The Changing Shape of American Football at the College of New Jersey (Princeton)

With the Super Bowl coming up this weekend, our thoughts have turned toward the history of American football. We’ve repeated the fact several times: On November 6, 1869, the first intercollegiate football match ever was played on College Field in New Brunswick, New Jersey, between the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and Rutgers College. Yet some dispute this. The game Princeton and Rutgers played that day looked a lot more like soccer than what we now know as American football. The ball was perfectly round, not the oval we use now. The teams had about 25 players each on the field, rather than 11. But even if this wasn’t “football” as we know football, without that game to attract the attention of other colleges, American football would probably have never gotten off the ground. Thus, we’ll still continue to say that the first intercollegiate American football game happened on November 6, 1869.

Questions might still remain, however. How did Princeton go from playing with approximately 25 men on the field chasing a round ball to playing with 11 men on the field chasing an oval ball?


The College of New Jersey (Princeton) 1873 football team. Note the round ball in front of the man in the top hat. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box LP36, Image No. 2522.

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UPDATE!! Following the Princeton Victory over Yale this weekend we will have yet another BONFIRE this Sunday, November 24th at 7pm. In the meantime, check out our blog from last year about the history of the tradition. Plus, we have added a few “new” archival photos!


On Saturday, November 17th at 7:00 pm, we went back to Cannon Green to re-light a fire that has been dormant for six years, the BONFIRE!


Timeframe unknown

The bonfire is one of the oldest traditions at Princeton University. The Princetoniana Committee, part of the Alumni Association, describes the fire as “one of the most memorable– and sporadic– of all traditional Princeton activities.” The celebratory fire occurs only after the Princeton football team has defeated both Yale and Harvard.

“According to tradition, the construction of the Bonfire rested with the Dink Wearing Freshmen. It was their responsibility to gather wood from the surrounding area, often aided in large part by townspeople and campus construction workers. Once a tall pyre had been placed in the center of Cannon Green, the final adornments usually included an outhouse and an effigy of John Harvard or a Yale Bulldog, or both.” – Princetoniana Committee

Here we showcase just a few of the many historical photographs of bonfires that are in the Princeton University Archives, housed here at the Mudd Manuscript Library. The following reside in the Historical Photograph Collection: Campus Life (AC112)  and the Office of Communications Records (AC168).


Remnants of the 1897 bonfire


Gathering the materials for the 1901 fire.


A large pyre for the 1914 fire

Students turn away from the heat of the flames during the 1946 fire.

Students turn away from the heat of the flames during the 1946 fire.


From 1948: the outhouse is shown with Yale Bowl painted on the side


Football coach Charlie Caldwell ’25 and team captain George Chandler ’51 lighting the bonfire in 1950.

A closer look at the outhouse from the 1952 championship event.

A closer look at the outhouse from the 1952 championship event.


Huge flames during the 1981 bonfire.

Huge flames during the 1981 bonfire.



Students watch the 1985 fire from the trees.



The Princeton Tiger lights the 1994 bonfire.


The most recent fire in 2006. Photo courtesy: John Jameson, Office of Communications

PAW Photo from 2013 - Credit - Beverly Schaefer

PAW Photo from 2013 – Credit – Beverly Schaefer

Princeton Pause also compiled a video from the 2006 fire featuring items from our archives.

More photographs can be viewed in person by visiting the Mudd Reading Room. Digital copies of photos are also available. Start your search with our Historical Photograph Database. 

If you are attending and sharing photos using Twitter or Instagram, please use the hashtag #bonfirePU and contribute to documenting the history of this wonderful event!

Please also feel free to leave a comment about your bonfire memories!

The beginnings of American Football

Superbowl Sunday is once again upon us. As we head toward the “Big Game” you can’t help but think back to when intercollegiate football gained its beginnings right here in Princeton.

In the book A Princeton Companion author Alexander Leitch notes that the first American intercollegiate football game was played between Princeton and Rutgers in New Brunswick on November 6, 1869.

The Princeton University Archives, housed at Mudd Manuscript Library, contains a treasure trove of memorabilia, photographs and programs from the early days of Princeton football.


Princeton football team from 1879.
A Souvenir Programme from the Princeton-Pennsylvania Foot-Ball Game from November 5, 1892 gives a description of the game. See the transcript below.


“Our Game of Foot-Ball” from a Souvenir Programme dated November 5, 1892.

