At the end of the 19th century, the French Army emerged as the leading proponent of the slouchy, somewhat slovenly “bent-knee” method of long-marching. The gait was modeled after infants learning to walk, with knees angled and the body pitching slightly forward. The idea was that, by leaning in the direction of travel, gravity would pull you along and make it easier to cover vast distances with less energy. In its way, the French army walk looked as silly and unnatural as the goose step.
The debate over walking styles spilled over into civilian circles in the early years of the last century, when long-distance walking enjoyed a brief mania. “The correct step may be learned in the drawing room,” instructed one 1903 British manual. “There is no difficulty about it. It may be tried now.” The book was comprehensively entitled, How to Walk, Describing the Whole Art of Training Without a Trainer. Full Instructions and Hints for Those who Intend Entering Walking Contests Either for Short Or Long Distances, and a Special Chapter on Walking for Women.
An article in the New York Times in 1908 pondered a walking question, asking “Is our method of walking correct or incorrect?” The story rehashed the debate over the straight-leg vs. bent-knee style. At the reporter’s request, a “famous wrestler” tried the bent-knee gait across the lobby of a hotel. He “was quite disgusted at the result,” it was reported.
Still, the Times writer himself was well-disposed toward the French Army style, noting that “they hold all sorts of record for long-distance marching.” But he warned readers to use it only in the proper context. “No man who walks less than three miles a day need worry about bending his knees,” he wrote, adding, “it would not do in cities. It is against all our aesthetic and social principals. Why, if a man went about New York with bent knees he would look like an ape.”