‘Gymnasticks’ and Dumbbells: Exercise in early modern Britain

As we begin to draw near to the end of the Olympics, questions will probably begin to be asked about the ‘legacy’ of the games, and how far they will inspire people to take up sport and exercise. After the 2012 London games, a report noted that 1.4 million more people in Britain had taken up a regular sport since the UK had won its bid to host in 2005. In fact, as the British Olympic team return to the UK next week, the broadcaster ITV and the National Lottery are planning ‘nation’s biggest sports day, the former switching off all of its channels for an hour, to encourage people to follow in the footsteps of Team GB, and take up sports.

Team GB

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Exercise is now deeply entrenched in British culture. Last year the Guardian reported that spending on gym membership was up by 44%, whilst a host of new sports (including open water swimming) along with things like running clubs and organised park runs, was painting a picture of ‘a nation of gym goers’. How many of these new devotees fell by the wayside a couple of weeks after their New Year’s resolution is not, unfortunately, recorded!

We might think of the concept of exercise, and particularly as an aide to health, as a thoroughly modern invention. In fact though, (leaving to one side the original, ancient, Olympic games!) it has a long history.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, the importance of exercise was well known. Popular perceptions of the ‘plague doctors and leeches’ aspect of early modern medicine obscure what was in fact a sophisticated and logical system of understanding the body. Much emphasis is often laid upon ‘weird’ remedies whilst, in reality, prevention was viewed as vastly preferable to cure. A great deal of importance was attached to the concept of ‘regimen’; this was effectively a holistic system for wellbeing, encompassing sleep, rest, eating as well as exercise.

Medical self-help books extolled the virtues of exercise, and in particular motion, as a means to keep the body healthy. Alexander Spraggot’s Treatise of Urine recommended that those in sedentary positions (especially students) needed to keep moving in order to avoid the dangerous settling accumulation of foul humours. Some recommended walking, others riding.

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 08.16.27.png

For A.B, author of the 1611 Sick Man’s Jewel, ‘Exercise ought to be moderate, nei|ther too gentle, nor too vehement, neither too quick, nor too slow.’ The activity should be vigorous enough to get the ‘benefit of motion’, to make the face florid and for ‘hot vapours[…] to break forth’. Exercise was considered useful in treating conditions such as Scurvy and diseases of the liver. It also prevented the accumulation of ‘gross, vicious humours, heaped up in the body’. It should never be too vigorous, however, since this could deplete the vital spirits. Neither should exercise be undertaken straight after food.

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 08.18.27

(image from Google Books)

In 1711 Francis Fuller published an entire book devoted to the ‘power of exercise’. For Fuller, a life spent in lazy, supine repose was dangerous. For the body to be vigorous and vital it needed continual stimulus, ‘since the vigour of the parts is acquir’d by use’. Exercise was therefore vital since it ‘promotes the digestion, raises the spirits, refreshes the mind and strengthens and relieves the whole man’.

But what sorts of exercise was involved? Fuller was vague. ‘By Exercise, then, I understand all that motion or agitation of the Body of what kind ‘soever’. Promisingly, for those who set the bar low, he considered both hiccoughing and laughing as legitimate forms of exercise. The ‘best and noblest of all exercises for a sick person’ was riding. It was both an active and passive exercise, combining movement and the automatic stretching of limbs. For the more energetic, tumbline and rope-dancing offered a good means to get the perspiration flowing.


(Final set tie-break, 17th-century style! Image from Wikimedia commons)

In 1794, in his book on the science of muscular action, John Pugh separated exercise into various degrees. The strongest of these were ‘tennis, cricket, fencing running &c, where great muscular action is necessary’. Next down were activities including walking, riding on horseback or in a carriage and, rather confusingly, reading aloud. In the third category was sailing.

As the eighteenth century progressed, the increasing fixation upon ‘machines’ offered new possibilities for shaping the body. The use of artificial weights was one, perhaps surprising, means by which to exercise. The origin of the term ‘dumbbell’ was actually literal – it referred to the swinging of weights resembling bells with their clappers removed. Philip Jones’ 1788 ‘Essay on Crookedness’ commented on ‘swinging the dumb bells’ as a means to cure spinal distortion and ‘crookedness’. Whilst Jones recognised that some success had been obtained, he was keener on the new trend for sea bathing as a means to keep the body in good order. To promote good posture, the physician James Parkinson advocated exercising with dumb bells, and horse riding. Anticipating 21st century ideas about the healthiness of gardening, however, he also suggested ‘the culture of a flower garden’!

