Our May 2018 Artifact of the Month is perhaps the most important American football artifact in existence, a silver trophy cup commemorating the 1874 Harvard vs. McGill University football series.
The first recognized American intercollegiate foot ball match took place on November 6, 1869 between Rutgers and the College of New Jersey (later Princeton). The contest featured 25 players per side and touching the ball with the hand was prohibited. Over the next 4 years, Yale, Columbia, Harvard and other college athletic associations formed foot ball teams and played intercollegiate games played by the home team's rules, which in some cases varied wildly. On October 20, 1873, representatives of Rutgers, Columbia, Yale and Princeton met to codify the official Intercollegiate Football rules. The adopted rules were similar to the English Football Association (soccer) rules with the sole means of scoring being kicking the ball into the opponents goal.
Noticeably absent from the 1873 rules committee was Harvard, whose representatives favored a style of play called the "Boston game" that permitted catching and running with the ball. Rejecting the new intercollegiate rules, Harvard scheduled a match with McGill University (Montreal) for a two-game series on May 13 and May 15, 1874. The first game was to be played according to Harvard's Boston-game rules and the second using McGill's rugby-style rules developed by the Rugby School and Eton in England.
Harvard University Foot-Ball Club Membership Certificate, 1875, Heritage Auctions, April 2010
Residing in the collection of an advanced collector is a 6" tall silver plate trophy cup engraved "Harvard vs. McGill," above an early Harvard University Foot Ball Club logo and acronym, H.U.F.B.C. The trophy was acquired without provenance, and there is no historic record of the production or award of the cup by Harvard. It is, therefore, unknown whether or not it was intended to be a team trophy or if cups were given to each Harvard player. To date, no other examples of the cup have surfaced.
Harvard won the first game 3-0 after 3 "innings." The second game ended in a scoreless draw, was far more historically important. The Harvard players preferred McGill's rugby play over their own and by late 1874 had adopted the style themselves. Over the next 2 years, Harvard players were able to convince other American college teams to try the rugby-style game. In one of the most important moments of American football, on November 23, 1876, Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton formed the Intercollegiate Football Association, which would eventually become the NCAA, and established rules based on the Rugby Football Union rules.
The First American Football Trophy
Harvard and McGill would play 4 more times over the next 5 years before permanently ending their rivalry in 1879. The trophy cup could conceivably date to one of these later contests, however, none of those games were particularly notable in Harvard history or significant enough to warrant the production a trophy cup. In addition, the football image used on the cup is a close match to the logo found on H.U.F.B.C. membership certificates dating between 1873 and 1875. For these reasons, there is a high likelihood that the trophy cup was produced to commemorate the May 1874 Harvard vs. McGill series, making it the earliest surviving relic of the game of American football.
Dating the Relic
Harvard - McGill Football
Harvard-McGill Composite Photo by William Notman, 1874; McGill University Archives , PL007034