A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why is a football called a pigskin?

September 20, 1991

Dear Cecil:

Why is a football called a pigskin?

Cecil replies:

Because calling it a pig's bladder, which is what it actually is (or was), is a bit too real even for football players. In the days before vulcanized rubber, animal bladders were easily obtained, more or less round, readily sealed and inflated, and reasonably durable — just the thing if you wanted to play the medieval equivalent of soccer. In later years the bladder might be covered with leather (not necessarily pigskin) for added protection.

The main drawback of a pig's bladder was that inflating it by way of the obvious nozzle was too grotty for words. Still, it was an improvement over what the English traditionally regard as the original football, namely the noggin of an unsuccessful Danish invader. If you were offended by the aesthetics of this you could always stuff a leather casing with hay or cork shavings or the like, but such balls lacked zip.

Happily for the sensibilities of modern youth, pig's bladders faded from the scene not long after intercollegiate football began in 1869. One account indicates rubber bladders were being used in 1871 and they were probably around long before that, Charles Goodyear having patented vulcanization in 1844. Couldn't have been too soon for me.

The real question here, if you don't mind my saying so, is how footballs got to be prolate spheroids ("round but pointy," for you rustics) rather than perfectly spherical. As usual with these pivotal episodes in history, it was an accident. Henry Duffield, who witnessed the second Princeton-Rutgers game in 1869, tells why:

"The ball was not an oval but was supposed to be completely round. It never was, though — it was too hard to blow up right. The game was stopped several times that day while the teams called for a little key from the sidelines. They used it to unlock the small nozzle which was tucked into the ball, and then took turns blowing it up. The last man generally got tired and they put it back in play somewhat lopsided."

The odd shape of the ball, eventually enshrined in the rules, was turned to advantage with the introduction of the forward pass in 1906, which was made possible by the fact that you could grip the ball (barely) around the narrow part. Passing got a lot easier in the 1930s when the rules committee ordered the watermelon of previous decades slimmed down by an inch and a half, opening the door for the modern aerial game. How fortunate for the future shape of the game that the Ivy Leaguers of yesteryear didn't have any more lung power than today's.

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