1880's Cornell College Football
Team Cabinet Card
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Our second research thread identified Joseph Streby Buser, as our photographer. Buser was born December 1, 1844 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The Buser family moved west to Illinois in the 1860's, and according to the U.S. Census, Joseph was working as a photographer in Warren, Illinois in 1870. By 1880, Buser had relocated to Cedar Rapids, Iowa and sometime between 1880 and 1885 he opened his studio in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Buser continued to work as a photographer in Mount Vernon until his death on March 1, 1932 at the age of 87.
Cornell students' excitement over football builds as the sport begins to rival the popularity of baseball on campus. However, the football team's chances of winning a rematch against Iowa seem bleak.
In November 1872, Sunday-The Word: New York described the "dress of a foot-ball player" as "a thick woolen jersey, flannel trousers or knickerbockers, a flannel cap,...light shoes, or boots.." By the 1880's, canvas jackets, padded trousers, stocking caps and stockings in school colors were accepted football attire at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. However, many schools lacked the resources or the commitment to the sport to properly outfit a football team.
A.G. Spalding's 1892 catalog listed the following prices for their top of the line football equipment.
With no surviving provenance we can only draw educated conclusions about our nineteenth century football cabinet card. The card's features date it to between 1885 and 1890. Jacob Buser was a small town photographer in Mount Vernon, Iowa who began advertising in the Cornelian in 1885. If a group of working class, college-age football players were to visit his Mount Vernon studio for a photo, it would most likely be a team from Cornell College. The fact that the players aren't wearing uniforms suggests it's an early team, before a student athletic association was formed to help with the cost of proper equipment. The coordinated caps may also rule out the possibility that the image is of a hastily organized class team for a sophomore/freshman contest. Based on available information, we believe that the cabinet photo may be the 1885 Cornell College football team and that it was taken after the team's "victory in defeat" against the State University of Iowa. It provides a rare glimpse of the birth of a program and a sport that has become a national phenomenon.
Our October, 2018 Artifact of the Month is a nineteenth century cabinet card taken in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Except for the melon football, at first glance the team could be mistaken for a mining crew or factory workers. Unlike most nineteenth century football team images, the photo features players wearing common work wear, including heavy wool pants, button-up shirts, and leather boots. Evidence the team wore this apparel during games includes the shin protection worn over the front two players' pants, and the skull caps worn by each player. Additional research on the cabinet card helped us discover new insight into the birth of a collegiate football program.
Mob foot ball games between freshman and sophomore classes became an annual rite of passage at some Ivy League schools in the early nineteenth century. Cornell's sophomores easily handled the freshmen in 1883.
The birth of a rivalry. Cornell apparently lost the November 4, 1882 match at Iowa City as well. The Cornellian's editors took note of Iowa students' nineteenth century trash talk and advised the visitors to "never after eating of your neighbor's salt talk despairingly of him." The loss sparked a competitive fire in Cornell's students in 1883.
The Cornellian - November 1, 1882
In November 1882, the Cornellian describes growing interest in the "healthful game of foot ball." It what may have been the first intercollegiate football game played by either Cornell or Iowa City (University of Iowa), Iowa defeated Cornell three innings to none. The game was played under some of the earliest rules of football, in which teams played a pre-determined number of "innings" with each inning being won upon the scoring of a goal. The team winning the most innings was then declared the winner.
The Cornellian - March 1, 1883
The Cornellian - June 1, 1883
The Cornellian - October 1, 1883
In the 1880's, college football players scheduled their own games with other local teams, high schools, and colleges. Cornell defeated Tipton (Iowa City) 3-1, and anticipated another game against the State University of Iowa (University of Iowa). On April 24, 1885, Cornell's football team lost to Iowa 3-1, but succeeded in scoring the first goal ever allowed by SUI. In the fall of 1885, Cornell would battle the SUI freshmen to a scoreless draw.
The Cornellian - July 1, 1885
Our first step in identifying the team was to determine a general dating of the image. A terrific guide for dating cabinet cards is Gary W. Clark's "19th Century Card Photos KwikGuide" published by PhotoTree. This reference guide provides timelines for different photo formats and features. Several identifying features of our cabinet card and the dates at which they were most common are listed below.
Dating the Card
Gilded Beveled Edges
Black Front Card Color
Cursive Photographer Imprint
Joseph Streby Buser
In today's world of excess, it's hard to imagine a college football team purchasing and using a single football for an entire season. At $5.00, a football cost more than twice the daily wages of the average American in 1883.
The Cornellian - May 1, 1883
No. J. Foot Ball
No. 00 Moleskin Jacket
No. 00 Moleskin Pants
Walter Camp Shoes
Foot Ball Cap
No. 1 Shin Guards
No. XXS Striped Wool Stockings
In 1880, a manufacturing worker's average weekly wage only $15.00. Without financial support from a school or student athletic association, quality equipment was out of reach for players of modest means.
In the late 1870's photographic suppliers introduced gold leaf gilt edge cards. As cards became thicker around 1880, beveled edges became a popular card enhancement.
Black cabinet cards first appeared in the mid-1880's, with the earlier varieties (1883-1890) only being colored on the front of the card.
Cursive photographer imprints became prevalent in the mid-1880's and would continue to be used until around 1900.
Based on the clues above, we estimated the date of the card to between 1885 and 1890.
Cornell Cornellian, October 1, 1888
Cornell Cornellian, January 1, 1888
Cornell Cornellian, July 1, 1885
A newpaper archive search of Buser's photography business in the 1880's yielded a handful of advertisements in the Cornellian, the student newspaper of Mount Vernon's Cornell College.
In 1855, George Bryant Bowman, a Methodist minister from North Carolina, founded the Iowa Conference Seminary, in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Four years later, the Seminary was renamed Cornell College, after William Wesley Cornell, a prominent New York industrialist, and distant relative of Senator Ezra Cornell, who would later found Cornell University in Ithaca, New York in 1865. According to William Cornell's obituary, "With his increase of wealth his liberality kept pace, and he regularly bestowed a certain portion of his annual income in religious charities. He was also especially known to be the friend of struggling poor young men, remembering that he was like them once [New York Times, 18 March 1870]."
Further research on Cornell College during the 1880's yielded a trove of information on the birth of Cornell's football team within the pages of the Cornellian, Cornell's student periodical.
The Cornellian - December 1, 1881
The first reference to football came in 1881, when the question was asked, "Where is our foot-ball team?" In 1888, Cornell's "Royal Purple" annual listed a total of 328 living alumni in its 33 year history. This data suggests a coed graduating class size of 10-20 students in the early 1880's, a small number for those hoping to field a competitive football team.