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Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines the idiomatic expression “pound the pavement” as:

  • (US Slang) to walk the streets, as in looking for work.

and according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms , the expression echoes a similar expression “pound the beat” most often used referring to cops.

  • Walk the streets, especially in search of employment. For example, He was fired last year and he's been pounding the pavement ever since. A similar usage is pound a beat, meaning "to walk a particular route over and over"; it is nearly always applied to a police officer. [Early 1900s]

while Green’s Dictionary of Slang mentions a possibly earlier usage which refers to “prostitution”:

pound the pavement (v.):

  • [19C+] (US Und., also pound the blocks, walk the pavement, ...pave, trudge the street) to work as a street prostitute; thus pavement-pounding adj., street-walking; thus pavement pounder under pavement n.

Questions:

  • Was the “prostitution” sense of the expression the original one from which all other variants derive?

  • Did the “looking for a job” sense develop from the “prostitution job” sense?

and most of all,

  • What’s the main meaning of the expression nowadays? Given that the “prostitution” is not cited by other main dictionaries, does it mean that the expression is no longer used in that respect?

(As a side note, in Italian the literal equivalent expression “battere il marciapiede” is used to strictly refer to prostitutes.)

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    "Pound the pavement" means to engage in an activity that involves a lot of walking, generally in an urban environment. A politician might "pound the pavement" while going door-to-door soliciting votes, eg. I've seen this idiom for at least 50 years, and I don't recall ever seeing it in a context that indicated a different meaning. (Generally a prostitute is said to "walk the streets".) – Hot Licks Sep 28 '18 at 12:29
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    @HotLicks - Wall the streets is defined as obsolete here: walk the streets a) to walk around the streets in a town or city It was not safe to walk the streets at night. b) old-fashioned to be a prostitute - ldoceonline.com/dictionary/walk-the-streets – user067531 Sep 28 '18 at 12:41
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    If it's an AmE expression, why isn't it "pound the sidewalk"? Presumably the American switch from pavement to sidewalk occurred later, and the phrase never got updated... – TripeHound Sep 28 '18 at 14:29
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    So not a metaphor about chain gangs and sledgehammers, then? Imagery is a puzzling thing. What we've got here is failure to communicate. – Phil Sweet Oct 1 '18 at 10:00
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    @PhilSweet - Some men, you just can't reach. – MT_Head Oct 6 '18 at 23:51
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+100

Pavement

Though so obvious as to be overlooked, in order for someone to pound the pavement, there first had to be a pavement to pound. In London, for instance, pedestrian walkways on both sides of a street were uncommon until various 18th c. paving laws went into effect, particularly the 1766 Paving & Lighting Act, which authorized their construction out of Purbeck stone, limestone blocks from a quarry on the island of Purbeck in Devon. Thus in the UK, a pedestrian walkway along a street is still called a pavement.

The earliest attestations in popular literature of the often hyperbolic and always alliterative expression are indeed British:

“Never mind,” said Sir George ; “as I told you, I expected Paternity Bruff to call for me, and I see him pounding the pavement over the way …” — Theodore E. Hook, Fathers and Sons : a Novel, London, 1842.

With swaggering stride and seedy surtout, ‘close buttoned to the chin,’ they [mercenaries] pound the pavement of the principal thoroughfares, … — “Modern Condottieri,” Frazer’s Magazine, Jan. 1848.

A painful Chinese hobbling over the smoothest of pavements reminds one by contrast of the former days, when the belles of the promenade did not pound the pavement with wooden heels… — Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 10 Sept. 1881. BNA (paywall)

There is no reason to assume that these isolated occurrences had anything to do with one another except their authors’ clever turn of phrase, and they certainly didn’t start a trend in popular language. It was only in America that the expression became part of a common urban vocabulary still current today.

In the coastal cities of the mid-Atlantic states, pavement could also mean a pedestrian walkway:

Theſe great leading ſtreets [Washington, DC, diagonals] are all 160 feet wide, including a brick pavement of 10 feet, and a gravel walk of 30 feet planted with trees, on each ſide; which will leave 80 feet of paved ſtreet for carriages. — Gazette of the United States (NYC), 8 Oct. 1791.

Accordingly he walked down the alley, which was without a side pavement, and when he had got about midway, he looked up at a house which was better than its neighbours, but in which the inhabitants seemed to have retired, as there was no light to be seen about it. — Frederick W. Thomas, Howard Pinckney (detective novel), 1840. COHA

Today, this a usage now limited — along with hoagies, soft pretzels, and a curious pronunciation of water — to the city of Philadelphia. Otherwise, what the British call a pavement, Americans call a sidewalk, most likely because in the same time period, most American sidewalks, if they existed at all, were not paved with brick or stone, but made of wood.

enter image description here

Burlington WI, 1880s. Source: burlingtonhistory.org

Police Pound the Pavement

In the closing decades of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the American expression appears in the daily press as a fairly common one, especially in reference to New York police — so often in fact that one could imagine the expression originated as police jargon and spread to more general usage:

Indeed he is not retired. He is still pounding the pavements in one of the upper West Side precincts. — Kentucky Irish American (Louisville), 10 Sept. 1898.

