Tag Archives: exercise

New York City on Two Wheels

League of American Wheelman Sweater Patch, 1896, in the Sports COllection.  Museum of the City of New York. 49.300.1.

League of American Wheelman Sweater Patch, 1896, in the Collection on New York City Sports. Museum of the City of New York. 49.300.1.

May is National Bicycle Month and is recognized by various local and national bicycle and transportation advocacy groups  such as New York’s Transportation Alternatives and the League of American Bicyclists.   Some New Yorkers may feel that New York City’s “bicycle craze,”  with its vast network of bike lanes and a bike sharing program, is a relatively recent phenomenon; the city, however, has a long history with two-wheeled transportation, boasting local bicycle clubs such as the Kings County Wheelmen, Williamsburgh Wheelmen, Gramercy Wheelmen, and Harlem Wheelmen.  Many members of these clubs were also involved with the national organization of the time,  the League of American Cyclists, which was founded as the League of American Wheelma (LAW) in 1880 and had over 100,000 members nationwide by 1896.  The League of American cyclists still uses the same emblem of the three spinning wings as pictured to the upper left in the LAW sweater patch.  Notable cycling enthusiasts from New York’s History include Diamond Jim Brady, Alfred E. Smith, and John D. Rockefeller.

Kings County Wheelmen Sweater Patch, 1896, from the Collection on Sports.  Museum of the City of New York. 49.300.2.

Kings County Wheelmen Sweater Patch, 1896, in the Collection on Sports. Museum of the City of New York. 49.300.2.

In 1949, wheelman Charles W. Hadley made a gift of several objects related to bicycle clubs and races from the late 19th century, including the patch above, and a similar one from the Kings County Wheelmen, pictured to the right.  According to a June 29, 1894 New York Times article, “Cyclists Noted for Racing: Kings County Wheelmen’s Company of ‘Scorchers’,” the Brooklyn cycling club was one the most well known and respected clubs both within New York and in other states, and members of the Kings County Wheelmen were greeted enthusiastically with “Hello, Kings County!”  It was said that an “introduction of a ‘member of the Kings County’ is the best of passports amongst cyclists all over the country.”

It is unclear whether Mr. Hadley was a member of all of the clubs whose ephemera he collected. It seems unlikely, as good healthy competition and loyalty to one’s club was part of the fun.  His participation, however, as a member of the Williamburgh Wheelmen is documented both in the photograph below (Hadley is the middle cyclist), and as the 1st Lieutenant of the club, noted

unknown photographer, The Williamsburgh Wheelmen, 1896.  Museum of the City of New York. 49.300.7.

unknown photographer, The Williamsburgh Wheelmen, 1896. Museum of the City of New York. 49.300.7.
Williamsburgh Wheelman: Schedule of runs, April 4th to July 25th, 1897, from the Collection on Sports. Museum of the City of New York. 49.300.12

Williamsburgh Wheelman: Schedule of runs, April 4th to July 25th, 1897, in the Collection on Sports. Museum of the City of New York. 49.300.12

on the cover of the program  the right.  You can view the full program by clicking here, and you’ll see the interior lists “runs,” or rides, organized by the Williamsburgh club to various locations in the New York City area. The back cover makes reference to club loyalty, stating “all unattached Wheelmen are invited to attend club runs and visit club house,” excluding those associated with other clubs.

Another cycling event sponsored by the clubs, and still popular today, is the Century Ride, which is defined by the completion of 100 miles within 12 hours.

Centruy Run of the Gramercy and Metropolis Wheelmen, 1895, in the Collection on Sports. Museum of the City of New York. 49.300.16.

Century Run of the Gramercy and Metropolis Wheelmen, 1895, in the Collection on Sports. Museum of the City of New York. 49.300.16.

Century rides usually have multiple checkpoints where the rider has to stop and have his or her (these days, “wheelwomen” are allowed to join in on rides, too)  card punched in order to prove that he or she completed the entire ride.

Waverley Moonlight Century Run, 1897, in the Collection on Sports. Museum of the City of New York. 49.300.14

Waverley Moonlight Century Run, 1897, in the Collection on Sports. Museum of the City of New York. 49.300.14

Today’s cycling clubs and advocacy organizations appear to have many of the same goals as those of over a century ago: promotion of the bicycle for fun, fitness, and socializing.   We can also add the environmental benefits of bicycling today’s agenda.   The League of American Wheelmen, mentioned earlier, is credited for the paving of roads in America, even before automobiles became common, and the New York Times article referred to earlier speaks of how the King County Wheelmen did more than any group in the state to “keep the wheel before the general public” and promote cycling through road races and group meets.  As a ‘Wheelwoman” myself, I won’t attempt to hide my opinion on the subject of bicycles on the streets of New York,  but whatever your feelings, I think we can all agree that Mr. Hadley would certainly be surprised to see how much a part of the urban landscape cycling is in New York City today.

