Open main menu

Physical culture is a health and strength training movement that originated during the 19th century in Germany, the UK and the US.



The physical culture movement in the United States of the 19th century owed its origins to several cultural trends.[1]

In the United States, German immigrants after 1848 introduced a physical culture system based on gymnastics that became popular especially in colleges. Many local Turner clubs introduced physical education (PE) in the form of 'German gymnastics' into American colleges and public schools. The perception of Turner as 'non-American' prevented the 'German system' from becoming the dominating form. They were especially important mainly in the cities with a large German-American population, but their influence slowly spread.[2]

By the late 19th century reformers worried that sedentary white collar workers were suffering from various "diseases of affluence" that were partially attributed to their increasingly sedentary lifestyles. In consequence, numerous exercise systems were developed, typically drawing from a range of traditional folk games, dances and sports, military training and medical calisthenics.

Physical culture programs were promoted through the education system, particularly at military academies, as well as via public and private gymnasiums.

Industry began the production of various items of exercise-oriented sports equipment. During the early and mid-19th century, these printed works and items of apparatus generally addressed exercise as a form of remedial physical therapy.

Certain items of equipment and types of exercise were common to several different physical culture systems, including exercises with Indian clubs, medicine balls, wooden or iron wands and dumbbells.

Combat sports such as fencing, boxing, savate and wrestling were also widely practiced in physical culture schools and were touted as forms of physical culture in their own right.

The Muscular Christianity movement of the late 19th century advocated a fusion of energetic Christian activism and rigorous physical culture training.

Welch Follansbee Goodrich former instructor at Department of Physical Culture of Yale College, supports in his work 'Moral, intellectual and Physical Culture' or 'Philosophy of true living' character, philosophy and lifestyle with a set of virtues;

  • Rule of Action, would we like to know the lawfulness of further action and do we know "the lawfulness of a action we desire to undertake? Let thy devotion recommend it to divine blessing.". We will be increasing the awareness of our heart if we make these our prayer. Committing to prayer our actions we want more of, have a lot to gain with, promised or pledged ourselves to or bringing to completion, if they be lawful we will find ourselves encouraged.
  • Resolution, earnest and resolute is brought to forefront of actions with the motto; “Either I will find a way or make one.”
  • The Three Angels, Three angels carry with them the hearts of all men, their name Faith, Hope, and Charity. "Faith takes the hand of weary ones when the night-clouds gather around their heads, and leads them unto Hope, who crowns them with a wreath of flowers immortal. And when their wayward feet turn from the heavenly path, lured by false attractions, and they go on until their feet are torn and bleeding, and their garments soiled and stained, sweet Charity walks close beside, and throws her pure white mantle on their forms, covering all the stains and rags, that the passers by may not see how soiled and tattered they are."
  • Charity, the motto breathes new life in any heart with; “Fair charity, be thou my guest. And be thy constant couch, my breast.” and by some unknown writer it was remarked; “Did universal charity prevail, earth would be Heaven, and Hell a fable.”, Charity is another name for disinterested, lofty, un-adulterated love.
  • Love, “[Know] Love is divine, unselfish, asking naught...". and “Serene will be our clays, and bright And happy will our nature be, When love is an unerring light, And joy its own security. And they a blissful course may hold Even now, who not unwisely hold, Live in the spirit of their creed; Yet find that other strength according to their need.”. Our men and women don't love moral ideas placed down into defects, we don't love with idolatry, we don't love for smiles and to please.
  • Truth, it is said; "Truth is the first law in the government of speech."
  • Honesty, man can succeed permanently by directly opposing fraud, dishonesty and violence, its only temporary success they make. While uprightness and integrity holds success in business.
  • Hope, "Hope is like the sun, which, as we journey toward it, casts the shadow of our burden behind us."
  • Perseverance, perform any task as though it can't be avoided and you will find yourself doing it forth hence with speed and efficiency. “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.”
  • Prudence, "Prudence is the combination of wisdom, reason, discretion, and common sense; the offspring of a clear head, a correct judgment, and a good heart.". Know providence and in the determinism of providence we are calm, see all of mankind as giving and charitable, let the luminous light of charity be the lens by which we view mankind, hold dearly to universal philanthropy, unselfishly believe yourself above in peerless majesty over all vice and corruptions of the material world. Steer the ship with prudence, many a ship have been shipwrecked by imprudence. Never give up the ship while a life reserve is within reach.
  • Punctuality, Louis the Fourteenth said “Punctuality, is the politeness of kings.”. "It is also the duty of gentlemen, and the necessity of men of business."
  • Habit, when prudence becomes your habit then every reckless proliferation shall be revolting to every principle held by your self.
  • Brevity, Let friendly calls, communications to those who are busy, in the street or in the door, be short. Make your anecdotes and stories short. Shorten your credits and speeches, make sure to stop adding lines when completed.
  • Generosity, In intellectual attainments we can make them most certain and sure to ourselves and make clear anything that we know, by teaching it. We can multiply our talents twofold and sometimes tenfold by giving alike by those talents, all those talents that we have, to those poorer than ourselves.
  • Contentment, “Do you know what the people of Cape Ann do when it rains? They let it rain!”
  • Cheerfulness, "cheerfulness and happy mind gives us free and easy circulation", we should always be and make ourselves "cheerful at and after our meals.". "Three things are essential to happiness, something to do, something to love, and something to hope for."
  • Friendship, friendship is like the light of heaven reaching the sick, bringing the sacrament to those on their last days of life, giving any the everlasting joy who had an experience of its fore-lasting prophecized joy, friendship fills many a cup and overflows bowls in the needy and forsaken, friendship is precious and even more precious than intricately carved stone from the farthest parts of the earth, its vast and above intellect. God gives us a great joyful feeling to have such consciousness and exceeding gratitude in its place and influence it springs forth from consciousness from where life has risen from. Gratitude is like an insult to the feminine nature of friendship, friendship grows and isn't content to bless a few.
  • Adversity, "Sweet indeed are the uses of adversity.” and "'Too much facility, ease, and prosperity is not good for a man; it removes that wholesome stimulus to exertion which is so essential to sound discipline. On the contrary, to use the words of Burke “Difficulty is a severe instructor set over us by the supreme ordinance of a parental Guardian and Instructor who knows us better than we know ourselves, as he loves us better too. He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill — our antagonist is thus our helper.”
  • Calumny, “Either be silent,” said Pythagoras to his disciples, “or say something that is better than silence.” And a greater than Pythagoras has said, “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin, but he that refraineth his lips is wise."
  • No slander
  • No jealousy
  • No meanness
  • No murder in dueling[3]

