"The Child Stylites of
By: Frederic Nelson
Date: August 28, 1929
Source: Nelson, Frederic. "The Child Stylites of Baltimore." The New Republic, August 28, 1929, 37–38.
About the Publication: The New Republic magazine was founded in 1914 by journalists Herbert Croly, Walter Weyl, and Walter Lippmann. Its first issue in November sold 875 copies, but within a year, its monthly sales reached fifteen thousand. While the magazine is and has been regarded as liberal, its editorial positions over the years have not followed a strict ideological line.
Twentieth-century America has witnessed the sudden appearance of various popular fads. Either because of boredom or the desire for social conformity, crazes have often captured the American public's fancy. Some of these frivolous stunts reflect the lighthearted side of America: college students swallowing goldfish in the 1940s, shoehorning as many people as possible into a telephone booth in the late 1950s, or "streaking" naked in 1974. Even many aspects of the 1960s "Hippie" movement exhibited faddish themes.
The prosperous 1920s boasted one of the century's most famous crazes, "flagpole sitting," an otherwise Page 424 | Top of Article harmless diversion that featured daredevils nesting atop structures for days, even weeks at a stretch, while a host of bemused spectators were more than willing to waste time reveling in this carnival atmosphere. Meanwhile, the acknowledged champion of flagpole sitters, an otherwise undistinguished gentleman (and former prize fighter) who went by the name Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly, had become a national celebrity of sorts since 1924 with his flagpole-sitting escapades. By all reckoning, "Shipwreck" spent a grand total of 145 days perched aloft on various flagpoles in calendar year 1929.
These harmless fads may be associated with widespread prosperity on the general proposition that good economic times provide ordinary people the luxury of engaging in such nonsense. Assorted fads such as flagpole sitting clearly highlight the long-standing tension in America between the desire of people to conform and the need for self-expression and self-actualization. A faddist such as "Shipwreck" Kelly serves to bridge the tension between both impulses.
Social critics often wonder whether these fads serve any higher social or political purpose or are merely entertainment. Regardless, the flagpole-sitting mania of the 1920s reflected the emergence in America of what observers call the "Cult of Celebrity"—the tendency to inflate the importance of athletes or movie stars. The decade's single greatest hero, aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, had basically performed a glorified stunt by becoming the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, for other teams of pilots had already accomplished the transatlantic journey.
The levity that prompted the flagpole sitting craze quickly receded after the stock market crash of October 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. If flagpole sitting represented the lighthearted, frivolous, and essentially harmless side of American popular culture, then the hard times that followed 1929 revealed a darker, more sinister side of the American psyche. The Depression era featured, for instance, marathon-dance contests ("walkathons," as they were called) that saw punchdrunk couples literally sleepwalking through endless hours of physical torture in hopes of winning a cash prize.
Primary Source: "The Child Stylites of Baltimore"
SYNOPSIS: The amazing flagpole-sitting craze helped define the decade of the 1920s in much the same manner as did the flapper, Al Capone, or Charles Lindbergh. In the following memorable piece, author Frederic Nelson describes the phenomenon and seeks to find some larger meaning in these flagpole escapades.
An "Obscene Spectacle" in Mr. Mencken's Own Bailiwick, the Free State of Maryland
The scene is almost any of some score of vacant lots and glaring backyards in the meaner sections of Baltimore. Your attention is at first attracted by the inevitable milling throng of small boys who crowd about celebrities and events of importance. This time the center of their concern is a strange coop-like arrangement set on the top of a pole some fifteen or twenty feet high. The pole is kept under control by guy wires from which hang the American flag, electric lights, signs advising you to patronize the pharmacy at the corner or to inform you that Jimmy Jones, twelve, has been "sitting" for eight days.
You then observe that the coop—or it may be a platform covered by an umbrella—is occupied by a small boy (or girl) who ought to be in bed, if you see him by night, or at play, if you see him by day—and you are informed that he (or she) has remained on top of the pole, through the painful Baltimore heat, the fierce summer storms and despite the persecution of mosquitoes, for as much as a week. You are gazing, in other words, upon one of the several contenders for the Juvenile Flagpole Sitting Championship of the World, a contest which is distinguished for a unique fervor on the part of the children, but fully as much for a lamentable imbecility on the part of their parents. Even while you are staring at one of these infant St. Simons, you observe that his "manager" is considerably older. You may perhaps see an officious-looking person gravely inspecting the sitter's equipment, and, if you inspect the autograph album at the foot of the pole, you may be fortunate enough to see, in the position assigned to Abou Ben Adhem, the name of His Honor, William F. Broening, Mayor of Baltimore!
It all started when, a few weeks ago, a curious fellow known as Shipwreck Kelly, who goes about from city to city demonstrating the hardihood of the American posterior by sitting for extended periods on flagpoles, visited the conservative city of Baltimore and "put on a sitting." During his protracted stay aloft, which was long enough to break the world's record for this particular form of virtuosity, Shipwreck attracted large crowds to the park which was the scene of his effort, and the celebration attending his eventual descent was a demonstration of the ease with which almost any form of imbecility becomes important in these States. Inevitably there was a juvenile aspirant to Shipwreck's fame.
