Physical culture

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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.

"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.[3]

Physical Culture ("Physie") in Australia[edit]

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.[4] The original physie school[5] was the medical gymnasium Bjelke-Petersen Bros, founded in Hobart in 1892 by Hans Christian Bjelke-Petersen.[6] 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 culture[edit]

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.[7]

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 also[edit]


  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. ^ 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.
  4. ^ John Donegan; Richard Glover (22 June 2015). "Exploring Sydney's Obsession with the Physical Culture Movement". ABC Radio Sydney.
  5. ^ "Physie: The Underground Fusion of Dance and Sport".
  6. ^ "The BJP Physie History". BJP Physie.
  7. ^ McKenzie, Getting Physical: The Rise of Fitness Culture in Americach 1

Further reading[edit]

  • 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)
  • Welch, Follansbee Goodrich (1869). Moral, Intellectual, and Physical Culture; Or, the Philosophy of True Living. New York: United States: Wood & Holbrook. ISBN 978-1355886099. Retrieved 15 June 2019.