turned out to be a drawn battle, neither side scoring a goal or a touchdown in the three half-hours. The fact that we held the McGill team to a draw at their own game speaks well for the skill and general excellence of our men at football, considering that they had only a few weeks in which to study and practice the game.  With the matches over, we did not feel that our obligations had ended. There were those of hospitality and sportsmanship. During the two-days stay of our visitors, all the Harvard clubs opened their doors to them; we took them to ourselves and did all that we could to give them a good time and make them feel the spirit of good-fellowship. And, indeed, we found them a set of as good fellows and sportsmen as ever punted a football. We had taken in several hundred dollars in admissions to the matches – quite a tidy little sum in those days – and with this, not being responsible to any auditing committee, I as autocrat of the Treasury am thankful to remember, we blew them off a banquet at Parker’s in Boston, and saw to it that the champagne flowed as it will never do again.

Editors Note: Now that’s my kind of post-game party! Harvard meet McGill again the next season in Montreal, and was once more victorious. Harvard’s Canadian hosts, gracious throughout, outdid even the hospitality shown by the College the previous year in Cambridge, so much so that many of the team members elected to stay a few additional days in Montreal. The McGill-Harvard matches were a watershed, and had the result “of creating at Harvard an interest in and a positive liking for the Rugby game,” according to Prince. Based on this experience, Harvard shortly thereafter suggested to Yale that a compromise might be reached in both schools giving up their particular games for a modified set of Rugby rules, and thus the first Harvard-Yale contest was played in 1875, initiating the sport now called American football.

On a personal note: Thanks to all of our new friends, several hundred strong, who made it back to Adams today for the Harvard Yale celebration, and toured the Suite. We’re so grateful for your show of support! And, congrats to our victorious team, who made this happy day possible. Go Harvard Football!

The FDR Suite Restoration Project at Adams House, Harvard College is funded entirely through your contributions to the FDR Suite Foundation Inc, a public 501(c)3 charity set up to create the only living memorial to FDR at Harvard, as well as a museum of 19th century Harvard student life. We do not receive funds from the University to support this endeavor, and we need your help!



Why We Fight

why we fight

In 1942, in the first full, dark year of the War, famous Hollywood director Frank Capra had a problem. Commissioned by the Government to make a series of films to demonstrate why America should actively support the war effort, he had the daunting task of convincing a recently non-interventionist population of the need to become involved across the globe. Taking Germany’s own propaganda films, most notably Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will,  and twisting their message back on the source,  Capra managed to create what is today widely credited as one of the most effective documentary-style series of all time. Originally intended solely for the Armed Forces, it was immediately released by FDR to the general public. By 1945, 54 million people had seen Why We Fight.

So, you may be wondering, what does all this have to do with the Restoration? Well, let me tell you: yesterday I was chatting with one of our alums, and I realized it’s been a while since we outlined our progress to date, and what we hope to achieve through our efforts here. So briefly, our battle plan:

The Physical Restoration of the Suite is about 75% accomplished. To date we have raised (and already spent!) a bit over $100,000, and we have approximately another $25,000 to go. I say “approximately” here because the items remaining to be acquired – textiles, rugs, a bronze, period decorative items, framed art & ephemera – vary wildly in price, and some are quite costly: we’re searching for a set of period crew oars, for instance, which will probably set us back several thousand dollars, unless some kind soul donates them. (Hint hint!) But by and large we hope to finish renovation fundraising the summer of 2011 and complete this aspect of the project by that fall.

The next item on the agenda is to develop a Virtual Tour of the Suite, so that anyone around the world can visit  FDR’s student digs and understand what it was like to be at Harvard during the Gilded Age.  To get some idea of what we are talking about, here’s something similar: a tour of 10 Downing Street. Since this tour was completed a few years ago, the graphics are a bit old-fashioned and we hope to do something much more sophisticated, where you can move through the rooms, select individual items and request the background information for each. Though it sounds easy, a project like this is surprisingly complicated, requiring a complete photographic catalog of the room, and some heavy-duty graphics programming well beyond my limited ken. We’re estimating that to get the site up and running will cost $50,000, but once completed, it will provide global access to this remarkable Harvard historical resource.

And finally, The FDR Scholarship Programs. We are seeking to fund two scholarship opportunities. The first provides undergraduates the chance to intern at Hyde Park for the summer, learning historic preservation, museum curatorial skills, participating in public affairs and educational programs, as well as permitting students to work with primary source documents relating to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his life and presidency. Here we would tap into an existing program at the FDR Library and Presidential Museum, essentially funding an extra slot. The cost is $5000 per student per summer. The students work, learn, and receive a small stipend to cover expenses.

