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1920s Entertainment Flagpole-Sitting

Updated on March 16, 2009
Look Ma! I made the papers
Look Ma! I made the papers
Flagpole Sitter
Flagpole Sitter

Flagpole Sitting... Living It Up In "The Roaring 20's"

Once upon a time, back in the glorious days of when marathon dancers kept the hop going, six-day bicycle riders rode to where ever they were headed, and college goldfish swallowers ruled, some of the goofy things that America found amusing. It was Flagpole-sitting that was king in the mid to late 1920s. Why? you ask... the answer is simple no T.V.s. People needed fun and amusement...without television they had to get out of their houses and go find some way to amuse themselves...(same theory may apply to the start of the baby-boom, as well)

Blah, blah, blah...Pole-sitting is related to the ancient ascetic 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 36 years...blah, blah. boring... history crap...mmm..blah.

Flagpole-sitting is the futile practice of sitting on a pole for extended lengths of time, generally used as an excuse, to test endurance, or to get away from a wife who wanted you to take out the garbage back then. A small platform may be placed at the top of the pole to keep you from getting a rude case of "pole hole". Then you just sit.. yep, high up on a pole... you just sit.

Flagpole-sitting was the cat's meow of fads, that's heyday lasted from 1924 to 1929. The fad alledgely began when a friend supposedly dared stunt actor Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly to sit on a flagpole. Honest to God, folks...that's the rumor on how it all got started.

...And if you believe that one then you'll believe how "Shipwreck" Kelly got his nickname...First of all there was he was NOT the pro football player (his name was John "Shipwreck" Kelly) , then there was a Paul "Shipwreck" Kelly, and there have been plenty more "Shipwreck" Kellys. One tale that I know is false is that our pole-sitting hero, Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly supposedly claimed to have been on the Titanic ...true be known he was nowhere near that hunk of metal... chances are there my have been an Alvin Kelly on the ship's crew and our boy Al may have just taken credit for it... who knows?... any way back to the story at hand...

Shipwreck's initial 1924 sit lasted 13 hours and 13 minutes. It soon became a fad with other contestants setting records of 12, 17 and 21 days. In 1929, the attention starved Shipwreck decided to reclaim the title. He sat on a flagpole for 49 days in Atlantic City, New Jersey, setting the enduring record. This act of uselessness eventually reached many Shipwreck imitators when, in 1929, Baltimore had at least 17 boys and 3 girls sitting on 18 foot hickory poles while their family and friends cheered them on The following year, 1930, Kelly's record was broken by Bill Penfield in Strawberry Point, Iowa who sat on a flagpole for 51 days and 20 hours, until a thunderstorm brought him down.

Today, the term "pole-sitter" refers to an exhibitionist or show-off. "Flagpole Sitta" was a song by the band Harvey Danger. and for all you racing fans, there is the pole position.

The "Roaring" 1920s

"Shipwreck" Kelly in the headlines
"Shipwreck" Kelly in the headlines

Fad's Of The Roaring 1920's

"Shipwreck" Kelly- the king of pole-sitters
"Shipwreck" Kelly- the king of pole-sitters

Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly

Born, Aloysius Kelly in Hell's Kitchen in 1893, an orphan at birth, his mother having died during child birth. Just seven months after Alvin's father, a rigger fell to his death from a derrick. Alvin ran away at the age of 13 to join the men of the sea. Later, like many Navy men, Alvin knocked around as a boxer, steelworker and eventually landing a gig as a Hollywood movie stuntman. It was there, supposedly January 1924, that a theater owner was looking for some publicity. so he hire Kelly to climb up top the house flagpole and stay there for 13 hours. The Los Angeles police had to send out reserves to control the crazed, curious crowds. By the time Kelly came down, he had offers flooding in from movie theaters all over the country asking him to do the same stunt for their theater.... he had just found his golden ticket; a very lucrative line of work.

Kelly was an ex-sailor who claimed to have been shipwrecked many times. As a professional boxer, glass-jaw Kelly was knocked-out so often that fans yelled, "Sailor Kelly has been shipwrecked again." The name "Shipwreck Kelly" stuck and he went on to make a career as a flagpole sitter. Hey... believe which ever story you want... Alvin ain't talkin' much these days.