Our Game of Foot-Ball.

It is proper to call it our game,for the reason that Foot-ball, as you will see it played to-day, is peculiarly an institution of American Colleges. From the time, however, that man’s constructive genius evolved a large but airly light sphere, he has delighted to kick and chase it about in rivalry with his fellows. Therefore, Foot-ball, as a game, is not ours either in the sense of American or modern. We read of games in the Middle Ages, in which hundreds of men participated, and the bounds of which were miles apart. Who has not laughed at the description, in “Tom Brown’s School-days,” of the game into which the silk-hatted, gold spectacled graduates rushed-forgetful of dignity and clothing-remembering only the glory of their school and the intoxicating delight of the game. Show me the boy or man even – indeed I will add old woman – who can see a foot-ball rolling temptingly near the foot and yet feel no desire to kick it, and I would advise the consulting of some sensible physician. But it would be well to speak only of our game. Among the spectators there is undoubtedly a large minority who know actually nothing about the technique of “Inter-Collegiate” Foot-ball. Probably half of the remainder know just enough to arouse their curiosity, and many of the other half feel that they do not know it all. Hence it does not seem untimely to describe the game in such a way that any, so desiring, may, by careful reading, know and enjoy Foot-Ball better.

You will see, spread out before you, a field enclosed by white bouandry lines. Its length is 330 feet — its breadth 160 feet. Width-wise across this field you will see other white lines, drawn parallet and exactly five yards apart. Three of these “five-yard” lines are marked more heavily than the others. These are twenty-five yards from each end and the one in the centre of the field. The end lines are called the “goal-lines.” In the centre fo the lines you will see two posts twenty feet high, eighteen feet and six inches apart and connected ten feet from the ground by a straight bar. This-H like structure is called the goal.

If you are properly enthused, you will experience considerable excitement when the teams come on the field about two-fifteen. Until the game is called there will be about twenty men at each end of the field, warming up by passing the ball, falling on it and kicking it. When it is time to play, however, eleven only of each side strip off their sweaters and assemble at the middle of the field. The conventional method for these men to line up on ordinary plays is as follows: Seven of them, called “Rushers,” stand in line to protect he “Backs,” who are the other four men. Of the Rushers, the man in the middle is known as the Centre Rush, and is the man to put the ball in play. On each side of him are the Guards – the one on his right being known as Right Guard, the other as Left Guard. The next man on each side is known as a Tackle, and the end men are known respectively as Right and Left End Rush. Of the Backs, the man who plays directly behind the Centre Rush and takes the ball from him when he snaps it back is know as the Quarter Back. The other three backs stand in a line about five yards from the Rushers and are know respectively as Right and Left Half Backs and Full Back.

Consist of a Referee and an Umpire. The principal duty of the former is to watch the ball – tell to which side it belongs, how many downs it is, how far to gain, and whether the ball has been properly put into play. The Umpire must watch the players – keep them on side, prevent unfair holding, decide with regard to the fairness of interference and prevent brutality by sending from the field all men who strike, kick, throttle or are unnecessarily rough.

When it is nearly time for the game to begin, the Referee calls the two Captains together and, by flipping a coin, determine which team shall have the ball at the kick-off. The Captain who does not get the ball always has a choice of the goals, and usually chooses to defend the one from which the wind is blowing, so that the kicking may be more effective. The Referee now placed the ball in the exact centre of the field, and the team having the kick-off forms itself into the shape of a V, with the apex over the ball and a man standing in the angle to run with it behind the protection of his V. The Referee asks each Captain if he is ready and then shouts, “Play!” The game is now begun and continues an hour and a half, with a rest of ten minutes in the middle.

Above items were found in collections:

In addition, you can see film highlights of Princeton football games on our Reel Mudd blog.

Early films of Princeton football, 1903-1951.
Post-war Princeton football newsreels, 1947-1956.
Princeton Football, the Winning Way,” 1975.

For more information about Princeton Football and the University Archives visit the finding aids page of the Mudd Manuscript Library website.

Additional reading Princeton Football: Images of Sports available at Firestone and Mudd Libraries.

“Princeton Football, the Winning Way,” 1975

Today’s blog is written by Mark F. Bernstein ’83, author of Football: the Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession (2001). A previous entry from him about Princeton football can be found here.