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Boys from time immemorial have wanted to be locomotive engineers, bareback riders, and major generals. Their heroes are, quite naturally, those who cause the most excitement. It was no great surprise, therefore, when one read in the Baltimore newspapers the modest announcement that Avon Foreman, fifteen, had mounted a flagpole and would sit there until he had broken what might be considered the "juvenile record." When he had sat for ten days, ten hours, ten minutes and ten seconds, he decided that the "juvenile record" in this field had been broken, and he came down.
That might have ended the matter had not various people, no longer accounted children, behaved so preposterously. "The older Baltimore" could hardly believe its ears when it learned the details of the hullabaloo following Avon's descent. For days before this amazing event crowds had gathered nightly to see him perched on his platform upon which bright scarchlights had been trained by his father, who is an electrician. When Avon decided that his "record" was safe, there was a neighborhood celebration at which Mayor Broening, for whom no occasion lacks its oratorical opportunities, made an address and Page 426 | Top of Article presented to Avon an autographed testimonial bearing the great seal of Baltimore City. In the course of his remarks the Mayor described Avon's achievement as an exemplification of "the pioneer spirit of early America." It is quite likely His Honor believed it, but it is equally possible that he was merely making a speech. When two or three people are gathered together Mayor Broening makes a speech, and most of his speeches are much the same.
Whatever these occasional remarks meant to the Mayor, they were a Challenge to the Youth of Baltimore. From that moment Baltimore was dotted with boys and girls ranging from eight to thirteen years of age who were determined to upset Avon Foreman's record as a flagpole sitter. Some of them came down as soon as Father got home, but since the ceremonies attending the Avon Foreman descent from a flagpole, there has been an average of some fifteen children roosting in various contrivances atop "flagpoles" ranging from ten to twenty feet high. Two of them have broken legs and one an arm, and one little girl was ill for days from the effects of her experience, but others mount poles to replace the casualties and the sittings go on. Parents, who at first were inclined to forbid their youngsters to enter the lists, lend their aid and provide their offspring with such comforts as are possible on top of a pole. It is difficult to make out a case against a practice which the Mayor of a city of 750,000 people has sanctioned as an exhibition of "grit and stamina so essential to success in the great struggle of life."
Editors in Baltimore and elsewhere promptly suggested a quick mobilization of shingles, hairbrushes, straps and slippers as a means of breaking this children's crusade under the banner of St. Simon Stylites. As a matter of fact, however, the children seem sages in comparison with the imbecility of their elders. When a boy, through the simple expedient of installing himself in a coop at the end of a pole can bring the Mayor to call on him, cause a minister of the Gospel to hold services with sermon at the foot of the pole and be the central occasion for a brass band, scores of popcorn vendors, offers of free dentistry for a year and a "write-up" in the newspapers, parental authority—in the class mainly afflicted with this mania—avails very little. Indeed, the parents of most of these children exhibit a distinct pride in the performance, protected by ignorance and stupidity from appreciating the possible consequences, physical and otherwise, of these idiotic vigils. They rival one another in fitting out the child's flagpole equipment with electric lights and, occasionally, a radio set! The corner druggist pays a dollar or two for the right to advertise his business on the sacred totem and the city officials, perhaps in an effort to restrain the epidemic, add importance to flagpole sitting by solemnly issuing specifications for flagpoles for this use and charging a license fee of one dollar! If stripes could cure this malady, other backs than those of the children might appropriately receive them.
Moralists, in the larger sense, have an opportunity for prolonged and depressing speculation as to the essential significance of the Baltimore phenomenon. They can meditate upon the dullness of lives which find relief in the spectacle of twenty children squatting on top of improvised flagpoles throughout the city; on the low estimate a skillful politician with further ambitions must have made of his fellow citizens before he decided to take up these Stylites in a serious way; on the vacuity of adults who wear collars and own automobiles and permit their children to astound the neighbors in this fashion; on the strange evolution which makes an outbreak of this sort, to be expected in Los Angeles, possible in a conservative city like Baltimore. Consider the smugness installed in the soul of the youngster who mounted his flagpole with a Bible and thus provided the occasion for a religious service! Reflect on the precedent established for sound civil service by a city engineering department announcing without a smile the accepted specifications for a pole to be sat on! Imagine your own child—! Or your own Mayor, which may be less fantastic. Business is still transacted in Baltimore, but, as the flagpole story (with pictures) is bruited about from city, to city, the people who matter become slightly embarrassed. A hell of a thing for the second port on the Atlantic seaboard!
In view of the excitement just south of Baltimore over the various manifestations of Negro ambition, one of the flagpole sitters provides disquieting material for the believers in White supremacy. A Negro boy took up flagpole sitting and contributed his "grit and stamina" to the prevailing "pioneer spirit" now rampant. Be it noted, however, that he, above all the squatters, had the ordinary sense to come down from his perch at night—and for all meals.
Hoffman, Frank W., and William G. Bailey. Sports and Recreation Fads. New York: Haworth Press, 1991.
Marum, Andrew, and Frank Parise. Follies and Foibles: A View of 20th Century Fads. New York: Facts on File, 1984.