Author: gymnosophista

Of fever high, or parts that swell—The remedy is calomel.

Of fever high, or parts that swell—The remedy is calomel.

Physicians of the highest rank—To pay whose fees would need a bank— Have pressed their science, art, and skill Into a dose of calomel. Whate’er the patient may complain Of head, or heart, or nerve, or brain, Of fever high, or parts that swell—The remedy 

She looks strong and moves with a will + paul broca, phrenologist + true companionship + 19th C water-cure dating ad

She looks strong and moves with a will + paul broca, phrenologist + true companionship + 19th C water-cure dating ad

Dr. Dio Lewis’s School for Young Ladies, The American Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated, Fowler & Wells Company, 1867. Reflections on Jan Todd’s Physical Culture and the Body Beautiful: Purposive Exercise in the Lives of American Women, 1800-1870: Part V (of V). Dio Lewis and 

Phrenology, the Freud of the 19th C (Todd, Part IV)

Phrenology, the Freud of the 19th C (Todd, Part IV)

A Review of Andrew Combe, M.D.’s Observations on Mental Derangement in The Medico-Chirurgical Review 16, no. 32 (April 1, 1832): 423–34. (My research, not in Todd’s book.)

Part IV of Reflections on Jan Todd’s Physical Culture and the Body Beautiful: Purposive Exercise in the Lives of American Women, 1800-1870. 

Chapter 6: Becoming Catherine Beecher

Much has been written about educator Catherine Beecher, but almost nothing about her work on exercise for women. When she first opened her seminary for girls in Hartford, her brother cautioned her that “The mind cannot bear the intense application to any one subject for a long time, without interruption, nor will the body, without much care, bear it. I would advise you, therefore, to take much exercise” (Todd, 141). He felt that Catherine didn’t care for her health and insisted that she “self-care” (anachronism alert. “Self-care” was not a common term until the late 20th century).  He counseled her to take time for herself, sleep well, and take exercise as medical therapy.

So wrought from the work of starting her school, in 1829, Beecher had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t read, write, or listen to conversation. She blamed it on too much work and her disregard of the “non-natural Laws of Health—ideas about proper health regimen that began in ancient Greece. Overworked nerves continued to plague her. To help, family friend Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first woman MD, gave her exercise books.

Catherine Beecher
Catherine Beecher

Blackwell had met the Beecher family as a teen in Cincinnati in 1838. She fought to earn a medical degree, and finally did so in Geneva in 1849. There she learned the Swedish Movement Cure (Per Ling’s Swedish Gymnastics) from his student Professor Georgii. She returned to the US in 1851 and opened a practice on University Place, near Washington Square in NYC. Unable to find patients, she gave lectures on physical education for women. These lectures, about $14 each in 2022 USD, started her practical medical career. The following year she published her lectures as a book, The Laws of Life with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls. 

Blackwell frequented George Taylor’s Institute of the Swedish Movement Cure in Midtown and recommended him to Catherine Beecher. It was through Blackwell that the now middle-aged Beecher came to water cure. Todd observes that Blackwell, who struggled to obtain an MD and believed that women had a right to both strength and public work, had a markedly different take on women’s place and exercise than Beecher, who taught that women should exercise gently and stay within the bounds of the home. “Woman is the Heaven-appointed guardian of health in the family, as the physician is in the community (as quoted in Todd, 149). 

Like most affluent Americans, Beecher consulted both allopathic and holistic medical advice. She visited a spiritualist, a hypnotist (for eight sessions in ten days), Turkish baths (hamam), Russian baths (banya), a galvanist (who employed direct current electricity), chemical baths, sulfur baths and sun baths. Mainstream medical remedies (allopathic) included taking carbonate of iron, camphor, and bleeding. Her great preference was for hydropathy—water cure

Beecher wrote about a hydropathy (aka hydrotherapy) spa stay in her popular physiology primer, Letters to the People on Health and Happiness (1855). For three months she woke at 4am and was wrapped in a cold sheet for two to three hours. Then, “in a reeking perspiration,” she was “immersed in the coldest plunge bath.” After, she walked as far as she could and drank “five or six tumblers of the coldest water.” By 11am she took a ten minute shower “of the coldest water” followed by more walking and more tumblers of water. At 3pm she sat with her feet “in the coldest water” and then rubbed them “until warm.”

Let’s try it.

