Exercise for Women in the Early 19th Century
Women who wanted to keep fit in the early 19th century had to contend with the notion that they were too delicate for many forms of exercise. They also had to deal with clothing that constrained their physical movement. The following recommendations were aimed at women in the upper and middle classes of society. Women in the labouring class tended to get plenty of exercise just going about their work.
Dangers of exercise for women
One barrier to women exercising in the early 1800s was the belief that it was not good for their health.
Exercise is necessary, but the constitution of women is adapted only to moderate exercise; their feeble arms cannot perform work too laborious and too long continued, and the graces cannot be reconciled with fatigue and sun-burning. Excessive labour reduces and deforms the organs, destroying by repeated compressions that cellular substance which contributes to the beauty of their contours and their colours. The exercise which women of a middling condition find in useful and indispensable occupations is the most wholesome, because it joins to the natural effects of labour, the inward satisfaction afforded by the accomplishment of a duty. (1)
Benefits of exercise for women
This belief was challenged by some in the medical profession, who argued that women’s health would benefit from regular physical exercise.
No absurdity is greater than that which associates female beauty with great delicacy of body and debility of constitution. …
Exercise only can fully unfold the muscular system in both sexes: it knits well the joints, makes them clean and small; increases the flexibility of every moveable organ; confers activity of body and cheerfulness of spirits: it is, therefore, not merely necessary for the perfection of the corporeal frame, but also for its preservation. … For females, in particular, daily and properly regulated exercise is requisite; and in those who do not attend to this, the body and the mind equally become weak and diseased. (2)
How much exercise?
Young girls could have as much exercise as they wanted.
The safest rule for exercising young girls is to leave the quantity of exercise to their own feelings of fatigue; and this can only be effected by allowing them to run and enjoy the same exercise as young boys, within a limited space. They must, however, be encouraged and even urged to motion; for the nature of female education, from the earliest periods of life, and the social habits of the sex, even in girlhood, incline many girls, in the garden and the playground, rather to sit, conversing in groups, or to saunter, leaning on one another, than to take active exercise.…
The beneficial effects of regular exercise in young girls are the same as those [for young boys]; but in young girls it is more essential, from the sedentary habits of life which are to follow, in an afterperiod of life; and also to counteract that sluggish state of the bowels which is so common in female habits, and so much at variance with health. If the exercise be taken within a limited space, the kind of it should be frequently changed, to encourage the continuance of it, by renewing the stimulus of exertion; and it should also be of that description which calls into action every muscle of the body. This, however, cannot be accomplished if the body be cased in stays; for, though the limbs and arms are free, yet the muscles of the back and loins are circumscribed in their action, and a state of debility in these parts is thereby induced; for it is an undeniable truth that a muscle which is not used soon loses its power. (3)
Once past puberty, females had to be careful not to over-exercise.
[I]f immediate injury does not result from sudden overexertion, the daily renewal of it has a more permanently bad effect, by wearing out the powers of the body and bringing on premature old age. Such a degree of exertion, indeed, is not likely to occur from almost any kind of exercise in the middle and higher ranks of life; but nothing is more common than to see young women, under thirty years of age, with the look of sixty, from having been over-worked as servants. (4)
What exercises were appropriate?
Girls had a wider range to choose from than women.
Nearly the same exercises, with the exception of wrestling, cricket, quoits, and those sports properly termed athletic, which are proper for boys, may be recommended for young girls. Trundling a hoop, battledore, trapball, and every game which can exercise both the legs and arms, and, at the same time, the muscles of the body, should be encouraged. (5)
For girls past the age of 12, however, such exercises were generally not advised. Instead, the following types of exercise were recommended, often with caveats.
Walking is the best exercise for men and women. This should be practised every day in the year, unless the inclemency of the weather absolutely forbids. The English are the healthiest people in the world, and this arises in part from their systematic exercise. Even the most delicate and high-bred ladies there take an airing almost every day, and usually walk several miles. They do not mind a drizzle or a shower. How different it is in this country [the United States]! It is here considered a matter of delicacy for a woman to keep herself immured at home, and she pays for it in a slender constitution, a pallid cheek, the early decay of her teeth, and the premature loss of all the beauty which health can bestow. (6)
Dancing is the most favorite exercise of young women; and when properly taught, is healthful, and confers gracefulness of gait, resulting from the disciplined management of the whole body. In general, however, the movements are confined in the feet and legs, whilst the action of the other parts of the frame is wholly neglected. There is a wish also to imitate professional dancers in young females; but the steps are, in general, too rapid to be altogether safe for the tender frame of women who are not regularly trained to the art: the body is supported too much on the toes, and the fine elasticity of the double arch of the foot endangered; the ligaments of the ankle are apt to be strained and overlengthened, and the instep to lose its height, from the tendon of the sole of the foot being overstretched; thence, when the dance is discontinued, the gait, instead of being firm and elastic, is shuffling. Professional dancers have generally flat feet, and walk as if they were lame.
