Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/May 1881/Physical Education V
By FELIX L. OSWALD, M. D.
"Force begets Fortitude and conquers Fortune."—Helvetius.
PHYSICAL vigor is the basis of all moral and bodily welfare, and a chief condition of permanent health. Like manly strength and female purity, gymnastics and temperance should go hand in hand. An effeminate man is half sick; without the stimulus of physical exercise, the complex organism of the human body is liable to disorders which abstinence and chastity can only partly counteract. By increasing the action of the circulatory system, athletic sports promote the elimination of effete matter and quicken all the vital processes till languor and dyspepsia disappear like rust from a busy plowshare. "When I reflect on the immunity of hard-working people from the effects of wrong and overfeeding," says Dr. Boerhaave, "I can not help thinking that most of our fashionable diseases might be cured mechanically instead of chemically, by climbing a bitterwood-tree or chopping it down, if you like, rather than swallowing a decoction of its disgusting leaves." The medical philosopher, Asclepiades, Pliny tells us, had found that health could be preserved, and if lost, restored, by physical exercise alone, and not only discarded the use of internal remedies, but made a public declaration that he would forfeit all claim to the title of a physician if he should ever fall sick or die but by violence or extreme old age. Asclepiades kept his word, for he lived upward of a century, and died from the effects of an accident. He used to prescribe a course of gymnastics for every form of bodily ailment, and the same physic might be successfully applied to certain moral disorders, incontinence, for instance, and the incipient stages of the alcohol-habit. It would be a remedy ad principium, curing the symptoms by removing the cause, for some of the besetting vices of youth can with certainty be ascribed to an excess of that potential energy which finds no outlet in the functions of our sedentary mode of life. In large cities parents owe their children a provision for a frequent opportunity of active exercise, as they owe them an antiseptic diet in a malarious climate.
Nor can this obligation be evaded by depreciating the importance of physical culture as distinct from that of the mental faculties. For the term of their earthly pilgrimage the human body and the most immortal soul are more inseparable and more interdependent than the horse and its rider: a Centaur would hardly have promoted his higher interests by neglecting the equine part of his person. "I have sinned against my brother, the Ass," said St. Francis, when the abuse of his body had brought on a mortal disease. For the idea that the supremacy of the mind could be enforced by debilitating penances is a fatal mistake; an enervated body, instead of ministering to the needs of the mind, becomes its tyrant, a querulous, capricious, and exorbitant master. Every hospital attendant knows that, with the rarest exceptions, the sufferers from exhausting diseases have no more self-control than a fretful child. Neither can the progress of our mechanical industries be made a pretext for undervaluing the advantages of an athletic education. It has been prophesied that the time will come when the autocrat of the breakfast-table shall break his egg with a dynamite wafer; but, unless we invent a labor-saving contrivance for every muscle of the human organism, there is not a day in the year nor an hour in the day when the practical business of life can not be performed more easily and more pleasantly with the aid of a vigorous body, not to re-mention the moral disadvantages which never fail to attend the loss of manly self-reliance. Active exercises also confer beauty of form and a natural grace of deportment. "By their system of physical culture," says a Scotch author, "the Greeks realized that beautiful symmetry of shape which for us exists only in the ideal, or in the forms of divinity which they sculptured from figures of such perfect proportions."