Letters to the People on Health and Happiness
From Beecher’s Letters to the People on Health and Happiness, 1855

Hydrotherapy was tremendously popular in the 1840s and 1850s. Hundreds of luxury resort spas opened to offer guests fresh air, companionship, exercise, and water cure. Beecher went to twelve different spas in this period, which allowed her a break from her work. Hydrotherapists who were often physicians immersed patients in water at different temperatures, used cold compresses, steam baths, and provided pure water for drinking. The popularity of water cure waned from the 1850s on—though it seems to be making a comeback now. Nevertheless, it gave Beecher a place to stop working, socialize, and take rest from her endless writing, organizing and publicizing. 

Water Cure Science
Beecher’s Letters to the People on Health and Happiness, 1855

Todd affirms that Beecher was not the originator of an exercise system but a popularizer. Her contribution “was not unlike that of the late-20th-century advertising executive. She was a promoter—savvy, culturally aware, and in touch with the zeitgeist of her America.” Todd observed this in the late 1990s, well before brand promotion of the social media age, when such savvy permeates our days. 

In the mid-1850s, Catherine Beecher used her celebrity status to promote physical culture in what Todd calls the first promotional campaign of an exercise system in the U.S., replete with press packet, book tour, local newspaper ads, and local women promoters (157-158). Beecher did not advocate for women’s rights, as she believed throughout her own public career that women should remain in the domestic sphere and be subordinate to men, although she herself did not have children or marry after her fiancé died in a shipwreck. What’s good for the goose?

Chapter 7: Bigger Bodies, Better Brains: Phrenology and the Health Lift

This chapter is stellar. Phrenology, a 19th-century fad we love to mock, encouraged not only exercise, but heavy lifting for women. Haha, you say? I’d love to write about “pseudoscience” as an anachronism. We love to label erroneous belief systems “pseudoscience” as if they were always so, but usually at the time of their popularity, they were either discovered by or endorsed by mainstream scientists. Take eugenics as a prime example. 

And so it was with phrenology. Jan Todd notes that historian John Davies compared phrenology’s influence on the nineteenth century to Freud’s influence on the twentieth. Both were belief systems intrinsic to American cultural beliefs. Phrenology was considered “a serious, inductive discipline” with a massive influence on popular culture. 

Review of Andrew Combe, M.D.’s, “Observations on Mental Derangement,” The Medico-Chirurgical Review 16, no. 32 (April 1, 1832): 423–34.

Phrenology has also been discussed by John Lardas Modern and Emily Ogden. I’ll spare you its history and stay with the subject at hand, phrenology’s influence on exercise. Horace Mann, a Boston intellectual and a father of the American public education system, included physical education in his standard recommended curriculum only after he became interested in phrenology. But the quality of phrenological thought degraded, Todd argues, when it shifted from elite intellectuals to entrepreneurs, who turned it into fortune telling. 

American popularizers of phrenology, the Fowler Brothers, endorsed physical education in the 1940s. Orson Fowler argued that physical exercise and the bigger muscles it created also enlarged the brain and improved the intellect (176). Fowler also encouraged women to build muscles and girth, including larger waists. This led to an exercise movement with heavy lifting called the health lift, created by George Barker Winthrop, who’d been influenced by phrenology. The Health Lift inspired various lifting contraptions, obvious precursors to today’s weight machines. Because of widespread belief in phrenology, this had a marked influence on American life. From the 1840s through the 1860s, heavy lifting and larger bodies became popular for both men and women because it improved physical health as well as intelligence. Pardon my presentizing, but I am reminded of Wendy Suzuki‘s work.

In Order to Jump Scientifically: Todd, Part III

In Order to Jump Scientifically: Todd, Part III

All images are from M.’s A Course of Calisthenics for Young Ladies, in Schools and Families, 1831. I particularly love this illustration. We have used “science-based training” since (at least) 1832. Always so cutting edge, aren’t we? Further reflections on Jan Todd’s Physical Culture and 

Physical Culture and the Body Beautiful: Purposive Exercise in the Lives of American Women, 1800-1870 (II)

Physical Culture and the Body Beautiful: Purposive Exercise in the Lives of American Women, 1800-1870 (II)

The top headline on a discarded NYT by the window caught my eye as I was reading Todd’s book in a cafe. “Recent discoveries suggest that the female body may be more resilient, dynamic, and expansive than science has historically considered it.” Science has been 

the body beautiful // & how to pick a trainer

the body beautiful // & how to pick a trainer

Tokology (book)Though before my time, the teenager standing in a used bookstore laughing over an antique 19th-century advice book in 1968 could have been me. Only 50 cents, Jan Todd, now a historian and professor of physical culture and sport studies at UT Austin, bought the 1885 classic, Tokology, A Book for Every Woman by physician-gynecologist Alice Stockham. In it she learned that rolling over (and over) in bed was proper exercise for young, aspiring mothers (i.e. all girls) during the 19th century. 

