Lots of today’s sports built their fan base in the late 19th century, like baseball, tennis, and cycling. But none of these had the city cheering nearly as hard as a forgotten competitive activity called pedestrianism.
A form of race walking, pedestrianism “spawned America’s first celebrity athletes, the forerunners—forewalkers, actually—of LeBron James and Tiger Woods,” wrote Matthew Algeo in his book, Pedestrianism.
“The top pedestrians earned a fortune in prize money and endorsement deals . . . their images appeared on some of the first cigarette trading cards, which children collected as avidly as later generations would collect baseball cards.”
Pedestrianism boomed after the industrial revolution and the standardization of the workweek gave millions of middle class New Yorkers leisure time, something once available only to the rich.
The idea that the masses needed rest and relaxation, specifically in nature, had also gained popularity, particularly after the Civil War.
Parks were built, the seashore became a place of enjoyment, and ordinary people flocked to watch competitive walking the way millions of Americans watch Sunday football today.
Pedestrianism was pretty rough. Long-distance events involved walking hundreds of miles between cities. Madison Square Garden hosted six-day races (competitors walked for 21 hours, then slept for three) that drew thousands of spectators, stated Kerry Segrave’s America on Foot.
One pedestrian star, Edward Payson Weston (above), would enter a roller rink and “attempt to walk 100 miles in 24 hours,” Algeo said via a 2014 interview with NPR. “And people would pay 10 cents just to come and watch him walk in circles for a day.”
The sport’s heyday stretched through the 1870s and 1880s, then died down as the bicycle became safer and other sports stole away fans. But not before a pedestrianism revival was attempted.
“More than 20 years ago the craze for affairs of this sort was at its height, but the novelty of the thing soon wore off and the sport was relegated to the oblivion that its absurdity and uselessness so richly merited,” sneered the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1902.
The rise in leisure time in New York after the Civil War spawned a sports craze in the metropolis, covered more extensively with terrific images in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910.
[Top photo: NPR; second image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1867; third photo: NPR; fourth image: New York Times, 1874]