…Detective Sergeant Evanhoe, in the early days of his service, when he was “pounding the pavement” in the lowest rank. — The Wichita Daily Eagle, 6 Apr. 1901.

“Say, you,” said he [judge] to the old-timer [policeman], “come an’ see me on y’r day off. I'll try an’ git you a day detail where it’s easier. Let th’ young fellers pound th’ pavement.” — Evening Star (Wash. DC), 20 Apr. 1901.

Police Commissioner Partridge is preparing a list of wholesale transfers. He will give the old men in the department the easy berths such as court work and light details. Husky youngsters will “pound the pavements” … — Evening World (NYC), 29 Jan. 1902.

While there will be plain-clothes in the future they will all be new men, and the petted favorites who have been doing the dirty work of the captains will be relegated to pounding the pavement.Evening World (NYC), 2 Jan. 1903.

Ex-Wardman Edward G. Glennon, who was Devery’s confidential agent in the Tenderloin, didn’t report for duty as a plain, ordinary cop in the Mulberry street station on Tuesday night, as it was intended he should. His friends say he is in no hurry to pound pavement. — The Sun (NYC), 21 May 1903.

The proper man to be at the head of the Police Department is one who has been brought up in the business, one who has pounded the pavement and knows the ins and outs. — The Sun (NYC), 2 Dec. 1905.

A slightly slangier version shortens pavement to pave:

On that immortal occasion the magistrate offered the constable derisive sympathy ; he was, he said, “too sensitive a soul to be permitted to pound the pave...” — Henry Charles Shelley, America of the Americans, 1915, 37.

The proverbial Irish policeman did not, however, bring the expression across the Atlantic. Irish English has long preferred sidewalk to pavement:

…but not finding him at home, I walked out, and in the course of ten minutes met him on the side-walk in front of the Phoenix buildings; … — Saunder’s News-Letter (Dublin), 27 Sept. 1811. BNA (paywall)

An infrequent variant translates pavement to General American sidewalk, here in two Midwestern newspapers: the first gives new rules for Detroit reporters in police headquarters; in the second a Chicago police commissioner demotes an officer to a beat cop:

Reporters shall not roam at large through the halls of the police headquarters building, as they used to do. Their room in the building is to be maintained for them, and they may stay in there, with the door closed, if they like. If they don’t like this, they may go out and pound the sidewalks. — The Detroit Times, 1 July 1909.

Now Flaherty was condemned to pound the sidewalks, at the instance of the unsympathetic and reforming police commissioneer, and there was no redress. — The Day Book (Chicago), 17 July 1913.

A beat as a regularly travelled route dates from 1713, so it’s no surprise that policemen would get around to pounding one. Journalists, however, didn’t cover beats until 1875.

This friendly approval of my three sergeants gave me a glow. It's worth while to pound a beat, when one has such kindly and appreciative superiors. — Alfred Henry Lewis, Confessions of a Detective, 1906, 44.

George H. Brown, mayor of Lowell, Mass., who as a policeman “pounded a beat” up to a few weeks before his election… Norwich Bulletin (CT), 26 Mar. 1909.

Not Just the Police

Anyone whose employment, recreation, or other purpose required extensive walking could also pound the pavement — “sandwich men” (sandwich board advertising), newsboys, letter carriers, salespeople, union organizers, people canvassing for an election, clergy calling on parishioners, and —the most frequent usage today — people walking from business to business looking for work. The notion that the expression originated as a euphemism for prostitution and then spread to general use thus seems a bit far fetched.

And while public safety might require a distinction between walking on a sidewalk and a street or roadway, it makes no difference at all to how one understood the expression pound the pavement, since the activity itself is topical, not its specific location. Americans could use the expression whether they understood pavement as a sidewalk or a road surface.

Kratchwell, the La Crosse candy manufacturer, pounded our pavements last Thursday. — St. Paul Daily Globe (MN), 10 May 1885.

Con Riordan is anxious to meet some of the heavy-weights who have not yet reached the top rung of the pugilistic ladder. Riordan would be content with the loser’s end of a decent purse, as he is tired of pounding the pavements for nothing a week and his jewelry. — Evening World (NYC), 12 May 1893.