"The Battle of the Systems"Edit

As physical culture became increasingly popular and profitable, there arose intense national and then international competition amongst the founders and/or promoters of various systems. This rivalry became informally known as "the Battle of the Systems". Both public gyms and educational institutions tended to take an eclectic approach, whereas private physical culture clubs and organizations often promoted particular exercise systems according to nationalistic loyalties.

The German Turnverein promoted a system of what became known as "heavy gymnastics", meaning strenuous exercises performed with the use of elaborate equipment such as pommel horses, parallel bars and climbing structures. The Turnverein philosophy combined physical training with intellectual pursuits and with a strong emphasis upon German culture. Numerous events in modern competitive gymnastics originated in, or were popularized by the Turnverein system.

The Czech Sokol physical culture movement was largely inspired by the Turnverein.

By contrast with the German and Czech systems, the "Swedish System" founded by Pehr Henrik Ling promoted "light gymnastics", employing little, if any apparatus and focusing on calisthenics, breathing and stretching exercises as well as massage.

At the turn of the 20th century, bodybuilder and showman Eugen Sandow's system, based upon weight lifting, enjoyed considerable international popularity, while Edmond Desbonnet and George Hebert popularized their own systems within France and French-speaking countries. Bernarr Macfadden's system became especially popular within the United States, via the promotion carried out through his publishing empire.

Other notable advocates of physical culture include Jørgen Peter Müller and Mary Bagot Stack.[4]

Physical Culture ("Physie") in AustraliaEdit

A physical culture practice for women, informally known as "physie" (pronounced "fizzy") developed in Australia in the 19th century and continues to this day. It combines elements of march, rhythmic gymnastics and dance, with a focus on good posture and is aimed at young girls and women, from pre-school age to seniors.[5] The original physie school[6] was the medical gymnasium Bjelke-Petersen Bros, founded in Hobart in 1892 by Hans Christian Bjelke-Petersen.[7] It has been in continuous operation since that time (becoming the Bjelke-Petersen School of Physical Culture Ltd. in 2011). Other leading historical schools include the Edith Parsons School of Physical Culture, founded in Sydney in 1961; and the Burns Association of Physical Culture, founded in Sydney in 1968, both still in operation. Competitions are held between local clubs with an annual championship.

Contemporary interest in 19th-century physical cultureEdit

Considerable academic research into 19th-century physical culture has been undertaken since the 1980s, and numerous articles, theses and books have been produced addressing the topic from various perspectives.[8]

A number of contemporary strength and health training programs are based directly upon, or draw inspiration from various physical culture systems.

The historic Hegeler Carus Mansion in LaSalle, Illinois features a basement gymnasium that is believed to be a uniquely preserved example of a late-19th-century turnverein physical culture training facility.

Modern collections of antique physical culture apparatus include those of the Joe and Betty Weider Museum of Physical Culture, part of the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports at the University of Texas at Austin and the Gymuseum collection at the Forteza Fitness and Martial Arts studio in Ravenswood, Chicago.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Shelly McKenzie, Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America (University Press of Kansas; 2013)
  2. ^ Gertrud Pfister, "The Role of German Turners in American Physical Education," International Journal of the History of Sport (2009) 26#13 pp 1893-1925.
  3. ^ Welch, Follansbee Goodrich (May 7, 2016). Moral, Intellectual, and Physical Culture; Or, the Philosophy of True Living. New York: United States: Wood & Holbrook, and Palala Press (Hardcover). pp. 296–318. ISBN 978-1355886099. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
  4. ^ Zweiniger‐Bargielowska, Ina. (2005). The Culture of the Abdomen: Obesity and Reducing in Britain, circa 1900–1939. Journal of British Studies 44 (2): 239-273.
  5. ^ John Donegan; Richard Glover (22 June 2015). "Exploring Sydney's Obsession with the Physical Culture Movement". ABC Radio Sydney.
  6. ^ "Physie: The Underground Fusion of Dance and Sport".
  7. ^ "The BJP Physie History". BJP Physie.
  8. ^ McKenzie, Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in Americach 1

Further readingEdit

  • McKenzie, Shelly. Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in America (University Press of Kansas; 2013) 304 pages
  • Martschukat, Jürgen. "'The Necessity for Better Bodies to Perpetuate Our Institutions, Insure a Higher Development of the Individual, and Advance the Conditions of the Race.' Physical Culture and the Formation of the Self in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century USA," Journal of Historical Sociology (2011) 24#4 pp 472–493.
  • Vertinsky, Patricia; Hedenborg, Susanna. (2018). Physical Culture Practices: New Historical Work on Women and Gender. The International Journal of the History of Sport 35 (6): 487-493.
  • Weber, Eugen. "Gymnastics and sport in fin de siècle France", American Historical Review 76 (1971)