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 08.32.30

(Copyright Lewis Walpole Digital Image Collection)

Also popular was the ‘chamber horse’ – a chair with a bellows mechanism in which the ‘rider’ sat and then, through the power of the bellows, bounced up and down. For a great post and image of the ‘chamber horse’ on the ‘Two Nerdy History Girls’ blog, click here.

Riding the wave of popularity for ‘gymnastic’ exercise, some enterprising Georgian artisans began to create and patent new equipment. The London merchant Abraham Buzaglo made his name as a maker of patent stoves in the second half of the eighteenth century. But, Buzaglo also used his metallurgical expertise to diversify into other areas. In February 1779 he lodged a patent for a device for ‘Muscular health and strength restoring exercise by the means of machines, instruments and necessaries for practising the same. The apparatus involved a system of plates, bags and poles, attached to the wall, to exercise the limbs. They were especially recommended for the treatment of gout. A contemporary satire depicts the use of ‘gymnastick’ equipment by ‘gouty persons’.

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 08.21.26

(Copyright Wellcome Images: Three men wearing orthopaedic apparatus, by Paul Sandby)

So as the final events take place in Rio, and perhaps as you lace up your shoes and head for the weights rack, inspired, you’re actually following in the footsteps of health-conscious early modern people, for whom exercise was an important part of health and regimen. It’s interesting to note, for example, the long and close relationship between exercise and health, rather than just recreation. Often the key element has been that of movement or motion. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, motion was needed to prevent an accumulation of foul humours or, in a sense, to prevent the body stagnating. Little has actually changed. The tagline of the Government’s current UKActive programme is… “let’s get moving”!

Crooked or Straight: Creating the ideal posture in 18th-century Britain

“There are few diseases which afflict the Human Body, attended with greater disadvantages, than those produced by Distortion. It gives not only an unpleasing appearance, but innumerable complaints generally follow”. So ran an advertisement titled ‘Distortion’ in the True Briton newspaper of January 1800.

In the eighteenth century, good posture was becoming an important issue. Sloppy posture which, in John Weaver’s Anatomical and Mechanical Lectures Upon Dancing (!), included ‘holding down the head’, putting out the chin, stooping in the shoulders, bending too much forwards and thrusting out the belly’, were not good signs. The vagaries of early modern life left their mark on the human form in various ways. Various medical conditions could leave bodies in a far worse state than they found them. Diseases in childhood, such as rickets, affected gait, while accidents could lead to poorly formed limbs. Well-meaning but botched medical interventions could leave highly visible traces. Poor diet and harsh living conditions affected health and appearance. In all respects the eighteenth-century body was a product of its time.

Bath Stays or the Lady's Steel Shapes

A ‘crooked’ body left its owner open to a cruel raillery of insults. David Turner’s excellent book on disability in the eighteenth century details some of the terms of ridicule that could be levelled at those whose bodies did not conform to erect ideals.James Caulfield’s 1793 dictionary of slang included terms such as ‘lord and lady’ to denote a ‘crooked or hump back’d person’. A ‘lame or limping man’ might be referred to as ‘Mr Hopkins or Hopping Giles’. In literature, ‘deformed’ people were treated to highly pejorative terminology from ‘a creeping creature’ to various other plays upon ‘crookedness’, lameness or distortion. Having a ‘crooked’ body could also be a potential social barrier. For a woman marital prospects could be hampered. For men, the emphasis upon hardy male traits such as elegance of form and posture – as well as a general mien – made standing up straight a key consideration.

Image from Wellcome Images
Image from Wellcome Images

But, as with many other areas of daily life in the eighteenth century, where there was a problem, there lurked a ‘specialist’ to sell you something for it. Georgian newspapers contained a raft of devices designed to help people shape their own bodies. Key to this process were conceptions of ‘correction’ and ‘concealment’. One of the biggest areas of the market was for devices to ‘cure’ hernias. In many ways the eighteenth century was a golden age for the ‘rupture’. New types of industrial processes, the harsh, physical nature of manual labour and even the demands of new environments such as the navy led to a virtual plague of ruptures. The problem with inguinal hernias was the fact that they could lead to large, painful and highly visible swellings in the groin. No surprise then that truss makers often sought to emphasise the strength of their products in concealing the problem.

