On Top of the World: Remembering the Lost Trend of Flagpole Sitting

Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly sitting on a flagpole atop the Hotel St. Francis in Newark, New Jersey
Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly sitting on a flagpole atop the Hotel St. Francis in Newark, New Jersey
Alamy

Flappers and bootleggers might be the most memorable aspects of the 1920s, but there's a lesser-known, yet no less colorful, trend from that decade: flagpole sitting. From the glamorous hills of Hollywood to the blue-collar dwellings of Union City, New Jersey, this unusual pastime turned eccentric showmen and ordinary people into overnight celebrities, before the crushing reality of the Great Depression grounded their climb to stardom.

Flagpole sitting is exactly what it sounds like: a person climbing on top of a towering pole, usually in the middle of a city, and testing their endurance by sitting atop it for as long as their body holds up. It began in Hollywood in January 1924, when a former sailor, boxer, steelworker, and stuntman named Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly was hired by a local theater to sit on a pole outside of the building for as long as possible to drum up publicity for a new movie. Kelly, a New York City native—whose nickname was supposedly inspired by his dubious claims as a Titanic survivor—wowed crowds by perching himself on the pole for an astonishing 13 hours and 13 minutes. The stunt worked, and once it got picked up by the papers, offers started pouring in from more businesses to perform pole-sittings. Kelly was eager to oblige.

News of Kelly's exploits spread, and before long, men, women, and children were climbing poles of their own. There was the three-week feat of Bobbie Mack, a young woman from Los Angeles; Joe “Hold ‘em” Powers, who sat for 16 days in Chicago in 1927 and climbed back down with six fewer teeth than he started with after a storm smacked him face-first into his pole; and Bill Penfield, who braved a pole for 51 days in Strawberry Point, Iowa before a storm forced him down. In 1928, a 15-year-old named Avon Foreman of Baltimore even established a juvenile sitting record of 10 days, 10 hours, 10 minutes, and 10 seconds (he practiced on an 18-foot hickory tree in his backyard). Foreman’s accomplishment was so inspiring to Baltimore mayor William F. Broening that he publicly declared that the youngster exhibited “the pioneer spirit of early America.”

Still, Kelly was the one making a big business out of pole sitting. Even when he wasn’t holding the record, he was the ambassador of the bizarre sport. He toured 28 cities, attracting massive crowds that jammed streets and lined rooftops just to get a glimpse of the daredevil poking out among the apartment buildings and businesses of Downtown, USA.

Kelly's notable feats included an 80-hour sit in New Orleans and the 146 hours he spent high above Kansas City's Old Westgate Hotel. But even those were overshadowed by his largest-scale stunts: 312 hours on top of Newark’s St. Francis Hotel in 1927, 22 days on a pole above a dance marathon (another endurance fad of the time) in Madison Square Garden, and 23 days in 1929 in Baltimore’s Carlin’s Park on a pole that was 60 feet high. By Kelly’s own calculation, he’d spend around 20,613 hours pole-sitting during a career that lasted over a decade.

His peak came in 1930 when he lasted 49 days and one hour on a 225-foot pole on Atlantic City’s steel pier. The feat was witnessed by as many as 20,000 onlookers during the weeks he spent up top, becoming one of the first of many spectacles that would grace the pier in the 1930s. (He’d eventually be followed by acts like Rex, the water-skiing “wonder dog”; JoJo, the boxing kangaroo; and the city’s infamous diving horse routine.)

Estimates of Kelly’s fees range from $100-$500 a day throughout his career, paid by whatever outlet needed the publicity and sometimes by crowds who spent a quarter to get a view of his act from nearby hotel rooftops. And what did those onlookers see, exactly? A man on a circular padded seat high above the rabble, sometimes reading the paper, other times enjoying a shave. For food, he’d stick mainly to a liquid diet of broth and water, along with cigarettes, all of which were lifted up to him in a bucket. When he needed to sleep, he’d stay seated by wrapping his ankles around the pole and securing his thumbs into holes in his seat before nodding off. That's if he rested at all—he was also known to deprive himself of sleep on the pole for as long as four days.

