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In the early decades of the 19th century excess body weight, usually called “corpulence” or, more politely, “superfluous flesh,” was never considered a health problem, since most Detroiters labored endless hours on farms and were more apt to lose weight than “put on flesh.”

But during the latter half of the 19th century people began to grow concerned about becoming overweight as the wealthy enjoyed four-hour dinners and little exercise, and occupations became more sedentary: sitting at a desk, standing at a store counter or manning an industrial machine.

“It is a matter of personal concern to me to find out some way of reducing my superabundant flesh,” one woman wrote to the Detroit Free Press in 1909. “To make matters worse, my husband who measures 6 feet 2 inches in stocking feet is very lean. If he goes on thinning and I continue to fatten I forsee we will look like a barrel and a beanpole, whenever we take our walks abroad.”

What did “overweight” mean in 19th century Detroit? In 1847 the Democratic Free Press (predecessor to the Detroit Free Press) reported that the average weight of a newborn infant was seven pounds for males, six pounds for females — not far from today’s average. The 1847 article continued: “When the weight of the body has reached its average maximum, men weigh 139 pounds, women 112 pounds.”

Fifty years later the numbers remained about the same. In 1898 the newspaper reported that the average weight of a man was 140 pounds and a woman 123 pounds, with the average male height at about 5 feet 6. Only one out of 208 men exceeded 6 feet tall. (Weirdly the article added: “Curiously enough the mean weight and height of lunatics is less than sane people.”)

Bring on the diets!

The 19th century was infamous for health and diet fads. While some were legitimate and not dissimilar to today’s health plans, most had no scientific basis; governmental regulation of anything related to health did not begin until 1906. Patent medicines with their frequently phony ingredients and outlandish claims were a big source of advertising revenue for newspapers like the Detroit Evening News (today The Detroit News). However, the advertising revenue they generated was discussed and weighed by newspaper executives vs. the obligation to protect the public from dangerous fraud, such as “electric belts,” which were banned from the newspaper’s ads.

Some of the more outlandish diet plans in the 19th century included swallowing tape worm larvae, drinking doses of arsenic poison, wearing rubberized corsets and underwear, and drinking vinegar to kill the appetite. Diets could be simple, such as the “twenty-minute standing regimen”:

“A well-known physician is quoted as saying the person who makes a practice of standing for twenty minutes after meals will never become unduly stout.” - Detroit Free Press, 1911.

One of the most famous legitimate diets of the 19th century was developed by Englishman William Banting. In 1863 he found that by removing all carbohydrates and oily foods from his dining he lost 50 pounds in one year, much like the Atkins Diet. It worked and “Banting” or “the Banting method” became an international term synonymous with dieting.

Along with heavy drinking and hangovers, our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers suffered notoriously from eating-related health disorders, especially indigestion, referred to in the past as “dyspepsia,” “catarrh of the stomach,” or more graphically as suffering from “a deranged stomach.” Doctors and related “health experts” claimed it was brought on by three bad habits: eating way too much food at a sitting; eating greasy, overcooked food with virtually no vegetables other than potatoes or turnips, and, finally, eating too fast, “wolfing food” as they called it. It was not uncommon to see men eating dinner standing at a bar or table.

Purging one’s system

Victorian health always had a moralistic undercurrent. One didn’t lose weight to merely look and feel good but to cleanse the body from the immoral features of city life: alcohol, tobacco, pollution, sexual temptation and more. To keep the body free from these evils, Victorians had a fixation on purging the body either through not eating or through the use of laxatives, mineral water, enemas and the like. It was referred to as “internal cleansing” or “autointoxication.”

“That Joyful Feeling! With the exhilarating sense of renewed health and strength and internal cleanliness which follows when taking Syrup of Figs.” -- Advertisement in the Detroit Free Press, 1893.

Some of these purging methods were bizarre, such as eating sand to scour the body of poisons — a fad that started in St. Louis and grew popular in Detroit as well. “First let me clarify something,” the leader of the International Health Association, William Windsor, Ph.D., said in 1902. “We do not eat dirt. We do eat sand. It is only round sand that has been carefully selected, cleansed, sterilized and purified.”

Windsor stated the reason for eating sand was that “many if not most animals eat sand or grit to help digestion. Babies are born with an instinct to eat sand and will fill their mouths with it … . The stomach is a grinding mechanism that needs sand to grind.”

The Great Masticator

Related to purging was a nationally popular diet started by a Yale University professor, Horace Fletcher. It involved excessive chewing and was nicknamed by the newspapers as the “Chew Chew Club” or “Fletcherism” diet; Fletcher called it the “Cult of Right Eating.” It had 200,000 followers, including at one time Mark Twain, Franz Kafka and Henry James.

Fletcher came to Detroit now and again to give talks on health, hygiene and his namesake diet. At age 40 Fletcher said he was “flabby, always tired and dyspeptic.” He began chewing every bite of food 32 times (one for each tooth, he said) and immediately felt better. The foundation of Fletcher’s program was that one had to chew one’s food slowly and deliberately, getting all the essence out of the food; then, instead of swallowing it, one spit out what remained.

