Walking History is a blog for reporting historical information on the history of walking. Each post is written to inform others of the unique and rich story behind walking and pedestrianism. Currently, there are two major themes running through this section – 1) the Age of Pedestrianism (a sport of the 19th century) and 2) The 50-Mile Hike (a penchant for citizens to walk long distances for a variety of reasons).
NOTE: We welcome contributors and collaborators to this blog. We also invite you to participate in history by joining FreeWalkers.org in our long distance walks. They are free and open to the public.
The Age of Pedestrianism
in the mid-nineteenth century, urban socialization spawned a period of competitive walking know as “pedestrianism”. It quickly developed into a hugely popular sport on an international scale. Tough athletes walked long distances and competed with each other becoming the superstars of their day – even commanding huge purses at events and an adoring public.
Pedestrianism became one of the first public sporting events that drew huge crowds. Walking competitions filled up newly built public arenas, like Madison Square Garden. The high profile walking matches pitted the best and fastest walkers that endured walking for days on a circular track with thousands watched flagrantly dressed competitors outlast each other in a brutal show of endurance and showmanship. Rowdy low-life, common folk and high-brow mixed and gambled, smoked, ate and cheered their favorite “pedestrians”. At its peak in the mid-1870’s, the best of United State pedestrians were competing with the best of British pedestrians for the Astley Belt, awarded to the greatest pedestrian in the world at the time.
If the idea of a hugely popular sport around watching walkers endure the best and the worse was not enough, the pedestrians were an odd lot individuals who could earn untold fortune and fame overnight by their speed and endurance. The get-rich-and-famous sport brought out the best and worse in competitors and spectators. And, in a nod to today’s cult of celebrity, there were spectacular stars, failures, stats tracking, cheating, drugs, violence, sex and big money around it all. It was the birth of the cultural movement of “sports” as we know it today.
Perhaps no pedestrian was more famous, had more come=backs and lived longer to tell the tale than Edward Payson Weston – an obscure American legend today. Several posts will be dedicated to explaining his life and accomplishments.
The Birth of Fitness and The 50-Mile Hike Phenomenon
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy issued an order to his Marines to prove they were fit by marching 50 miles. Kennedy, physically active, yet handicapped to some degree from a history of illnesses, grew concerned about the effect modernity was having on our citizens, creating an inactive and weak military and civilian population. His military order was taken up by the public and thousands began to walk long distances. Kennedy also actively re-energized a nation-wide campaign for fitness in schools and for the general public.
In our current culture, the same issues that JFK feared have materialized. We see automation has caused us to be more inactive and modern conveniences and luxuries have led to unhealthy lifestyles for many of us. It seems we have found few easy solutions to this problem, but walking is surfacing as one universal exercise that anyone can do. It still may be one of our most effective ways of improving the health of the masses.