What is Physical Culture? Why is it important?


So what is Physical Culture and why is there a website dedicated to the study of it?

In its simplest definition, Physical culture is a health and strength training movement that originated during the 19th century in Germany, England, and the United States. This may seem relatively benign thing to study but the origins and expansion of physical culture in the 19th and early 20th reflect societal, economic and cultural trends of the time. What’s more the legacy of the physical culture movement affects how many of us train, eat and view health.

So how did physical culture originate?

While it is beyond the ability of one human to look into the chaos of history for a simple explanation, the following factors are generally believed to have contributed to the spread of physical culture.

The Germans are Coming!

Health has always been a concern to mankind, be it for warfare or avoiding the plague, but from the mid to late 19th century a new interest in fitness, for moral and political reasons, emerged. This new interest stemmed from several different areas and countries. For example Germany, more specifically German immigrants, was the one of the early pioneers of what we understand as Physical Culture. In the early 1800s, many German States introduced a physical culture system based on gymnastics that quickly became hugely popular. While appearing relatively benign to political elites, such gymnastic systems were in fact highly important. Many had their origins in the Napoleonic invasion of Germany as a hub of nationalist activity. Even after Napoleon was defeated the clubs remained political, with many members taking part in the 1848 revolution that briefly swept across mainland Europe. Following the defeat of the revolutionists, such gymnastic clubs were heavily suppressed in German States, with many members making their way across the Atlantic to the United States.

Once in the US, ‘Turner Clubs’ were established between German immigrants and Americans to spread physical culture. These Turner Clubs were highly influential, as many local clubs were pivotal into introducing physical education (PE) in the form of ‘German gymnastics’ into American colleges and public schools. Fitness as is perhaps becoming clear, is not an apolitical subject. Turner Clubs soon suffered the stigma of being ‘Non-American’, something that prevented the gymnastic system from spreading across the continent. Instead it became the mode of fitness primarily in those cities with a large German-American population.

Problems of Today

Strikingly similar to today’s rhetoric about modern day lifestyles, other proponents of Physical Culture pointed to the sedentary lifestyle of the 19th white collar worker. It was said that many workers suffered from ‘diseases of affluence’ such as obesity, high blood pressure, gout and much more. It is fascinating how this argument still permeates in our society, especially regarding the debate about obesity. Numerous bodies from governmental agencies to concerned citizens began to take an interest in health and fitness to combat these diseases. As a consequence, numerous exercise systems were developed, drawing from a range of folk games, dances, sport, military training and medical callisthenics.

I Want You…To be Fit

Physical culture programs were also highly attractive to militaries at this time. Physical Culture promised to provide armies with fit, self-disciplined and responsible recruits. What’s more it promised recruits who would require less medical attention. All of which was highly valuable to countries and armies that were continually fighting. Once we look ahead into the early 20th century we see physical culture celebrities such as Eugene Sandow (a man who will garner much attention in the coming weeks) working with the British army to ensure a minimum level of fitness across all the recruits. Physical fitness and the health of the citizenry was a matter of survival for regimes and armies alike.

Physical pursuits such as boxing or wrestling were also part of the physical culture movement and were themselves highly attractive to the military for the reasons outlined above. Boxing is a particularly interesting case as it garnered great attention from both the US and British Empire, from Kings to the working class. Fitness whether promoted in the form of weight-training or boxing had peaked the interest of some of the most influential leaders in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Big Business

It would be naïve not to think that Physical Culture didn’t also represent a profit making opportunity for those involved in the industry. While many proponents were steadfastly sincere in their beliefs, there was still money to be made. Again drawing on today’s world, we see that the diet industry alone is worth billions of dollars and this says nothing about a fitness industry that is constantly advertising the latest get-abs-quick scheme.

Why would the 19th century be any different? What we label as the industrial revolution had already come and mass production was making business more profitable than ever. Physical Culture systems began emerging and so did equipment. Everything from dumbbells to Indian clubs was sold and each was sold within a different system of physical culture. Next week we’ll examine the ‘battle of the systems’ to demonstrate how debates over the best way to train represented socio, cultural, and economic interests.

Muscular Christianity

Muscular what?

Muscular Christianity was a Christian commitment to piety and physical health. It based itself primarily on the New Testament, which sanctioned the concepts of character and well-being. While tracing its origins back to St. Paul himself, Muscular Christianity is primarily associated with the 19th and 20th centuries, especially in the British Empire, as many of the proponents of Muscular Christianity at this time were English writers such as Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes, and in Canada with Ralph Connor. Kingsley and Hughes were particularly active in promoting physical strength and health as well as an active pursuit of Christian ideals in personal life and politics. The movement fitted in well with ideas of masculinity in the Victorian era and was certainly influential in the spread of Physical Culture.

Much of the rhetoric of Physical Culture bodies was religious in nature, and the promotion of traits such as self-disciple, control and commitment reasoned deeply with those of a religious tune.

So while it is difficult to pin down one origin for Physical Culture, we can see that a clear interest in fitness had entered into the Zeitgeist of many European States in the 19th and 20th century. What’s more this interest had spread to the US thanks to a new influx of European migrants. The ramifications of this interest are an interesting story, and one that will slowly unfold in the coming weeks.

Stay tuned.

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