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Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport

Matthew Algeo

In the late 1800s, America’s most popular spectator sport wasn’t baseball, boxing, or horseracing—it was competitive walking. Indeed, when a New York arena overbooked, fans rioted.

Excerpted from Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport by Matthew Algeo. published by Chicago Review Press. Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Algeo Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.




Before the Civil War, spectator sports barely existed in the United States. A diffuse rural population, arduous travel conditions, negligible disposable income, a dearth of time for recreation, and a lack of suitable venues made it difficult to attend, much less organize, athletic events. Besides, frivolities like sports were anathema to the prevailing antebellum ethos. “The American work ethic,” wrote the historian Elliott Gorn, “with its roots in republican producer culture, evangelical Christianity, and new capitalist imperatives of growth and profit, impeded the development of all recreations.” Horse races, foot races, and boat races were staged occasionally, but these events rarely proved profitable or noteworthy.

The only spectator sports that prospered in the years before the war were the blood sports: cockfighting, dogfighting, and bare-knuckle boxing. Not exactly wholesome family entertainment, these violent sports were closely associated with gambling, and they operated on the margins of society.

Boxing—antebellum America’s most popular sport—was universally banned. In New Jersey, aiding, abetting, or participating in the “degrading practice of prize fighting” was punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. In Massachusetts, the penalty was ten years and $5,000. In New York, even spectators were liable to prosecution. As a result, matches were organized surreptitiously. Fights were staged in the back rooms of saloons, in rural areas where jurisdiction was ambiguous, on remote islands— even on barges.

An 1849 bout between Tom Hyer and James “Yankee” Sullivan was scheduled to take place on Pooles Island, a desolate speck in Chesapeake Bay. (Today, Pooles Island is the site of Maryland’s oldest lighthouse, but don’t try to visit; it is strictly off limits to the public. For much of the twentieth century the military used the island as a bombing range, and it is littered with unexploded ordnance.) But on the eve of the match, the Baltimore County sheriff caught wind of the plan and sent a posse to the island to arrest the fighters. Hyer, Sullivan, and their backers narrowly escaped by boat. They decamped to a village on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where a ring was hastily erected using rope from the boat’s rigging. The next day, before at least two hundred excited onlookers, Hyer and Sullivan pummeled each other for fifteen bloody rounds. In the sixteenth, according to one eyewitness, Sullivan “was found to be entirely exhausted... and staggered backward toward the ropes. The fight was done.” Hyer took home the $10,000 purse and was declared the “Champion of America.”

Back in his hometown of Philadelphia, Hyer was feted with an impromptu parade down Chestnut Street, a display that dismayed the local prosecutor, who said the fight had excited “the worst passions of the community.” Hyer was arrested and briefly detained, though authorities back in Maryland declined to press charges.

Another generation would pass before boxing finally emerged from the shadows to win public acceptance.

During the Civil War, the first seeds of modern spectator sports were planted by Union soldiers from New York, who exported their favorite pastime to the rest of the country. Before the war, baseball, which is believed to be descended from a British game called rounders, was popular among “gentlemen” in New York City. The first recorded game took place in 1846 at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey. The New York Nine defeated the New York Knickerbockers, 23–1.

This lithograph depicts Union prisoners playing baseball in a Confederate prison camp in Salisbury, North Carolina, in 1863.
Courtesy of Library of Congress

By the 1850s, several teams were based at Elysian Fields. Some of the rules, which were devised by the founder of the Knickerbockers, Alexander Cartwright, differed considerably from today’s game. Batters could choose where they wanted the pitcher to throw the ball. Overhand pitching was not allowed. Runners could not steal bases. Nonetheless, a modern fan watching a game played under Cartwright’s rules would have no trouble recognizing it as baseball.

During the war, troops from New York played baseball at every available opportunity, often with improvised equipment, usually before audiences composed of their fellow soldiers. The game was even played by Union soldiers in Confederate prison camps, exposing countless Southerners to the pastime for the first time.

Military leaders on both sides of the conflict encouraged the game as a way to build morale and improve conditioning. “The parade ground has been a busy place for a week or so past,” Private Alpheris B. Parker of the Tenth Massachusetts wrote in a letter home, “ball-playing having become a mania in camp. Officer and men forget, for a time, the differences in rank and indulge in the invigorating sport with a schoolboy’s ardor.”

By the end of the war, baseball had been transformed from a gentleman’s game into a more democratic enterprise in which talent, not class or rank, conferred status. And, in stark contrast to the blood sports, baseball was well regarded, as it was thought to impart such seemingly traditional American values as teamwork and shared sacrifice.

Yet, despite its newfound popularity, baseball did not immediately emerge as a popular spectator sport after the Civil War. For one thing, it required sprawling outdoor spaces, which were becoming increasingly scarce—and prohibitively expensive—in the rapidly industrializing urban centers. As a team sport, baseball also required a sophisticated organizational structure to oversee the formation and regulation of teams and leagues, as well as scheduling, rule making, and the like. It would take another two decades and the efforts of visionary entrepreneurs before baseball would truly become America’s national pastime.

The Second Industrial Revolution, spurred by Henry Bessemer’s invention of a process for mass-producing steel from molten pig iron, profoundly altered America. As the nation industrialized in the decades after the war, cities grew rapidly, public transportation improved vastly, and many workers now had a little extra money in their pockets and some free time on their hands. Now the time was ripe for the development of spectator sports.

Attitudes were changing too. Between 1836 and 1914, more than thirty million Europeans migrated to the United States, largely from Ireland and Germany. These immigrants not only brought with them a fondness for games, but many also saw sports as a vehicle for upward mobility and expressing ethnic pride. No longer were sports anathema.

Another important development was architectural. Before the war, what the historian Steven A. Riess has described as “enclosed semipublic facilities” were practically nonexistent in the United States. This, of course, made it difficult to stage sporting events for paying customers. But as urban populations exploded after the war, cities found it necessary to construct large buildings to accommodate public events, including everything from political rallies to religious revivals and livestock shows. These venues, often called agricultural halls or exposition buildings, would become America’s first big sports arenas.

Also important to the development of spectator sports, however, was the humble roller-skating rink.

In the winter of 1860–61, a thirty-two-year-old New York businessman named James Leonard Plimpton fell ill. His doctor prescribed ice skating, believing the exercise and fresh air would improve his health. It worked. Plimpton began to feel better, but as winter waned, he needed to find a new regimen. So he invented something he called “guidable parlor skates,” which he patented in 1863. Plimpton’s invention, now recognized as the first “quad skate,” was a roller skate with four small wheels on two axles. The skate also featured a revolutionary pivoting mechanism that allowed users to make turns simply by leaning to one side or the other. These are the familiar skates that would make roller derby possible in the following century.

Roller skating had been around for more than a hundred years, but before Plimpton’s invention, the skates were dangerously unwieldy—imagine a ski with two large wheels attached at each end—so the sport was reserved for daredevils and the foolhardy.

This illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper depicts a “fashionable roller-skating rink” in Washington, DC, in 1880.
Courtesy of Library of Congress

The quad skate was infinitely safer and more maneuverable, and it proved wildly popular; roller skating became one of America’s first postbellum fads. (William Tecumseh Sherman was said to be a fan.)

But this new fad required large flat surfaces, so Plimpton began building roller-skating rinks. The first was in fashionable Newport, Rhode Island, so as to woo the in crowd. His idea was copied, and, almost overnight, roller rinks began popping up in cities and towns across the country.

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