That a man's welfare in every sense of the word depends upon the normal development of his body might, therefore, seem an axiom whose self-evidence could be questioned only in a fit of insane infatuation; yet an Oriental fanatic has succeeded in tainting countless millions of his fellow-men with this very insanity. About six hundred years before the beginning of our chronological era, a speculative philosopher of northern Hindostan set about to investigate the origin of the sufferings which so often make human life a burden instead of a blessing, and, failing to trace these afflictions to any avoidable cause, he took it into his head that terrestrial existence itself must be an evil, and conceived the unhappy idea of preaching a crusade against the love of earth and the rights of the human body, as distinct from a supposed preternatural part of our being. His success has been, beyond all compare, the greatest calamity that ever befell the human race since the days of the traditional deluge; not only that the doctrines of Gautama bore their fruit in the utter physical degeneration of his native country, and the populous empires of Eastern Asia, but, seven centuries after, the essential doctrines of Buddhism, intensified by an admixture of Gnostic demonism and Hebrew mythology, were preached upon the shores of the Mediterranean and invaded the paradise of the Aryan nations. A mania of self-torture and miracle-worship broke out like a mental epidemic, and, at the very time when the influence of Grecian civilization began to wane, the new creed spread into Italy, and the friends of science and freedom were confronted with the fearful danger of an anti-natural religion. What that danger meant, our liberated age can hardly realize unless we review the fate of those nations to whom salvation came too late; on whose destiny the curse of that superstition has been wrought out to the bitter end. The attempt to carry the theories of the Hebrew fanatics into practice led to a state of affairs against which the unpossessed part of mankind had to combine in sheer self-defense; the maniacs were overpowered, but only after a struggle which has trampled the chief battle-fields into dust, and not before they had turned the Mediterranean God-garden into such a pandemonium of madness, tyranny, and wretchedness, that the lot of the African savages appeared heaven in comparison. The annals of pagan despotism furnish no parallel to the pages stained with blood and tears that record the horrors of the inquisitorial butcheries and man-hunts of the middle ages. The history of science is the history of a day with a bright morning and a sunny evening, but interrupted at the noontide hour by a total eclipse of common sense and reason. The men that inculcated a belief in the possibility of witchcraft and demoniac possession are responsible for the agonies of the three million human beings that perished in the flames of the stake; the dogma of total natural depravity guided the arm that aimed its poisoned daggers at the heart of every social, political, or scientific reformer. But the direst of all the evils which made the rule of the miracle-mongers the unhappiest period in the history of this earth was, after all, their total neglect of physical education—the logical outcome of their Nature-hating insanity. Their disciples were assured, in the name of an infallible revelator, that all earthly concernments are vain; that we can not please God without mortifying our bodies; that our natural instincts must be suppressed, in order to qualify our souls for the New Jerusalem. The joys of Nature were to be shunned as man-traps of the arch-fiend. Sickness was to be cured by prayer and certain ecclesiastic ceremonies. "Bodily exercise," we are informed, "profited but little." The Olympic games were suppressed by order of a Christian emperor. The health-code of the Mosaic dispensation was repealed as unessential, and indeed superfluous, in a community of miracle-workers who could defy the laws of Nature with the aid of supernal spirits. Gluttony and besottedness were encouraged by the example of the ministers of that creed. Manly exercises, the festivals of the seasons, mirth, pastimes, and health-giving sports were discouraged as unworthy of a true saint; the sons of the thaumaturgic church were taught that our natural desires and natural dispositions are wholly evil; that the study of worldly sciences is vain, and solicitude for the welfare of the body a proof of an unregenerate heart.
To these doctrines we owe the consequences of our countless sins against the physical laws of God; the many irretrievable losses by the ruin of a former civilization; the terrible night of the long centuries when science was paralyzed, when industrial progress was limited to the invention of new instruments of torture, when the neglect of husbandry changed so many Elysian fields into hopeless deserts. To these doctrines the Latin peoples owe the sickliness and effeminacy which contrast their present generation with the hero-race of antiquity. It is a favorite subterfuge of the Jesuitical apologists to ascribe that degeneracy to climatic influences. A cold climate has not saved the North-China votaries of Buddhism, and would not have saved the North-Europeans against a prolonged influence of Hebrew Buddhism. We must not forget that in Northern Europe the rule of the anti-naturalists did not begin before the end of the seventh century, and never overcame the latent protestantism of the Teuton races. In a warmer country than Italy the votaries of the manlier prophet of El Medina have always preserved their physical vigor, and the representative North-African of the present day is the physical superior of his South European contemporary, while the forefathers of the same African were mere children in the hands of the palæstra-trained Roman warrior.
The physical corruption of the non-Mohammedan inhabitants of Southern Europe and Southern Asia has reached the incurable stage of complacent effeminacy: their indifference to the vices of indolence precludes the possibility of reform. Indifference to physical degradation is, indeed, a symptom of a deep-seated disease. Mental inertness is often but a dormant state of the intellect, a state from which the sleeper may be roused at any moment by the din of war, by the light of a great discovery, by the voice of an inspired poet. Physical indolence is the torpor which precedes the sleep that knows no waking. The civilization of Greece, Dutch art, the science of Bagdad and Cordova, sprang up, like water from the rock of Moses. Can historians point out a single instance of an unmanned people regaining their manhood? The bodily degeneracy of a whole nation dooms it to a hopeless retrogression in prosperity and political power.