The big money would dry up soon after his Atlantic City stunt, and the realities of the Great Depression put an end to flagpole sitting as a career. With up to a quarter of the population unemployed, people were apparently less interested in opening their papers to stories of men and women testing endurance at the top of a pole for more money than the readers would likely see all year.

"As Shipwreck Kelly analyzed it, it was the Stock Market crash that killed pole-sitting as the golden egg that paid the goose," a writer for The Evening Sun in Baltimore put it in 1944. "People couldn't stand to see anything higher than their busted securities."

Kelly’s personal story ends on a similarly somber note. Penniless and stripped of his daredevil veneer, he died of a heart attack in 1952 at the age of 59, his body found not far from the room he rented on West 51st Street in New York City. Underneath his arm at the time of his death was a scrapbook of newspaper clippings detailing his accomplishments as a once-champion flagpole sitter.

Though flagpole sitting has fallen out of the public eye since the Depression, it has occasionally shown faint signs of life. In 1963, 17-year-old Alabama native Peggy Townsend cruised past all of Kelly's highest marks by spending 217 days on a pole for a radio contest. That time was later beaten by Kenneth Gidge, who topped her at 248 days in 1971 before becoming an artist, inventor, and New Hampshire state representative later in life.

Today, the occasional pole-sitter still pops up in the news, though they're now most likely perched for protests or as living art installations. Regardless of the purpose behind it, it's unlikely that a person atop a flagpole will ever attract a sea of thousands of onlookers again—and the days when a man like Kelly could become a household name and dub himself the "Luckiest Fool on Earth" seem long gone.

11 Sharp Facts About Annie Oakley

Getty
Getty

You probably know that Annie Oakley was an outstanding sharpshooter who became famous while performing in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. But if your knowledge of her life is limited to Annie Get Your Gun, we’ve got you covered. In honor of her birthday, here are 11 facts about Oakley, the Little Sure Shot of the Wild West.

1. SHE MADE HER FIRST SHOT AT 8 YEARS OLD.

Born on August 13, 1860 in a rural part of western Ohio, Phoebe Ann Moses grew up poor. Her father’s death in 1866 meant that she had to contribute to help her family survive, so she trapped small animals such as quail for food. At eight years old, she made her first shot when she killed a squirrel outside her house. “It was a wonderful shot, going right through the head from side to side. My mother was so frightened when she learned that I had taken down the loaded gun and shot it that I was forbidden to touch it again for eight months,” she later said.

2. SHE USED HER SHOOTING SKILLS TO PAY OFF HER MOM’S MORTGAGE.

Despite Oakley’s top-notch shooting skills, her widowed mother struggled to make ends meet. She sent Oakley to work for another family in exchange for her daughter getting an education. As a teenager, Oakley returned home (after working as a servant for an abusive family) and continued to hunt animals. She sold the meat to an Ohio grocery store, earning enough money to pay her mom’s $200 mortgage. She later wrote: "Oh, how my heart leaped with joy as I handed the money to mother and told her that I had saved enough to pay it off!"

3. SHE BEAT HER FUTURE HUSBAND IN A SHOOTING MATCH.

At 15 years old, Oakley participated in a shooting match on Thanksgiving with Frank Butler, an Irish-American professional marksman. The match, which happened in Cincinnati, was a doozy. To Butler’s surprise, the teenage girl outshot him by one clay pigeon, and he lost the $100 bet he had placed. Rather than feel embarrassed or emasculated by his loss, Butler was impressed and interested, and the two married the following year.

4. DESPITE HER PROFESSION, SHE EMPHASIZED HER FEMININITY.


Getty Images

At the end of the 19th century, shooting was a predominantly male activity, and Oakley certainly stood out. But rather than dress or behave like a man to fit in, she emphasized her femininity. She wore her own homemade costumes on stage, behaved modestly, and engaged in "proper" female activities such as embroidery in her spare time.

5. SHE WAS ONLY FIVE FEET TALL.

In addition to Oakley’s gender, her diminutive stature made her stand out in the world of sharpshooting. In 1884, the Sioux chieftain Sitting Bull befriended Oakley when the two performers were traveling across the country. Acknowledging both her height and her shooting skill, Sitting Bull nicknamed Oakley Watanya Cicillia (English translation: Little Sure Shot). The American Indian warrior liked Oakley so much that he gave her his special moccasins to "adopt" her as his daughter.

