Author: gymnosophista

he learned neither to read nor swim

he learned neither to read nor swim

In his self-help guide for raising proper boys, John Locke extolled swimming as an ideal exercise. “The Romans thought it so necessary, that they rank’d it with letters; and it was the common phrase to mark one ill-educated, and good for nothing, that he had neither 

Cold Water Cure for Bleeding Hearts

Cold Water Cure for Bleeding Hearts

Ho! all ye lovers pale and wan, Who of your bleeding hearts complain For you my trade I carry on And from soiled hearts remove each stain. Come one, come all!– hearts smoothed and pressed And safely folded in the Chest.   Artist/Author unknown Date: 

the truth about finland :: sauna love

the truth about finland :: sauna love

Teir, Harald, Yrjö Collan, and Pirkko Valtakari. Sauna Studies: Papers Read at the VI International Sauna Congress in Helsinki on August 15-17, 1974. Helsinki, 1976.

“A place of peace and harmony.” Ah, the sauna. I’ve so much to say about sauna (and pirtis, and banya). I’ve tried to start many times, but because of the state of sauna in America, it comes out as a bit scolding and that’s not what I want to impart.

Hot bathing is integral to my sense of well being. I should say hot/cold bathing, because some aren’t aware that north-eastern European heat bathing involves—requires—cold after each bake. People found me a bit excessive and eccentric on this topic (quackish, even), but now that it’s coming into vogue again, all the sudden I’m a go-to authority. And to some, an authoritarian.

I try to be gentle. You don’t know how I try to keep my mouth shut and to preserve whatever “peace and harmony” remains, but sometimes it’s just…wtf are you doing in the sauna?

Many Europeans speak in hushed tones and shock about what goes on in American saunas (see below). I’ve spoken to total strangers about the spandex, the shoes, the phones, the 30-second sessions, the…working out? This is deeply upsetting, sacrilegious even, to people steeped in traditional sweat bathing. Someone needs to teach them about pirties nykštukas (saunatonttu, in Finnish).

Americans. Why do we compromise of sauna quality? A question Finns and many Europeans ask after a typical American sauna experience, a problem large enough to produce a 75-minute video from the Finlandia Foundation National.

Chatting with an Italian woman the other day, she grew wide-eyed as she asked me why Americans go into a sauna in spandex leggings and sneakers. “They are taking the filth of NYC in with them. And their workout sweat! And it’s so terrible for the skin!”

Comedian Ismo marvels over a California sauna with a metal door handle and carpet. And no löyly.

The sauna is meant to be a place of peace and harmony. Of relaxation and quiet. It is not a place for phones, weights, workouts, or clothes. Clean towels or clean cotton bathrobes, if that’s your thing, are really the only items you should bring into the sauna with you. It is not the place to catch up on a sitcom, comb or condition your hair, or cut your nails. Gross. It is a social place, and conversations in low, pleasant tones should be welcome. Coming in with your wet bathing suit or tight workout gear is terrible for your skin and bad for the wood of the sauna. Perhaps you find this nit-picky, and when in Rome….

But when an elite institution has to instruct, “NO URINATION,” something has gone terribly wrong.

Sauna has something of a meditative quality. Some say you should treat it like a temple or church, and they aren’t wrong. I want to communicate this because if you are distracting yourself in the sauna, you aren’t getting the full experience, which is peaceful, calming, and, at times, euphoric.

Hot bathing traditions vary, and there is no one absolute right way to do it. The most common, I’d say, is three sessions of 10-30 minutes of heat, followed by 5-10 minutes of cold and about 15 minutes of rest. Sadly, most American saunas don’t provide a place for the rest unless you want to sit on a bench in a locker room, which is not so restful. Proper banyas have lounge chairs for this purpose. This three-session bath is time consuming, so few do it more than once a week. A daily 20-30 minute session followed by cold and a rest is great. If you can add another 10-20 minute hot session after the cold, you will likely feel the euphoria I so love. We do not end with a cold shower to build character or endurance. We do it to wash off the sweat.

For me, the return to the heat after a shockingly cold shower or plunge is absolute bliss. It helps to lie down. Sometimes the cold can be euphoric as well, but I seldom have access to cold enough temps unless I’m at a banya, and sometimes not even then. Even with the trendiness of cold plunges, it’s hard to get gym management to care that their showers aren’t cold. One of the saunas I frequent is full of sneaker-clad, phone-watching spandex wearers, but I occasionally endure it because they have really cold showers.

