Sunday, April 6, 2014

Pedestrianism, Sporting Pastime of the 1800s

 Pedestrianism and boxing, sporting pastimes of the 1800s.  From Pierce Eagan, Sporting Anecdotes (London: Sherwood, Nealy & Jones, 1820).

Readers, it has happened. Somebody finally wrote a book about pedestrianism, that strangest of 19th-century sports, popular in England and the United States.  Check out Matthew Algeo's history of Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Sport.  Or listen to an interview with Algeo on NPR.  Sounds like a fun read -- and the perfect addition to a future course of leisure and sport in America.  Most people are familiar with the nineteenth-century origins of baseball, which became a national sport after the Civil War.  But how many of us would include pedestrianism in a catalog late-19th-century pastimes?

While the heyday of competitive pedestrianism may have been in the 1870s and 80s, like baseball, it was a sport with roots dating back to the 18th century in both Great Britain and the colonies.  I do a lot of work with 19th-century sporting papers and remember being quite bemused to discover, alongside coverage of horse-racing and boxing, coverage of this strange sport 19th-century sport called pedestrianism.  Titles like the Spirit of the Times or the New York Clipper reported on "pedestrian feats," featured bios and even portraits of champion pedestrians, and provided training advice to young men.  One feature from 1843 warned young men who "break away" for a weekend's walking trip in the country that "the body, after being long under the influence of a sedentary profession, or of ordinary city life, is not in a state fit for undertaking great fatigue." Walkers must be careful not to set mile goals, but to only walk  "as they feel their strength will carry them" and to take care to avoid over-eating.*  Detailed training manuals could be purchased!

Pedestrianism wasn't just a sport for men.  It appears the pedestrianism was one of the few sports available to women, other than riding, though women did not compete against men (to my knowledge).  American pedestrian Kate Irvine traveled to England in 1852 and walked "500 miles in as many consecutive hours, at Aston Cross Grounds, Birmingham." Irvine returned to England the following year and tried it again, this time "walking 580 miles in as many consecutive hours."  The Spirit reported, "There was a strong muster to see her start."*

I'm going to have to do some more investigations of my own into the practice of the sport among women, including following up references to research by British athlete Peter Radford, who has chronicled women's foot races in the 18th and 19th centuries.  To be continued... 

* Spirit of the Times, 23 September 1843 and 18 June 1853.

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