The title of this video notwithstanding, Princeton football fell on hard times after the decision to abandon the single wing offense in the late Sixties.
In 1973, hoping to revive their fortunes, they hired Bob Casciola ’58, a former All-Ivy tackle, as head coach. Casciola had been an assistant coach under Robert Colman and is credited with persuading future All-American Cosmo Iacavazzi ’66 to attend Princeton. The team finished last in the Ivy League in Casciola’s first season, but improved in 1974 as Walt Snickenberger ’75 won the Asa Bushnell Cup as Ivy League Player of the Year. That raised hopes that the Tigers could return to the top of the standings in 1975.
Those 1975 Tigers had several good players, including quarterback Ron Beible ’76, a civil engineering major who set several Princeton passing records.       The film reflects the changing university. In addition to the long hair and flamboyant ’70s clothes (including Beible’s white shoes), there were African-Americans on the team and female cheerleaders on the sidelines (0:15). Several interviews were filmed outside Jadwin Gymnasium, which opened in 1969. Casciola refers to the lack of spring practice, a rule for Ivy football teams that dates to the early 1950s and predates the formal creation of a league.
The film also shows different helmet logos. Princeton experimented with several designs during this period, including the abstract striped tiger tail and the cartoon running tiger. Not until 1998 did they revert to the classic “Michigan” helmet design that coach Fritz Crisler had inaugurated at Princeton during the 1930s.
Unfortunately, the high hopes for the 1975 season were not realized. The team won its first three games but finished 4-5 and fifth in the Ivy League. Casciola continued as coach until 1977 and later served as chief operating officer of the NBA’s New Jersey Nets.
Nineteen seventy-five was, however, a more successful year for Princeton’s men’s basketball team, which won the National Invitational Tournament.
–Mark F. Bernstein ’83
This 16mm film is part of the University Archives’ Historical Audiovisual Collection (item no. 0218)

Princeton’s Bicentennial: Charter Day, October 19, 1946

In the 1946-1947 academic year, Princeton celebrated its 200th anniversary with a series of convocations and events, ending with a concluding ceremony, captured in a newsreel, which included a convocation address by US President Harry Truman. Today’s blog features another newsreel about the University’s bicentennial year that focuses on “Charter Day,” October 19, 1946. In addition to Princeton’s almost 200-year old charter and the “largest procession in Princeton history” at the time (which included 23 honorary degrees recipients), the newsreel addresses the beginning of intercollegiate football, depicting a re-enactment of the first football game between Princeton and Rutgers from November 6, 1869 during halftime of the 1946 Princeton-Rutgers game.

Princeton’s charter, granted to the University on October 22, 1746 (then still known as the “College of New Jersey”) is shown fleetingly in the newsreel (0:38). Readers of our regular blog already know that the charter, on intermittent display during the celebration of Mudd Manuscript Library’s 50th anniversary, is actually not the original (which was lost) but the second charter, drawn up in 1748. (An explanation can be found in our Frequently Asked Questions.) The famous early picture of Nassau Hall that follows at 0:48 is the copper engraving by Philadelphia artist Henry Dawkins (copied from a drawing by Princeton student William Tennent, Class of 1758), which was printed in Samuel Blair’s Account of the College of New Jersey (1764). For more information about the engraver, who was also a counterfeiter of paper money, see Julie Mellby’s Graphic Arts blog.

Over 500 people comprised the academic procession that opened and closed the morning’s convocation, according to the Prince, including faculty, trustees, representatives of all alumni classes and members of the Undergraduate Council. The procession included an official delegation from the United Nations, headed by Secretary General Trygve Lie, and members from the State Bicentennial Commission, including Walter E. Edge, Governor of New Jersey. Lie (1:42) and Edge (2:11) were among the 23 honorary degree recipients, as were the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, the Spanish writer Salvador De Madariaga, and the French philosopher Jacques Maritain (2:21–not all recipients are clearly visible).

The last eight minutes of the newsreel are occupied by the 38th Rutgers-Princeton football game in the afternoon (2:47), with a humorous reenactment of the first Rutgers-Princeton game of November 6, 1869 (5:51), considered the ‘birth’ of intercollegiate football. A description of the football game and the reenactment by Theatre Intime and members of the Rutgers soccer team can be found in the Prince. A copy of the program notes about the 1869 football game, with an explanation of the rules, may be downloaded at Twenty-four Stalwart Men.pdf. A second article from the program, summarizing the history of the Princeton-Rutgers football rivalry, can be viewed at  77 Years Princeton-Rutgers.pdf. More information about early football can be found in Football: the Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession by Mark Bernstein ’83, who wrote our previous blog entry.