If you are new to sauna, do not go all out the first time. While I marvel at people who come into the sauna for only a minute or two (what are they doing?), understand that you are supposed to be uncomfortable. If you have any health issues, get an ok from your doc first. People doing three sessions of 30-minute intense heat are used to it. I can stay in cold longer than most not because I’m particularly tough. I’m just used to it. I grew into it gradually.

When I teach people how to hot/cold bathe, I point out that you are most uncomfortable right before your body starts to sweat. If you feel unwell, rather than just uncomfortable, get out and cool off. Once you are sweating and uncomfortable, depending on the heat of the sauna, try to stay three more minutes. You might break past the discomfort and really start to relax. After three minutes, try a lower bench. If you’ve had enough, leave. Don’t overdo. You will acclimate, learn to sweat better, and grow into longer sessions. I don’t sweat much without sauna, and if I’m deprived of sauna due to travel or a pandemic, my body forgets how to sweat well. I have to relearn when I return.

I haven’t explained pirties nykštukas (saunatonttu, in Finnish) or löyly (steam from water on the rocks. Finnish sauna is not dry), which get into the lore and culture of the heat bath, but also its soul and spirit. The former are useful in teaching sauna etiquette. Nor have I discussed the culture of nekedness in the sauna, which seems really difficult for Americans to grasp (Ismo does a great job on this, above. So does an understanding of the Puritans). I’ll try, next time.

(The truth about Finland is found in the paragraph in the photo at top.)


Flotsam 2023

Flotsam 2023

Resolutions, anyone? What are you reading? What does emotional fulfillment mean to you? It’s been awhile since I’ve just written an off-the-cuff post. And the sun is out. I’m still reflecting on 2022. It was a good year. As the year ended, I read a 

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 the New Gymnastics: Birth of a System

Dio Lewis
Dio Lewis by Fred Eugene Leonard, in Pioneers of Modern Physical Training, 1910.

Before Todd’s book, Diocletian (Dio) Lewis had received little historical attention, though his contributions to physical education were well known. He popularized the system of “New Gymnastics,” wrote one of the most popular books of the century on exercise, founded the first teachers’ college for physical education in the US, believed that women should be fully-participating members of society, started a school for their intellectual and physical training, and inspired the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. 

Following founding father Benjamin Rush, Lewis prescribed exercise as a treatment for his wife’s consumption, which proved helpful.

In 1856, Lewis traveled to Europe to buy books, visit movement cure organizations, tour gyms, and meet craniologist and phrenologist Paul Broca (yes, that Broca. Our heroes’ embarrassments are usually written out of history). His experiences led him to conclude that Americans were too obsessed with strength and needed to improve speed and flexibility, which Ling’s system provided the Europeans. 

The radical Lewis once protected abolitionist Wendell Philips, an indication that his hygiene methods were still connected to the radical reform movements of the 1830s and 1840s. Todd notes that while Dio Lewis was labeled a “crank,” so were Garrison, Phillips, Alcott, H.B. Blackwell, and Lucy Stone” (Nathaniel T. Allen as quoted by Todd, 220). This, to me, serves as a reminder that it wasn’t just the “bad” scientists and politicians, like Paul Broca and Louis Agassiz, who were racist. Racism and eugenics were intellectual beliefs founded in elite science and promulgated by elite institutions. Supporting these ideas was the norm—to challenge them was radical.

In 1860, Lewis opened a public gym in Boston open to women and men. It differed from other gyms in that it offered scheduled exercise classes and two halls with exercise equipment where women and men trained under the eye of drill masters. An annual membership with four classes per week cost $20 (worth $714 in 2022).  

Dio Ladies SchoolIt also housed Lewis’ medical office. There he prescribed his patients “hygienic movement cures.” His wife and several paid female assistants worked one-on-one with each woman patient, as would a present-day personal trainer. In addition to a set of exercises to improve fitness and provide specific remedies, Lewis counseled on massage, early cold water bathing, proper sleep, diet (no caffeine or sugar), and dress. 

