Tag: book review

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 

Book Review: Secularism in Antebellum America by John Modern

Book Review: Secularism in Antebellum America by John Modern

Hello, everyone. I abandoned you to my books and teaching for awhile, and for that apologies. I’m studying for exams and it’s just been impossible to post regularly even about fun stuff because frankly, I cannot bear to look at a screen any more than I must. I do promise I’ll get back to the masculine/feminine thing soon enough. 

Because it’s relevant to this Gymnosophist project, I’m sharing a review I wrote that relates to our lineage here (or one of them)—a piece of the history of spirituality in the U.S. It’s heavily post-modern so it won’t be for everyone, but I do recommend the book. Modern has a new one out, too: Neuromatic: Or, A Particular History of Religion and the Brain, University of Chicago Press, 2021. I have not read this yet, but it looks good. Enjoy! 

John Lardas Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America: With Reference to Ghosts, Protestant Subcultures, Machines, and Their Metaphors; Featuring Discussions of Mass Media, Moby-Dick, Spirituality, Phrenology, Anthropology, Sing Sing State Penitentiary, and Sex with the New Motive Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.


CATEGORIES: Religious Studies, Antebellum U.S. History, U.S. Religion, Communications Revolution, 19th-Century Social Change, Spirituality, Religion and postmodernism, 19th-Century Secularism, Protestant History U.S.

PLACE: United States



When the Honorable Judge Edmonds felt a repeated, warm pulsing touch on his upper left thigh, he felt that something had an overwhelming desire to communicate with him. He consulted a spirit medium, who gently passed on reassuring personal messages from the dead. This “touch of secularism” arose from Edmonds’ involvement with evangelical reform in the women’s ward at Sing Sing State Penitentiary in the 1840s. A haunted, technicolor tale, it is typical of Religious Studies scholar John Lardas Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America. Modern challenges the prevailing historiography of religion, secularism and agency in nineteenth-century antebellum America. Secularism, in his eyes, was not a conscious disenchantment via Enlightenment reason and science but was instead deeply entangled with the enchanted world and included its own metaphysics.[1]

Modern posits that secularism in the U.S. emerged within the evangelical Protestant tradition when the move away from sectarian, authority-oriented evangelical piety toward personal, reasoned, science-embracing and individually-governed Christian belief was transmitted through various new “technics” (e.g. machines and media such as religious pamphlets) embedded in the conditionality of a modernizing America. Modern questions Mark Noll’s celebration of religious agency and individuality in this period and suggests instead that personal agency is tricky and questionable.[2]

This analysis engages the theoretical maneuverings of Foucault: “Agency is not an either/or prospect. It is circuitous. It happens, but always in and through ‘instruments, techniques, procedures, levels of application, targets, and concepts.” Instead of the conscious self-realization of a disenchanted “True Religion,” Americans instead made choices from a dizzying new array of options, not in essence, but through “a mood or sensibility in and through which choices are made and made to feel decisive.” (Were they, though, made to feel decisive? Or is that just a nice touch?) In other words, they were socially conditioned, and agency was and is “an open question” (7, 16-17). Modern’s rhetoric is sometimes spirited and sometimes unnecessarily dense. It is bold and impressive. Fonder of ideas than historical materiality, his argument imbibes the same fantastic and circular feel that he claims was characteristic of religion in antebellum America.

Modern first interrogates the media practices that increased in popularity in the nineteenth century. These strove for a “systematic common good” through tracts published by the American Bible Society (one of the many New York institutions recently lost to lux real estate) and the American Tract Society, both institutions initiated by Lyman Beecher (recall Reynolds). This system was not one of direct control through the local church but though a calculated, rational education of “individuals” each reading in their homes. These evangelicals sought to create an imagined public whose individual moral concern and well-being was at the heart of the imagined good. Modern highlights evangelical media practices’ effects on “conceptions of the self and the social” (51). These media practices ordered both “true religion” and “expectations of mundane life,” and he analyzes how this impacted the individual and her relationship to the commons, piety, politics, and epistemology.

Secularism here was not without god. In fact, it was ordered by a reasoned, epistemic belief in Protestantism as a moral force for good inflected with Scottish Common Sense and American republicanism, both essential to a new American individual, communal, and political life. Here, the religious citizen is no longer an authoritarian Calvinist, but an enlightened, open individual in touch with the true essence of religion and a moral common good who was not necessarily involved in the local church, but was certainly reading evangelical tracts and participating in public life. This evangelicalism was not direct or heavy handed, but a “metaphysical solvent rather than a substantive ideology” which “did not even exist at the level of empirical reality” (55). These widely dispersed evangelical tracts also drew on the republican tropes of liberty and freedom according to and awarded by Christian moral law which allowed Christian individuals an “unmediated” self and connection to God.

Modern finds these themes in Robert Baird’s 1844 tome Religion in the United States. For Baird, evangelicalism was inevitable due to its “natural” advancement of liberty, virtue, and knowledge all while providing a direct, individual relationship to god. He provides the history of a Protestant “evolution” from “religionism” to “true religion” and contradicts Tocqueville’s critique of American religion as unexamined. Baird saw evangelicalism as a thoughtful, republican effort toward liberty and unity defined by the American’s freedom to practice it. To illustrate its secularism, Modern quotes Reverend Barnes, “Christian piety was the index of intellectual advancement” and essential to “modern science.” Piety called “forth the active powers of the mind,” and created, “true independence of thinking and investigation” (recall Howe’s emphasis on a nineteenth-century Protestantism that actively engaged emerging scientific theories). Modern surmises that religion in the United States was written in the spirit, if not the name, of secularism, “a medium through which the ‘gigantic’ synthesis of personal piety and civic order would unfold” (79, 83). Secularism in the U.S. was born within evangelical Protestantism, not against it. To demonstrate its enchantment, Modern turns to “spirituality.”

Protestants of all sects began to use this term more frequently in the early 1800s, usually to address the “immateriality of God.” Modern reports that liberals began to link the term with a human capacity for religion rather than an exclusive providence of the divine, reflected in the increased use of cognates such as “spirit-filled, spiritual religion, spiritual discernment, spiritual activity, spiritual perception.”


Enter New York phrenologist Orson Fowler who, in 1842, located the bodily organ of Spirituality in “the middle of the top of the head.” When healthy, this organ processed the rational understanding of spiritual influences and “faith in the reality of spirits” which provided an individual with “truth” and a knowledge of what is best. When ill, one was subject to superstition and fear of ghosts. There was, Modern contends, disenchantment in a still enchanted world, both “a mode of haunting and a means of disenchantment.” Now located in the physical body, spirituality was a matter of intangible imagination and an organ of the wholly rational man “who felt at home in an uncanny world.” Antebellum America was still enchanted even as it met science and reason. For Modern, spirituality in this period “reflected the impossibility of distinguishing between disenchantment and enchantment even as this division was relentlessly pursued in its name.”

Rather than an apolitical project of self, Modern investigates the “complex game of truth” at play. The concepts of spirituality such as reasoned objectivity, transcendental communion, solitary transformation, anti-institutionalism, etc., have political meaning in time and place. What is being transcended? What “forms of self” are being transformed and who is involved in these transformations?

To find the answer, see Emily Ogden’s Credulity.

If you want to know more about Judge Edmonds, read the book

[1] Disenchantment (“Entzauberung,” literally “de-magication,” a broken spell) was the term used by Max Weber to describe the modern, scientific consciousness he argued would inevitably replace religion and superstition. Because science must explain everything in such a world, a loss of wonder and delight result.

[2] Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.


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