The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 10, No. 58, August, 1862 / A Magazine of Literature, Art, and Politics

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Physical culture is on the top of the wave. But the movement is as yet in the talk stage. Millions praise the gymnasium; hundreds seek its blessings. Similar incongruities make up the story of human life. But in this case inconsistency is consistent.

Evidences of physical deterioration crowd upon us. Fathers and mothers regard their children with painful solicitude. Not even parental partiality can close the eye to decaying teeth, distorted forms, pallid faces, and the unseemly gait. The husband would gladly give his fortune to purchase roses for the cheeks of the loved one, while thousands dare not venture upon marriage, for they see in it only protracted invalidism. Brothers look into the languishing eyes of sisters with sad forebodings, and sisters tenderly watch for the return of brothers, once the strength and hope of the fatherless group, now waiting for death. The evil is immense. What can be done? Few questions have been repeated with such intense anxiety.

My object is to submit, for the consideration of the readers of the “Atlantic,” a new system of physical training, adapted to both sexes, and to persons of all ages and degrees of strength. I have an ardent faith that in it many will find an answer to the important question.

The common remark, that parents are too much absorbed in the accomplishments of their daughters to give any attention to their health, is absurd. Mothers know that the happiness of their girls, as well as the character of their settlement in life, turns more upon health and exuberance of spirits than upon French and music. To suppose, that, while thousands are freely given for accomplishments, hundreds would be refused for bodily health and bloom, is to doubt the parents’ sanity. If the father were fully satisfied that Miss Mary could exchange her stooping form, pale face, and lassitude for erectness, freshness, and elasticity, does anybody suppose he would hesitate? Fathers give their daughters Italian and drawing, not because they regard these as the best of the good things of life, but because they form a part of the established course of education. Only let the means for a complete physical development be organized, and announced as an integral part of our system of education, and parents would be filled with grateful satisfaction. The people are ready and waiting. No want is so universal, none so deeply felt. But how shall symmetry and vigor be reached? What are the means? Where is the school? During the heat of the summer our city-girls go into the country, perhaps to the mountains: this is good. When in town, they skate or walk or visit the riding-school: all good. But still they are stooping and weak. The father, conscious that their bodies, like their minds, are susceptible of indefinite development, in his anxiety takes them to the gymnasium. They find a large room furnished with bars, ladders, and swings. They witness the wonderful performances of accomplished gymnasts and acrobates, admire the brilliant feats; but the girls see no opportunity for themselves. They are nearly right. The ordinary gymnasium offers little chance for girls, none for old people, but little for fat people of any age, and very little for small children of either sex.

Are not these the classes which most require artificial training? It is claimed that the common gymnasium is admirable for young men. I think there are other modes of training far more fascinating and profitable; but suppose it were true that for young men it is the best of all possible modes. These young men we need in the gymnasium where young women exercise. If young women are left by themselves, they will soon lose interest. A gymnasium with either sex alone is like a ball-room with one sex excluded. To earn a living, men and women will labor when separated; but in the department of recreation, if there be lack of social stimulus, they will soon fall off. No gymnasium, however well managed, with either sex excluded, has ever achieved a large and enduring success. I know some of them have long lists of subscribers; but the daily attendance is very small. Indeed, the only gymnasium which never lacks patronage is the ball-room. Dancing is undeniably one of the most fascinating exercises; but the places where even this is practised would soon be forsaken, were the sexes separated.

Some lady-reader suggests that ladies of delicate sensibilities would scarcely be willing to join gentlemen in climbing about on ladders. I presume not; but are such exercises the best, even for men?

I do not doubt that walking with the hands, on a ladder, or upon the floor, head down, is a good exercise; but I think the common prejudice in favor of the feet as a means of locomotion is well founded. Man’s anatomy contemplates the use of the legs in supporting the weight of the body. His physical powers are most naturally and advantageously brought into play while using the feet as the point of support. It is around and from this centre of support that the upper part of the body achieves its free and vigorous performances.

The deformities of gymnasts, to which Dr. Dixon and many others have called attention, are produced in great part by substituting arms for legs. I need scarcely say that ring, dumb-bell, club, and many other similar exercises, with cane and sword practice, boxing, etc., are all infinitely superior to the ladder and bar performances. In the new system there is opportunity for all the strength, flexibility, and skill which the most advanced gymnasts possess, with the priceless advantage that the two sexes may mingle in the scene with equal pleasure and profit.

I can but regard the common gymnasium as an institution of organized selfishness. In its very structure it practically ignores woman. As I have intimated, it provides for young men alone, who of all classes least need a gymnasium. They have most out-door life; the active games and sports are theirs; the instinct for motion compels them to a great variety of active exercises, which no other class enjoys. Is it not a strange mistake to provide a gymnasium for these alone?

