An Olympic Tribute to Builders of Strong Bodies in the Stacks


Nadia Comaneci on the uneven parallel bars at Montreal.

Collecting illustrated books on sports has never been a priority at Cotsen, but the research collection contains a wealth of material about the history of physical culture since the late 18th century.  But I had no idea how many treasures there were until I started poking around for things to feature in this post, which describes a sample of books and prints from Europe and the Far East.  They reveal a great deal about what kinds of activities were considered beneficial for young people and why, expectations for boys versus those for girls, attitudes towards display of individual bodies and collective identity, and the different conventions for representing athletic prowess.

One discovery was Children Love Sports, which appeared in 1977 when China was emerging from the long shadow of the Cultural Revolution (thank you Minjie!). This picture book’s celebration of Chinese children unified by a love of sports perfectly reflects the Olympic ideal.  The collection has the original Chinese edition and the more finely produced English translation for overseas readers.  Its full-color illustrations show children of different Chinese ethnic minority groups participating in all kinds of sports–some mainstays of international athletic competition, such as running, high jump, and basketball, others closely associated with particular cultures, such as wrestling with Inner Mongolia or shooting on horseback with Tibet.  Children in their gorgeous traditional costumes mingle in the spirit of friendly competition, reflecting pride in a unified, diverse Chinese citizenry, while also reminding us of the Games’ opening spectacular.  Another remarkable thing about the book is that girls are portrayed prominently as active participants. In a foot and a horse race, a slender Kam (侗族) girl and a daring Kazakh girl rider have both sprinted ahead of boy competitors.


Upper left hand corner: Hu Zhenhua, Nursery Rhymes of Chinese Ethnic Sports. Illustrated by Liu Bingjiang. Beijing: Ren min ti yu chu ban she, 1977 (Cotsen 93620). The other five illustrations are from the English translation, Children Love Sports. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1978 (Cotsen 71696).

Celebrating sports is hardly confined to the twentieth century.  The beautiful Japanese print from the  Meiji era below documents the introduction of all kinds of competitive games and group sports from the West.  In the late nineteenth century, lawn tennis, croquet, cricket, field athletics, football, and baseball, were all integrated into the Japanese school curriculum.  Notice that the boys are working out in a mixture of traditional Japanese and modern European garments.  The ones in the first two rows are using various sorts of equipment, while the ones in the back seem to be stretching  (with a few sprinting in the upper left-hand corner).


Kinitoshi Baiju, Gakko taiso undo no zu [Illustrated picture of school gymnastic exercises]. Illustrated by Kiyoshuke Yamamura. Tokyo: Tsutsumi Kinchibei, 1886 (cotsen 101304). This print consists of three panels, each 36 x 25 cm.

 J. C. F. Guts Muth laid out a system of purposeful physical activity n Gymnastic fuer die Jugend (1793) and it is widely credited as one of foundational works of modern European physical culture. (It was came to Cotsen with the en bloc purchase of Kurt Szfranski’s  remarkable children’s book collection in the late 1990s.)  Guts Muth, who was a teacher at the famous progressive school Christian Gotthilf Salzmann founded in Schneptenthal, is also considered to be one of the fathers of modern gymnastics, along with his fellow countryman Friedrich Ludwig Jahn.  Guts Muth categorized gymnastic exercises as either natural, or those designed to keep the body healthy and strong and the artificial, the non-utilitarian physical activities that evolved into modern artistic gymnastics.


J. C. H. Guts Muth, Gymnastic fuer die Jugend. Schnepfental: Buchhandlung der Erziehungsanstalt, 1793 (Cotsen 40334). The frontispiece designed by Lips, shows naked adherents of Hygeia, or Health, circling around her statue.

Within a decade A. Amar Durivier and L. F. Jauffret,  an author of highly innovative children’s books during the revolutionary period, brought out a free French translation of Guts Muth.


J. C. F. Guts Muth, La gymnastique de la jeunesse. Adapted by A. Amar Durivier et L. F. Jauffret. Paris: A. G. Debray, 1803 (Cotsen 703). The fully clothed French lads look frivolous compared to the serious, naked boys in the German original.