The second scholarship program is more ambitious, and is motivated by something FDR’s Harvard roommate and life-long friend  Lathrop Brown said in an interview with filmmaker Pare Lorenz. Remarking on why FDR later became such an effective leader, Brown stated: FDR had traveled much more than most boys of his own age… He had an inquiring mind, and unlike other boys brought up like a litter of puppies in a kennel, who spent their time cuffing each other, he had plenty of time to spend on individualistic pursuits. Because of this, he was more mature in many respects than his contemporaries. His eyes opened earlier.” The key here is travel: by age 15, FDR had spent nearly half of his life abroad, spoke fluent French and German, and had seen much of Western Europe: the very land he would be charged to save 40 years later. It occurred to me, as a former language concentrator, and as someone who came to Harvard on full scholarship – and who returned home each summer to Milwaukee to earn money for the next school year – that while the College has done a magnificent job of equalizing the social and academic experience during the term, the summer break is entirely another matter. So to level the playing field a bit and provide less affluent students with study opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have, we’re proposing an FDR Traveling Scholar Program, which would each year award a stipend of up to $8,000 to pay for an accredited academic program abroad, and then, once successfully completed, provide the student with a $3500 stipend to make up for lost summer wages. This program would only be available to Harvard students below a certain economic threshold, and would be awarded to those wishing to pursue clearly delineated goals that foster cultural communication and global understanding in the international spirit of FDR’s fourth inaugural address:

“Today, in this year of war, 1945, we have learned lessons—at a fearful cost—and we shall profit by them.
We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other Nations, far away…  We have learned to be citizens of the world, members of the human community. We have learned the simple truth, as Emerson said, that, ‘The only way to have a friend is to be one.'”

The cost of these two programs would be  $16,000 per annum. At the beginning, these grants will be awarded as funds become available, but over the course of the next five years, we hope to build up a $500,000 endowment to fund these programs annually from investment earnings, as well as to finance expansion of the Suite’s educational mission. This last is critical, as while the College maintains the physical shell of Westmorly Hall, once through the door of B-17, it’s all up to us: the preservation of the interiors and the maintenance of the entire FDR Suite collection is the sole fiscal responsibility of the Foundation. We receive no funds from the College.

So this, ladies and gentlemen, is WHY WE FIGHT.

Care to join the battle?  We welcome, and need, your support.

The FDR Suite Restoration Project at Adams House, Harvard College is funded entirely through your contributions to the FDR Suite Foundation Inc, a public 501(c)3 charity set up to create the only living memorial to FDR at Harvard, as well as a museum of 19th century Harvard student life. We do not receive funds from the University to support this endeavor, and we need your help!

All Hallows’ Eve

A 1904 Halloween postcard. I don't recognize these visages, do you?

A 1904 Halloween postcard. I don't recognize these visages, do you?

From our haunted mirror to yours, Happy Halloween!

The FDR Suite Restoration Project at Adams House, Harvard College is funded entirely through your contributions to the FDR Suite Foundation Inc, a public 501(c)3 charity set up to create the only living memorial to FDR at Harvard, as well as a museum of 19th century Harvard student life. We do not receive funds from the University to support this endeavor, and we need your help!

Home Stretch

This window treatment for a "portiere" or French door, is very similar to what's intended for the study.

This window treatment for a "portiere" or French door from Paine's 1898 catalogue, is very similar to what's intended for the study.

“They write me from Jordan and Marsh that the curtains are to be put up in your rooms today, so I hope you will be in order by tomorrow.” Sara to FDR October 6, 1900

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We’re entering the home stretch of the renovation, and we need your help. Our immediate goal is to raise 6K for the room textiles: draperies, door swags, mantel cover, etc. We know they were there, because we have both written evidence from Sara, and physical evidence in Suite itself: we can see the attachment holes! Victorian rooms aren’t complete without fabric, and this is a remarkable opportunity to recreate a real bit of history, as we actually have, thanks to the Baker Business Library Collections, a period Paine’s catalogue (the supplier of  some of FDR’s furniture) to base our designs from.

For all of you who have not contributed (and that’s about 90% of you reading this post, ahem) please consider supporting us. For those of you who already have, October is the time to renew your annual memberships. Won’t you consider an additional donation to help us meet this important milestone? I will keep you posted on progress.

BTW: our adopt an antique program still has many homeless children!

Contributions may be sent to:

The FDR Suite Foundation, Inc.
Adams House, 29 Plympton Street
Cambridge, MA 02138

The FDR Suite Restoration Project at Adams House, Harvard College is funded entirely through your contributions to the FDR Suite Foundation Inc, a public 501(c)3 charity set up to create the only living memorial to FDR at Harvard, as well as a museum of 19th century Harvard student life. We do not receive funds from the University to support this endeavor, and we need your help!

