Sunday, November 9, 2014


For the overwhelming majority of human history, if a person wanted to get somewhere, anywhere, they got there one of two ways.

They walked, or they ran.

That's it.

Businessmen, Washington D. C., 1940s. Walking.

Alternative modes of transportation didn't even exist for much of human history. The boat was almost certainly the very first one to occur to anyone.  Or rather, the canoe.  People traveled by canoe before they traveled by any other means other than walking.

Nez Percé canoe 
Nez Perce Canoe.  This type of canoe is basically the prototype for all watercraft.

Animal transport as an alternative to walking happened a long time ago, and gets pushed back further and further, in an example of Holscher's First Law of History.  We probably took up riding horses no later than 15,000 years ago, and in all likelihood probably earlier than that.  Maybe 20,000 years ago.  According to some, riding horses actually followed riding reindeer, and it may have been an observation of horse herding people, who were doing that from the ground, upon encountering reindeer herding people, who riding reindeer for the same purpose.  Something along the lines of "hey. . . .that looks easier than chasing horses. . . "

Soldier riding reindeer at survey camp of Eastern Siberian Railway
Imperial Russian soldier riding a reindeer.  Some students of the topic believe that people probably rode reindeer before any other animal. I don't know if any culture rides them today, but they were still used as a mounted transportation animal in Siberia within the past century.

It was never the case, however, that people rode horses by default.  The school age myth that "everyone rode horses" prior to the automobile, is just that.  It's a myth.

Saddle horse, indeed a Saddlebred, saddled and ready to go.  People have been riding horses for maybe 20,000 years or so and they remain a significant mode of transportation in some areas and for some things today.  From our A Revolution In Rural Transportation thread.

We've dealt with this topic at length before, in our A Revolution In Rural Transportation thread, but that dealt with the topic in a different fashion.  What we didn't emphasize there is the simple fact that prior to the automobile, most people walked in most places.  Even in the rural West, people who lived in towns and cities, and that was most of the population, walked.  Keeping a horse in town is expensive, and most people didn't do it, anywhere.

Black Horse Livery Stable, South Pass City Wyoming, from HABERS study, Library of Congress.  Livery stables were sort of the combo gas station/parking garage of their day, as you boarded your horse there while visiting a town or city.

The average working man, in the pre-automobile era, in the US walked seven miles to work, according to Henry Fairlie's "The Cows Revenge".  That's quite a hike, and that tells us a lot about conditions and how people lived, and how they viewed walking, prior to the car. Simply put, the introduction and acceptance of the automobile has bizarrely impacted everything about this topic.  It's impacted when we walk, how we view walking, how we build our cities, and even our health.

 Crowd walking to work in 1916.

Living in a world that was afoot, the default means of getting anywhere for everyone was shoe leather.  So, for most men, to get to work everyday, they walked.  So what you may ask? Well, that tells us a lot about how they lived.  As noted above, they tended to live within walking distance of their work. For the more well to do, that tended to mean that they lived within walking distance of the heart of the city or town, as that meant that they had the luxury of walking less.  If they were poorer, they lived further out, unless they were industrial workers, in which case they often lived right next to the plants or mines they worked in. The other day here, we had a thread up on Salt Lake City depicting "Greek Town", which is where working class Greek immigrants lived, right next to the industrial are of Salt Lake City at that time.

 Lawyer walking in early 20th Century New York.

That tells us something right there about how cities and towns were laid out, as opposed to now.  If people were largely walking to work, and the wealthiest lived closest to their businesses in the heart of the town, the current "suburban" and "bedroom" community natures of so many of our cities simply didn't exist. The very wealthy had country homes they'd retreat to in the summer, when they also could afford to be away from their businesses, but otherwise people generally lived in much more compact neighborhoods than they do now, and they didn't want to live in a place which wasn't within some reasonable walking distance of their occupations.  Indeed, while there's been a trend in recent years towards trendy city centers, the post World War Two trend of the middle class and wealthy living away from the city center with those who are less well off living towards it was the opposite of the historic norm, although there were always poor neighborhoods within cities.

For women, as conditions generally meant that they worked at home as a rule, it meant that they tended to walk to and from those areas strongly associated with their daily tasks, such as markets.  This meant, of course, that local markets were common, as there was no advantage to having a large store with a large parking lot, obviously, if people had to walk to it.  Such small stores were the norm. Today they are the exception.  And grocery stores within residential districts were also very common.  This city had at least three such grocery stores at one time, and now has a single one, which has become somewhat of a specialty store.

 Young workers returning to work, on foot, after break for noon meal.

Small shops, normally family run, tended to mean that the people who ran them, who usually worked very long hours, often lived in the shop.  People lived above their stores, which saved money on lodging, but also saved time hiking.  If you had to be in your grocery at 4:00 am, you probably didn't want to have to start walking by 2:30 everyday, particularly in the winter.  You just walked down the stairs instead.

 Lumberjacks walking home after work.  1944

And it even impacted how and where people worshiped.  I've noted here before, in a different thread, how many Catholic churches there are in Denver.  Some of them are not really very far from one another. Why is that? Well, if you had to walk to Mass on  Sunday, they would be far.  Now people think nothing of driving ten or more miles to a church.  If you had to walk that distance very Sunday, it would.  And that would be considered by the denomination as well.

Holy Ghost Catholic Church, downtown Denver.

Indeed, some might note how in Italy there are a large number of dioceses, whereas in the U.S. this tends not to be true.  Wyoming or Montana, for example, have one Catholic diocese for the entire state.  In Italy, the next town might have its own diocese and its own Bishop. Why? Well, when those diocese were set up, which might be as long ago as the 1st or 2nd Centuries, the Priests had to walk.  Generally, the extent of a Diocese was defined by how far those operating from the Cathedral could walk in some reasonable number of days.  In England, this was done in a similar fashion with the Priest living in a central community within a days walking distance of a variety of places they served, and then returning to their central community.

