The rise of body-building in Chicago, 1890-1920

Dexter Jackson at the 2007 IFBB Australian Bodybuilding Grand Prix in MelbourneIn a recent issue of History of Education Quarterly, 48(3), David S. Churchill examined the effects of Social Darwinian ideas on the educational policies of the Chicago Public School Board.

In February 1899, the Committee of Physical Culture of the Chicago Public School Board approved an intensive “anthropometric” study of all children enrolled in the city’s public schools. The study was a detailed attempt to measure the height, weight, strength, lung capacity, hearing, and general fitness of Chicago’s student population. Through 1899 and 1900, thousands of Chicago’s primary, grammar, and high school students had their bodies closely scrutinized, measured, weighed, tested, and, in a few cases, diagrammed. What the School Board members wanted to know was the “fitness” of the student body. Were Chicago public school students — many recently arrived immigrants from eastern and southern Europe — vital and vigorous children who could become energetic modern workers and citizens? (p. 341)

The results of this study had social and political implications.

Reassuringly, the authors stated that the students in the Chicago schools… showed “superiority” in “both size and physical development” when compared with children in other cities. Implicit in the social scientists’ comments was a desire to achieve an ideal type of body—an ideal that many Social Darwinist and eugenicists feared was disappearing. For some social reformers in the late 1890s loss of the ideal type was resulting in “a biological deterioration,” a deterioration caused by waves of immigration and resulting in social and economic degeneracy. (p. 343)

The response was a turn toward body-building, but couched specifically in gendered terms.

Fitness, strength, and muscles were all part of a physical assertion of masculinity. Men were to be strong, so as to face the competitive and dynamic atmosphere of the market and the workplace. Moreover, men needed to development these “natural” manly characteristics, which were being eroded or suppressed by the civilizing effects of women and urban life. Less obvious, but still an important component of body-building was the need for men to act, behave, and look manly. As discussions of normative sexuality emerged in the 1890s and 1900s it became important for “normal,” “manly” men to differentiate themselves from more effeminate men—men who were or had increasingly become associated with “deviant” sexuality.

In focusing on the body, body-building was able to connect these separate concerns in a single unifying discourse. The built body was the material reality, the physical manifestation, of these separate, but overlapping movements and social theories. This enabled the body to convey a variety of meanings, which were tied into an array of reform agendas and ideologies. Finally, body-building had interesting and complex class implications. Middle-class men turned to body-building as a way to strengthen themselves—something that their “sedentary” work failed to do. Moreover, in an era of Social Darwinism being fit meant progress, getting ahead and gaining power. To not be fit could mean the loss of position or slipping down the social strata. Some social reformers did not limit themselves to the development of the urban middle class. Educators and social workers, for example, focused their efforts in public schools, settlement houses, and on the factory floor where they taught physical exercise, as part of a project to “uplift” the poor and working classes. (pp. 369-370)

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About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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