Which was the first American association football team? The answer is difficult to pin down. Some evidence points to Oneida Football Club of Boston, honored with an obelisk in Boston Common as “the first organized football club in the United States.”
While Oneida played one of the football codes—perhaps a soccer-rugby hybrid—beginning in 1862, photographic evidence offered by a descendant of a Paterson FC captain suggests that the New Jersey side, formed in 1880, staked claim early to playing by the Football Association rules established in London in 1863 (see also Mar 30).
Canada-based historian Colin Jose notes the Internet-aided trend toward soccer research. With people “digging things out of their closets,” mostly material from the post–World War II era, the researcher’s winnowing and fact-checking—typically on eye-straining, locally held microfilm collections—begins. “Who knows?” says Jose, asked if Paterson FC might have a claim as the first U.S.-based association football team. “Everyday something new comes out of the woodwork.”
Paterson had representatives in American Football Association competitions, with sides known as Paterson Thistle, Paterson Rangers and Paterson True Blues. The latter won the American FA Cup, launched in 1885, three times. By 1887, according to a New York Times report, Paterson had two association teams. Whether UK resident Patricia Wright‘s photograph is of the “True Blues” or another side is unknown; the team’s hooped kit is of uncertain color. One clearly sees, however, the extent of the administrative apparatus: 23 dapper gents, most with facial hair, well outnumbering the 11 players.
Paterson remains an important site in industrial history. As early as 1794 a cotton-spinning factory was drawing energy from the Great Falls’ 77-foot Passaic River cascade. Silk production began in the late 1830s and quickly drew attention from abroad, especially from Macclesfield in England’s northwest. In 1890 New Jersey had 17,500 workers in the silk-weaving and dyeing industries, most in the “Silk City” of Paterson. That association football became an important recreation should not surprise. In 1882, the New York Times reprinted a Times of London article that testified to the association game’s popularity in the British capital:
Saturday is the great day of the week for foot-ball players, and a rough calculation would indicate that on every Saturday afternoon during the season from 30,000 to 40,000 men and boys are engaging in the game, of whom nearly one-fourth are players residing in and around London. … The final round of the association challenge cup ties … produces a wonderful exhibition of combined skill, in which the players seem to use their feet with as much natural precision as they would use their hands, reminding us of those painters who, by whim or compulsion of nature, have successfully wielded the brush with their toes instead of their fingers.
Given the availability of skilled UK workers, English-born silk-industry owners predominated in Paterson between 1850 and 1890. The Paterson Weekly Press in 1872 published a poem, “The Silk Weavers,” in northern English dialect (“Aw’m a poor silk-weaver, it’s plain / To be seen by my coat an’ my hat; / For a ghost aw mat easy be ta’en / For aw’m very near equally fat.”). Immigrants believed that Paterson offered more opportunity for entrepreneurial and class mobility, sometimes citing a 19th-century saying that “in England the chances for success are one out of ten unless born of rich parents; in America, nine out of ten.”Around this time, in 1883, the man who would become the poet laureate of New Jersey’s industrial north, William Carlos Williams, was born in nearby Rutherford. He said he chose Paterson for the setting of his epic five-part poem, published in increments between 1946 and 1958, in order “to embody the whole knowable world about me.” “A man is indeed a city,” Williams writes earlier in his autobiography, “and for the poet there are no ideas but in things.”
I thought of other places upon the Passaic River, but, in the end, the city, Paterson, with its rich colonial history, upstream, where the water was less heavily polluted, won out. The falls, vocal, seasonally vociferous, associated with many of the ideas upon which our fiscal colonial policy shaped us through Alexander Hamilton, interested me profoundly—and what has resulted therefrom. Even today a fruitful locale for study. I knew of these things.
Patricia Wright says of her husband’s great-grandfather, the one-time captain of Paterson FC, that he decided to return to England in the late 19th century. “He became very involved with football in the UK but we have no information,” she writes.
Naturally, we would welcome more in-depth news of this nascent Paterson side. Williams, himself, does not write of the association game and its north Jersey traditions, although he does speak of the gridiron variant, in the negative, in In the American Grain:
Our life drives us apart and forces us upon science and invention—away from touch. Or if we do touch, our breed knows no better than the coarse fiber of football. … To me, it is because we fear to wake up that we play so well. Imagine stopping money making.
Richard D. Margrave, “Technology Diffusion and the Transfer of Skills: Nineteenth-Century English Silk Migration to Paterson,” in Silk City: Studies on the Paterson Silk Industry, 1860–1940, ed. Philip B. Scranton (Newark: New Jersey Historical Society, 1985), 9–34; William Carlos Williams, The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (New York: New Directions, 1967); idem, In the American Grain (New York: New Directions, 1956).
- Peter Seddon, compiler of the British Library’s authoritative Football Compendium, has uncovered the oldest known photograph of an England national association football team. The picture, taken before a match with Scotland, dates to 4 Mar 1876. FA historian David Barber said, “I have to say that it is an extraordinary find. I have never seen anything close to 1876.”
- David Wangerin, author of Soccer in a Football World: The Story of America’s Forgotten Game (When Saturday Comes, 2006; Temple University Press, forthcoming), writes that research on early American and Canadian association football traditions refers to a Paterson side, the Caledonian Thistles, that played organized fixtures in 1884. Wangerin references the self-published work by Melvin I. Smith, Early American and Canadian “Football”: Beginnings through 1883/84 (1stBooks, 2003).
Smith dates the first report of an American association game in a non-scholastic context to 15 Nov 1879: a 6–6 draw between Brooklynites Foot Ball Club and Bostonians Foot Ball Club.
The full provenance of Wright’s team, Paterson FC, is not known or whether it correlates to the team referred to as “Thistle” or the “True Blues.”