Written By: Eliza Berman

“Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-U-Mah! Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-e-so-tah!” So went the very first organized cheer at an intercollegiate football game, a rallying cry meant to break the University of Minnesota squad’s losing streak. Though college football had begun in 1869, and all-male pep clubs had long sung fight songs to inspire their teams to victory, it wasn’t until the turn of the century on this day, Nov. 2, in 1898 that a fan named Johnny Campbell led the cheer that would earn him the title of America’s first cheerleader.

Like Campbell, the majority of early cheerleaders were men in large part because squads did not begin opening their ranks to women until the 1920s. The gender balance shifted further during World War II, when an increasing number of women filled positions vacated by men who had been drafted to fight in the war. By the 1960s, the sport became dominated by women, as National Football League teams began to organize professional squads.

LIFE magazine covered cheerleading in abundance, from the magazine’s inception in the late 1930s until it ceased publication in 1972. Cheerleading’s mid-air splits and synchronized pom-pom shakes were a win-win subject for a magazine that traded in stimulating visuals and glimpses into everyday American pastimes. Here, in celebration of the sport’s 122th anniversary, are LIFE’s greatest images of America’s purveyors of pep.

Liz Ronk edited this gallery. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

Male cheerleaders in action at Wisconsin-Marquette football game, 1939.

Cheerleaders 1939

Alfred Eisenstaedt / The LIFE Picture Collection

Howard University cheerleader Alfreda Young leading cheer during football game, 1946.

Cheerleader 1946

Alfred Eisenstaedt / The LIFE Picture Collection

Sixty high school cheerleaders with crepe-paper pompons whip up football spirit, 1947.

Cheerleaders 1947

Ralph Crane / The LIFE Images Collection

SMU cheerleader leaping high into air at University of Texas football game, 1950.

Cheerleader 1950

Loomis Dean / The LIFE Picture Collection

Cheerleaders at Florida State University, 1952.

Cheerleaders 1952

Robert W. Kelley / The LIFE Picture Collection

Duke cheerleaders cheering among the fans in the bleachers, 1952.

Cheerleaders 1952

Mark Kauffman / The LIFE Picture Collection

High school girl cheerleaders wearing sweaters and skirts leaping high in the air during their vigorous cheers at the basketball game, 1953.

Cheerleaders 1953

Francis Miller / The LIFE Picture Collection

The girls of Central Catholic High School performing their cheerleading act in the gym, 1953.

Cheerleaders 1953

Nat Farbman / The LIFE Picture Collection

Cheerleaders parading prior to a football game between Queens College and the University of Toronto, 1954.

Cheerleaders 1954

Lisa Larsen / The LIFE Picture Collection

Cheering section of cheerleaders in Spokane Coliseum, 1954.

Cheerleaders 1954

J.R. Eyerman / The LIFE Picture Collection

Hempstead High School cheerleaders chanting a cheer as they encircle the school's tiger mascot during game with Uniondale High, 1958.

Cheerleaders 1958

Gordon Parks / The LIFE Picture Collection

Cheerleaders at Little Rock high school game with Louisiana high school team, 1958.

Cheerleaders 1958

Stan Wayman / The LIFE Picture Collection

Students participating in a cheerleading practice, 1958.

Cheerleaders 1958

Paul Schutzer / The LIFE Picture Collection

Cotton Bowl cheerleaders, 1960.

Cheerleaders, 1960.

Robert W. Kelley / The LIFE Picture Collection

Lawrence High School cheerleaders during football game, 1960.

Cheerleaders, 1960.

Francis Miller / The LIFE Picture Collection

A group of cheerleaders rooting for their team, 1964.

Cheerleaders, 1964

Larry Burrows / The LIFE Picture Collection

Cheerleaders training under Bill Horan, of the American Cheerleaders Assn.; Florence Alabama State College, 1965.

Cheerleaders 1965

Lynn Pelham / The LIFE Picture Collection

Notre Dame cheerleaders work the crowd during the 1966 "Game of the Century" against Michigan State, 1966.

Cheerleaders 1966

Bob Gomel / The LIFE Picture Collection

Cheerleaders cheering for a high school basketball game, 1971.

Cheerleaders, 1971

Grey Villet / The LIFE Picture Collection

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