Books that Build Bodies: Gymnastics and Physical Culture in the 19th Century

Simon Biles at the 2016 Summer Olympics

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 until I started researching 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,  expectations for boys versus girls, attitudes towards display of individual bodies and collective identity, and the different conventions for representing athletic prowess.

J. C. F. Guts Muth laid out a system of purposeful physical activity in 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).

Such was the Interest in early nineteenth-century German physical culture that it eventually emerged in Meiji Japan.  The beautiful Japanese print 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 or sprinting.

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.

To bring this very selective survey full circle, here is a 1977 picture book, 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  boys and girls from different ethnic minorities competing to win perfectly reflects the modern ideal of the power of sports to unify and strengthen minds and bodies.

Its full-color illustrations (reproduced here from the more handsomely produced English translation for overseas readers) 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.

If this post doesn’t inspire you to get out and move, nothing will.  When you get back from the gym, take a look at Cotsen’s virtual exhibition about swimming