The first use we should make of our regained liberty is, therefore, the reëstablishment of those institutions to whose influence the happiest nations of antiquity owed their energy and their physical prowess, their martial and moral heroism, their fortitude in adversity. The physical constitution of man was never intended for the sluggish inactivity of our sedentary and sabbatarian mode of life. In a state of nature, the faculty of voluntary motion distinguishes animals from plants, and our next relatives in the great family of the animal kingdom are the most restlessly active of all warm-blooded creatures. The children of Nature—hunters, shepherds, and nomads—pass their days in out-door labor and out-door sports; physical exercise affords them at once the necessaries of life and the means of recreation, and secures them against all physical ills but wounds and the infirmities of extreme old age. Civilization, i. e., life on the coöperative plan, exempts many individuals from the necessity of supplying their daily wants by daily physical labor; wealth removes the objective necessity of physical exercise, but the subjective necessity remains; millions of city-dwellers, in their pursuit of artificial luxuries, stint their bodies in the natural means of happiness; they increase their stock of creature-comforts and decrease their capacity for enjoying them; religious and social dogmas pervert their natural instincts; their children are crammed with metaphysics till they forget the physical laws of God.
These evils the inventors of gymnastics managed to counteract, and, before we can hope to recover the Grecian earth-paradise, our system of public education needs an essential and thorough reform. On earth, at least, moral and physical culture should be as inseparable as mind and body; every town school should have an in-door and out-door gymnasium; the same village carpenter who takes a contract for a dozen rustic school-benches should get an order for a horizontal bar and a couple of jumping-boards; every school district should appoint a superintendent of gymnastics; every town a committee of public arenas: cities that can afford to devote a hundred tax-free tabernacles to Hebrew mythology might well spare an acre of ground for Grecian athletics. Plato's Academia and Aristotle's Lyceum were both gymnastic institutions, where the patricians of Athens spent their leisure hours, and often joined in the exercises of the athletes. Our best citizens should emulate their example, and help to eradicate the lingering prejudice against the culture of the manly powers. A field-day, consecrated to Olympic games and the competitive gymnastics of the Turner-hall, should be the grandest yearly festival of a free nation.
In the mean time we must help our children the best way we can by giving them plenty of time for out-door exercise, and providing them, according to our means, with some domestic substitutes for the gymnastic apparatus which, I trust, the next generation will find in every village hall and every town school.
Children have a natural penchant for active exercises. Sloth is one of the vices we should drop from our catalogue of original sins. If a child were banished from the haunts of men, and left to grow up as a wild thing of the woods, he would turn out a self-made gymnast, though perhaps also in the original sense of the term, for gymnasium and gymnastics were derived from a word which means naked. Nature seems to deem the development of our limbs a matter of greater importance than their envelopment, and clothes are often, indeed, the first impediment to the free exercise of our motive organs. The regulation dress of the Swedish turners is, in this respect, also the best dress for children—a light jacket, wide trousers and shirts, and broad, low-heeled shoes; in-doors, and in summer-time, shoes and stockings should often be altogether dispensed with. Stephens, the celebrated English trainer, remarked that only men who have their toes perfectly straight will make first-rate runners and wrestlers, and this qualification is nowadays a privilege of country lads who are permitted (or obliged) to run around barefoot all summer. Considering the way we treat our feet, it must often puzzle us what our toes were made for, anyhow; but the antics of a baby in the cradle prove that the human foot is by nature semi-prehensile, and might be developed into a sort of under-hand. Hindoo pickpockets "crib" with their toes, while they stand with folded arms in a crowd, and the Languedoc cork-gatherers ply their trade without a ladder, trusting their