This seems a far cry from…omg. Strongest woman in the world?!? The top image is from Sarah Pileggi’s November 14, 1977, Sports Illustrated article: The Pleasure of Being the World’s Strongest Woman. Though I’ve corresponded with Todd by email and hope to visit her, I didn’t know!  Blame orals prep. 


It is, let’s say, unusual to find practitioners in academia. One might even say it’s frowned upon, but we won’t.

Granddaughter of two turn-of-the-century “sideshow geeks” (see article), Todd discovered that women had worked as “professional strong women” in vaudeville and circus. The women, though large and muscular, were described as feminine and beautiful in newspaper reviews, which surprised Todd as it went against Barbara Welter’s accepted historical narrative, “The Cult of True Womanhood” as the ideal for women of the day. The ideal, of course, being white, straight, fragile, and of the upper class/es.

“Was it possible that some segments of Victorian society valued size and strength in women?” 

Ah, the historical question. A clear historical question, and one to which I relate. This is rare and it excites me. 

Todd, a once-professional powerlifter and teacher, wondered about both her ancestors and the origins of her sport. It sent her deeper into the past and she began research on women’s exercise. While women’s sport history began in 1973, few historians have studied women’s “purposive exercise,” an “always rational endeavor undertaken to meet specific physiological and philosophical goals…about creating a new vision of the body. Nineteenth-century women picked up dumbbells, took long walks, and joined together in calisthenics and gymnastics classes for basically the same reasons women exercise today: the implicit promise of improved appearance, the quest for better health, and a desire to feel stronger and more competent” (Todd, 3).

Like Todd’s, my ancestors were athletic, with boxers on both sides of the family. One uncle graced the cover of The Ring. These photos of my maternal grandparents are on my ma’s fridge. She also has grandpa’s CCCs scrapbook, with images of his basketball team.

Todd’s book, Physical Culture and the Body Beautiful (1998), was one of many health books on my orals list, and her topic and method resonated with me. Her questions were driven by her own experience, which seemed to follow a “how did we get here” line of questioning I know well. She asked questions, hunted down answers, and methodically described them in a detailed chronological narrative that would interest only the…interested, ie those interested in the history of exercise. 

Perhaps I should break the book-post series here to share an update on why I’ve just been posting probably-boring-to-most and seemingly-unrelated book summaries and reviews this year. The timing is good, as this site has an anniversary of sorts in a few days. 

Though I haven’t been posting regularly in years (and now once a month), I started the site as a project for a health-promotion media class in 2007, when working on a masters degree. That html site morphed into a blog (coccoyoga) in 2009. The Cleveland Clinic was not posting how-tos on yoga back then, to be certain. Wow, how times have changed.

I updated regularly for years (some since deleted), though over time the name of the site changed along with me. I slowed because I lost motivation. My writing was not very, very clear. 

Often I’m told that I need to spell things out more. To connect the dots with a big, thick, gaudy marker and then show some diagrams. That is not my style and it bores me. Though, sure, so many missing my point also irritates me 🙂 . So I stopped posting regularly seven years ago, around 2015, and just updated when students needed something. 

The increasingly politicized interwebs sent me deeper into questions about how we came to do what we do in health and “wellness,” and I realized the only way I could find the time and motivation to research it was in a funded PhD program. This isn’t easy, as academia is centered around investigating certain well-traversed questions, and my questions have not been trendy since the 1970s—a defining decade indeed (see SI article above). But I was spectacularly lucky to find a program within walking distance of my home, where a group of brilliant, kind, wise, and patient scholars have put up with me for the last few years. 

physical culture and the body beautifulAs I studied for the qualifying exams, or oral comps as they’re usually called in history, I wrote out summaries or reviews for books that I wanted to get at and I posted some of them here, to give students an idea of where my offhand comments came from in class (yes, sources). And now as I delve into my research, I’m still doing this for the books that are central to my project, which is situated between two topics jumbling around for cohesion in my mind. Maybe they can even be connected. More on that later. 