The Germans, who were all picked men, pounded the pavement with their hobnailed boots, executing an unusually high parade march. It is said to be excellent exercise. — Lt. Col. J. T. Dickman, “Military Operations in China,” Report on Military Operations: South Africa and China, July 1901.

Listen! A mug I used to sell afternoons to when I was a newsy, he sess to me one day, sess he, "Johnny." he sess. "why don't you go out to de Ferndale golf links and be a caddie Why pound de pavement all your life, yelling 'Wrextra!' like a motor horn gone dotty?" he sess. — Indianapolis Journal, 21 July 1903.

Three sandwich men, weary of pounding the pavement, halted in triangular conference on a Broadway corner. — New York Tribune, 10 Apr. 1905.

Fad for Footwork Clubs of boys, business men, girls, matrons and spinsters are being organised all over the island with no purpose but to wear down shoe soles by pounding the pavement day after day from one end of town to the other. — Daily Press (Newport News VA), 16 Mar. 1910.

Your experience as practical post office men will tell you that a letter carrier who has pounded the pavement for a period extending from 30 to 48 years has put behind him the best years of his official usefulness. — Edward M. Morgan, “Address Delivered at the Banquet of the New England Postmasters’ Association,” Boston, 13 Apr. 1910.

After a long rest and healthful enjoyment, they will climb their pulpits with a firmer tread, and pound the pavement on their pastoral rounds with greater elasticity of step ; put more good red blood into their sermons, and fulfill their holy calling generally with increased efficiency and ease. — New York Observer 89, 10 (8 Sept. 1910).

For six weeks longer I kept on pounding the pavement, but it was all in vain. Then one day I entered a business house where I had been looking for work at least twenty times before. — San Francisco Call, 30 Mar. 1913.

Pavement Pounders

The agent noun version of pound the pavement can refer to anyone engaged in that activity.

So I knew — and knowing was not unflattering — that Burke had said I was a bit above the average pavement pounder in the matter of small talk. — Robert Emmet MacAlarney, untitled detective story, The Smart Set 38, 2 (Oct. 1912).

I didn't see a motorcycle cop or a traffic policeman on either trip, by the way, and this Schenectady pavement pounder was the only guardian of the law I saw on the first trip. — American Motorcyclist and Bicyclist 24 (1928), 18.

He was the original pavement-pounder — the first to put painted advertising into motion — the first to bring advertising within elbow reach of the crowds.
The sandwich man is not as much in demand today as he was twenty or thirty years ago. Then they toted and lugged about all sorts of signs, and there were so many of them they cluttered up busy streets. — Chalmers Lowell Pancoast, Trail Blazers of Advertising, 1926, 169.

A far more modern pavement pounder is a customized car, truck, or motorcycle, which inspired a whole line of Mattel Hot Wheels toys:

enter image description here

Other modern usages include a 5K race in North Carolina and a charity walk and run race in Syracuse NY as well as distance runners or joggers who might participate in such races. It is also the name of a Pilsner from a craft brewery in Lansing MI, which I assume references the muscle cars that inspired Mattel.

Note that in contrast to earlier usages, some modern pavement pounders are things and activities, not just people.

Prostitutes

Among earlier pavement pounders is a representative of the oldest profession:

Here's one for your simile dictionary: As tired as a blonde Montreal pavement pounder after the Canadian Electric Railway convention. — Traction Shop and Roadway, Including Bus Maintenance, 1929.

I’m not sure if anyone followed this particular suggestion, but pavement pounder did make an appearance in slang dictionaries. Green’s Dictionary of Slang suggests a date in the 1920s for this usage. This echoes an earlier dictionary, which unfortunately does not date its entries:

Pavement pounder ... A prostitute, esp. one who is “hard up for customers.”
Pavement pretty ... A prostitutess, esp. a so-called “cute number.” — J. E.Schmidt, Dictionary of Medical Slang and Related Esoteric Expressions, 1959.

Green also suggests that prostitutes pounded the pavement as early as the 19th c., but the earliest attestation I could find was from 1942:

Because she doesn’t live in an organized house, she has to pound pavements and “hustle” her own business. — Lealon Norval Jones, Eve’s Stepchildren, 1942, 230.

A prostitute who only serviced regular clients writing in 2005 that she was never a pavement pounder suggests the expression is still current in some circles.

Since the online version of Green’s reveals attestations only to subscribers, I would assume that prostitutes pounded the pavement around the same time as those engaged in more savory pursuits. That some sex workers solicited their customers on public streets and sidewalks is hardly novel: streetwalker is attested since the 1590s.