Textbooks for Majestic Womanhood: The Literary Legacy of Dio Lewis

“Three of Dio Lewis’s many books bear directly on the question of appropriate women’s exercise: The New Gymnastics for Men, Women and Children, published in 1862, its completely rewritten 10th edition published in 1868; and a lesser-known book entitled Our Girls, published in 1871. 

One of my favorite paragraphs of the book, slightly cut but mostly verbatim:

“Lewis understood that body ideology was intimately tied to 19th-century America’s notions of class. ‘If she looks strong and moves with a will, she will be mistaken for a worker, for a servant. If she looks delicate and moves languidly, it will be seen at once that she does not belong to the working class. Don’t you see now how it is? To have a strong and muscular body is to be suspected of work, of service; while a frail, delicate personnel is proof of position of ladyhood. This attitude must stop. It is true that many strong, muscular women are coarse and ignorant but that is because they have given their lives to hard work and have been denied all opportunities to cultivate their minds and manners. To compare such with the petted, pampered daughters of social and intellectual opportunity, and then to treat the strong body of one as the sources of the coarseness and ignorance within, and in the other case, to treat the weak, delicate body as the source of the fine culture, is to reason like an idiot.” 

dating ad 1863
Matrimonial Ad, 1863

“Whenever women shall rise to true companionship with men as their equals and not their toys, then a small woman will no more be preferred than a small man.” (Lewis in Todd, 255-256). Women should be between 140-160 pounds and big women had a “more dignified character and greater amiability than small women” (Todd, 256).  

The Influence of Dio Lewis: “Courage and Strength to Take Up the Battle”

Todd argues that Dio Lewis made a difference in the lives of American women by “raising physical education for women to a new level” and details his all star “Ladies’ School.”

“Reaping the Reward”: The Quest for Health by Lizzie Morley and Her Sisters

A case study of Lizzie Morley and other students of Lewis. 

Mrs Plumbs Herald of Health 1863
Ad in The Herald of Health, 1863

In the 1850s and 1860s, some women opened gyms and schools of physical training. A Mrs. Z. R. Plumb opened the Academy of Physical Culture on W. 14th Street in Manhattan and Mary Hall founded the Brooklyn Ladies Gymnasium on Atlantic Avenue. Both were well attended by prominent New Yorkers. 

Grandniece of Catherine Beecher (small circles), Charlotte Perkins Gilman, best known as the patient of Silas Weir Mitchell, grandfather of American neurology and his rest cure, used regular exercise as a means to deal with her gender-enforced economic dependence and confined domestic life (Todd, 290).

After the Civil War, fitness entrepreneurship expanded rapidly. “Rubber chest expanders, dumbbells, Indian Clubs,” other home exercise equipment and various books became popular.

This is the last post on Todd’s history of women’s exercise in the 19th century and, sure, it reads more like notes than the other four. There’s no wind up

yellow wallpaper joke
Wait, what? How is Gilman’s story in any way passionate? Ridiculous. #whyidontwatchmovies

summary—it just drops here. See this post if you want a general recap, as I’ve said enough.

I hope you enjoyed! Next up (after a commercial break)? Crusaders for Fitness by James Whorton. Pretty much everything I’ve thought about in the last five years (related to US health), but retro. Also cited in my 1995 undergraduate senior thesis. Or Knowledge in the Time of Cholera by Owen Whooley, which is absolute fire.

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 

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 telling us this, and reneging, for hundreds of years. 

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

Jan Todd provides a history of women’s 19th-century exercise in this comprehensive, fascinating and fun text. In the 19th-century, women exercised far more vigorously and with more variety than has been appreciated. Rousseau’s influence on women’s education and the “Cult of True (Frail) Womanhood” resulted in the popularity of calisthenics, which has been well documented. 

The word “calisthenics” derives from the Greek words for “beautiful” and “strength.” It came about around 1827 to describe a gentle and rhythmic exercise system created in response to women and girls participating in the popular strength-building, vigorous gymnastic exercises of the time. (Gymnastics then meant exercise rather than the elite sport Americans think of today.) 

Orthopaedia. or, the art of correcting and preventing deformities. 1743
Orthopaedia. or, the art of correcting and preventing deformities. 1743

Through archival journals and books, Todd demonstrates that before the 1830s difficult, “purposive” exercises were enjoyed by women in pursuit of what she calls “majestic womanhood,” a Mary Wollstonecraft-inspired vision of strong and competent women. “Purposive exercise physically, intellectually, emotionally influenced women and often empowered them to improve themselves in the world outside their homes.” 

