We may think of baseball as America’s national pastime, but in the 1870s and 1880s there was another sports craze sweeping the nation: competitive walking. “Watching people walk was America’s favorite spectator sport,” Matthew Algeo says in his new book, Pedestrianism.
“In the decades after the Civil War there was mass urbanization in the United States [with] millions of people moving into the cities,” Algeo tells NPR’s Robert Siegel. “And there wasn’t much for them to do in their free time, so pedestrianism — competitive walking matches — filled a void for people. It became quite popular quite quickly.”
Huge crowds packed indoor arenas to watch the best walkers walk. Think of it as a six-day NASCAR race … on feet.
“These guys were walking 600 miles in six days,” Alego says. “They were on the track almost continuously. They’d have little cots set up inside the track where they would nap a total of maybe three hours a day. But generally, for 21 hours a day, they were in motion walking around the track.”
I can’t tell you how much joy knowing that pedestrianism was a sport has brought me today. Just imagining people lining up, eating snack, and gambling, all over long-distance walking matches… it’s pretty fantastic. How is this not a movie yet?!
For related old-school fun, be sure to check out an article I linked to a while back about Hippopotamus Ranching. No, really.