Service people often also walked, although not exclusively.  Many policemen, for example, operated out of a district office and covered their "beat" on foot. This wasn't for more effective local policing, as is so often the case today, but because walking was the default norm for everyone.  Some were mounted of course, and that was for more effective coverage of an area.  Most soldiers, in an era before extensive logistical support, were infantrymen, as most combat solders remained, and they walked everywhere as a rule.  Officers, of course, rode, but because they were officers.

 Pedestrians, New York City, 1897.  Policeman to far left.

And when I mean infantrymen walked, they walked.  When we read of infantrymen during the Revolution walking from one northeastern location to another, that's what they did.  When we invaded Quebec during the war, most of the American troops walked in, and walked out.  Hundreds of miles. And we read of the Mexican War, in which the United States gathered and entered Mexico with one army, and then switched out to a second as call ups expired, we're reading about men who walked all that way to and from Mexico, for the most part.

French infantry, 1914.

In more modern wars, railroads entered the picture, and automobiles about a century ago, but still infantry largely walked.  German infantry in World War Two, for example, remained largely of the old type.  Walking everywhere.  When we see photos of German infantrymen in Russia during World War Two, those troops were largely on foot the entire time, some rail transportation notwithstanding.  

This changed, for Americans anyway, only fairly recently, as the automobile really came in.  Other forms of transportation added to that, of course, but as cars were fully adopted, and adapted to, Americans came to the idea that they should drive everywhere, and they largely do. This too has changed everything about everything, how we view our cities, how we view transportation, and even how we view ourselves.

 Unemployed, Great Depression, walking towards Los Angeles.

But it didn't change it for everyone, at least not completely. Some walkers of the old type hung on, and do even today.  If you are one of them, the change tends to be self evident, even if you don't conceive of it in that fashion.

I was one of the walkers, that is one of the people who kept walking for daily transportation.  My mother was, and perhaps because of the way I grew up, or the fact that I am just cheap, I continued to be and still somewhat am. When I was a kid, we still walked to get where we were going, normally.  My mother was a terrible driver anyway, and if we asked her for a ride, it was due to something exceptional going on.  Walking within a couple of miles was the norm for anything we wanted to do that was that close, including going to school.  Riding a bike was the norm beyond that.  When I went away to college, and every dime counted, I went fully over to walking.  I always walked to school, to church, to nearly everywhere, unless I needed to carry something or was going more than a few miles away.  When I returned home to work, I walked to work and back everyday until I got married, at which time I moved a greater distance from downtown.  During the summer I'll still ride a bike to work, however, if the weather is nice.

Given that prospective, some interesting observations nearly have to occur to you.  One thing is that Americans now tend to view walking as a form of "exercise", rather than something that just is.

There's no doubt that it is exercise, and as people like to point out, it's "good exercise".  But its actually exercise that we would have normally gotten just by living.  The automobile has not only caused us to forget that, it's helped make us unhealthy and fat to some degree, as we sit and ride where formally we would have walked. But even while accurate, the idea that walking is "exercise" is a peculiar thought, if you tended to walk to get somewhere anyhow.  

And how it exhibits itself as exercise is interesting.  People buy clothing and shoes just for walking.  Walking shoes, in fact, have existed for a long long time but that there are "walking shoes", when walking is the default means of transportation, is odd.  Walking clothing, on the other hand, is downright odd.

In any prior era, when people walked somewhere, including to work, they simply wore what they were wearing for whatever other activity they were doing.  Not now.  Now walkers dress in some cases like runners, in special athletic clothing.  Its not necessary and a little peculiar, as walking is simply something that humans do, or at least in most eras in most places it was something that they simply did.

For those who have retained the old ways, this is particularly striking.  When I lived in Laramie, every Saturday night I walked to Mass, a round trip of about six miles, and then the next morning I walked another round trip of six to buy a newspaper.  In doing that, I sometimes ran into an elderly couple that was headed in the same direction, probably to church, and an exercise walker who took that course on their exercise beat.  I just wore what I wore.  The elderly couple was dress appropriately for church.  The exercise walker was wearing exercise clothing.  The irony was that the elderly couple and I typically passed the exerciser and out paced him, probably because we were more used to routinely walking.  I always wondered about the special clothing, as I wasn't working up a sweat, but the fact that the exercise walker felt compelled to wear special clothing made you feel as perhaps you should too. Was I sweaty and didn't know it?

Not that walking in prior eras didn't also impact clothing, it did, and even the change in this is very noticeable to those who have experienced the change, which has continued to develop even in our own time.

Students of costume often note how heavily people dressed in prior eras, and how common hats were.  Well, hats were common as everyone spent part of their days outdoors, even if that only meant walking to work.  If you had to walk a mile when it might rain, you'd wear a hat.  And probably a real hat, rather than a cap.

You'd also wear enough clothes to protect you from the elements.  Presently, if you go by any place their are young people, you'll notice some wear light clothing, including shorts, even in the dead of winter.  You wouldn't do that, and couldn't do that, if you had to walk to school a mile or more.  That's a byproduct of modern heating, and transportation.

Walkers who simply walk also will find that almost everyone else in American society finds that odd and resists it.  If you walk because you'd prefer to, you're going to be offered rides.  I've sometimes found that the same people will repeatedly offer you rides, convinced that you can't possibly prefer walking, and they can be quite persistent about it. It's a fairly surprising thing, given as sidewalks are everywhere and walking is our design norm.  Psychologically, however, it seems eccentric to many.

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