lives to the grasping power of their feet. The structural proportions of a newborn child also show a comparatively unimportant difference in the size of the lower and upper extremities; but, in the course of the first twelve years, this difference increases from 2:5 to 1:3, and often as much as 1:4; in other words, while an infant's two arms weigh nearly as much as one of its legs, the arm-weight of a schoolboy is often only one fourth of his leg-weight. The reason is that, of all the active exercise a child gets, nine tenths fall generally to the share of its lower extremities. A little child can not stand erect; the task of supporting the weight of the whole body on two feet exceeds its untried strength. But in local progression we do more: taking a step means to support and propel, or even lift, the whole body by means of the foot remaining on the ground. In running up and down stairs, to school and back, and here and there about the house, the legs of the laziest schoolboy perform that feat about eight thousand times a day. What have his arms done in the mean while? Carried a chair across the room, perhaps, or elevated so and so many spoonfuls of hash from the plate to a place six inches farther up, besides supporting the weight of three or four ounces of clothing. To equalize this difference should therefore be the primary object of physical culture, for the harmonious structure of all its parts is an essential condition of a perfectly developed body. No malformation is more common in city recruits than a narrow chest. Besides spear-throwing, of which I shall speak further on, any exercise promoting the development of the shoulder muscles will tend to expand the chest, and thus remove the chief predisposing cause of consumption. In a climate where the first four years of a child's life have to be passed mostly in-doors, a special room of a spacious house or a corner reservation of a small nursery should be set apart for arm-exercises—hurling, swinging, and lifting. The arrangements for the propulsive part of the good work need not go beyond an old bolster and a cushion-target, but the grapple-swing should be both safe and handy—a pair of swinging-rings suspended at a height of about four feet from the floor above a stratum of old quilts and carpets. In London, and in some of our Northeastern cities, health-lifts for children can now be got very cheap; weighted buckets, however, or sand-bags with strap-handles, will serve nearly the same purpose; and smaller bags of that kind may be used for various dumb-bell exercises. A plurality of young gymnasts can vary the programme by throwing such bags to each other and catching them with outstretched arms. In a suitable locality I would add a knotted rope, fastened to the ceiling by means of a screw-hook, and hanging down in a single or double chain, which children soon learn to climb by the hand-over-hand process, thus strengthening the triceps and flexor muscles, to whose development the quadrumana owe their peculiar arm-power. A full-grown man who has passed his life behind the counter will find it rather difficult to raise his body by the contraction of his arm-muscles, but, unless Darwin is right, Heaven must have intended us to pursue the culture of our higher virtues in the tree-tops, after the manner of the gymnosophists, for a young child acquires all climbing tricks with a quite amazing facility—much readier, in fact, than the art of biped progression, whose chief difficulty consists, perhaps, in the necessity of preserving the equilibrium. The knots should be far enough apart to tempt an enterprising climber to dispense with their use now and then and rely on the power of his grasp by seizing the rope at the interspaces; and this exercise should be especially encouraged, for the strength and suppleness of the wrist-joint will considerably facilitate the attainment of "polytechnic skill," as modern Jacks-of-all-trades begin to call their versatile handiness. Nay, the Rev. Salzmann holds that the ancient practice of hand-shaking was originally suggested by the wish to ascertain the wrist-power and consequent wrestling capacity of a stranger. As to the rest, negative precautions will generally suffice for the first three or four years. Diminish the danger of a fall by padding the floor of your nursery gymnasium, and the restless mobility of your pupils will generally save you the trouble of initiating them in the rudiments of hopping and tumbling. But make it a rule with all hired or amateur nursery maids that the children must not be carried more than is absolutely necessary.