Independent, however, of the mode of dancing, it is an exercise the daily employment of which greatly benefits young females at that period of life when most of their other occupations are of a sedentary nature; but as they are universally fond of it, they are likely to carry it to excess, which should never be permitted; particularly when the more rapid and violent dances, Scotch reels, for instance, are attempted. Exertion such as these dances require, if long continued, are extremely injurious to girls of a delicate frame and with a narrow chest. Dancing is also injurious whilst the body is yet weak in convalescence from acute diseases. When too much exercised, it likewise is apt to produce ganglions on the ankle joints of delicate girls, as wind galls are produced on the legs of young horses, who are too soon or too much worked. Upon the whole, nevertheless, dancing is the exercise best adapted for young women; and one, when discreetly employed, is highly conducive to health. (7)
Riding is a most salutary exercise for young women, from its engaging many of the muscles of the body, as well as those of the arms and thighs; and from the succession of changes of respirable air, which the rapid progression of the body through an extensive space, in a short time, causes to be conveyed to the lungs. But the position which women are obliged to maintain on horseback is not favorable to very young girls; and, if the exercise be often carried to fatigue, nothing is more likely to produce deformity, from diseased curvature of the spine, than the placing of a young girl too soon on horseback. If riding be recommended on account of health, girls should be taught to ride on both sides of the horse, to prevent that twisting of the body, which the continued use of the same side is apt to occasion. (8)
In the 1820s, calisthenics – the name originally given to female gymnastics – became popular in continental Europe. This form of exercise soon spread to England and America.
Calisthenics is…a reasonable, methodical, and regular employment of the exercises best calculated to develop the physical powers of young girls, without detriment to the perfecting of their moral faculties. …
Young girls have not the same freedom as boys in their out-door exercises, and their customary amusements and occupations, when not at school, are of a more sedentary nature. The consequences are, a greater tendency to stoop, and acquire false and injurious attitudes – deformity of spine and the like; together with an acquired nervousness of temperament, which makes them, in after years, a prey to dyspeptical and hysterical disorders, and an inequality of spirits distressing to themselves, and often exceedingly annoying to friends and others in whose society they may be thrown. Nor are the monstrous absurdities of their dress at all calculated to diminish these evils. For fear inaction of the muscles of their chest and back should not be sufficiently enfeebling, tight dresses, under various names, compress those parts, and almost paralyse their action. As a preventive to the various diseases thus induced, and also as a means, under suitable direction, of their cure, we may safely recommend the early and regular use of calisthenic exercises as a part of female education. The only exercise of this nature which is commonly taught to young girls is dancing, and it is a useful one. But it would be made more valuable to health, and available for the purposes of grace and easy carriage, if conjoined with others, such as regular walking – we might say correct walking, running, jumping – in the manner and with the restrictions required in calisthenics; various evolutions with the arms…and with the feet, by standing on one leg, bending the knee and body on one foot, while the other is extended out, but not allowed to touch the ground; skipping with the rope; and battledore and shuttlecock.
One of the best exercises both in gymnastics and calisthenics, is on parallel bars…. After the pupil has learned to support and balance herself on the bars, she may give herself a forward progressive movement, by advancing first one hand and then the other, so as to grasp hold of the bar, the feet all the time being kept together, and the legs hanging down perpendicularly. To this will succeed the movement by jumps – so that the pupil, by resting firmly on her hands, shall give herself a quick upward movement, letting both bars go at the same time, and lighting a little in advance, both of the hands again quickly grasping the bars. Succeeding to, and afterwards alternating with, the exercise on the parallel bars, will be those on the horizontal bar, flying the course or giant steps. One of the best means of strengthening the back, and calling both sides equally into action, is climbing the column of pegs.
Judgment, of course, is demanded in graduating the exercises to the age, strength, and peculiarities of the girl, and in guarding against fatigue. Attention also is to be paid to the dress: it ought to sit easy in every part – trowsers, and light and tolerably large shoes are to be recommended. Pains should be taken, with a view to guard against the pupils catching cold, that, after active exercise, they should not sit down or stand still, but keep moving about, at a moderate rate, until the temporary feeling of weakness has subsided, and the skin resumes its natural warmth. (9)
Although initially advocated for girls, calisthenics was also something well-off women could do in private. In 1827, an Italian, Signor Voarino, published in London A Treatise on Calisthenic Exercises: Arranged for the Private Tuition of Ladies. It was a detailed “how-to” manual, complete with illustrations. Exercises included movements of the arms, of the legs (jumping, skipping, zigzag walking), exercises using a cane, and exercises using a balance:
a moveable instrument, supported by means of a hook, strongly fixed in the ceiling of a room, from which two cords are suspended; and at the extremities of which is fixed a stick, made of a very dry piece of ash wood, four feet in length and an inch and a half in diameter. The middle of the stick should be wrapped with any sort of soft substance, such as cotton, velvet, &c. to prevent it from hardening the hands. In order to prevent the cords from twisting, a swivel must be used, so that the balance may turn in any direction. (10)
That same year, Marian Mason, England’s first female physical fitness instructor – who had trained under Swiss instructor Peter Heinrich Clias – published her own tract: On the Utility of Exercise; or A Few Observations on the Advantages to be Derived from its Salutary Effects, by Means of Calisthenic Exercises. Under the patronage of the Duchess of Wellington and Lady Byron, Mason offered weekly classes in calisthenics for ladies.