Todd’s book impressed me because it’s straightforward and clear in both prose and methodology. When I looked her up, I discovered that she and her husband started a massive physical culture (/exercise) archive at UT Austin, but I missed the old SI article about her. 

When Professor Todd was a college student in Macon, Georgia in the early 1970s: “She worked the whole time she was at school…she had a sort of love-hate relationship with the college president. She was a thorn in his side when she was editing the paper, but once I heard him say. ‘She’s a helluva man.’ That was his greatest compliment.”

This is somewhere I could elaborate more, but I choose not to. Some will get it regardless.

In her senior year, guided by her partner, Todd began using dumbbells to correct her rounded shoulders. 



In the last few weeks I’ve been asking personal trainers about strengthening my back because I lose my battle against a tendency toward excessive kyphosis (which includes rounded shoulders) when I sit for too long, which, working on a  PhD, is all the time. Of course decades of yoga have helped me tremendously and my usual posture is no longer a slump. Incidentally, gaining flexibility in my upper thoracic spine did not come from intense ashtanga, even the exhilarating dropbacks, but from lying in the sauna with my arms stretched back on the bench behind me, upper arms alongside my ears, for as long as reasonably comfortable. In fact, doing this in legs up the wall after a long day of sitting feels amazing and can elicit a small yelp of pleasure-pain.

legs up the wall with arms back
Image from

Youtube videos by trainers on this issue are not that useful, frankly. One of the top search returns features a guy who looks like he just pushed his shoulders back to stand up straighter without correcting the underlying cause. 

Am I saying yoga and youtube aren’t helpful here? No and yes. We develop habits, and my body knows how to cheat where she needs to in even the most dramatic yoga poses. This isn’t good and over time will cause injury.

To break habit I want to come at this from a totally different modality. Around T8 to T10 I am still totally locked on most days. I cannot even feel this area so it’s difficult for me to know what I’m doing without good feedback.

What? A yogi can’t interocept?* No. Though I’m morbidly aware (some might say)** in most parts of my body, this area is virtually imperceptible to me. Learning new patterns is possible on one’s own, but help goes a long way.

Coincidentally, last fall I joined a gym because my usual sauna was still closed due to covid. As part of the welcome package I got a few training sessions but didn’t have time to use them while prepping for orals. Yeah. I just went there for the clean and gorgeous sauna. And towel service.***

Last month, I finally got around to booking a few sessions. Finding a good trainer is much like finding a good yoga teacher. You might need to try many to find someone who resonates with you. The concierge won’t love you, but always ask to try a few different people unless you adore the first. Trainers have different takes, and you need to feel they offer you guidance that resonates in your body/mind. You aren’t going to agree on everything, but the sessions need to click. You need to be pleased.

Apologies here, but it’s a je ne sais quoi that a listicle isn’t going to cover. I imagine there are many “signs a trainer is right for you” quizzes out there and if you’re new, sure, they could be helpful. 

Yes, the sessions should click even if you aren’t body aware or into exercise at all. Don’t assume that just because someone’s been training or teaching yoga for decades that they are a good fit. If you can’t afford a few private sessions, find a weight training class at a Y and ask the various instructors a million questions. Some might prefer this to one-on-one anyway.

Why gym training and not, say, pilates? First, pilates is very similar to yoga. Second, I find it boring. Third, my foray into intentional fitness started by working out in a gym, and from 1989-1995 I lifted weights and did gym stuff, eventually taking weight training classes at uni and working in the school gym. I stopped when I started traveling and yoga was more accessible. Now I want to see how it can inform my yoga.

How did I end up here? Oh yes, Todd started lifting to correct her posture and became curious about powerlifting and its history. I’ll start here next time, as this is long and it’s quite hot. 

*I made interoception into a verb while teaching. Sorry grammarians, the kids are winning.

**While you can stagnate or indulge mental (some might say secondary or imagined) emotions, you cannot dwell for long on the sensations of emotion in the body. Sensations are always shifting, changing, and informing. They move. Dwelling requires stagnancy.

***I could write a diatribe on finding a decent gym sauna. I even tried one of those ridiculous tent things. There are over thirty gyms within a mile of me and only two were acceptable. Many gyms don’t bother to maintain their saunas (several were at ~80ºF when I visited [NYSCs], even though they knew I was coming to try the sauna.

