MCNY Blog: New York Stories

Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at

Fitness Crazes of Yesteryear

Fitness crazes are nothing new to Americans, and the 19th century had its own fair share of extreme exercise routines.  As lifestyles became more sedentary and health issues more numerous, 19th century doctors promoted a variety of exercises that would help keep people fit and healthy.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Gymnasium, Girls, 1899. Museum of the City of New York.

Gymnastics, running, and jumping were popular forms of exercise; but other, more unusual routines also became  trendy.  The exercise appropriately named “stepping through your own fingers” instructs one to hold a small piece of wood between his or her forefingers and leap over the wood; if practiced enough, one may even forgo the wood and perform this exercise using only the fingers.  Along a similar line, The Smithsonian Institute’s Conner Prairie quotes William Clarke’s The Boys Own Book’s description of the “Palm Spring” exercise:

[It ] is performed by standing with your face toward a wall and throwing yourself forward, until you support yourself from falling, by the palm of one of the hands being placed with the fingers upwards, against the wall; when in this position, you must recover your former erect station by springing from your hand, without bringing your feet forward.

Endicott & Co. (New York, N.Y.). Dr. Rich's Institute for Physical Education, ca. 1850. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.2583

Some of what became popular in the mid 19th century is still routinely accepted today.  Many of the stretches and gymnastics equipment depicted in the above print are now run-of-the mill. Some exercises in this print, however, may warrant a double take, particularly the man in the middle of the print who appears to be scaling the rafters.  It’s unclear what exactly he’s doing, but it is likely some kind of high-stakes rope climbing.  Readers, if you have any information about this particular form of exercise, please share!

Other early exercises look more like torture to modern eyes.  The Byron Company photographed the Zander Institute’s exercise equipment around the turn of the last century.  Zander’s equipment served two populations: those needing some form of physical therapy and those who found more traditional forms of gymnastics or calisthenics too challenging, but still wanted physical activity.  Women, the elderly, and “frail” people of either sex were ideal candidates for the latter category.  That being said, Zander’s apparatuses appear anything but gentle.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Zander Inst. N.Y., 1908. Museum of the City of New York.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Zander Inst. N.Y., 1908. Museum of the City of New York.

And though 19th century exercises range from the commonplace to the obscure to the strange,  some are just the plain-old cute. Witness the adorable calisthenics of the children below.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). N.Y. Foundling Hospital, 68th St., Exercises, ca. 1899. Museum of the City of New York.

– Anne DiFabio

About Anne DiFabio

Assistant Archivist, South Street Seaport Museum

8 comments on “Fitness Crazes of Yesteryear

  1. Larry
    November 29, 2011

    I can’t get over the cage, what did the inventor think?

  2. burghlars
    November 29, 2011

    I love when you feature health and fitness topics! Thanks for another great post.

  3. fitequipmentuk
    November 30, 2011

    Fantastic insight

  4. Phyllis
    December 1, 2011

    This is so enlightening and fun to learn about
    How nice that people could get healthful exercise while their servants did all the labor! Now we do it all!
    Is the woman in the cage a “kept woman”?

  5. Kathy Benson
    December 1, 2011

    This is really fun! The cage photo is definitely the winner!

  6. Tony
    December 6, 2011

    It’s a d’Arsonval cage – the theory was that it was generally beneficial to surround a patient with electrical currents to “stimulate the system”, especially if they were suffering from an ailment that made them tired.

    The athlete up in the rafters is scaling a “high line”, which was part of the standard apparatus of the mid-19th century German turnverein (gymnastics society) movement. Circa 1850, most large, professional gymnasia featured similar equipment – liability laws were still a long way in the future.

    • Anne DiFabio
      December 6, 2011

      Wow, thanks for the info, Tony!

      • Tony
        December 6, 2011

        You’re welcome. The history of the “physical culture” movement is a long-standing interest of mine – I also collect antique exercise equipment. Nice to see others taking an interest!

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