Three years before that, Joseph Johnson, the radical London publisher issued an English-language translation, which is is sometimes attributed to Wollstonecraft, who translated Salzmann’s Elements of Morality.  The Hygeia frontispiece has been replaced with a copy of folding plate that appears at the very end of the 1793 German edition.


J. C. F. Guts Muth. Gymnastics for Youth. London: J. Johnson, 1800 (Cotsen 291). On the title page, the work is incorrectly attributed Salzmann, the headmaster of the school where Guts Muth taught and the error still persists. This copy came from the collection of the great children’s book collector Edgar Oppenheimer.

While Johnson’s engraver (thought by some to be William Blake) copied Lips’ engravings faithfully, the same cannot be said of the French engraver. Overall the quality of his work is much more schematic.  In certain plates, he combined the subjects of two of Lips’ plates into one new composition, reducing the number of figures and making little attempt to retain all the fine details.


The plate facing p. 510 in the 1793 edition of Guts Muth (Cotsen 40334). Are the boys wearing some kind of padding in the seat of their pants to break any falls?


Plate II from the adaptation of Guts Muth by Amar Durivier and L. F. Jauffret (Cotsen 703).

I was delighted to find a copy of the 1804 improved third edition of Guts Muth in the collection.  At 20 cm. high, it is 3.5 centimeters taller than the first edition.  All the plates by Lips are gone and twelve plates in a radically different style by Guts Muth himself inserted.  Where Lips artfully arranged groups of boys into compositions of boys, Guts Muths drew schematic diagrams of individual boys practicing specific exercises.


Lips’ plate illustrating activities to improve balance facing p. 401 in the 1793 edition of Guts Muth (Cotsen 40334).


The author’s illustration of boys climbing ropes facing page 312. J. C. F. Guts Muth, Gymnastick fuer die Jugend. Zweyte vermerhte Ausgabe. Schnepfenthal: der Buchhandlung der Erziehungsanstalt, 1804 (Cotsen 33248).

A few plates do illustrate multiple activities, such as this one on pommel horse exercises.


Guts Muth’s illustration of moves on the pommel horse (with tail) facing page 229 in the 3rd edition of 1804 (Cotsen 33248).

As the century progressed, illustrators did not necessarily copy the master.   In the first plate below, complicated moves on the pommel horse are demonstrated by stick figures, while the second in the style of a slate drawing shows boys working on the bar and the rings.


Peter Parley’s Book of Gymnastics. London: Darton and Clark, ca. 1840 (Cotsen 83636). This work is dedicated to the boys of Great Britain “the future sinews of the state.”


Plate III by N. W. Taylor Root for School Amusements: or How to Make the School Interesting. New York: A. S. Barnes & Burr, 1860 (Cotsen 30641).

All this manly activity gives the impression that the early proponents of physical culture excluded girls from the pursuit of strong, healthy bodies, but this was not so!  But determining who was responsible for which manual addressing the needs of young ladies is a bibliographic puzzle, which someone else will have to solve.   From what I can tell, Phokion Friedrich Clias resided in England between 1822 and 1825 and through his inspired teaching established the Guts Muth system.  Both a Signor Voarino and Gustavus Hamilton, a self-styled “Professor of Gymnastics,” claimed to have  been employed by Clias, and in 1827 both of them published works on gymnastic exercise for ladies.  Voarino was accused of having lifted his material without significant alteration from Clias’ work on gymnastics for males.  The plates in the young ladies section of  Hamilton’s treatise look exactly like the ones in Calisthenie, ou Gymnastique des jeunes filles published 1828 in Paris, which may be a translation of a work by Clias originally written in German.   It’s enough to make your head spin, so now let’s see what these authors thought girls were capable of.

