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'Take A Walk!': How Pedestrianism Was America's First Spectator Sport

Matthew Algeo Collection
Pedestrianism was America's first spectator sport.

The Milwaukee Brewers drew more than 3 million fans to Miller Park a couple years ago, as they made their most recent playoff appearance. The numbers have dropped a little in more recent times, but baseball is still a popular ticket through the summer here — and around the country.

But turn back the clock to the 19th century, and the hottest ticket in town, as far as sports were concerned, was the sport of pedestrianism. Watching people walk, around a track, often for days at a time.

It’s a sport that is almost entirely forgotten today — or at least it would be forgotten, if not for a new book by writer Matthew Algeo.  It’s called Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport.

Before the American Civil War, Americans lived an agrarian lifestyle that did not have spectator sports. But once industrialization hit America, big urban centers were created for the public to utilize. Entertainment was still an elite privilege, but a new sport was about to come about to give people something to do: pedestrianism.

Pedestrianism got its start through a bet. A book salesman named Edward Weston from Providence, Rhode Island, made a bet with a friend on the presidential election. The loser had to walk from Boston to Washington, D.C., in order to watch the inauguration. Weston, who bet against Lincoln, set out for Washington, D.C., and arrived four hours late. However, he was such a celebrity that he gained fame by the day.

Weston used his celebrity to host walking exhibitions. He went to roller rinks and would walk around the rink for 100 miles in just 24 hours. People began competing against Weston and soon pedestrianism matches became part of the spectator sport.

The most popular match was the six-day walking matches, which would run from Monday through Saturday. It was illegal to have any amusement on the Sabbath day. The spectators discovered that the best day to attend the match was on the sixth day because the competitors were sleep deprived, hungry, and more liable to crash.

The sport welcomed all competitors, integrating women and African American competitors. Women had a bigger challenge while competing due to social mores. Since women could not show their calf muscles, they were required to wear their heavy velvet dresses and/or skirts.

The downfall of the sport was due to the gambling, drug abuse, the temperance movement, and the invention of the safety bicycle in 1895.

Matthew Algeo is author of Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport, published by Chicago Review Press.