Some things Fletcher insisted needed to be chewed hundreds of times. He even recommended chewing liquids since it stimulated gastric juices. People held Fletcherism dinner parties, timing one another’s chewing. Fletcherism had the added beloved Victorian benefit of internal cleansing, so much so that Fletcher claimed one went to the bathroom only once a week; he carried a sample of his feces in a box to show people they were without odor except for a slight scent of “warm biscuits.”

Exercise: A foreign concept

“Years ago the theory in vogue for gaining health was dieting, and hundreds of people dieted themselves into insanity or the grave. Now the mania is for exercise, and hundreds of young men (and although it may seem to be a ridiculous statement) young women are also killing themselves by ‘exercise.’” - a letter to the editor from a physician, 1880

While Detroiters loved competitive sports, the concept of noncompetitive exercise for health and well-being was literally a foreign one, coming from mainly European sources, and each claimed to be the final word in effectiveness.

These ideas began to appear in the U.S. in the 1830s and reached Detroit in the 1850s. Exercise programs were then called “gymnastics” and were performed indoors in a space specifically dedicated to exercise — a gymnasium. The term was used to emphasize shared roots of Greek and Roman philosophy and lifestyle by developing the spirit and mind of a person through development of the body; the operative phrase used in these times was not “exercising” but “doing gymnastic work.”

Competing systems came from Germany, Sweden, Denmark, England, France, and later from the U.S.

“This country is way behind most civilized countries in the matter of systematized physical training,” Dr. J.G. Johnson chided in the Detroit Free Press in 1889. “Sweden and Germany are certainly far ahead of us in that respect … compare the physique of Swedes, Germans and English and the result is not in our favor.”

German gymnastics, known as the Socialer Turnverein (Turners’ Clubs) were organized in Detroit in 1852, soon after Germans began moving to Detroit. German gymnastics used physical exercise in exhibitions that included lifting weights, “turning” on parallel bars, and even swinging on a trapeze.

Another exercise club, the Sokols Detroit, were from a variety of Central European countries. In 1881 the Turnvereins and Sokol Americky joined forces to hold a national convention in Detroit.

“A procession of fine looking men, both old and young, marched down Woodward Avenue, to the music of the Great Western Band, presenting a good appearance in their neat uniforms of blue flannel and black felt hats.” - Detroit Free Press, 1881.

The band and the athletes led an audience of thousands to Belle Isle, where they not only exhibited athletics described as “rarely surpassed” but performed acrobatics, made human pyramids and even sang in a concert.

Other popular groups in Detroit were the Polish Falcons Gymnastic Association and the Detroit Caledonian Club, whose members were men of Scottish origins living in Detroit and Canada. The Caledonians held Scottish Games and exhibitions of strength and agility on Belle Isle, attracting thousands during the summers.

Detroit Gymnastic Association

One of the earliest home-grown physical fitness organizations was the Detroit Gymnastic Association, founded by D. Farrand Henry and clerks of the bookstore Raymond and Sellecks for after-hours exercise in 1858. They developed the upper floor of a bookstore on Woodward near Congress for their gymnasium. Membership was five dollars a year, with night hours and the latest “appliances.” At one point they had 300 members.

Detroit Gymnastic promoted the exercise and philosophy of Dr. Dioclesian Lewis, who was considered the most influential expert on physical fitness in the U.S. in the 19th century. Lewis’s version was called “light gymnastics,” compared to the more vigorous German and Swedish workouts which Lewis believed suitable only for young men; Lewis included women and children, the elderly and people completely out of shape. He used hoops, rings, wands and Indian clubs in his exercises. He also invented the bean bag for improving coordination.

The exclusive and elegant DAC

The Detroit Athletic Club (DAC) was founded in 1887 by a group of amateur athletes. The original clubhouse and track and field grounds were on Woodward, north of today’s Albert Kahn-designed six-story building on Madison.

The DAC was immediately popular and by 1889 it was filling its gymnasium with exhibitions that included musical performances along with boxing matches and Greco-Roman wrestling displays.

By 1913 the DAC had become an exclusive club for about 100 of Detroit’s prominent automotive and industrial leaders. In that year it raised $1.1 million for its clubhouse, which opened in 1915 with French linens and china and exercise equipment from Europe. The DAC continues today with more than 4,000 members.

YMCA and the physical culture

Prior to 1880s the YMCA was a gathering place to listen to lectures from touring writers and figures of the day, discuss the Bible in groups, and promote a morally healthy lifestyle for young single men. In the late 1880s the international Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) began a new direction that emphasized physical activities to develop and strengthen the whole person. They called it “physical culture.”

YMCAs soon became known for their gymnasiums and indoor swimming pools. In Boston, YMCA superintendent Dr. Luther Gulick asked a young instructor named James Naismith to create a game that could be played indoors during the winter months. In response Naismith invented basketball.