The footage on this 16mm film is part of the University Archives’ Historical Audiovisual Collection (part of item no. 0092).

Post-war Princeton football newsreels (1947-1956)

Today’s blog is written by Mark F. Bernstein ’83, author of Football: the Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession (2001).

The decade after World War II was a Golden Age of Princeton football. Under the leadership of coach Charlie Caldwell ’25, the Tigers were often nationally ranked and it was not unusual for newsreel cameras to film Princeton games. These Paramount newsreels give highlights from across that era, although the clips are not in chronological order.

The first game shown here, a 13-7 victory over Penn in 1951, was almost certainly broadcast on national television, as the Quakers had a lucrative contract with ABC to broadcast all their home games. Dick Kazmaier ’52, a triple-threat tailback in Princeton’s distinctive single wing offense, won the Heisman Trophy that year, graced the cover of Time magazine, and was named the AP’s athlete of the year, beating out such luminaries as Otto Graham and Stan Musial. Kazmaier showed off his passing skills here with a bomb to Frank McPhee ’53. (0:48)
The second clip shows a 42-20 loss to Yale in 1956, the first year of Ivy League competition. Although it is not known if this game was broadcast, one concession to television in those years was a recommendation that the road team wear white uniforms, which made the teams easier to distinguish on black-and-white TV sets. For generations before that, Princeton always wore black and orange, whether playing at home or on the road. Nineteen fifty-six was also Caldwell’s last full season as coach. He died of cancer the following year and was succeeded by his assistant, Dick Colman.
Caldwell was just beginning to build his dynasty in 1947, when the third clip was filmed showing a 26-7 loss to the Quakers. Dick West ’48 provided the lone highlight, connecting with George Sella ’50 for a touchdown. (3:40) West played for the Tigers in 1942 but interrupted his education to join the military. Sella, like Dick Kazmaier, was later drafted by the Chicago Bears but decided to pass up the NFL for Harvard Business School.
The final clip shows a hard-fought 24-20 victory over Navy during the undefeated 1951 season.   The win was Princeton’s fifteenth in a row. Their streak would eventually extend to 24 games before Penn snapped it the following year.

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Early films of Princeton football, 1903-1951

The oldest known silent movie of a Princeton football match is a four minute recording of a Yale-Princeton game, shot at Yale’s stadium in 1903. The film, which was produced by the company of Thomas A. Edison, inventor of the motion picture camera, is held at the Library of Congress and can be viewed online. Featured below is the oldest football film in the Princeton University Archives, which is also the oldest film in our entire audiovisual collection: a recording of the 1919 Princeton-Harvard match at Palmer Stadium. It is interesting to compare the annotated movie, shot from just one spot in the bleachers, with two newsreels of matches in 1941 and 1951, when the excitement of the game could be captured in movement as well as sound.


While Thomas Edison’s cameraman in 1903 tried to capture the excitement of the game with a variety of shots and angles, the unknown cameraman who shot this 1919 Princeton-Harvard match was anchored to one spot. His aim was just to film the highlights, resulting in this annotated 25 minute film of the game on November 8, 1919, which ended in a 10-10 tie. We do not have any information about the context of this film. The earliest references to the practice of filming Princeton football and other events date from the early 1920s. The Princeton University Archives holds some football films from 1928, but most films found in the Football Films collection date from the 1950s forward. (Additional newsreels of games from the 1950s will be posted at a later date.)

The 1941 football newsreel, which captures Princeton’s loss to Pennsylvania 23-0, includes footage of the traditional tearing down of the goal post after the game (1:18). The second newsreel captures Princeton’s 5th game of 1951, which ended with a 53-15 victory (mistakenly announced as 53-14) over previously undefeated Cornell (01:44). The game has been called the ‘finest hour’ of Dick Kazmaier ’52, who was voted “All American” in both his junior and his senior year, and won the Heisman trophy as the player of the year in 1951.

These films are part of the University Archives’ Historical Audiovisual Collection. The 1919 film is a 16mm film (item no. 0166) and the newsreels were found on a Betacam 30 video capture of the original newsreels (item no 1344).