Thanksgiving, 1891: The First Turkey-Day Football Game in Dallas

by Paula Bosse

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by Paula Bosse

Thanksgiving is a holiday known for eating until you’re full as a tick and football — the highlight for many is the traditional Dallas Cowboys game. But when was the very first Thanksgiving Day football game played in Dallas? 125 years ago — in 1891. It was played on November 26, 1891 in Oak Cliff (…which wasn’t strictly part of Dallas at the time, but… yeah, 1891). The game was between teams from Dallas and Fort Worth, teams which had been organized only a few months previously. The sport of “rugby football” had been gaining popularity around the United States, particularly as a college sport. One of the biggest games of the young sport was the university game played on Thanksgiving Day. In 1891, the Yale-Princeton Thanksgiving game was played in New York before thousands and thousands of spectators. Yale won that year, 19-0 (see the exciting illustration below in which helmets for players are non-existent, but a man who appears to be the referee is wearing a stylish bowler hat). (Click for larger image.)

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This Ivy League game was almost more of a society event than a sporting event. To get a feel for the atmosphere of these university games, read this really great contemporary article — “The Man of Fashion, We Observe Thanksgiving Day with Great Eclat” by Albert Edward Tyrrell — on the fashions and behavior of these generally well-heeled crowds (it also contains an interesting look at how Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1891, by the swells as well as the non-swells). My favorite piece of minutiae was that young ladies were not above sneaking flasks of liquor into games, hidden in their fashionable hand-warmers. I give you “the loaded muff”:

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But I digress. However much those early Texas football enthusiasts might have hoped for similar large, flask-sipping crowds, the first Thanksgiving football game held in Dallas (and possibly in Texas) attracted a smaller crowd of hundreds rather than thousands (including “about 100 ladies”). Though the crowd was miniscule compared to the one up in New York that day, it did not lack in boisterousness and excited appreciation.

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Dallas Morning News, Nov. 25, 1891

Dallas and Fort Worth had met twice before their matchup in Oak Cliff — both times with Dallas emerging victorious, and … not to be too anti-climactic, but the big inaugural Thanksgiving Day game on November 26, 1891 resulted in another Dallas win (24-11). (This shouldn’t be too surprising, seeing as the overwhelming majority of the players on the Dallas team of 15 grew up playing rugby in rugby-playing countries: 7 were British and 5 were Canadian —  only 3 were native-born Americans. Still. Whatever it takes.) (The dullish play-by-play of the game can be read  below.)

So what else was going on in Dallas in the Thanksgiving season of 1891? Here are a few morsels.

Men might have contemplated getting a new $12.50 suit from M. Benedikt & Co. (a suit which would cost about $335.00 today) — especially after seeing this eye-catching Uncle-Sam-riding-a-(scrawny)-turkey ad. (Click pictures to see larger images.)

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DMN, Nov. 21, 1891

Ladies were kept up-to-date on the millinery, dress, and hairstyle fashions of the season by reading newspaper articles such as “What Is Really Worn, The Fashions That Find Favor at Thanksgiving” (which can be read here).

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DMN, Nov. 22, 1891

And stores that sold cookware, bakeware, and china took out ads to inform Dallasites that they really needed some new items in order to properly prepare for the big day — one’s guests shouldn’t be forced to be served a feast from tacky serving dishes or eat from chipped plates.

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DMN, Nov. 25, 1891

If one wasn’t spending Thanksgiving Day attending one of the city’s many church services, feeding the children at the Buckner Orphans Home, feeding one’s guests and one’s family, visiting friends, or trekking over to Oak Cliff to see that football game, he or she might have considered attending a matinee at the Dallas Opera House — Maude Granger (“The Peerless Emotional Actress”) was back in town and raring to emote.

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DMN, Nov. 24, 1891

Almost everyone had the day off from work, but, oddly enough, most postal workers had to work at least part of the day. Neither rain nor sleet nor tender turkey breasts and cranberry sauce stayed those couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds, I guess.

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DMN, Nov. 25, 1891

At least no one was dreading/eagerly anticipating Black Friday back in ’91.

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Back to football. First, a friendly D-FW practice run before the Big Game.

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DMN, Nov. 14, 1891

The pre-game article.

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DMN, Nov. 25, 1891

The post-game article.

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DMN, Nov. 27, 1891

And an article from a proud Canadian newspaper, boasting of the number of Queen Victoria’s faithful subjects playing for the Dallas team.

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The Manitoba Free Press, Dec. 11, 1891

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Thanksgiving card found on Pinterest.

Illustration of the 1891 Yale-Princeton game is from the Lost Century of Sports website, here. (I’m not really a sports fan, but if I were, this website of 19th-century sports might be one of my favorites!)

For more on how Thanksgiving finally came to be celebrated in Texas in 1874 (it took a long time for the Southern states to agree to celebrate what many thought was a “Yankee abolitionist holiday”), see my post “Encouraging Dallasites to Observe Thanksgiving — 1874,” here.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Most pictures and clippings larger when clicked.

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Copyright © 2016 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.

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