But it is said, if you introduce women into the gymnasium, men will have no opportunity for those difficult, daring feats which constitute the charm of the place. If by this is meant that there can be no competition between the sexes in lifting heavy weights, or turning somersets, the objection holds good. But are not games of skill as attractive as lifting kegs of nails? Women need not fall behind men in those exercises which require grace, flexibility, and skill. In the Normal Institute for Physical Education, where we are preparing teachers of the new gymnastics, females succeed better than males. Although not so strong, they are more flexible. There are in my gymnasium at this time a good many ladies with whom the most ambitious young man need not be ashamed to compete, unless the shame come from his being defeated. Gentlemen will sacrifice nothing by joining their lady-friends in the gymnasium. But suppose it costs them something; I greatly mistake the meaning of their protestations of devotion, if they are not quite willing to make the sacrifice.

Before proceeding farther, I desire to answer a question which wise educators have asked:–“Do children require special gymnastic training?” An eminent writer has recently declared his conviction that boys need no studied muscle-culture. “Give them,” he says, “the unrestrained use of the grove, the field, the yard, the street, with the various sorts of apparatus for boys’ games and sports, and they can well dispense with the scientific gymnasium.”

With all our lectures, conversations, newspapers, and other similar means of mental culture, we are not willing to trust the intellect without scientific training. The poorest man in the State demands for his children the culture of the organized school; and he is right. An education left to chance and the street would be but a disjointed product. To insure strength, patience, and consistency, there must be methodical cultivation and symmetrical growth. But there is no need of argument on this point. In regard to mental training, there is, fortunately, among Americans, no difference of opinion. Discriminating, systematic, scientific culture is our demand. No man doubts that chess and the newspaper furnish exercise and growth; but we hold that exercise and growth without qualification are not our desire. We require that the growth shall be of a peculiar kind,–what we call scientific and symmetrical. This is vital. The education of chance would prove unbalanced, morbid, profitless.

Is not this equally true of the body? Is the body one single organ, which, if exercised, is sure to grow in the right way? On the contrary, is it not an exceedingly complicated machine, the symmetrical development of which requires discriminating, studied management? With the thoughtful mind, argument and illustration are scarcely necessary; but I may perhaps be excused by the intelligent reader for one simple illustration. A boy has round or stooping shoulders: hereby the organs of the chest and abdomen are all displaced. Give him the freedom of the yard and street,–give him marbles, a ball, the skates! Does anybody suppose he will become erect? Must he not, for this, and a hundred other defects, have special training?

Before our system of education can claim an approach to perfection, we must have attached to each school a professor who thoroughly comprehends the wants of the body, and knows practically the means by which it may be made symmetrical, flexible, vigorous, and enduring.

Since we have, unhappily, become a military people, the soldier’s special training has been much considered as a means of general physical culture. Numberless schools, public and private, have already introduced the drill, and make it a part of each day’s exercises.

But this mode of exercise can never furnish the muscle-culture which we Americans so much need. Nearly all our exercise is of the lower half of the body: we walk, we run up and down stairs, and thus cultivate hips and legs, which, as compared with the upper half of the body, are muscular. But our arms, shoulders, and chests are ill-formed and weak. Whatever artificial muscular training is employed should be specially adapted to the development of the upper half of the body.

Need I say that the military drill fails to bring into varied and vigorous play the chest and shoulders? Indeed, in almost the entire drill, are not these parts held immovably in one constrained position? In all but the cultivation of erectness, the military drill is singularly deficient in the requisites of a system of muscle-training adapted to a weak-chested people.

Dancing, to say nothing of its almost inevitably mischievous concomitants, brings into play chiefly that part of the body which is already in comparative vigor, and which, besides, has little to do directly with the size, position, and vigor of the vital organs.

Horseback exercise is admirable, and has many peculiar advantages which can be claimed for no other training; but may it not be much indulged while the chest and shoulders are left drooping and weak?

Skating is graceful and exhilarating; but, to say nothing of the injury which not unfrequently attends the sudden change from the stagnant heat of our furnaced dwellings to the bleak winds of the icy lake, is it not true that the chest-muscles are so little moved that the finest skating may be done with the arms folded?

I should be sorry to have any of these exercises abandoned. While some of them demand reform, they are all, on the whole, exceedingly useful.

What I would urge is this: As bodily symmetry is vital to the highest physiological conditions, and as departure from symmetry is the rule among all classes, but especially with Young America, we must, to secure this symmetry, introduce into our system of physical education a variety of special, studied means.

The new gymnastics are all adapted to music. A party may dance without music. I have seen it done. But the exercise is a little dull.

Exercises with the upper extremities are as much improved by music as those with the lower extremities. Indeed, with the former there is much more need of music, as the arms make no noise, such as might secure concert in exercises with the lower extremities.

A small drum, costing perhaps five dollars, which may be used as a bass-drum, with one beating-stick, with which any one may keep time, is, I suppose, the sort of music most classes in gymnastics will use at first. And it has advantages. While it is less pleasing than some other instruments, it secures more perfect concert than any other. The violin and piano are excellent, but on some accounts the hand-organ is the best of all.

Feeble and apathetic people, who have little courage to undertake gymnastic training, accomplish wonders under the inspiration of music. I believe three times as much muscle can be coaxed out, with this delightful stimulus, as without it.

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