In long winters it can do no harm, now and then, to let the youngsters turn the hall into a race-course; but, with the first warm weather, the arena should be removed to the next playground—a garden-lane, or a vacant lot without rubbish-heaps, if the Park Commissioners are too proscriptive. In its general invigorating effect on the organic system, running surpasses every other kind of exercise. Among the contests of the palæstra it ranked above wrestling and boxing; for more than two hundred years the Olympic games consisted, indeed, exclusively of foot-races, and the chronological era of Greece dated from the year when the Elean Corœbus defeated his Peloponnesian competitors in the long-distance match. The swift-footedness of Achilles is mentioned as often as his name occurs in the "Iliad"; and, according to the Scandinavian Saga, the champions of Jötunheim distanced even the henchman of Thor in a foot-race. Next to a smooth and perfectly level lawn, a firm beach is the best race-course, and, after a warm day, it is a luxury to the martyred feet of a city boy to tread the cool sand with his naked soles. Fast running is, on the whole, a more valuable accomplishment than long walking, for no one knows when he may owe his life, and more than his life, to the ability of outrunning a pursuer or a fugitive scoundrel; but walking and trotting matches against time will help to cure our children of that miserable snail-pace which has come to be the fashion of every public promenade. Reduced to a funeral-march, the "regulation walk" loses half its value—the hygienic value of the only kind of out-door exercise which the children of the upper ten or twenty can count upon. Who could wish a prettier sight than a bevy of schoolgirls, flitting by with fluttering flounces, like dancers keeping step to a merry tune? If mothers knew all the charms of animated beauty, they would not think it "more becoming" to turn their children into tortoises. Nor would they fear that they would "run themselves into a consumption," if they knew what real running means, and what the motive organs of a human being are capable of. Mexico has ceased to be a terra incognita to Yankee tourists, and most visitors to the upland cities will remember the army of hucksters and poulterers who every forenoon turn the main plaza into an agricultural fair. If you will take a morning walk on one of the sand-roads that diverge from the south gate of Puebla, you may see those hucksters coming in at a trot, girls in their teens many of them, and loaded with sacks and baskets; and upon inquiry you will learn that most of them come from the valley of Tehuacan, from a distance of ten or twelve English miles. The zagal, or post-boy of a Spanish mail-coach, carries nothing but a light whip, but he has not only to keep pace with a team of galloping horses for hour after hour, but has to run zigzag, adjusting a strap here, picking up a handkerchief there, and frequently entertains the travelers with a series of hand-springs, in order to earn an extra medio or two—not to mention the Grecian hemerodromes, who could distance a horse on the long run, and had often to cross rivers and lakes on their bee-line routes.
An excellent system of training was that of the old Turkish Jenidji-begs, or drill-masters of the Janizary cadets, who made young boys practice lance-throwing with a spear that exceeded the common javelin both in size and weight—"because, after they had become proficient in the use of such a heavy implement, the army-spear would be a mere feather in their hands." On the same principle the knee-muscles may be strengthened by a simple manœuvre without the use of any apparatus. Bend the left leg in a right angle, extending the right leg horizontally, and lower the body till your right heel nearly touches the ground. Now rise by straightening the left leg, with the right still extended horizontally, and without letting your hands or your right heel touch the ground. Then squat down as before, extend the left leg this time and rise on the right, and so on until the weight of the body has been raised twenty or thirty times by the effort of either knee-joint without the aid of the other. A moderate proficiency in this exercise will enable girls and city boys to walk up-hill for hours with the ease of a Tyrolese goat-herd.
In classifying gymnastics after the degree of their usefulness, a prominent place should be assigned to leaping, especially high leaping, an exercise which imparts a powerful stimulus to the digestive organs, and, combined with the shock of the descent, exerts an invigorating influence on the nervous system in general. The leaping-gauge of the Turner-hall consists of two upright posts with pegs and a cord stretched from post to post. Every peg is marked with a figure indicating the number of inches from the ground, and by raising or lowering the cord each gymnast can measure his jumping capacity and keep tally of his score in a certain number of leaps. Competition imparts to this sport an incentive which may be put to as good account in gymnastics as in mental exercises, and is certainly preferable to the only other method of stimulating the zeal of young pupils. Personal ambition, according to the ethics of a certain class of pedagogues, is inconsistent with the spirit of true Christian humility, and should be quelled rather than fomented; in dealing with unruly youngsters they have consequently to resort to the only alternative, slavish fear, enforced by punishments and espionage. For the nonce, that system answers its purpose quite as well as the emulation-method; as to future results, your choice must depend upon the main question of modern education, Are we to form men or canting sneaks?
A quadruped has an evident advantage over a biped jumper, but practice will do wonders. Leonardo da Vinci often astounded his visitors by jumping to the ceiling and knocking his feet against the bells of a glass chandelier, and a private soldier of Vandamme's cuirassiers even leaped over the tutelar deity of a brass fountain on the Frankfort market-square. But the champion jumper of modern times was Joe Ireland, a native of Beverley in Yorkshire. In his eighteenth year, "without any assistance, trick, or deception," he leaped over nine horses standing side by side and a man seated on the middle horse. He could clear a string held fourteen feet high, and once kicked a bladder hanging sixteen feet from the ground. In horizontal leaps our turners can not beat the record of antiquity: a Spartan once cleared fifty-two feet, and a native of Crotona even fifty-five. Nor would any modern filibusters be likely to emulate the trick of the Teuton freebooters who crossed the Alps during the consulate of Caius Marius: Finding the Roman battle-front inexpugnable, they attempted to force the fight by vaulting with the aid of their framæ or leaping-poles over a triple row of mail-clad spearmen.
