The most recognizable piece of football equipment is the jersey. Historically, it may also be the most important as the jersey became the means of team identification to the spectator, player, official, and eventually radio and TV audiences.
In the first college football game between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869, players were outfitted in street clothes, making team identification to both the players and fans nearly impossible. The 1874 game between Harvard and McGill was a critical contest that helped push the sport from its soccer-like beginnings. Harvard wore identical sweaters while the McGill team was clad in striped jerseys. Ancient rivals Harvard and Yale began wearing crimson and blue shirts in the mid 1870’s. The mid-point of the decade also saw squads adopt the application of school initials to further distinguish the teams.
The first jersey top that was specifically developed for football was a form-fitting laced canvas and moleskin jacket. Most often it was a sleeveless design where a long sleeved cotton or wool colored jersey was worn underneath. The man credited with this design is Ledu P. Smock of Princeton. The Tigers wore an orange and black striped long sleeve jersey underneath. Until the advent of today’s near-sleeveless jersey, the orange and black striped sleeves were a long-held Princeton tradition.
Their first use came in 1877 game against Harvard. The tightness of the “Smock” made tackling difficult and play was stopped at one point as Crimson players protested the jackets. Later when grease was applied to the jacket, tackling became even more difficult leading to a rule change prohibiting grease in 1884.
The tightly laced smock continued to be used into the early 20th century but was further enhanced in the early 1880’s with what is known as a “Union Suit.” The Union Suit was a one-piece sleeveless uniform where the jersey and pants are connected together. Lacing would go up the front of the uniform from the crotch up to the neck. Additionally, a wide canvas belt was also worn around the mid-section, further making the uniform form-fitting. The “pants” half of the uniform had padded knees with an arrangement of reeds or cane placed in the thigh area in a vertical pattern. Like the smock, a colored jersey was worn underneath. Union suits fell out of favor in the first decade of the new century.
One of the more interesting technological advances to football jerseys was the “Grip-Sure” jersey. In the mid to late 1910’s strips of material were added to the front of the jersey and the insides of the sleeves. The strips were made of either cloth, canvas or leather. Some of the cloth variety were extremely coarse and had an almost velcro -like feel. The theory behind the added strips was that they would increase friction when carrying the football and would reduce the frequency of fumbles.
While differing colors is the easiest way to identify teams, they do little to help the spectator differentiate between one player and another. In 1905, Washington and Jefferson became the first school to place numbers on uniforms. It was not a practice that gained immediate acceptance. Many schools continued to have numberless uniforms well into the 1920’s. The schools who did number their players most often only did so on the back of the jerseys. Numbers on the front and back of the uniform jersey did not become mandatory until 1937.