During the last panic, the increase of prostitutes was enormous; and it was impossible for a resident to be ignorant that this increase was owing to the awful destitution which then existed ... in seasons of distress, the homely garb and timorous deportment of a large number of females, tell, in language not to be mistaken, that the increase consists of females who are driven to walk the pavement for a livelihood. — Léon Faucher, Manchester in 1844: Its Present Condition and Future Prospects, trans., “Etudes sur l'Angleterre,” Revue des deux mondes, Oct. 1843–July 1844.

Painted prostitutes salute us upon the pavement, or from the casements of their dens. — New York Daily Tribune, 18 Aug. 1857.

Instead of shocking the ears of the delicate by noticing that such-and-such an unfortunate girl is compelled to walk the pavé, will it not be much more decent and becoming to hint that she promenades the asphaltum? — George William M. Reynolds, Pickwick Abroad; or, The Tour in France, 1839, 407.

As Jonathon Green notes in an earlier work, the French pavé, ‘pavement’ in the American sense, “made the usual acknowledgment of ‘naughty’ Paris.” The French also appears in the rather fanciful 19th c. nymph of the pavé as a euphemism for prostitute. And in case you’re wondering, a sidewalk, trottoir, figures in a number of 19th c. French expressions: une femme de trottior, ‘woman of the sidewalk’ could faire le trottoir, ‘do the sidewalk’ or simply aller au trottoir, ‘walk the pavement’ in the British sense. This connection even made into Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:

You prostitutes flaunting over the trottoirs or obscene in your rooms,
Who am I that I should call you more obscene than myself?

Conclusion

With a few isolated instances in British English, pound the pavement emerges in American English as a common expression near the turn of the 20th c. While its current meaning has not completely narrowed to denoting a job search, this is likely the usage with which most Americans are familiar.

Police officers can still pound a beat as they did in earlier times, though pavement-pounding jobseekers far outnumber the police in modern usage.

The alliteration in pound the pavement, certainly a factor in the expression’s longevity, proved irresistible to an 1888 Los Angeles headline writer:

enter image description here

Los Angeles Daily Herald, 30 August 1888.

In American newspapers and periodicals from the 1880s to the 1920s, it was police who most often pounded the pavement, such that one could suspect that the expression originated among beat cops or those describing them. Common to most earlier usages, and certainly to those in the 21st c., is a sense of purpose: today one pounds the pavement to find employment, increase sales contacts and customers, or to solve a crime, even if the telephone and internet are more involved than actual footwork.

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I suspect that the prostitution sense derived side-by-side with the sense "to work an illicit job," or, in essence, "to 'hustle'" and eventually developed into "searching for a job in general."

The only thing that seems certain is that being "on the pave" in any sense seems to have originated in the UK underground in reference to doing illegal work of various sorts.

Consider some early references from Green's Dictionary of Slang for on the pavement. Notice that we find early citations referring to prostitution around the same time we find citations for "working as a professional criminal" in general:

1. (also on the pave): in prostitution.

1835 [UK] ‘The Transport’s Complaint’ in Knowing Chaunter 36: Oh, where is my woman – my flashy young Sarah, / Who nightly went out, togged so smart, on the pave.

1838 [UK] ‘Ax My A-se’ in Sparkling Songster 45: I take my ware all over town / Upon the pave I’m well known.

1846 [UK] Swell’s Night Guide 58: I takes my pitch last night on Fleet pave.


2. (UK Und., also on the pave): working as a professional criminal, usu. an armed robber.

1835 [UK] ‘Rampant Moll Was A Rum Old Mot’ in Secret Songster 4: Rampant Moll had a fancy man, / A cracksman, the first on the pave.

1843 [UK] W.T. Moncrieff Scamps of London I i: There isn’t a bigger leg on the whole pavement.


It is worth noting that the earliest citations listed by GDoS in direct reference to "pound the pavement" in the prostitution sense are actually using variants of the phrase. An 1834 citation uses the phrase "walks the pave." Still, most of the earlier citations from GDoS for "pound the pavement" all post-date the earliest "on the pave" citations quoted above, including those meaning "general criminal activity."

pound the pavement (v.)

  1. (US Und., also pound the blocks, walk the pavement, ...pave, trudge the street): to work as a street prostitute; thus pavement-pounding adj., street-walking; thus pavement pounder under pavement n.

c.1800 [UK] Song No. 13 Papers of Francis Place (1819) n.p.: Near to Temple bar, liv’d two trading women [...] Now we trudge the streets / We’re glad of half a shilling.

1834 [UK] ‘I Am A Blowen Togg’d Out So Gay’ in Flare-Up Songster 16: I never goes one fadge under my price [...] On my own bottom I walks the pave.

1836 [UK] ‘A Blowen in a Alley Pigg’d’ in Comic Songster and Gentleman’s Private Cabinet 34: A randy blowen truly; / Who walk’d the pave so gally rigg’d.

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