150 Years Ago, People Watched Competitive Walking Instead of Football

By Andreas Goeldi on at

If it was 1874, instead of hitting your local football ground, you'd be grabbing a few friends and heading to a competitive walking match. Yes, walking was an American national pastime, according to author Matthew Algeo: "Watching people walk was America's favourite spectator sport."

150 Years Ago, People Watched Competitive Walking Instead of Baseball

The sport was known as "pedestrianism," and Algeo has written an entire book about it: Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport.

In the 1870s and 1880s, as cities began to urbanise, pedestrianism became the hottest ticket in town. But competitive walking was not the kind of speed walking marathon race we think of today; it was purely a feat of endurance. Athletes walked around tracks in a kind of last-man-standing death march, walking 500 miles or more at a time in arenas like Gilmore's Garden (which would later become Madison Square Garden). Like a Stephen King novel before the fact, it was known as the "six day race" because they walked every day but Sunday. They had little cots where they'd rest but only for a few hours a day.

Pedestrianism had celebrity athletes and lucrative sponsorship agreements—this is where corporate sponsorship began!—and even doping scandals. Athletes got high on coca leaves and champagne, just like today.

150 Years Ago, People Watched Competitive Walking Instead of Baseball

Competitors would walk for six days (no walking on Sundays) and would sleep a few hours a day on cots

In an interview with NPR, Alego talks about the competitions, which are kind of unbelievably amazing:

[For] six-day walking matches, the rules were pretty simple. They would just map out a dirt track on the floor of an arena—many of the matches took place at the first Madison Square Garden in New York—and the lap was about 1/7th or 1/8th of a mile. And you could only walk six days because public amusements were prohibited on Sundays. So beginning right after midnight on Sunday night/Monday morning, the walkers would set off and they would just keep walking until right up until midnight the following Saturday.

And then there was Edward Payson Weston, the Forrest Gump of competitive walking:

[Edward Payson Weston] was one of the most famous pedestrians of the 19th century. He was ... a door-to-door bookseller from Providence, R.I. And ... in 1860, he made a bet with a friend on the presidential election. [He] bet that Lincoln would lose, and of course he lost the bet. The terms of the bet were that the loser had to walk from Boston to Washington in 10 days to see the inauguration. And Weston did this. It generated much publicity.

150 Years Ago, People Watched Competitive Walking Instead of Baseball

After becoming world champion, Weston walked from Los Angeles to New York along the Santa Fe railroad

Of course, there was the inevitable gambling:

Gambling was a big part of the allure, no doubt about it. You could bet on who would be the first pedestrian to drop out of the race, who would be the first pedestrian to, say, achieve 100 miles in a race. There were so many different ways you could gamble on the walking matches. And so the pedestrians themselves were often susceptible to attractive offers from gamblers to fix races.

Eventually, though, biking brought down the era of pedestrianism:

In 1885, an Englishman named John Starley invented what is called the safety bicycle. Before the safety bicycle, bicycles were the penny farthings—with the ginormous front wheel and the tiny little back wheel. And the penny farthings weren't very nimble or fast, but the safety bicycle, which is the bicycle we know today, these were much more nimble, much faster and they were much more interesting to watch race around a track for six days than the pedestrians just walking.

150 Years Ago, People Watched Competitive Walking Instead of Baseball

The matches were so popular that riots would break out as people would cram into the crowded arenas

It's interesting to note that walking for fun or exercise became a bit of a novelty during this time, with walking clubs ("tramping" clubs) forming throughout the country. It's pretty amazing that there was a period when a man could become famous by chugging champagne and trudging around a track for a week.

Of course, this was also a few years before cars would enter the picture and walkers began to be known as "jaywalkers" as part of a campaign by the automotive industry. But for a few brief, shining moments, walkers were the country's heroes. [NPR]

Images (and lots more on pedestrianism) at King of the Peds