History | Were Paterson FC the first stateside association football club?

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).

"The first club playing the Association Game in the United States," reads the caption to this 1884 portrait of Paterson Football Club. The caption gives the club's date of origin as 1880. The great-grandfather of UK resident Clive Wright, Peter Wright (captain), sits at the center, with ball. (Used by permission of Patricia and Clive Wright)

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.”

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