[T]hose gentle and pleasurable exercises…supply the want of exertion, other [lower class] females are obliged to use, to earn their bread by labour, and…prevent, at the same time, the numberless disorders arising from a state of inaction. (11)
In the United States, educator Catharine Beecher – whose fiancé perished (along with Napoleonic General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes and 44 others) in the wreck of the packet ship Albion in 1822 – became an outspoken advocate of exercise for girls and women. In 1856, she published Physiology and Calisthenics for Schools and Families, another illustrated manual.
What were women intended for?
Those in favour of calisthenics and more strenuous exercise for women faced detractors. A reviewer of Signor Voarino’s book argued:
What were women intended for in civilised life? To enchant mankind by feminine loveliness of person, grace society by gentleness of mind, contrast with the rougher sex their own far more exquisite fineness of spirit and divine sensibility of soul, be angels in disposition as in form, and so beautifully discharge all those duties which humanity assigns to them as the fountains, nutrices, and consolers of the race, that they might seem rather beings to be adored than the mere equals and companions of men? Or to box a lover, horsewhip a husband, ‘whop’ a jarvey, and floor a charley?
To gentle and proper exercise for youthful females at school, no objection can be urged…. But when you come to teach grown-up women – wives, mothers, and aught we know grandmothers…how to handle a pike and jump over a dinner table – it is possible that the gymnastical part of education may be carried too far.… For our parts, we would rather that their ‘muscular powers’ were never brought into ‘full action’…. They are so delightful as they are, that we would not for the world run any risk of spoiling, or even altering them. (12)
By the late 19th century, other forms of exercise, including tennis and bicycling, became open to women, although there continued to be people who regarded vigorous physical activity as unsuitable for ladies.
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What did Napoleon think of women?
- La Belle Assemblée (London), Vol. I, Issue III, April 1806, p. 144.
- The Boston Medical Intelligencer, Vol. 5, No. 24, October 30, 1827, pp. 377-378.
- Ibid., pp. 379-380.
- Ibid., p. 380.
- Ibid., p. 381.
- G. Goodrich, Fireside Education (New York, 1838), p. 289 .
- The Boston Medical Intelligencer, October 30, 1827, pp. 382-383.
- Ibid., p. 383.
- The Journal of Health, Vol. II (Philadelphia, 1831), pp. 190-193.
- Signor Voarino, A Treatise on Calisthenic Exercises: Arranged for the Private Tuition of Ladies (London, 1827), p. 59.
- Marian Mason, On the Utility of Exercise; or A Few Observations on the Advantages to be Derived from its Salutary Effects, by Means of Calisthenic Exercises (London, 1827), p. 12.
- The Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c. for the Year 1827 (London, March 24, 1827), pp. 182-183.
16 commments on “Exercise for Women in the Early 19th Century”
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To gentle and proper exercise for youthful females at school, no objection can be urged…. But when you come to teach grown-up women – wives, mothers, and aught we know grandmothers…how to handle a pike and jump over a dinner table – it is possible that the gymnastical part of education may be carried too far.
The Literary Gazette
Thanks so much. The “experts” who considered women too feeble to exercise clearly did not rely on logic or impartial observation – women in the fields provided only one example of the stupidity of their views, as did women of all classes who were strong enough to survive pregnancy and give birth.
You’re welcome, Marguerite. Yes, it was a pretty uninformed and self-serving view.
I fear I may have wasted my life, since I don’t think I’ve enchanted much, if any, of mankind by the feminine loveliness of my person.
You’ve got company, April. I have zero interest in enchanting anyone who holds that view of women.
Advocating riding astride and not side saddle?! Shocking.
No-one said something about riding astride. Side saddle is the choice only changing sides as not to overtrain one side. Which is pretty sensible…
That does make sense. Sadly, it sounds like some poor girls wound up with spinal problems from not being allowed or encouraged to follow that advice.
hi, i was wondering when this was published as I would like to reference it in an essay i am writing
Hi Gina, this article was originally published on May 11, 2018.
Hi Shannon, I’m using some of your work in an essay. Please would you be able to help me out with the full reference please?
Thanks for citing my work, Angharad. You can reference this post (for example) as Shannon Selin, “Exercise for Women in the Early 19th Century,” Shannon Selin: Imagining the Bounds of History, May 11, 2018, https://shannonselin.com/2018/05/exercise-for-women-19th-century/. You can find the original publication date for each post on the “Blog” page.
Are there any 19th century appropriate instructional videos for calisthenics or photos? my daughter is in modern Cali but would love to show the historically accurate exercises.
That’s a great idea, Kimberly. The Physical Culture Historians’ YouTube channel has some videos of 19th-century exercises: https://www.youtube.com/@PhysicalCultureHistorians.