Transcontinental foot races. Dance marathons. The Noun and Verb Rodeo. The Rocking Chair Derby. Lord knows why, but America in the 1920s had a thirst for endurance contests. You could do anything, really, as long as you did it for a long time, and a crowd would gather.

The height (no pun intended) of the endurance contest craze was flagpole sitting. There wasn't anything too complicated to it - people just climbed up a pole and sat there as long as possible. The question, really, is what exactly did folks find entertaining about it? And who thinks up something like that in the first place?

While the first question may never be answered, I can tell you all about the second one. The first flagpole sitting "craze" began more than 1500 years ago. The trendsetter back then was St. Simeon Stylites, a fifth century Syrian hermit. Stylite is a Greek word meaning pillar. Born in Turkey in around 390 AD, Simeon entered a monastery at age thirteen but was expelled for practicing overly-severe feats of self-denial and penance. Wandering the countryside, he tried out several forms of hermitry before finally deciding to live atop a narrow pillar. His first pillar was just 9 feet tall, but the pillar upon which he died reached 50 feet up into the sky. Similar to future publicity-seeking flagpole sitters, St. Simeon delivered addresses to crowds gathered below and advised visitors who ascended a nearby ladder. His perching efforts spawned a series of stylitoe, "pillar-hermits", that practiced for the next six centuries.

The modern flagpole sitting era began in 1924, when Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly (not to be confused with 1930s football player John "Shipwreck" Kelly) sat upon his first flagpole for a small role in a Hollywood movie. Kelly, a short Irishman from New York's Hell's Kitchen, earned his nickname during his days as a boxer. The ex-sailor boxed under the name Sailor Kelly, and was knocked out so often fans took to shouting "The Sailor's shipwrecked again." After his somewhat-starring role, a publicity agent hired Kelly to sit atop a flagpole outside a Los Angeles theater to drum up business.

He enjoyed himself immensely, especially the public attention. One publicity stunt led to another, and soon a fad of copycat polesitters spread across the nation. Kelly's secret to a comfortable pole-top perch was a tightly fastened rubber-covered wooden seat. Kelly fastidiously used a pocket razor and manicure kit. He only drank fluids hauled up to him in a bucket. He used the same bucket to - ahem - relieve himself.

Most of Kelly's imitators did not have such amenities. Many amateurs used trees in lieu of flagpoles. Baltimore, sort of the nation's capital for high-up sitting, had 20 kids topping trees in one week. The mayor, William Broening, visited each pole or tree record-setter personally, praising their "grit and stamina" and proclaiming that in their endurance "the old pioneer spirit of early America is being kept alive by the youth of today." Um, right. Although most sitters were male, a young stunt aviatrix stayed up a pole for twenty-one days before the city council outlawed the craze.

Although there were many amateurs practicing in the late Twenties, Kelly was the number-one flagpole sitter. He was booked by hotels, fairs, amusement parks, and resorts to rope in crowds. His longest sit, for the world record, was forty-nine days on a flagpole overlooking the Atlantic City boardwalk. A crowd of 20,000 admirers witnessed this feat.

It is estimated Kelly spent 14,000 hours of his life on the top of flagpoles. He collected $30,000 in 1929, his most profitable year, spending 145 days atop flagpoles around the country. Unfortunately for Kelly, the stock market crash and the Depression brought the death of the flagpole sitting fad. Although he was able to get occasional sitting jobs, he was soon penniless and forgotten. On a cold day in 1952, New York police found the body of a homeless man over a street grating, carrying only a wad of crumbling paper clippings detailing the feats of Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly. He died across the street from Madison Square Garden, where his name had once graced the marquee.

the excellent book Panati's Parade of Fads, Follies, and Manias by Charles Panati

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