Once upon a time, before baseball drew crowds to America’s ballparks and English workers spent their Saturdays at the football grounds, one of the most popular spectator events in both countries was watching people walk. Pedestrianism had its start outdoors, as walkers set off on long-distance treks for the simple challenge of it–or to win a bet. In the 1870s, the sport moved indoors. Tens of thousands of spectators filled the great exhibition halls of industrial cities to watch pedestrians circle a track on the floor. The big event was the six-day race, in which racers competed to see who could cover the greatest distance in the allotted time. Winners typically exceeded 500 miles.
In his book Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport (Chicago Review Press, 2014), Matthew Algeo offers an engaging account of this curious chapter in the history of sport. As Matthew points out, 19th-century pedestrianism is a revealing episode in the history of the industrial age, as promoters launched new events and venues to entertain growing urban populations. Walking races also had many of the same features as contemporary sports culture, from doping scandals to merchandise featuring the star walkers. Pedestrianism was short-lived. But while the sport lasted, the great long-distance walkers were featured in newspapers and on cigarette cards, and crowds followed the races in massive halls and at local telegraph stations.