The year was 1891, and a little-known school that prided itself on educating men and women for productive, utilitarian careers was just beginning to experience success in football. DePauw, Wabash and Butler were the football powers of Indiana in those days. Purdue was late to the game, fielding its first team in 1887 and losing its only game that season to Butler 48-6.
By 1891, Purdue had hired two coaches from eastern power Princeton and was on the verge of an era of total domination. In the 1891 season opener, the team traveled to Wabash College in nearby Crawfordsville. Besides coming away with a 44-0 victory, the Purdue "eleven," as football teams were known back then, headed back to West Lafayette with a new nickname.
In the 1890s, hometown newspapers were considerably more protective of college teams than they are today. After the 44-0 drubbing, one Crawfordsville newspaper lashed out at the "Herculean wearers of the black and old gold." Beneath the headline "Slaughter of Innocents," the paper told of the injustice visited upon the "light though plucky" Wabash squad.
"Wabash Snowed Completely Under by the Burly Boiler Makers From Purdue" proclaimed another headline on the same story in the "Daily Argus-News."
By the next week, the Lafayette papers were returning the taunts: "As everyone knows, Purdue went down to Wabash last Saturday and defeated their eleven. The Crawfordsville papers have not yet gotten over it. The only recourse they have is to claim that we beat their `scientific' men by brute force. Our players are characterized as 'coal heavers,' 'boiler makers' and 'stevedores,'" wrote a reporter for the "Lafayette Sunday Times" on Nov. 1, 1891.
The nicknames stemmed from the nature of a Purdue education. As a land-grant institution since its founding in 1869, the college had schooled the sons and daughters of the working class for occupations that were considered beneath the high-born who attended liberal arts colleges such as Wabash.
That same fall of 1891, Purdue had acquired a working railroad engine to mount in a newly established locomotive laboratory. It was one more step in the development of Purdue as one of the world's leaders in engineering teaching and research. For athletic adversaries and their boosters, this specialty in engineering education - and the other concentration at the founding of the institution, agriculture - served as fodder for name-calling.
Over the years, Purdue teams had been called grangers, pumpkin-shuckers, railsplitters, cornfield sailors, blacksmiths, foundry hands and, finally, boilermakers. That last one stuck.