The Oldest Surviving Football Uniform?
The adjective "rare" is thrown around so liberally in the sports antiques and collectibles market that many collectors have become desensitized to the term. The fact is that any surviving vintage football artifact from the first 50 years of the sport's existence is, by default, rare. Sporting goods were not intended to become family heirlooms. Athletic equipment manufacturers' business models were built on the expectation that equipment would be discarded at the end of its useful life and replaced with their latest offerings. Whether preserved through intent or happenstance, the few pieces that survive provide a rare opportunity for collectors and historians to connect with the infancy of American sport.
Out of the handful of early football artifacts brought to market over the past 10 years by dealers, auction houses, and eBay sellers, perhaps none has been more seminal than our June 2017 Artifact of the Month. Transcending the traditional definition of rarity, Lot #4 in Mears May 6, 2017 Monthly Sports Auction could be the oldest surviving football uniform in existence. The late Victorian white canvas uniform includes one of only two known surviving examples of a long-sleeved football jacket, or "smock," and a pair of early quilted pants. Likely dating to between 1885 and 1895, the jacket and pants were attached at the waist by its original owner to create a one-piece precursor to the "union suit," a vest and pants combination mass-produced between 1900 and 1910. Based upon the dimensions of the uniform, we estimate that it's owner was approximately 5'-9" and 160 pounds, which was an average height and weight of a college football halfback in 1890.
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seldom occurring or found, uncommon
Shortly after the first meeting of the Intercollegiate Football Association in 1876, a Princeton freshman, Ledru P. Smock, tried out for the Tigers eleven wearing an unusual canvas jacket laced tightly to his body. Opponents had great difficulty tackling Smock due to his tight fitting garb. Princeton adopted his innovation during their 1876 campaign, and the "smock jacket" would become a standard article of football equipment for the next 25 years.
Excerpt from "Football - Images of Sports," Bernstein, Mark F., 2009
Jacket Ad, 1888 American Intercollegiate Association Foot-Ball Rules
As evidenced by period photographs, by the mid-1880's many players began removing or trimming the sleeves of their football jacket to allow for greater range of motion. This practice became so prevalent that by the early 1890's sporting goods manufacturers introduced the football jacket "without sleeves," or the smock vest. Most teams adopted the sleeveless variation by the mid-1890's, however, manufacturers continued to produce the long-sleeved jacket until around 1905.
1892 Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (Virginia Tech) team photo - enlargement of William Jackson Barnes
Photo courtesy of Photograph Collection, Special Collections, University Libraries, Virginia Tech.
Walter Camp, Yale 1878 - wearing a "football jacket"
"Walter Camp - Project Gutenberg eText 18048".
Accounts and photos of nineteenth century games and players suggest that the earliest football pants were nothing more than unpadded work trousers. As athletics grew in popularity in the mid-1880's, quilted pants made specifically for sports were introduced. These quilted pants were replaced by more durable and protective reeded football pants around 1900. Quilted pants would continue to be manufactured as entry level equipment until around 1905.
The football uniform was sold without provenance, making exact dating impossible. The long-sleeved football jacket and quilted pants uniform combination was employed during a relatively wide date range of between 1885 and 1905. However, given the size of the uniform and the peak period of use of this style, we estimate that it was manufactured somewhere between 1885 and 1895. In any case, this remarkable artifact is an incredible example of one of the earliest forms of American football equipment.
The Origin of the Smock Jacket