Physical education wasn’t part of the curriculum of early 19th-century American schools, but children’s fitness was an issue for The Massachusetts Teacher. Girls, the Teacher maintained, didn’t get as much exercise as boys—and weren’t expected to. The result was that boys, running around during their recesses, “move the long-unused muscle and rouse the sluggish blood,” and “their systems are freed from a superabundance of carbon.” Girls didn’t. Few readers of The Student would have read the Teacher, but thanks to the culture of reprinting, the Student’s readers could learn about the need for girls to exercise and about a school where they performed gymnastics and played ninepins in a gymnasium specifically for them. “Means of Exercise for Girls” was in “For Teachers and Parents,” a section of the magazine meant for adults. But it’s possible it also influenced teenagers reading the magazine.
“Means of Exercise for Girls” (reprinted from The Massachusetts Teacher; from The Student, July 1853; pp. 93-94)

We hear much, now-a-days, of the importance of physical exercise, and yet I do not see that, in general, any systematic means are employed to secure it. Girls who walk a mile, or even half that distance to school, are thought to be subjected to quite severe labor; and many young ladies out of school rely upon the interchange of visits to furnish all that is needful, both of fresh air and exercise. Fortunately, the number of families among us is not very great who possess sufficient wealth to allow the females of the household an entire exemption from domestic duties, and by this work the mother and older daughters gain something denied to the school-girls. But that this is altogether insufficient to secure bodily health and vigor, every observer must be convinced. Pale faces, fragile forms, weak nerves, are almost universal; disease takes away joyousness and energy; and at last, when the penalty of violated physical laws is too heavy to be borne, death comes, a dreaded messenger, but nevertheless a kind deliverer.

All this goes on, home after home is made sad and desolate, while many of us know that much of it might be prevented by judicious physical training.

One of the first steps of reform should be in the habits of girls at school. Usually, they are confined there six hours daily; most of this time they are leaning over their books, with brains at work, most likely in bad air too. The recesses, which, by the way, in most of our schools are quie too short and infrequent, are spent by the boys in sports which move the long-unused muscle and rouse the sluggish blood; their systems are freed from a superabundance of carbon, and they return to the school-room with new life in limb and brain, indeed, re-created.

But with the girls it is very different. When the weather is cold, they linger about the stove, if permitted; and at other times, eating the luncheon, or enjoying the social chat, in some sheltered nook, is their only occupation.

I know of one school, and hope there are others, where better practices prevail. I refer to the Model School at West Newton. By the exertions of the teacher, the upper story of the school-house has been fitted up as a gymnasium for the use of the girls. It is delightful to see them chasing each other up and down ropes suspended from the ceiling, across the room upon horizontal ladders—some in a swing which is moved by a sudden action of the muscles of the back and chest, thus changing the position of the center of gravity; some leaping over horizontal bars,

p. 94

and others giving to eyes and hands the training afforded by a nine-pin alley. But my thoughts always turn with pity to the thousands of girls in the State who are growing up without healthful exercise, or rather only half growing, because only a small part of their muscles are ever brought into use.

Those children who have practiced these gymnastics longest, and are more expert in them, may be easily distinguished from the others, by the greater freedom of their motions, broader chests, and mroe erect bearing. Why should not every school have similar arrangements for securing these very desirable ends? The expense is trifling. Fifty dollars is quite sufficient for furnishing a gymnasium for a common district school. These exercises should not take the place of walking and running in the open air, but should be added thereto; walking is better than sitting still, yet altogether insufficient for developing the muscles of the chest and arms.

To build up a muscular system which shall balance the highly wrought nervous systems, produced by the brain-work of schools, and the excitements of society in these stirring times, vigorous muscular exercise is indispensable.

Let teachers but take the proper stand in regard to this matter, and we may hope the time will soon come when our women shall have, not only heads as full, but hearts as brave, and arms as strong as their grandmothers of the loom and the spinning-wheel. Teach the children that if they would have clear brains, steady nerves, and happy hearts, they must exercise once a day at least, better twice, till they induce a profuse perspiration. Demand that they shall be furnished opportunities for securing such soundness of body as is the indispensable condition of soundness of mind. Else, strive as earnestly as we may, so to cultivate the intellectual and moral powers of our childrne as to fit them for the great duties of life, we shall often have the bitter disappointment of seeing the fruit of our instructions, like seed sown where there is no depth of earth, wither away.—Mass. Teacher.

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