My gym is big on triathlete training and they are into hot/cold extremes, so it’s usually in good shape and people observe comparatively good etiquette, which could easily be yet another post. (Please do not wear shoes from the street or work out in a shared sauna. Please. Saunas are spiritual places (yeah, really) of relaxation and renewal for many northeastern Europeans. Neked on or in a towel, good. Sneakers, barbells, and pilates, bad.)

One day I will have a sauna and cold plunge at home, but even so, sauna is at heart a community endeavor.

A House Full of Females

A House Full of Females

Americans are fascinated by the idea of polygamy, in the Orientalism of the harem (which only the wealthy can and could afford to practice), or the former practices of American Mormonism. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Mormon Harvard historian, presents a complicated picture of Mormonism in 

Book Review: Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment

Book Review: Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment

  Popular religious life in New England, unlike Europe, had no Christmas, cathedrals, abbeys, liturgies, wedding ales, or anything done away with by the Protestant Reformation of 1517. Yet the settlers did come with “folk” beliefs, sometimes older than Christianity, that had not been specifically 

Book Review: Radical Spirits by Anne Braude

Book Review: Radical Spirits by Anne Braude

Ann Braude. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989, 2001.

Anne Braude’s 1989 Religious Studies classic Radical Spirits was one of the first texts to discuss how religion empowered women politically through the late nineteenth-century phenomenon of Spiritualism, a belief system that spoke to multitudes. Spiritualism involved the communication of the dead through spirit mediums who were often female. The movement was attractive not simply because it allowed followers to process frequent grief of the period, but because it allowed women a public voice and authority (through the spirit) usually denied them, and was viewed as a scientific practice which offered empirical proof of an afterlife. Omnipresent death need not be feared. Believers held both science and religion in tandem, as both Howe and Reynolds have discussed. 

It was the weakness and piety of women, the very qualities that usually forbid their public speech, that allegedly attracted spirits to them. As with earlier evangelical revivals, divine wisdom was available directly to people, which allowed them both a growing individualism and political voice. Spiritualism was not a fringe belief but involved hundreds of thousands. It cut across various denominations and itself grew out of radical Quakerism, Unitarianism, Universalism, Swedenborgianism, transcendentalism, and the work of Andrew Jackson Davis. Spiritualism allowed a shift from the harshness of Calvinist predestination and orthodoxy to one of direct experience with deceased spirits and experienced knowledge of the immortality of the soul. 

The experience of speaking publicly as mediums in various halls and events led women to greater self-confidence and autonomy as well as earn a decent living. The entire movement was individualistic but community-minded, anti-authoritarian, and anti-establishment. The women came to believe that a just society meant that women must be more equal to men. While Spiritualism intersected with various reform movements such as health and diet reform, dress reform, hydropathy (which Cayleff touches on briefly), abolition, marriage reform, suffrage, free love, mesmerism (see Fuller and Ogden), labor reform, children’s rights, socialism, and anarchism. Most central to this study are those that concern women’s rights. As with Cayleff, the personal project is intimately connected to social reform. Spiritualism’s engagement with health reform, to which a chapter is dedicated, also featured similar opposition to allopathic male authorities, as in Cayleff’s treatment of the water cure. 

By the Civil War era, Spiritualism (like hydropathy) began to decline. Reform movements lost their individualistic and antiauthoritarian zeal and reached out to orthodox institutions like the government, which frowned on radical beliefs. Spiritualism’s role in women’s rights movements declined as claims of fraudulence abounded and free love scandals lessened its popularity. Major women’s rights activists, who tended to be upper class and classist, had never been a part of the popular movement and rejected it outright. Likewise, as mediums became suffragists they lost interest in the dead. When a national association was created in 1865, as with many advances for women in new religious movements, women were pushed aside when the movements grew larger and institutionalized (see also Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims). In the 1870s, Theosophy and Christian Science, belief systems that had similar roots and beliefs as Spiritualism but were markedly more socially conservative, overtook it in popularity. 

CATEGORIES: Women’s History 19th Century U.S., Religious Studies, 19th-Century Social Change, Spirituality, Women & Politics, Religion, Politics and Women, Spiritualism, Mediums

PLACE: United States

TIME PERIOD: 1848-1890


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Book Review: Riotous Flesh by April R. Haynes

Book Review: Riotous Flesh by April R. Haynes

April R. Haynes. Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015. When Sylvester Graham offered the same sex advice to women as men—no masturbation, which would cause insanity, disease, and death, and no sexual excess