One was an epidemic of nerves (neurasthenia) among the well-heeled; the other a slide towards degradation in inner-city slums.
In the battle for social regeneration, the need for physical exercise was emphasized. Man had to flex his muscles; his body needed rebuilding.
Men and Muscles
In 1876 the Royal Titles Act was passed by British Parliament, raising the status of the Queen to “Regina et Imperatrix.” It was an appealing analogy: Rome as a civilizing force in barbaric times and Britain’s mission to play a similar role in the modern world. There was a warning too: the decadence of the Eternal City should function as a reminder to modern policy makers.
There was plenty to worry about. The feverish pace of metropolitan life drove one section of the population over the cliff towards moral degeneration; dire poverty condemned another part to a life of utter degradation (Jack London’s “people of the abyss”).
Social observers described the urban poor as scarred by the stigmata of disease. As environmental issues were considered the cause of depravity, they insisted upon improvements in public hygiene. Eugenicists by contrast argued that degeneration was genetically determined. Social Darwinists fanned fears that a mass of degenerates would drag the nation into biological decline.
Degeneration was never developed into a coherent theory. It remained a loose indicator used in socio-political commentaries and fictional narratives. Critics rejected the term as pseudo-scientific humbug, but its impact was considerable.
As a curative for social ills, doctors prescribed physical exercises such as swimming, running, weight-lifting, or horse riding. In a world where only the fit survive, there was no place for weakness. A spiritual dimension was added to the argument. Critics argued that the Church had contributed to man’s meekness by presenting an effeminate and “unheroic” image of Christ. They called for robust religiosity.
The phrase “muscular Christianity” appeared in the late 1850s in the critical response to Charles Kingsley’s fiction. The age of mental flab needed a new Messiah who would turn feeble followers into fierce leaders. Imperialistic politics demanded an army of energetic men able to fight and endure hardship. Strength was found not in soul or spirit, but in muscle.
In Europe, degeneration became a catchword of the late nineteenth century. Inspired by Cesare Lombroso, it was integrated in 1867 into the discourse of psychiatry by Bénédict Morel, and popularized by Max Nordau in his book Entartung (1892/3: translated into English in 1895 as Degeneration). The term implied an intellectual and physical weakening of males in particular. Society was facing a crisis of masculinity. Similar anxiety was communicated from the city of New York.
In 1896, physician John Harvey Girdner published an essay in The North American Review in which he complained about “The Plague of City Noises” and the effect thereof on the mental balance of urban inhabitants. Five years later he published a book entitled Newyorkitis.
Based on his medical observations made in Manhattan, Girdner argued that metropolitan living conditions contributed to a brittle state of body and mind that departed from the normal. Symptoms of the affliction included restlessness, excitability, anxiety, pursuit of grandeur, and pretension of omniscience. Newyorkitis caused an epidemic of nervous disease, undermining individual vigor and public health.
Florenz [Flo] Ziegfeld is remembered as a successful Broadway impresario who launched a series of Ziegfeld Follies revues. Although his name is associated with “naughty” dancing girls, he had started his career working for his father’s nightclub The Trocadero in Chicago.
In search of entertainers, he came across Friedrich Wilhelm Müller, a strongman who had left Prussia in 1885 to avoid military service. Having adopted Eugen Sandow as his stage name, the latter became widely known as a circus performer. His reputation would carry him to the United States. In 1893, Ziegfeld contracted him to appear at the club and put him on “display” at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition.
Members of the audience applauded the amount of weight Eugen could lift, they admired him for breaking chains tied around his chest, but they seemed more intrigued by watching his bulging muscles (after performances women were permitted to feel his rippling muscles). Ziegfeld dressed Eugen in Roman garb and turned him into a “poseur,” inventing the Superman-poses that would make his client famous. The success of this exhibition led to a tour of Trocadero Vaudevilles. For the next four years he traveled the United States and Canada, performing his strongman routine. Sandow became the blond God of manhood.