I know what you are thinking what about food, sleep, and other body function necessities?

Like any true red-blooded American pole-sitter, Alvin often just drank coffee and smoked cigarettes while hovering above the masses. One other occasions he would have food and drinks hoisted up to him in a basket using a rope and pulley. How did he sleep? "Shipwreck" learned to catnap during performances by locking his thumbs in holes in the flagpole staff. If he swayed while dozing, pain in his thumbs would cause him to right himself without waking up. And when nature called? Shipwreck would use a hose along the side of the pole or a bowl would be brought up by the same pulley system that delivered his lunch... he would use a blanket as a modesty curtain.... well c'mon... who would want to look up into the sky and see.... that?!

The flocking crowds

Seeing what a big thing Kelly was making out of flagpole sitting, "monkey see monkey do"... dozens of others tried it. Some even used Kelly's name. The real "Shipwreck" once counted 17 other "Shipwrecks" operating at the same time. It is hard to tell who was more stupid in this situation; the stunt person or the people who gawked up at him. I think I would have to go with the people who watched, if I had to cast a ballot. I know I made this point earlier, but this was all happening long before television. Now a days people can sit at home, in total comfort and watch a never ending procession of crap that is called entertainment. 

In 1929 Kelly set the world's record for flagpole sitting by staying aloft for 23 days. When he came down, he was treated like he was a hero. Boys and girls, from age 8 and up, took to sitting on poles and trees at an alarming rate. While moralists made their usual fuss about it, the parents of these kids shared in the notoriety and apparently loved it. See folks even then the Warholian theory was at work... and people are just natural media whores. 

Kelly eventually broke his own record by staying on top of a flagpole for more than 49 days. When he came down he was greeted by telegrams from prominent Americans, and by large crowds. This guy had himself a rackett going on and America was buying it big time.

Kelly's lifetime total for pole-sitting: 

20,613 hours atop a pole, 210 of them in subfreezing weather and 1,400 hours in the rain. Here's a fun tidbit for ya...kids! In 1939 during National Doughnut Dunking Week, Shipwreck was photographed performing a headstand on a plank (sticking out of the 54th story of a New York skyscraper) while eating doughnuts handed to him by an assistant.

Whoa! hold up there, just one minute... National Doughnut Dunking Week? Why ain't this on my calendar? I'm sure if it still existed banks would probably close for the week. But damn, what a great week that woulda been!

Sadly, flagpole-sitting died out around 1929 with the coming of the Great Depression,(not the pop a paxil kind of depression)  but during its time, it certainly swindled a nations interest and imagination.

ON SATURDAY the 11th of October in 1952, Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly, who was 59 years old and living on home relief in a furnished room, left his building with a scrapbook full of his yellowed newspaper clippings under his arm and a minute or two later dropped dead in the street. Found among his belongings was a duffel bag still packed with his old flagpole-sitting gear, in case any fresh jobs came along.

Popular Culture: Flagpole sitting

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  • BrianS profile image

    Brian Stephens 8 years ago from Castelnaudary, France

    David Blaine springs to mind, really can't see the point of this but everyone to their own I guess.

  • profile image

    C. C. Riter 8 years ago

    Fun hub. You're getting pretty good at pulling stuff like this out. I like it. I remember this stuff going on when I was a kid. We had TV, but it wasn't what it is today, so flagpole sitting was usually done to attract locals during some promotion being done on AM radio shows, it was fun.

    It reminds me of my cousin who got into trouble with his mom and to avoid getting his ass beat he climbed up the TV antenna and clung onto it all day long. Really. Aunt Lorain just bided her time and when it was appraoching darkthirty he came down to eat and relieve himslef figuring mom had forgotten about what he'd done. He got a lashing and sent to bed without supper anyway. Haha he was an idiot anyway and still is. That was the end of his 'flagpole' sitting. LOL

  • St.James profile image
    Author

    St.James 8 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    David Blaine did do somethin simular, BrianS. And he did reference "Shipwreck" Kelly. Maybe pointless, but even today...if you walked passed such a thing going on...more than likely you would stop and stare.

