Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
As I’ve plugged away at this column, one of the interesting realities I’ve kept bumping up against is that “fads” and “panics,” while different, are essentially mirror images of each other. Fads tend to happen when times are good and bored people are desperate for something to spend their excess time and money on; panics occur when times are bad and people are looking for something to blame. And often it’s tempting to draw a direct line from the one to the other (does excess lead to faddish frivolity, which leads to crisis, which leads to panic?), even if the relationship may be a bit more complicated.
Flagpole sitting, which is emblematic of one of the more frivolous times in American history, might be the clearest example of this I’ve come across so far. Here, a century later, we all know how the 1920s ended—a stock market crash, followed by a decade-long depression leading into a second world war—but at the time, for the people in it, it felt like humanity had finally thrown off its shackles. Humankind was taking to the skies via aviation (and apparently no one knew the story of Icarus); skyscrapers were bursting heavenward from the ground (and apparently no one knew the story of Babel); telephones, movies, and radio brought the world closer together (which, I dunno…Atlantis, or something). It felt like humanity could do anything—and it took the opportunity to do really stupid stuff, like pass off urinals as art, chase after nascent fascism, and—yes—sit around on flagpoles for days at a time.It felt like humanity could do anything—and it took the opportunity to do really stupid stuff, like pass off urinals as art, chase after nascent fascism, and—yes—sit around on flagpoles for days at a time.
And while many fads seem to emerge out of nowhere, that isn’t really the case with flagpole sitting—in fact, we know exactly who invented and popularized the practice. Ignoring antecedents like the ancient Christian stylites, who would live at the tops of columns to devote their lives to prayer and solitude, flagpole sitting was the invention of a man who went by Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly, who did it for the only reason anyone ever did anything in the twentieth century: fame and money.
Prior to discovering his calling as a guy who was really good at sitting around, Kelly had worked as a steelworker, a steeplejack, a stunt pilot, a movie double, and a prize fighter; he claimed to have gotten the nickname “Shipwreck” when he survived the wreck of the Titanic, a claim that would be totally believable if it weren’t for the facts that (1) the Titanic’s manifest had no men named Kelly on it, and (2) basically everyone who wanted to be famous was claiming the exact same thing in the twenties. Y’know, because the Titanic was cool. (As far as anyone can tell, the nickname was actually a reference to his less-than-impressive performance in the boxing ring.)
All that is to say, Kelly was a daredevil and his own hype man, so it was no real surprise that when, in 1924, a friend dared him to scale a flagpole, he accepted, staying at the top of it for several hours. What maybe even Kelly couldn’t have foreseen was the enormous amount of attention the stunt would generate, drawing crowds to the pole, and then into the department store behind it. What Kelly had on his hands wasn’t just a way to amuse himself and his friends—it was a lucrative opportunity, both for him and for business owners who needed a bit of publicity.
From there, it wasn’t long before flagpole sitting was taking the nation by storm. Later that month, Kelly was hired by a movie theater to promote a film by sitting on a pole for thirteen hours straight, but soon he and his imitators began pushing the envelope to days instead of hours. Various individuals spent a week, and then two, and then three, perched atop poles. Kelly eventually set the then-record of forty-nine days aloft in Atlantic City, but not before upping the ante by sitting on a flagpole atop a speeding biplane, because, twenties.
While Kelly was hardly the only one mounting flagpoles for fame and fortune, he was seemingly the only one who managed to make a solid living at it. This was, of course, decades before television, so people still occasionally left their homes, making outdoor advertising extremely effective. Countless business owners looking to drum up some publicity were more than happy to pay Kelly a few hundred dollars to sit on their flagpoles for a few weeks; when Kelly’s finances came up short, he simply charged admission to his sitting sessions, asking that people spend a few cents for access to nearby rooftops and a close-up view of his…sitting.
If you’re wondering about how Kelly would take care of…personal matters…while aloft, the answer is maybe less fascinating that you might hope: evidently, he would just turn away from the crowd and pee into a tube that went down to the ground. I’m not sure why he needed the tube, since gravity is a thing, but maybe he was worried about wind. If you’re wondering about number two, I couldn’t find any info on that, but maybe he simply didn’t go number two while he was up there—most sources agree he basically didn’t eat while working, subsisting entirely on a diet of coffee and cigarettes (though if he could mainline coffee and hold his poop in, he was more talented than I am—which I guess is true either way). When he got tired, he evidently just slipped his thumbs into holes drilled in the sides of his seat and dozed, claiming that if he started to fall, the pain in his thumbs would wake him up.
But, of course, you all know what happened next: The stock market crashed, the Depression hit, the entire center of the country was devastated by droughts and locusts, and suddenly stuff like sitting on a flagpole seemed a lot less stupid-funny and more plain-old stupid. Jazz-age fads vanished overnight, and Kelly soon found himself out of work. He attempted several comebacks—most notably in 1939, when he did a headstand on a plank extended from the roof of a skyscraper while eating donuts (in celebration of National Donut Dunking Day, obviously)—but in the end, he died penniless. Somewhat ironically, his body was found with his unfinished scrapbook-autobiography tucked under its arm; he had titled the project The Luckiest Fool on Earth.
And along with Kelly died an era of relentless optimism about human potential and the belief that technology would save us from our basest tendencies—which, hmm, seems vaguely familiar, but I can’t quite put my finger on why.