The weirdest things we learned this week: Feminist butter sculptures and America's first favorite pastime

Our editors scrounged up some truly bizarre facts.

a woman next to a butter sculpture
Caroline S. Brooks with a butter sculpture bas-relief of Columbus for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.Public Domain

What's the weirdest thing you learned this week? Well, whatever it is, we promise you'll have an even weirder answer if you listen to PopSci's hit podcast. The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week hits Apple, Anchor, and everywhere else you listen to podcasts every Wednesday morning. It's your new favorite source for the strangest science-adjacent facts, figures, and Wikipedia spirals the editors of Popular Science can muster. If you like the stories in this post, we guarantee you'll love the show.

Today's episode is our season 2 finale, and it's one of our best yet! Now is the perfect time to binge all your old Weirdest Thing favorites. We'll be back again in a few weeks.

Fact: America's first celebrity athletes were competitive endurance walkers

By Claire Maldarelli

Modern-day Americans often express their love of sports with downright rabid displays of fandom. We design gear for the express purpose of tailgating, we build giant playing fields, and we bedeck ourselves in pricy memorabilia. But the big American sports craze of the mid-19th century had no stadiums, balls, bats, or helmets. It was called Pedestrianism, and it involved walking. A lot of walking.

The United States was fresh off the Industrial Revolution and experiencing a mass pivot to urban living. With many families leaving behind farming and other physical labors for factory work, leisure time was suddenly on the schedule. Many city residents took to walking as a free means of recreation. Some extremely ambitious folks took that one step further, turning meandering strolls into endurance competitions.

Competitive walking, as it was colloquially known, became the most popular pastime of the 1870s and 1880s. This gave America its first celebrity athletes, with spectators cheering their favorite walkers through feats of the feet. An elite competitor might walk for 30 days without breaks other than for sleep, or battle to complete the most laps around a horse track in 24-hours straight.

Journalist Matthew Algeo wrote an entire book about the rise and fall of this slow-and-steady sport, which he argues created our culture of fandom as we now know it: "This sport, known as pedestrianism, spawned America's first celebrity athletes. The forerunners of LeBron James and Tiger Woods, Dan O'Leary was as famous as President Chester Arthur himself."

In this week's episode, I dive into the origins and rules (or lack thereof) of competitive walking. Side note: If you want to weigh in on our heated butt-related debate, take a look at the image we're referencing right here.

Fact: The history of butter sculpture is feminist AF

By Rachel Feltman

If you're not familiar with the concept of butter sculpture, I am thrilled to introduce you to this strange bit of Americana. And I have the perfect example to serve as your introduction to the noble art:

Delicious.

Being reminded that this delightful midwestern pastime exists made me wonder about its history. Modern butter artistes work in the confines of refrigerated rooms, but the folksiness of the practice smacks of something that must have been born before the age of electricity. Like, butter sculpture must have evolved in a world where people didn't have TV screens to stare at, right? It's sculpting, but with butter. That's a 19th-century invention if ever I heard one. That opened up a whole series of questions, mainly about how the first butter carvers kept their coveted creations from curdling into a melted mess immediately upon completion.

It turns out the history of this art form is as rich as full-fat dairy, and it all goes back to a woman from Arkansas named Caroline Shawk Brooks. Brooks was an amateur sculptor and a shrewd businesswoman. For starters, she worked with food, a domestic enough medium that she seemed far less threatening than other female artists of the time. She also leaned into a folksy, midwestern image, wearing ruffled aprons as she toured the country and speaking often about her life back home on the range—a wise move, as the Industrial Revolution had many Americans romanticizing the fading culture of family farms. She also tapped into an existing trend of using foodstuffs to build creative displays, which agricultural states used to advertise their bounty (and products for sale) at big fairs and expositions.

an old piece of paper with a photo of a butter sculpture
A study in butter by Caroline S. Brooks, from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views.Public Domain

In addition to figuring out how to make a living as a female sculptor in the 19th century, Shawk Brooks was talentedand people in the art world recognized her as such. And, perhaps most incredibly, she toured the world with heaps and heaps of butter without the help of modern refrigeration. Her most famous creation traveled with her for six months before she decided to preserve it in plaster. Find out more—including why she continued to use butter in every piece of her art even after moving on to more traditional materials—in this week's episode!

Fact: Algae giveth and algae taketh away

By Eleanor Cummins

Algae has always had a penchant for producing over-the-top crazy fast. But things are getting worse thanks to industrial agriculture and, now, climate change. Excess artificial fertilizer often runs off into nearby streams and oceans, feeding the voracious organisms. And climate change is warming the ocean's temperature, which allows algae to thrive. That's why we're constantly bombarded with lakeside warnings to avoid algal blooms, and news stories about whales and manatees dying in red tides.

But in her new book Slime, author Ruth Kassinger offers up a different side of seaweed: a natural marvel that has fought tirelessly for its own survival—and helped humans live better in the process. In this episode, I talk about all the surprising industrial uses of algae, from Twinkies to wastewater filtration, and explain just how much our species owes this primordial ooze.

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