Though gentle calisthenics won out for the next few decades, some systems of exercise for women demanded endurance and great strength. Women who practiced them, including Elizabeth Blackwell and Harriet Austin, created a larger and stronger ideal of femininity through the popular ideologies of Lamarckianism, neoclassicism, and phrenology. In a direct challenge to “The Cult of True Womanhood” (see Barbara Welter), they believed that women should be equal to men physically and intellectually. Catherine Beecher, who encouraged exercise within the bounds of women’s domestic place, erroneously receives much credit for women’s physical education. Beecher was not the creator of an exercise system, but an adept marketer. 

Purposive exercise was a feature of the 19th-century health reform movement which also included mesmerism, botanical therapy, hydrotherapy, and phrenology, all of which are generally portrayed by recent academics as eccentric and religious quackery. Yet it’s crucial to remember that few scientific advances benefited medicine until much later in the 19th century. Mainstream doctors still practiced “heroic medicine” which involved bleeding, purging, risky surgery and the use of toxic drugs such as mercury, calomel, and arsenic. What was science and what was quackery is not always easy to define, even in hindsight. (Much of what we call pseudoscience now was academically-perpetuated mainstream science back in the day. See: eugenics. I add this to Todd, who comes close to this statement but does not make it.) 

Chapter One: Majestic Womanhood vs Baby-Faced Dolls: the Debate Over Women’s Exercise

The Calvinism of the early Northeastern US forbade exercise and dancing, but this proscription had gradually softened by the 19th Century, as strict Protestantism lost adherents to more flexible sects. The rational Christianity of the European Enlightenment influenced many elites, particularly philosophers and physicians (some were both, like John Locke) who noticed that sitting inside reading books all day was injurious to health. Prevention and cure were active recreation. 

Influenced by John Locke’s prescriptions for exercise, Rousseau concocted an outdoor life for Emile, the boy in his classic text on education, who learned about the world through physical experience rather than books. The popularity of his 1763 text inspired educators to include various types of physical education in their schools for boys. 

Recent Discoveries
This headline on the NYT at top caught my eye as I was reading Todd’s book in a cafe. Everything old is new again. 2022.

Rousseau, whom Todd names “chief prophet of what might be called eugenic womanhood,” did not recommend this life for Sophie, Emile’s ideal wife. Rather, she should be educated to please men, to “be fertile, submissive, non-ambitious and content to stay at home.” This was not simply a reflection of the era, as e.g., Condorcet and Voltaire fared much better, and the Enlightenment period included discussions about what freedom meant for those who were not elite white men.

Mary Wollstonecraft responded to Rousseau in her 1793 classic, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, arguing that women should receive a broad education in rational thought, as well as strengthening exercise.  Todd calls this model “Majestic Womanhood.” She who “strengthens her body and exercises her mind will…become the friend, and not the humble dependent of her husband.”* Wollstonecraft was maddened by women who followed fashionable trends, particularly the new elite ideals of female frailty, restrictive clothing, and a sedentary life, which were taught from infancy. 

That this upset Wollstonecraft in the 18th Century (1700s) fascinates me. She was frustrated by her peers, the elite women who went along with these boring, unhealthy and restrictive dictates. This is an impossible issue today—many women would rather adopt the status quo, playing pink, weak, and a bit dumb, largely for the power they can eek from it. While men have an obvious stake in keeping women servile, aren’t the rewards of a partner who is not dependent, but instead an equal and engaging companion far higher? Two hundred and thirty years ago, Wollstonecraft hoped that women would have power over themselves (not men), and contrary to the current backlash myth that feminists aren’t hot, Wollstonecraft (as well as many 19th-century American women’s rights advocates) had an unconventional sex life (for the day). 

I digress. Todd demonstrates that Wollstonecraft’s ideal of “Majestic Womanhood” found its way to America, where “purposive exercise” was taught by Sarah Pierce in her Litchfield Female Academy in Massachusetts from 1798 to 1833, an earlier start to women’s fitness education than is usually noted.

Continued next time.

*Wollstonecraft as quoted in Todd, Physical Culture, 14.

the body beautiful // & how to pick a trainer

the body beautiful // & how to pick a trainer

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