6. SHE PERFORMED FOR KINGS AND QUEENS IN EUROPE.


Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Although the concept of the Wild West is firmly rooted in Americana, Oakley showed off her shooting skills across Europe as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. In 1887, she performed for Queen Victoria at the American Exposition in London, and the queen reportedly told Oakley that she was a "very clever little girl." In 1889, Oakley performed at the Paris Exposition and traveled to Italy and Spain. The press loved her, the king of Senegal wanted her to come help control the tiger population in his country, and Italy’s King Umberto I was a fan.

7. SHE OFFERED TO LEAD FEMALE SHOOTERS IN WORLD WAR I.

Wanting to use her shooting skills to serve her country, Oakley wrote a letter to President McKinley in 1898. She offered to provide 50 female sharpshooters (with their own arms and ammunition) to fight for the United States in the Spanish-American War, but she never got a response. Similarly, in 1917, she contacted the U.S. Secretary of War to offer her expertise to teach an army unit of women shooters to fight in World War I. She didn’t hear back, so she visited army camps, raised money for the Red Cross, and volunteered with military charities instead.

8. SHE SUED THE PRESS FOR PUBLICIZING HER (NONEXISTENT) DRUG ADDICTION.

In August 1903, two of William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers in Chicago reported that Oakley was a cocaine addict who was arrested for stealing a black man’s pants. Other newspapers ran the story, and Oakley—who was neither a drug addict nor a thief—was horrified. "The terrible piece … nearly killed me … The only thing that kept me alive was the desire to purge my character," she said.

The woman who had been arrested in Chicago was a burlesque performer whose stage name was Any Oakley. Most newspapers published retractions, but Hearst didn’t. He (unsuccessfully) hired a private investigator to uncover anything sordid about Oakley. Oakley sued 55 newspapers for libel, ultimately winning or settling 54 of them by 1910. Despite winning money from Hearst and other newspapers, costly legal expenses meant that she ultimately lost money to clear her name.

9. THANKS TO THOMAS EDISON, SHE BECAME A FILM ACTRESS.

In 1888, Oakley acted in Deadwood Dick, a financially unsuccessful play. At the Paris Exposition the next year, though, she met Buffalo Bill Cody’s friend Thomas Edison. In 1894, Oakley visited Edison in New Jersey and showed off her shooting skills for the inventor’s Kinetoscope. The resulting film, called The Little Sure Shot of the Wild West, featured Oakley shooting a rifle to break glass balls. Although she didn’t continue acting in film, she did act in The Western Girl, a play in which she portrayed a sharpshooter, in 1902 and 1903.

10. TWO SERIOUS ACCIDENTS HALTED HER CAREER.


Annie Oakley in 1922

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

In 1901, Oakley was injured in a train accident while traveling between North Carolina and Virginia for a performance. Although reports differ about the severity of her injuries, we do know that she took a year off from performing after the accident. Two decades later, Oakley was injured in a car accident in Florida. Her hip and ankle were fractured, and she wore a leg brace until 1926, when she passed away from pernicious anemia in Ohio at age 66. Frank Butler, her husband of 50 years, died 18 days later.

11. HER NAME BECAME AN IDIOMATIC EXPRESSION.

You know you’ve made it when your name becomes an idiom. Because of her shooting skills, the phrase "Annie Oakley" acquired a meaning of a free ticket to an event. Performing with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, Oakley shot holes in tiny objects, making targets out of everything from playing cards to a dime to a cigar dangling out of her husband’s mouth. Because free admission tickets for theatrical shows had holes punched in them (so they wouldn’t be sold to someone else), these tickets came to be called "Annie Oakleys."

A Brief History of Canada's Iconic Hudson’s Bay Blanket

Jessica via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Jessica via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Hudson’s Bay Company blanket may appear to be a fairly plain household item, but it’s perhaps the most remarkable blanket in the world. The off-white wool patterned with slender stripes of green, red, yellow, and indigo played a vital role in how modern Canada came to be—and it's still for sale today.