In Detroit as elsewhere, the YMCA was open to anyone. Led by a young instructor, A.G. Studer, who was also enrolled in medical college, the YMCA became the most popular spot in Detroit for exercise and indoor recreation. In 1889 the YMCA recorded 80,000 visits from 2,000 members. Besides being affordable, the YMCA switched from a heavy, body-building regimen with limited appeal, to a lighter approach with progressive goals and rewards, enthusiasm and variety.

Studer gave out medals (bronze, silver, gold) that were highly prized by the young men as they progressed through a year’s worth of exercise programs. He held classes for high school students, children age 6 to 14, and for those with special needs - such as overweight men or men described as “deformed” by their occupation, such as blacksmiths who use only a few muscles and ignore the others. But Studer’s most popular class, and the largest of its kind in the United States, was targeted at businessmen.

Ninety middle-aged men worked out, many for the first time, three nights a week doing mainly calisthenics, dumbbells and “free movement.” Competitive activities included basketball, tag, boxing and fencing. Lawyers, bank clerks, physicians and businessmen also would listen to lectures from Studer on anatomy and how important exercise was to the nervous system or body mechanics.

This was not just to feel better or buff up. As Studer explained in an interview in 1899: “… A proper [physical] development will add to the human race, health, life, courage, endurance, confidence and morality. It emphasizes the fact that to become effeminate, is to invite misery.”

Women join the exercise movement

In the 1880s horseback riding for women was a fashionable form of exercise and seen as a way to draw in good country air and invigorate the lungs. It was especially popular with Detroit women.

Walking properly also was considered important to health and walking parties were popular at the turn of the century when young men and women would pair up and walk five miles or more, switching partners as they walked. Dancing was also seen as good exercise:

“The amount of exercise obtained by a long waltz might do many a person a great service, for it is claimed it relieves the dyspeptic sufferer, it assists the action of the liver, and causes blood to circulate more freely through the vessels - important functions conducive every way to good health.” – Detroit Free Press, 1897.

Many 19th century “experts” thought exercising in gymnasiums for women a waste of time, if not a danger as expressed by an unnamed “professor” to a reporter in 1889:

“Girls should never be allowed in the gymnasium unless they are in the charge of a thorough master of calisthenics and gymnastics. It may seem strange to say but girls are more daring and much more reckless than boys when they get the athletic fever. … Girls have to take a more systematic training than boys. They are not so strong and have to be treated tenderly. I have known girls to sprain their toes in the running high jump even when the bar was only a foot from the ground.” - Detroit Free Press, 1889.

The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) began in London, England, in 1855. It reached Michigan through Olivet College in 1884 and opened in Detroit in 1892. At its founding in Detroit the women who led the YWCA estimated there were 10,000 single young women working as housekeepers and store clerks, and in factories in Detroit. The YWCA began on the sixth floor of a building on Wilcox Street, its initial mission to provide a place for single young women to stay, discuss the (Protestant) Bible, take classes, make friends and get a cheap but nourishing lunch.

By 1902 a new building was funded and by 1908 the YWCA would boast 3,000 members, 900 of whom attended the new gymnasium and exercise classes from October to May. (Outdoor classes took over during warm months.) The new gymnasium was fully equipped with “rope ladders, chest weights, traveling rings and flying rings, giant strides, stall bars, and balance beams.”

Clash of old and modern worlds

Where Victorian prudishness met the modern world was in the clothing or “costumes” that women and girls wore during gymnastics work. These outfits flourished in women’s private colleges, as described in a catalogue of Elmira College in upstate New York from 1872:

“[The costume] is of black alpaca, lined throughout, the waist is Garibaldi, long enough for the arms to be raised to the utmost extent, the belt to be 4 inches longer to be a close fitting measure, the skirt to be finished ten inches from the floor, drawers, Turkish, full, drawn in with an elastic band at the bottom … trimmings to be of Gilbert’s Opera flannel, scarlet.”

Some young women struggled with the revealing costume. A report from the University of Nebraska in the 1890s described the discomfort: “The new girls when first appearing in gym clothes were overcome with shame, although no man, not even the janitor, was allowed to enter while the girls were there; most of the girls were so shy … that they could not take a step but sank down in a heap on the gymnasium floor, huddling together and refusing almost to tears to take part.”

Within a week, however, the older girls coaxed them “to get over their foolishness.”

“People think that the gymnasium is only good for muscles,” a downtown Detroit store worker told the Free Press in 1905. “But that is only a small part of it. I came to Detroit a stranger with no recreation, no amusements. The store during the long hours of the day and my little room at night were the only places open to me.

“Then I joined the Y.W.C.A. gym classes. I became enthusiastic over the work — it helped overcome fatigue and strengthened me. I met lovely girls who became my friends and when I got to the basketball stage — well, there wasn’t a dance so gay that would have tempted me from a game.”

Bill Loomis’s new book “On This Day in Detroit History,” available now, depicts the big moments and the everyday events in Detroit’s 300 year history.

Sources for this article included:

Victorian America, Transformations in Everyday Life 1876-1915, by Thomas J. Schlereth; Harper Collings, 1991.

The History of Physical Education in Colleges for Women, by Dorothy Sears Answorth; A.G. Barnes and Company, 1930.

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