The frontispiece of Calisthenie ou Gymnastique des jeunes filles shows girls performing a popular activity that went by the name of flying or giant steps.  It was also recommended for boys and would have provided quite an upper body workout.  The second plate shows wand exercises, which if less strenuous that running around the pole, would have helped to keep shoulders flexible and limber.  The third plate shows a young lady taking a little hop to mount the horizontal bar.


“Pas volant ou l’enjambee du geants” from Calisthenie ou Gymnastique des jeunes filles. Paris: Audot, 1828 (Cotsen 33230).


Plate XXXVII from Gustavus Hamilton, The Elements of Gymnastics for Boys and of Calisthenics for Young Ladies. New edition. London: A. K. Newman and Co., 1839 (Cotsen 15347). The Science and Art Department of the Educational Library deaccessioned this copy at some point.


Plate XXXIX in Gustavus Hamilton’s The Elements of Gymnastics (Cotsen 15347).

What would those bold young ladies of the 1820s made of their counterparts today?  Would they have been embarrassed? Or amazed?


Simone Biles on the balance beam at the Rio Olympics.

Cure for the Summertime Blues: Making Sculpture with Matches

Dog days are here.  School won’t begin for a while.  It’s so hot and humid that all kinds of mushrooms are popping up in the grass, but that’s no reason for being bored and out of sorts!   There are zillions of great crafty ideas in the collection of activity books in the stacks of the Cotsen Children’s Library, some of which we’ll share with you right now.


The match is the subject of today’s look at children’s craft projects. One of the chief attractions of matches is that they burn. Anyone silly enough to want to play with matches should read  what happened to Heinrich Hoffmann’s Paulinchen when she did not resist the temptation. Here she is, paying no attention to the two kitties begging her to stop before it is too late.  If she had lived to grow up, who knows, maybe she would have become an artist specializing in installations of matches designed to be set on fire and self-destruct…  Luckily, matches have even more potential as a building material than as a combustible.  A much safer way to have fun with matches, it can be taken to extremes when projects are dreamed up that require considerable outlays of time and money, plus studio space.


Retired carpenter Brian Wherry in Exeter, England with some of his colossal creations made of matchsticks.

In twentieth-century children’s activity books there are many, many very doable projects creating little sculptures from matches and combinations of found objects. Three of my favorites are beautifully illustrated books from Denmark and the Soviet Union published during the early 1930s.  This Soviet pamphlet by Eleonora Kondiain offers wordless pictures for making things out of acorns and matchsticks.  About all that is needed is a table top and a jackknife.


Getting started. Eleanora Kondiain, Zheludi I spichki [Acorns and Matches] Leningrad: GIZ, 1930, p. 3 (cotsen 18308)


Acorn and matchstick piggies from Eleanora Kondiain, Zheludi I spichki, p. 5. Cotsen also has Kondiain’s little book with instructions for making a doll from straw and for whittling a stag from a twig.

Potatoes work well too for this purpose, although it raises the question whether it is right to use perfectly good food this way.  Kuznetsov’s  illustrations make it look as if anything done to the potato can be reversed before peeling, cutting up, and popping into a pot of boiling water.  Presumably no one cares if an hour before the vegetables had been part of a cat or equestrian figure.


A sculpture of potatoes, matches, string, etc. I. P. Meksin, Kartoshka [Potato] illustrated by K. V. Kuznetsov. Leningrad: GIZ, 1930, p. 7 (Cotsen 21419). Opinion in the office was divided as to whether the animal being ridden is a bull, a reindeer or a donkey. Or none of the above…


This is clearly a cat. Meksin, Kartoshka (1930), p. 4.

The really ambitious crafter can build backdrops so the figures can be arranged in  tableaux.   For inspiration, look at the scenes  E. Fetnam created and Kay W. Jensen captured on film in Nodder and Propper [Nuts and Corks].  The cover design  makes delightful use of matches and mixed nuts…

nodder kangaroo

A kangaroo family conversing in E. Fetnam’s Nodder og Propper. Copenhagen: Wilhelm Hansen, c.1933, p. 29 (Cotsen 95045).

nodder cover

Now can you make this friendly ladybug without instructions?