In 2006 the United States experienced the largest nationwide mumps epidemic in 20 years, primarily affecting college dormitory residents. Unexpected elements of the outbreak included very abrupt time course (75% of cases occurred within 90 days), geographic focality (85% of cases occurred in eight rural Midwestern states), rapid upward and downward shift in peak age-specific attack rate (5-9-year olds to 18-24-year olds, then back), and two-dose vaccine failure (63% of case-patients had received two doses). To construct a historical context in which to understand the recent outbreak, we reviewed US mumps surveillance data, vaccination coverage estimates, and relevant peer-reviewed literature for the period 1917-2008. Many of the unexpected features of the 2006 mumps outbreak had been reported several times previously in the US, e.g., the 1986-1987 mumps resurgence had extremely abrupt onset, rural geographic focality, and an upward-then-downward age shift. Evidence suggested recurrent mumps outbreak patterns were attributable to accumulation of susceptibles in dispersed situations where the risk of endemic disease exposure was low and were triggered when this susceptible population was brought together in crowded living conditions. The 2006 epidemic followed this pattern, with two unique variations: it was preceded by a period of very high vaccination rates and very low disease incidence and was characterized by two-dose failure rates among adults vaccinated in childhood. Data from the past 80 years suggest that preventing future mumps epidemics will depend on innovative measures to detect and eliminate build-up of susceptibles among highly vaccinated populations.