Her raw enthusiasm is what really sells it for me. This photo comes from the exercise bible that was Dr. G. Zander’s Medico-mechanische Gymnastik, published in 1892. While it seemed almost certain that the gym craze was born in the 1980s along with the exercise videos of Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons, alas, it looks like our enthusiasm for working out goes a little further back…
We can trace the first gymnasiums in history to ancient Persia over 3000 years ago in fact, when they were known as zurkhaneh, essentially areas that encouraged physical fitness. The Romans had them too; fitness facilities attached to their baths, decked out in mosaics. But the first indoor gymnasium as we know it didn’t come until the 1850s when one popped up in Germany, built by an an enthusiast for boys’ and girls’ gymnastics in schools to help cure the many ails of the era.
Then came the Swedish physician Dr. Gustav Zander, an early pioneer of exercise who promoted a therapeutic movement cure. Zander began developing exercise apparatus in medical school and soon after established a state-supported venture called the Therapeutic Zander Institute in Stockholm.
The first “modern” gym:
Stocked with his machines, the institute promoted health and healing through exercise, mostly for the wealthier elite who had the luxury of attending to their general health (and didn’t know much about physical labor).
Zander called it “mechanotherapy” and won a gold medal for his machines at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, igniting a craze in the United States and a demand for his exercise contraptions. By the time he released his book in 1892, the Zander Institutes had gone worldwide and his machines were available in health spas across the United States. Zander was basically the Victorian Joe Gold (founder of the Gold’s Gym chain in the 1960s, sparking the craze for the bodybuilding landmarks in the 70s & 80s).
But back to the Victorians. Can we just talk about their sportswear? Or lack thereof? Decked out in full skirts and corsets, blouses buttoned up to the neck, sturdy boots and can you imagine working out in a wool jacket?!
Out of curiosity I googled “Victorian Sportswear” and I found no evidence of anything practical– just more period dress, some decorated with sporty stripes to differentiate the “sports” clothes from their everyday clothes.
Of course the machines looks as torturous as their outfits, but you’ve gotta love how the Victorians over engineered everything.
Modern-day exercise machines can be rather tedious and boring, and these contraptions look like a laugh– (if not a lawsuit waiting to happen).