secret_history (2006-20)

Take a Walk

The Victorian weight-loss program

by Jack Neely

Last week, Gov. Phil Bredesen released results of report by a program at UT called, maybe wishfully, “Tennessee on the Move.” The report, based on a Harris survey, offers two basic findings that are sobering and perhaps not coincidental.

One is that the average Tennessean is “overweight and nearly obese.” That’s not just an alarming number of Tennesseans of some benighted demographic group: that’s the average Tennessean. Also, 71 percent of Tennesseans are trying to lose weight, and mostly failing. It’s a serious problem, of course; obesity is linked to heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and other diseases that are fatal, and, moreover, expensive.

The other finding of the report is that Tennesseans don’t walk much. Americans in general, compared to nearly everyone else in the world, have developed a reputation for not walking much. Talk to anybody who’s moved here from another country. Still, according to the study, Tennesseans walk almost 20 percent less than the average American.

How did that happen? Two centuries ago, the archetypal Tennessean was the lean, rawboned pioneer: Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, John Sevier, hikers, marchers, trailblazers. Tennesseans were once skinny folks known for their physical stamina.

Even one century ago, Tennesseans still had that reputation, a habit of strenuous activity. Knoxvillians sometimes astonished outsiders with their casual feats of the feet. Victorian-era classics professor Ebenezer Alexander was known to walk from his home in Knoxville to his other job in Chapel Hill, N.C.

When Knoxville attorney William Gibbs McAdoo moved to New York in the 1890s, he became famous there for his improvements to the subway system, and also for using it rarely. The Tennessean was kind of legendary in Manhattan, known to walk some 60 blocks from his home to his office every day—and back. McAdoo was a slender man, and lived a long life.

We don’t astonish New Yorkers much anymore. 

Genes get blamed for a lot—but look at our ancestors in old photographs, like those of Civil War soldiers from Tennessee. They’re almost all skinny guys. When you see Civil War re-enactors today, it’s not the eyeglasses or wristwatches or $20 haircuts that give them away, but the round faces.

Or look at last week’s cover shot of hundreds of people at the Bijou in 1909. There are a couple of chubby folks in there, but not many. Even though they’re all Tennesseans, most of them look fit and healthy.

It’s especially remarkable considering that back then, supper wasn’t supper unless it had butter and a quarter-pound of porkfat in it. Even the greens and biscuits were infused with lard. The 1900 Knoxville Cookbook recommended multi-course meals with courses like Fricasseed Oxtails and Pig’s Foot Cheese, and offered over 60 pages of desserts and candies. (If you find a weight-loss diet book from that era, hang onto it. It’s a rarity.)

Southern food gets too much of the blame, I think. Southern food is ancient, but Southern obesity is a relatively recent phenomenon. That’s the paradox of the thin Victorian. How did they get away with it?

Exercise would seem, at first, an unlikely explanation. You can go through reams of Victorian newspapers and only rarely see references to deliberate exercise. Recreational running existed, but mainly as an athletic competition for certain young men; some people ran like some people played violin. Likewise with other sports. Baseball, football, tennis, sports involving human-to-human physical competition hardly existed in Tennessee until after the Civil War, and weren’t a routine part of our lives until the 20th century.

Most Americans a century ago lived full lives without ever knowing what a “crunch” was. Or, for that matter, an “ab” or a “bun.” Deliberate, self-conscious exercise was an oddity.

But there is one thing people did a lot, after their seven-course dinners of Smithfield Ham and Broiled Squab: they walked. People walked because, the way the city was laid out, walking was how you got around.

We tell our children that in the old days, before cars, people rode horses, but that’s not the whole truth. The automobile didn’t just replace the horse; most city people didn’t even own horses. The automobile replaced the horse, the streetcar and, maybe to the largest extent, the feet.

Based on anecdotes from that period, I’d be willing to bet that most of the dressy people in the Bijou Theatre in that 1909 photograph walked a mile or more that evening, even if it was only to or from the streetcar stop.

They had to walk to get where they were going, and for the most part they got their exercise without noticing it happen.

It took decades to rearrange the city in such a way that it was hard to walk around in, more amenable to the automobile than to the pedestrian—a city in which you drive from home to a restaurant, and then drive again from the restaurant to the theater, and then drive again to a place for drink or dessert afterward, and then drive home. But we’re finally there.

Is anyone surprised we are each taking up more space than we used to?

Granted, Knoxville a century ago was no Shangri-La of healthy living. They lived in the terror of smallpox and other infectious diseases. Infant mortality was a daily tragedy. Water and air pollution were, believe it or not, worse than they are today, especially in factory towns like Knoxville.  Sudden death from accidental poisonings, steamer explosions, and gunfire took an almost predictable weekly toll.

We’ve made improvements. But we’ve also unwittingly rolled some of them back with our well-seated lifestyle. The automobile wasn’t emphasized in the report about the UT study I read, but others have observed that Tennesseans and other Southerners drive more than the average American, therefore maybe more than anyone else in the world. And as far as the body is concerned, driving is mainly just sitting. A specialized type of sitting that allows us to avoid walking.

We’ve all tried exercise programs, and after a while we’ve all given them up. It’s easy to believe that consistent, daily exercise for the sake of exercise may be contrary to human nature. We may not ever walk every day unless we have to. The good news is that there may be a correcting dynamic at work here: as gasoline prices go up, expect an equal and opposite effect on Tennesseans’ personal tonnage.