In an era without television and radio, people often looked for means of entertainment outside of the home. The Roaring Twenties saw an odd but not new spectacle of “flagpole sitting”. Pole sitting is the act of sitting on a pole, typically a flagpole, for as long as possible. Sometimes a small platform is placed at the top of the pole but often the pole sitter rests upon the pole unassisted.
Pole-sitting is related to the ancient discipline of Stylitism, or column-sitting. Famous column-sitters include St Simeon Stylites the Elder (c. 388-459) of Antioch (now Turkey) who sat on a column for 30 years. Stylitism was often a religious or meditative experience for the sitters.
The flagpole sitting fad began in 1924 when a friend dared actor Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly to sit on a flagpole. Kelly took on the dare and commenced to sitting on a flagpole for 13 hours and 13 minutes. The odd spectacle set off a series of imitators who sought fame and money and a chance to beat Kelly’s record. During the next five years, flagpole sitters set records of 12 days, 17 days, and 21 days.
Kelly continued sitting on flagpoles, often as paid publicity stunts. He travelled across America setting up poles and platforms for flagpole sitting demonstrations. Sitting atop the flagpole, his only form of nourishment was liquids hoisted up the pole by assistants using rope and pails. To use the bathroom, he turned away from the crowd and used a small tube that ran to the ground into a hole. In 1929, Kelly again broke the record for flagpole sitting in a stunt that lasted 49 days in Atlantic City, New Jersey. His record lasted only a year though. In 1930, Bill Penfield sat on a pole for 51 days and 20 hours in Strawberry Point, Iowa. He may have sat longer but a thunderstorm forced him down.
By 1930, the flagpole sitting craze ran its course becoming little more than a bizarre side-note in history.