    C.C. I've hid in many trees for the same reasons, and I had learned a hard lesson... the longer a parent stews over it...the hotter they will get. I hope after all this time...your cousin can finally sit down.

    Thank you both for stoppin by.

  • profile image

    C. C. Riter 8 years ago

    What's next? the freak shows? haha

  • St.James profile image
    Author

    St.James 8 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    At one time I did research Sideshow attractions... since I live about an hour away from Gibsonton, FL..aka weird town USA. Since John Ringling lived in Sarasota... the circus people and attractions were stationed here too. Many of the circus folk moved up to Gibsonton.

    Many retired there too... to this day you never know where you'll bump into some of these circus vets... some with still perform things like the Human Blockhead as a bar stunt.

    I do have a rough draft of something I was working on regarding the Devil, but I'm afraid it would cause an up-roar with some on here... I think I'm exercising the better part of valore on that one...

  • Jerilee Wei profile image

    Jerilee Wei 8 years ago from United States

    Enjoyable hub! Living in the same area, I wonder if you've caught the free circus act on weekends out at International Market World in Auburndale. There's a guy doing a act in which he stands on a tower of chairs that's fairly unusual. No doubt from Gibsonton. You run into a lot of the circus people at the East Bay Race Track too.

  • St.James profile image
    Author

    St.James 8 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    You can run into them from time-to-time. I'm not in the Hillsborough area much... Sarasota/Manatee area is more my stomping grounds, but there are alwaays reminders of the days of circus glory.

  • Florida Keys profile image

    Florida Keys 8 years ago from Jewfish Key Florida

    St James I ran into some of the old circus performers still around Sarasota as well.  Fun read.  You are prolific....don't know where you find the time.  This full time job stuff gets in my way.

    Being in that area you should do a hub on John Ringling...there's abundant material. The Australian pines on Longboat Key were introduced by Ringling. I have them all over Jewfish Key as well.

  • St.James profile image
    Author

    St.James 8 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Thanks Florida Keys... I keep bad hours and very little sleep does help.

  • packerpack profile image

    Om Prakash Singh 8 years ago from India, Calcutta

    Hey James, I didn't know this stuff has such a long history and it has been a practiced by so many people. As usual you have present a good history of yet another unique thing. Good going

  • St.James profile image
    Author

    St.James 8 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Thank you PackerPack... I always start out thinking most subjects shouldn't take long, but then I end up surpised and over-whelmed with information. I hope I don't over-whelm the reader.

    Thank you once again.

  • Nayberry profile image

    Nayberry 8 years ago from nayphat@yahoo.com

    Interesting hub! I have never heard of anything like this before, but then again, my mother wasn't even born until the mid 40's. Cool article though. I like the picture of the "Shipwreck" Kelly guy sitting up there looking like he just conquered the world.

    Tootles!!!

  • packerpack profile image

    Om Prakash Singh 8 years ago from India, Calcutta

    I like the way you write. you give full background about anything you write. This is very good, it shows that you are not writing just for heck of it or just to increase you collection of Hubs like many do. It shows you write because you want to share information with others. That's great. Keep it up.

  • St.James profile image
    Author

    St.James 8 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Thank you NayBerry... Kelly prbably did feel like he conquered the world. Or at least proud of the fact that he got paid for sitting.

    Thank you, again PackerPack... I try to make things worth while.

  • rongould profile image

    rongould 8 years ago

    Do yout hink Kelly ever might have decided his "job" was a pain-in-the-***? LOL! I remember my parents and grandparents talking about some of the crazy fads around the time of the great depression. People were really starved for entertainment back then. Excellent hub!

  • St.James profile image
    Author

    St.James 8 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Ron, I had thought of doing other fads of the 20's. There's a bunch of them

  • blondepoet profile image

    blondepoet 8 years ago from australia

    Omg I have never heard of this. Wouldn't they get sore buttocks they would have to surely.I cannot sit on my office chair longer than an hour at a time,I only have small buttocks and they dig into my chair.I have had to add a few cushions for comfort.