Bird’s-Eye View of Harvard

birdseye view of harvard1

A while back, I acquired this wonderful 1895 bird’s-eye view of Harvard for the Suite, and I thought you might enjoy seeing it.

(The original is 11 x 17;  click on the image above to expand; in most browsers, you may then click again to supersize; or, use your browser’s scaling feature (the same one that increases type size) to increase image size.)

This is the College much as FDR would have known it. You’ll see many lost buildings: the old Appleton Chapel, torn down to make way for Memorial Church;  Gore Hall, the library building replaced by Widener; even the original hexagonal gymnasium, which stood where the Fire Station is now, across from the GSD. It’s also interesting to note how open the Yard was; notice the lack of gates and iron fences (these were just being started in 1900) as well as all the missing Yard dorms  – Straus, Lionel, Mower and Wigglesworth. These last were built, beginning in the 20’s, with the distinct idea of enclosing the Yard against increasing urban encroachment. Another difference is in the Memorial Hall tower: in 1898 it gained four clock faces, and FDR would have told the hour by their sonorous strike. No Union either, you’ll note. That arrived in 1901. Nor anything, really, east of Sever: the current Fogg is four decades away. Oh, and where Lehman Hall now stands, diagonally fronting the Square? In FDR’s time, the Greek Revival edifice you see tucked next to Matthews was the Bursar’s office; before that,  it was the first home of the Law School. In this picture, the new Austin Hall embodies the whole place. How things have changed!  O tempora, o mores!

And as a reminder, this is just one more item that is up for adoption, ladies and gentlemen! It’s going in FDR’s bedroom. The piece needs some conservation, and framing: $200 will give it a new home! Anyone interested, please email me at the following: mweishan at fas dot harvard dot edu, or leave a comment below and we’ll get back to you.

The FDR Suite Restoration Project at Adams House, Harvard College is funded entirely through your contributions to the FDR Suite Foundation Inc, a public 501(c)3 charity set up to create the only living memorial to FDR at Harvard, as well as a museum of 19th century Harvard student life. We do not receive funds from the University to support this endeavor, and we need your help!

Lathrop’s Desk


“The rooms look as if struck by sheet lightning, the sitting-room having the chairs and tables but no curtains or carpets. The bed is in place in my room and it looks inhabitable.” FDR to Sara, 9/25/1900

“Also tell me if you have your two big rugs, blue and red and the small rugs I ordered. I have a bill from Paine for only the large red room rug, and Lathrop’s spring (without the mattress or covering). I enclose a card showing a desk which might suit Lathrop if he has not bought his.” She then goes on to correct his grammar: “*One does not say “inhabitable.” Sara to FDR 9/30/1900

For over a year, we’ve been looking for two desks: a small roll-top for FDR, and a gentleman’s desk for Lathrop. The latter, I’m delighted to say, is finally in hand. I found this wonderful piece half-forgotten in a barn in New Hampshire, and was able, by a margin of a quarter inch, to fit it into my car and get it home. Desks like these are extremely rare these days, as the demands of modern electronics generally mandate far larger surfaces. (As I write this, I sit at a desk 9.5′ long, which is almost buried under phones, monitors, scanners, printers and other paraphernalia of the electronic office.) But this little gem harks back to a gentler age. Dating to about 1895, it measures just 40″ across and is made of solid black walnut, with a black leather top. Stylistically the piece is quite interesting, sitting exactly on the cusp of two ages: the bat-wing handles on the drawers are very much Victorian, but the turned spindles of the legs, and the overall simplicity of the work  suggest the beginnings of a new design aesthetic, one that would ultimately be known as Colonial Revival. And what a location beside these glorious windows! Who wouldn’t want to pen a line or two here? On top the desk, another prize: a 12-piece solid brass desk set I found recently (also very rare, as it’s complete) along with a green-shaded Alladin desk lamp. Add a nice leather blotter, a calendar, a black walnut chair and some gentleman’s calling cards, and the desk of Mr. Lathrop Brown will soon be ready for occupancy.

FDR’s desk, however, still remains at large…

And of course, it goes without saying that these items (ahem, ahem!) are all up for adoption: the desk at $500, the lamp at $100, and the desk set at $300. More homeless antiques can be found HERE.

Also, if any of you have period volumes you might be willing to donate to help fill our book cases, we would be most grateful to accept them. FDR was quite the bibliophile, and avidly collected rare volumes. Leather or cloth bound fiction or non fiction, with decorative covers & published before 1904, would be most welcome!

As always, we thank you for your interest and support.