The Hudson’s Bay Company is now a well-known retail group that claims to be the oldest company in North America, and it includes Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord and Taylor among its department stores. But as far back as 1670, the company, then under royal charter from England, operated as a fur trading business, pioneering the exploration and settling of Canada. In many of the farther regions, the Hudson’s Bay Company was the effective government of the vast territory, and was at one point the largest landowner in the world, controlling approximately 15 percent of North America.

And it was the striped Hudson’s Bay Company point blanket that helped pioneer the way.

According to the official company history, blankets had been taken to Hudson Bay as trade goods as far back as 1668. But it was in 1779 that the Company first commissioned the English textile mill of Thomas Empson in Oxfordshire for “30 pair[s] of 3 points to be striped with four colors (red, blue, green, yellow) according to your judgment.”

The durable and warm blanket was prized by the early fur traders, miners, and prospectors. “I have in my possession,” wrote one such explorer, “one of a pair of blankets which I purchased in your store 30 years ago this month … packed north all through the mountains and received some of the roughest usage that any fabric could possibly survive. I could not truthfully estimate how many tons of river gravel was dumped onto it and washed in our attempts to find gold.”

But more importantly, the striped blanket proved highly popular with the native inhabitants of Canada. Easier to sew than bison and seal skins, and much quicker to dry, the blankets provided superb insulation during the harsh winter months. Often the blankets were converted into winter coats, known as “capotes.” As fur trade increased, it was the striped blanket that often paved the way for the early relationships between the company adventurers and the native tribes, and it was often traded for beaver pelts.


Steelbeard1 via Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0

As well as the traditional stripes, the iconic blanket was also known for its “points”: a series of thin black lines located just above the lower stripes. These “points” were not, as is sometimes commonly believed, an indicator of how many pelts the blanket was worth in trade, but an easy-to-read measurement of how large the blanket was. When folded, the lines, or “points” would be displayed, easily indicating the exact size of the blanket. The term stemmed from the French empointer (to make threaded stitches on the cloth). According to the company’s specifics:

A full point measured 4 – 5.5 in.; a half point measured half that length. The standard measurements for a pair of 1 point blankets was: 2 ft. 8 in. wide by 8 ft. in length; with a weight of 3 lb. 1 oz. each. Points ranged from 1 to 6, increasing by halves depending upon the size and weight of the blanket.

As the lucrative fur trade expanded into Canada, with an increasing number of trading posts, forts, and settlements, the highly prized point blanket became a primary trading commodity. Demand was so great that production back in England was expanded to the A.W. Hainsworth Company in Yorkshire toward the end of the 18th century. Their wool was known for being well-made and had been used in everything from billiard tables to the felt on piano hammers. Still made there today, Hainsworth is so prestigious, it was worn by both Prince William and Harry at the 2011 royal wedding.

By the 19th century, the Hudson’s Bay Company had evolved into a vast mercantile retail empire, often transforming their frontier trading posts into general stores, catering to—as their official history put it—“one that shopped for pleasure and not with skins.” Today the company is one of the oldest existing in the world, and still bears the distinctive colored stripes on some versions of its logo.

Despite its iconic status, the blanket is not without controversy. Disturbing claims have accused British administrators in North America of using the Hudson’s Bay blanket to spread smallpox among the native tribes as the British Empire expanded further into Canada. General Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander of the British forces in North America during the Seven Years War, suggested in a letter to one of his colonels that the deadly pox might be introduced to the local population, and the colonel’s reply put forward the horrific idea that it could be conveyed in blankets. But according to their official history, “Hudson’s Bay Company had nothing to do with the story of the use of smallpox as biological warfare.” Complicating matters even further, while there was an outbreak of smallpox in native communities the following spring, the disease was already present in those areas before Amherst’s letters, so it’s unknown if he actually went through with the plan or merely mentioned it.

These days, the distinctive stripes can be found on everything from iPhone cases to golf balls to beach chairs. But the blanket itself is still for sale, looking much as it did when the original orders were placed in London over 230 years ago, paving the way for the birth of modern Canada.

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