    Now the question is how many of these idiotic people fell off these flag poles. Surely there must have been broken bones,broken necks etc. Hell no way would you would never get me up on one of those things. Haha the things people did to get their kicks.I would have done the Charlston though,that soared in the 20's, now that is my cup of tea."Won't you Charlston with me dum dee dah"

  • St.James profile image
    Author

    St.James 8 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    I prefer the jitterbug, but I would be delited to dance the Charleston with you.

    With the fad of flagpole sitting, I'm sure the sales of hemorriod cream skyrocketed.

  • Hovalis profile image

    Hovalis 7 years ago from Australia

    I had no idea this was an *actual* craze. Thanks for writing this article. Very, very interesting, indeed.

    ps: and I thought that episode of MASH where Klinger pole sits in his latest attempt to get out of the army was something the writers pulled out of their hats. I wonder if they were thinking of Shipwreck Kelly when they wrote it. ;-)

  • St.James profile image
    Author

    St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Well Hovalis, I can't answer for the writers of MASH, but I wouldn't doubt if they did. I do know that Klinger's beoved Toledo Mud Hens exist. Thank you for sitting by and reading. I appreciate your comments.

  • Dolores Monet profile image

    Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States

    st james, where do you get this stuff! thank you for reminding us of stuff we almost forgot...mmy grandfather used to tell me about flagpole sitting and my mother was fond of wing walkers (in the flying circus)...

  • St.James profile image
    Author

    St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    Fuuny Dolores... I was thinking about doing a hub on barnstorming and wing walkers. I just have a fasination with odd, unique moments of history especially in what ends up being called a fad.

    It amazes me what people used to do for entertainment.

    Thank you for chiming in.

  • mythbuster profile image

    mythbuster 7 years ago from Utopia, Oz, You Decide

    Ah the things that people are inspired to do! Great hub

  • St.James profile image
    Author

    St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    You know MythBuster when I write these type of Hubs... It makes me feel good to see that you visited and enjoyed it. Very Much Appreciated!

  • jim10 profile image

    jim10 7 years ago from ma

    Sitting on top of a flag pole for 49 days sounds pretty insane. I guess if you want to set a record make sure no one else has a chance of coming close. Thanks for the interesting hub.

  • profile image

    brii 7 years ago

    mkay,so im doing tis project for my eniglish III class...and this is deffly going on my presentation.

  • profile image

    Charity 7 years ago

    you guys are retards if you wanted us to see the video then y did you take it off.....just a question and srry for calling you names im a little moody right now....

  • St.James profile image
    Author

    St.James 7 years ago from Lurking Around Florida

    If the video is missing... it is due to youtube and not anything I have done. You should be computer savvy enough to know that ... Thanks for taking the time to look like the business end of a donkey.

    I'm sure the world appreciates it.

  • profile image

    boy and girl 6 years ago

    yabadabadooooooo

  • profile image

    ed kamberger 6 years ago

    in 1929 my grandfather, william c. ruppert was one of the baltimore kids sitting atop a flgpole for extended periods of time. my grandfather lasted 55 days until a truint officer made him come down to return to school. he wore out 4 pairs of pants scooting around a small platform he had attached upon the pole. he said after he came down in late september, he had to use a cane to walk until christmas. a good article i summited to the magazine, reminence( aug/sept-2010 ) makes for good reading about his adventure

  • profile image

    EDP 6 years ago

    Ok...I just read the article in Reminince.....how did they take care of bathroom duty while up on the flag pole? Someone has to ask this....

  • profile image

    amber 6 years ago

    Did they even wear harnesses?

  • profile image

    hhhh 6 years ago

    Do you speak english... i cant tell, it seems kinda like a mexican ferret wrote this?

  • profile image

    Carina 6 years ago

    James, that's awesome. I had to do a project on this and it was the best website (besides Wiki) that I have ever found!!! You rock.

  • profile image

    me 5 years ago

    good hehehe

  • profile image

    hjdsfgwyehg 5 years ago

    good morning

  • profile image

    mycah hill 5 years ago

    flag poles are a little extreme ill stick to my goat buddies

  • profile image

    lyric 5 years ago

    i dont really understand all of this but watevz!

  • profile image

    georgeara 5 years ago

    Mr. St. James. I have heard rumors that in the late 30's , that Shipwreck drove a 37 Cord. Can you shed any truth or pictures?

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