Visit the Museum’s online Collections Portal to view more images from New York City’s cycling history.

Fitness Crazes of Yesteryear

Fitness crazes are nothing new to Americans, and the 19th century had its own fair share of extreme exercise routines.  As lifestyles became more sedentary and health issues more numerous, 19th century doctors promoted a variety of exercises that would help keep people fit and healthy.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Gymnasium, Girls, 1899. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.4375.

Gymnastics, running, and jumping were popular forms of exercise; but other, more unusual routines also became  trendy.  The exercise appropriately named “stepping through your own fingers” instructs one to hold a small piece of wood between his or her forefingers and leap over the wood; if practiced enough, one may even forgo the wood and perform this exercise using only the fingers.  Along a similar line, The Smithsonian Institute’s Conner Prairie quotes William Clarke’s The Boys Own Book’s description of the “Palm Spring” exercise:

[It ] is performed by standing with your face toward a wall and throwing yourself forward, until you support yourself from falling, by the palm of one of the hands being placed with the fingers upwards, against the wall; when in this position, you must recover your former erect station by springing from your hand, without bringing your feet forward.

Endicott & Co. (New York, N.Y.). Dr. Rich's Institute for Physical Education, ca. 1850. Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.2583

Some of what became popular in the mid 19th century is still routinely accepted today.  Many of the stretches and gymnastics equipment depicted in the above print are now run-of-the mill. Some exercises in this print, however, may warrant a double take, particularly the man in the middle of the print who appears to be scaling the rafters.  It’s unclear what exactly he’s doing, but it is likely some kind of high-stakes rope climbing.  Readers, if you have any information about this particular form of exercise, please share!

Other early exercises look more like torture to modern eyes.  The Byron Company photographed the Zander Institute’s exercise equipment around the turn of the last century.  Zander’s equipment served two populations: those needing some form of physical therapy and those who found more traditional forms of gymnastics or calisthenics too challenging, but still wanted physical activity.  Women, the elderly, and “frail” people of either sex were ideal candidates for the latter category.  That being said, Zander’s apparatuses appear anything but gentle.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Zander Inst. N.Y., 1908. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.5284.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). Zander Inst. N.Y., 1908. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.5292.

And though 19th century exercises range from the commonplace to the obscure to the strange,  some are just the plain-old cute. Witness the adorable calisthenics of the children below.

Byron Company (New York, N.Y.). N.Y. Foundling Hospital, 68th St., Exercises, ca. 1899. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.5012.

- Anne DiFabio

Locker Room Grooming, 1904

In 1904, there was much rejoicing uptown over the opening of a women-only gym situated between Barnard College and Teachers College.  The New York Times noted that the men at Columbia’s gymnasium, who had been allowing the co-eds use of their facilities, would no longer have to put up with “hairpins, combs…and the dyestuffs” from women’s bathing suits clogging up their pool.

This state-of-the-art building featured bowling alleys, rowing machines, shower
baths, and “corrective exercise rooms” as illustrated in this completely candid image of students performing calisthenic and gymnastic feats:

Byron Company. Education, Gymnasium at Teachers' College, 1904. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.17347

But one of the more advanced features was discovered by our team of catalogers, when they came across the following image and tried to hypothesize about what activity the woman might be engaging in.  Was she communicating with a forbidden lover in the basement via air duct?

Byron Company. Teachers College, 1904. Museum of the City of New York. 93.1.1.3332

A perusal of Gotham Comes of Age found a mention of a “much popular hair-drying room” installed at the gym, and the 1904 article in the New York Times proclaimed that “the feature in the new gymnasium upon which the girls are most profuse in their encomiums is the novel hair-drying room, located in the basement.”

According to the Times the steam and hot air pipes would raise the temperature in the room to 150 degrees, presumably producing an effect akin to trying to dry one’s hair in a sauna and a steam room at the same time.  The only other reference I could find to this sort of contraption was a 1915 installation at the women’s gymnasium at the University of Iowa, which used hot air circulated from the boiler room by electric fan.

We’d love to hear from any hairdo historians out there who have insight into these contraptions.