The importance of taking a stroll
Apr 24, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I’ve been working from home for several years now and while I love many aspects of this working style, it can be challenging at times. Without the backdrop of a humming office and its common distractions, one can spend too much time hunched over the computer screen’s glow. Thankfully my pups keep me on my toes – quite literally. Getting out and about to clear my head every few hours makes me a happy camper and a more productive worker. We can all speak to the importance of taking a stroll, but what’s the history behind it? Why would our vintage counterparts take a stroll? Take a turn with me and find out!
For a Victorian lady, taking a public stroll was no impromptu affair. During this era there were countless reference books in which ladies would learn all about proper street etiquette (and the consequences of not following this choreography of social interactions). One chapter in Manners, Culture, and Dress is quite extensive on the subject. Page after page is filled with a variety of scenarios. My favorite section includes tips on what to do if you are ascending a mountain. (Talk about preparing for every possible locale!) It reads: “If you are walking with a woman in the country, ascending a mountain or strolling by the bank of a river, and your companion being fatigued, should choose to sit upon the ground, on no account allow yourself to do the same, but remain rigorously standing. To do otherwise would be flagrantly indecorous and she would probably resent it as the greatest insult.”
While these rules are stifling to our modern sensibilities, being outside and going for a stroll was considered a key part of a lady’s development. Etiquette defined every other aspect of life, so it wasn’t surprising to a Victorian that this level of rigor invaded the wilds of nature. (Not surprising, but also not insurmountable!) Given that the rules for walking in public were so extensive, ladies of means would construct their own elaborate gardens, allowing themselves and their companions to stroll in peace. The popularity of hedge mazes draws a thread connecting the 16th to the 18th century. Women across these centuries were able to be free in a green paradise of their own making, for beyond its walls was a world filled with rules and restrictions. Even taking a turn in the room during a ball could be seen as political. Who knew strolling had such hidden depths?
The act of politicizing the promenade – walking leisurely to see and be seen – goes back to the ancient courts of nobility. If you think the Victorians had rules, the Medieval rules of court were possibly less lengthy but subtle deviations carried big meaning. For starters, there were roughly forty different roles in an average royal court, each with their own expectations. Translation: each visitor to court would have at least forty sets of eyes on them! (Talk about pressure.) At Versailles, if a woman took a turn while waiting for her appointment, she could never link arms with the man accompanying her. Fingertips on the sleeves only – anything else was seen as scandalous. With forty sets of eyes searching for gossip or weakness, one can only imagine how stressful strolling could be.
While the strollers of the 16th to 18th centuries were concerned with propriety or politics, the 19th century walker had a singular focus: health. By the 1800s American leaders worried that folks were developing unhealthy habits. No doubt, all this concern was a reaction to the monumental and fast-paced changes the Industrial Revolution ushered in. Publications nationwide began evangelizing on the positive power of a constitutional (a walk taken for health). I find this quote from the 1916 book Touring afoot particularly interesting: “Should pedestrianism become universal the present generation would be far healthier and happier and their children would be sturdier and more beautiful. The old English habit of taking a constitutional walk every day speaks in no small measure for much of the strength and stability of the British character.”
Proving that history does repeat itself, the 21st century walker finds themselves mirroring their ancestors. A recent “Reader’s Digest” article says it all – “there’s not much that a little stroll can’t fix.” Whatever your reason for strolling, just know that you’re walking in the footsteps of some interesting people: the Victorian lady seeking freedom, a court attendant looking to make a statement, or a worker in a new factory looking to strengthen their character. Tell us about your favorite strolling spots in the comments!