On his return to Europe, Eugen settled in London. In 1897 he founded the Institute of Physical Culture. He organized the first bodybuilding contest at the Royal Albert Hall in September 1901 where his friend, the novelist and medical doctor Arthur Conan Doyle, acted as one of the judges.
That same year Ray Lankester, Director of the British Museum’s Natural History Department and a degeneration “specialist,” mounted an exhibition displaying the various races of the world. Representing the Caucasian type, a complete cast of Sandow’s body was put on a pedestal. Eugen was superman, the Grecian ideal of a perfect physique.
In 1911, he was appointed Professor of Scientific and Physical Culture to King George V. In his book Life is Movement (1919), Sandow stressed that his work was committed to the nation’s physical reconstruction and regeneration.
Joseph [Joe] Hubertus Pilates was born in Mönchengladbach on December 9th, 1883. His Greek father had been a gymnast; his German mother was a naturopath. They influenced his thinking on therapeutic exercise. A sickly child, Joseph was bullied when growing up. As a youngster he took up bodybuilding and gymnastics.
Like Eugen Sandow, he performed a “living Greek statue” act, embodying the classical ideal of manhood. Pilates moved to London in 1912 where he toured as a performer and professional boxer. He was joined by his brother Friedrich [Frederick] and together they performed as Roman gladiators. Joseph also taught the art of self-defense to Scotland Yard officers.
When war broke out, Eugen was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man. While incarcerated, he outlined a comprehensive fitness methodology which he would later call Contrology (after his death it became known as the Pilates Method). Shocked by the camp’s poor health conditions, he gathered the men in his block for exercise routines and built workout machines for those who were bedridden. Apparently none of the inmates under his care died from the dreaded Influenza Pandemic of 1918.
Having returned to Germany and living in Hamburg, he trained the local Military Police, worked with private clients, and invented specialist exercise equipment. Pilates developed an interest in the artistic side of gymnastics after meeting Rudolf Laban, a movement analyst and pioneer of modern dance, who incorporated some of his exercises into his own work.
When in 1925 he was requested to train the new German army, and aware of worsening political conditions, he refused on principle. He decided to settle in New York instead.
Joseph’s set sail on SS Westphalia of the Hamburg America Line, leaving Germany on the April 14th, 1926 and arriving in New York on April 27th. On board was Anna Clara [Klara] Zeuner, a kindergarten teacher who was slightly older than Joseph and suffered from arthritis. He worked with her on a program of exercises to relieve pain. It was the start of a lasting partnership.
Upon arriving in New York City, Joseph took over a boxing gym at 939 Eighth Avenue, Manhattan. Located in the Van Dyck Studio building, alongside dance studios and rehearsal spaces, Joseph and Clara set out on a career of supervising students that lasted well into the 1960s.
The Pilates exercise regime built flexibility and stamina. The proximity of dance studios meant that the system of body-conditioning gymnastics was integrated into ballet training. Joseph (the theorist) and Clara (the teacher) established a devoted following in New York’s performing arts community. When star names such as Martha Graham and George Balanchine became associated with the studio, many followed in their footsteps. Pilates became a “must do” for high-society women.
Joseph’s “gladiator” brother Frederick also settled in America. A carpenter by training, he manufactured most of the Pilates equipment. About 1935, he started his own studio in St Louis, Missouri, whilst his daughter Mary Pilates taught at the original studio in New York.
Joseph and Clara’s disciples continued to teach their techniques. Most prominent among them was Romana Kryzanowska, a pupil of Balanchine at the School of American Ballet where she had suffered an ankle injury. She was referred to Pilates for rehabilitation and stayed. Toward the end of his life (he died in 1967), Joseph appointed her director of the Pilates Studio. She and her daughter continued to operate at the studio’s original location and maintain the Pilates legacy which had contributed so much to relax Manhattan’s frantic pace.
Photos, from above: Promotion image for Sandow’s performance at the Chicago World Fair 1893; Advertisement in The Commoner in June 1901; The Sandow pose (as inspired by Florenz Ziegfeld); Pilates Advertisement; and Bust of Joe Pilates at his studio on 8th Avenue.