Unexpected: Getting Fit (the 19th Century Way)

Posted by Gretchen Gueguen in October 15, 2015.

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This month will mark the 111th annual World Series of Baseball. As the final teams of the National and American Leagues battle it out in their divisional series, DPLA takes a look back at a type of publication that arose during baseball’s formative years: 19th century sports or fitness manuals.

The roots of our modern interest in sports and fitness have several 19th century antecedents. One was the physical culture movement, which advocated exercise and strength training to fight the “diseases of affluence” that were thought to be increasingly affecting an urbanized, industrialized nation.

The trends that began with physical culture in the 19th century are still with us today – organized sports, calisthenics, even personal trainers can all find their roots there. The latter half of the century also saw large leaps forward in printing technology allowing many more books to be published much more quickly and cheaply than before. The market was ripe for instructional pamphlets on new sports and personal regimens for physical activity. Whereas today we might pull up a video online if we wanted to try something new, in the 19th century we’d rely on print.

With home manuals the exercise enthusiast of the 19th Century needn’t leave his or her home to get some activity. Especially if they were the owner of a portable gymnasium (as developed by Fr. Gustav Ernst and described in The Portable Gymnasium: a Manual of Exercises, Arranged for Self Instruction in the Use of the Portable Gymnasium). Look at all the activities you could do (voluminous hoop skirt not required):

Illustration of "Inclined Downward Traction" from The portable gymnasium : a manual of exercises, arranged for self instruction in the use of the portable gymnasium, by Fr. Gustav Ernst, 1861.

Illustration of “Inclined Downward Traction” from The Portable Gymnasium : a Manual of Exercises, Arranged for Self Instruction in the Use of the Portable Gymnasium, by Fr. Gustav Ernst, 1861. Courtesy of the Medical Heritage Library.

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“Upward Extension”

"Forward and Backward Extension"

“Forward and Backward Extension”

The portable gymnasium and system of exercises was remarkably egalitarian in its aim to help both men and women improve their health. Many 19th century sports manuals spoke to a primarily male audience, but the physical culture movement recognized that both men and women needed to use their muscles to avoid losing them:

We all know that use has developed the “thews and sinews” of the artisan; use enabled the milk-woman to trudge with her heavy load day after day for many consecutive hours; use that lightens the domestic servant’s toil; and use that wins the sharply-contested boat race or exciting cricket match. If, then, it be admitted that the simple use of muscular power can enable the weak to achieve the deeds of the strong, what effects may we not calculate upon, when, under judicious treatment, use is brought to bear upon the debility of an inert or, possibly, morbid frame?”

It wasn’t all about physical strength though. In 1884, Roller Skating Made Easy, by E. Smith, emphasized grace and style. Coordination, balance, and grace were all part of the physical well-being package:

The form of a Venus or Adonis is not essential to grace. Absolute perfection in the human form is rare indeed, but those less favored by nature may, by proper attention to correct positions, acquire a grace approaching that which is natural to well-proportioned forms.

Cover of Roller Skating Made Easy by E. Smith, 1884.

Cover of Roller Skating Made Easy by E. Smith, 1884. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Roller skating however, was also considered a fine athletic pursuit with races and a competitive game similar to polo described in the manual.

Photograph of Kenneth A Skinner, champion roller skater.

Photograph of Kenneth A. Skinner, champion roller skater, fashion icon, and mustache enthusiast.

19th century industrialized manufacture led to the availability of equipment like roller skates, and the back pages of manuals were prime locations for advertisements. The advertisement below features another piece of sporting equipment: a bicycle. Some of the earlier bicycles are quite different from their modern counterparts.

Bicycle advertisement

Bicycle advertisement from Roller Skating Made Easy.

Just getting on and off the bicycle seems to be a complicated affair as described in depth in Bicycling: Its Rise and Development, an uncredited publication of 1874.

Directions and illustrations of mounting and dismounting a bicycle from Bicycling: Its Rise and Development.

Directions and illustrations of mounting and dismounting a bicycle from Bicycling: Its Rise and Development, 1884. Courtesy of the University of Michigan

Indeed the anonymous author sets the reader up for amount of work it might take to become a cycling master:

No two riders, on comparing notes, ever find their experiences coincident. We can only counsel patience and resolution, and give the assurance that bicycling is not so difficult after all, and that success is within easy reach of all who persevere; a few hours being generally enough to learn each successive stage on the way to complete mastery over the machine.

Bicycling: Its Rise and Development also covers bicycle racing in addition to more leisurely uses.

Illustration of a state-of-the-art racing bicycle of 1874.

Illustration of a state-of-the-art racing bicycle of 1874.

The manual states “a modern Racing Bicycle, with a front wheel sixty inches in diameter, weighs something under fifty pounds.” (Racing bikes today are around 15 – 20 pounds and wheel diameters are around 26 inches.) Despite the added weight, the large front wheel enables the rider to cover a larger distance with less effort. Given that mechanical advantage, the distances and times recorded in the book are more impressive than you might expect: speeds of 16 to 20 miles per hour and distances of more than 100 miles per day.

Of course, one can only ride a bicycle for part of the year. What is one to do in the winter? Ski of course!  As with other manuals, the reader of the Book of Winter Sports is reminded that they need to work hard to acquire these skills, and that the author is just the expert they should listen to. But with directions like these, it seems it might be hard to figure out from a book:

"Kick Turn" directions from The Book of Winter Sports, edited by Edgar Syers and Madge Syers, 1908. Courtesy of The Boston Public Library

“Kick Turn” directions from The Book of Winter Sports, edited by Edgar Syers and Madge Syers, 1908. Courtesy of The Boston Public Library

Of course, maybe the pictures would help…

Illustration of the "kick turn."

Illustration of the “kick turn.”

On second thought, maybe we should just search for a video.