Guy Nutt

In 1790, Mr Dowling “Improved Patent Elastic Truss Maker’ of St Martin’s Lane, London, begged leave to acquaint the public that he had brought his trusses to ‘so great a degree of perfection that the most troublesome rupture can be kept up with ease and safety’. Unlike tight waistbands which worked by ‘forcing the contents of the abdomen downwards’, making them uncomfortable to the wearer, Dowling’s ‘Improved Elastic Breeches Straps’ were just the ticket to keep everything held up and in place. Timothy Sheldrake’s ‘Double Springed Elastic Truss’ was claimed to ‘keep the largest rupture up with less inconvenience than a small one can be kept up with any other Truss’.

An important consideration for wearers was that of discretion. To be seen wearing an unwieldy truss would merely draw attention to the afflicted parts. As ever, makers were ready. J. Meares of Ludgate Hill reassured customers that his devices were so discrete that ‘even the most intimate companion cannot discover it’. Others designed their products to be ‘indistinguishable from nature’.

Apart from trusses, a range of products was available to encourage the body into a straight, erect form. It was seen as important to catch children early and teach them (by means of forcing them!) to stand properly. Leg irons, to be found amongst the stock of J. Eddy of Soho, were one means of forcing bandy legs into a socially-pleasing form. ‘Elastic bandages’ and stays worn under the garments used their properties to force an errant body into submission. As children got older and went to school, the process accelerated. Parents of girls were especially obsessed with achieving the graceful swanlike neck so desired by artists such as Joshua Reynolds and his ‘serpentine line’. Amongst the products for achieving this were steel collars, that literally forced the chin up into the air. Steel ‘backs’ and ‘monitors’ were strapped to the back and made it next to impossible for a young person to slouch. Exercising with ‘gymnastick’ equipment including dumb bells was advocated to open up the chest. In 1779, one Abraham Buzaglo patented his ‘machines &c for gymnastick exercises’.

Image courtesy of Wellcome Images
Image courtesy of Wellcome Images

Many of these devices were extremely uncomfortable to the wearer. The Reverend Joseph Greene complained that his truss chafed the sensitive skin of his inner thighs and ‘bruis’d ye contiguous parts’. Writing in 1780, Henry Manning commented on the popularity of such devices, which, he argued, were of little practical help. Indeed, according to Manning, the patient frequently became unhealthy and died in an exhausted state, or was forced to live out a miserable existence confined to chair or bed! Makers were forced to respond by stressing how light, durable and comfortable were their products. J. Sleath was at pains to reassure ladies that his steel backs and collars ‘of entire steel’ were ‘peculiarly light, neat and durable’!

The neck swing, from Timothy Sheldrake's 'Essay on the Various Causes and Effects of the Distorted Spine', 1783
The neck swing, from Timothy Sheldrake’s ‘Essay on the Various Causes and Effects of the Distorted Spine’, 1783

By far one of the most painful devices ever marketed was the ‘neck swing’. Swinging was recommended by surgeons as a means of stretching the spine. The ‘neck swing’ operated by encasing the sufferer’s head in a steel cap and frame, by which they were suspended off the ground for hours at a time. A surviving account by a young English girl highlights how uncomfortable this could be.

“I remained suspended in a neck swing, which is merely a tackle and pulley fixed to the ceiling of the room; the pulley is hooked to the head-piece of the collar, and the whole person raised so that the toes only touch the ground” In this position, she spent much of the day. After two decades of treatment, it was reported that her spine had actually decreased by six inches!

People were prepared to go to great lengths to achieve a straight body, even if it meant enduring excruciating pain to do it. The eighteenth century was indeed a period when people were increasing turning to new technologies in order to shape their own bodies, from razors and personal grooming instruments to postural devices and even new types of surgical instrument. Today we still have a strong sense of ‘straightness’ as a bodily ideal and a large market exists for products to help us sit straight, particularly in the workplace. Whilst the ‘neck swing’ may have long gone, we’re still obsessed with body shape and the need to conform to what any given society deems to be ideal.