Hurling is the gymnastic specific for pulmonary complaints; and the best possible exercise for so many hectic and narrow-chested boys of our larger cities would be the game of Ger-werfen, as the turners call it—spear-throwing at a fixed or movable mark. It is a most diverting sport after a week's practice has hardened the flexor muscles against the shock of propelling the larger spears. The missile is a lance of some tough wood (ash and hickory preferred), about ten feet long and one and a half inch in diameter, terminating in a blunt iron knob to steady the throw and keep the wood from splintering. A heavy post with a movable top-piece (the "Ger-block") forms the target, the head-shaped top being secured by means of a stout cramp-hinge that permits it to turn over, but not to fall down—distance, all the way from ten to forty paces. Grasp the spear near the middle, raise it to the height of your ear, plant the left foot firmly on the ground, the right knee slightly bent, fix your eye on the target, lean back and let drive. If you hit the log squarely in the center or a trifle higher up, it will topple over, but, still hanging by the cramp-hinge, can be quickly adjusted for the next thrower. A feeble hit will not stir the ponderous Ger-block; the spear has to impinge with the force of a sixty-pound blow, so that a successful throw is also an athletic triumph. The German Ger-throwers are generally lads after the heart of Charles Reade—ambidexterous boys, whose either-handed strength and skill illustrate the fact that the antiquity of a prejudice proves nothing in its favor. As the least vacillation in the act of throwing would derange the aim, this exercise imparts a perfect command over the balance of the body, besides improving the faculty of measuring distances by the eye. It is, indeed, surprising how soon gymnastics of this sort will impart an easy deportment and graceful manners even to boys in their lubber-years—"Nur aus vollendeter Kraft strahlet die Anmuth hervor," as Goethe explains it: "The highest grace is the outcome of consummate strength."
Climbing, too, calls into action nearly every muscle of the human body, and should be encouraged, though at the expense of a pair of summer pants or summer birds, as the possibility of accidents is more than outweighed by the sure gain in physical self-reliance. There is a deep truth in the apparent paradox that it is the best plan not to avoid dangers and difficulties that can be mastered. In the voluntary risks of the gymnasium the athlete pays an insurance policy against future dangers. In a man's life there will always come moments when the woe and weal of years depend on firm nerves and a strong hand, and such moments prove the value of a system of training which teaches children to treat danger as a mechanical problem. The operation of the same cause may be traced in the realistic influence which the culture of the manly powers generally exerts on the human mind. Having learned to rely on their personal strength and judgment under circumstances where shams are peculiarly unavailing, gymnasts will generally be men of self-help; practical, rather apt to believe in the competence of human reason and human virtue and to question the utility of a pious fraud.
On rainy days an in-door gymnasium is as useful as a private library. Where wood is cheap, the aggregate cost of the following apparatus need not exceed fifty dollars: 1. A spring-board and leaping-gauge; 2. An inclined ladder; 3. A horizontal bar; 4. Swinging-rings; 5. A vaulting-horse (rough hewed); 6. A chest-expander (elastic band with handles); and, 7. A pair of Indian clubs. Buckets filled with shot or pig-iron will do for a health-lift. With this simple apparatus an infinite variety of health-giving exercises may be performed without much risk; on the horizontal bar alone Jahn and Salzmann enumerate not less than one hundred and twenty different movements, most of which have proved very useful in correcting special malformations. For general hygienic purposes a much smaller number will be sufficient, especially where the neighborhood affords an opportunity for occasional out-door sports; for an in-door gymnasium is, after all, only a preparatory school, or at best a substitute for the palæstra of Nature—the woods, the seashore, and the cliffs of a rocky mountain-range. But in large cities even the poorest ought to procure a few gymnastic implements; no dyspeptic should be without a springboard and some sort of health-lift.
The victims of asthma would throw a considerable quantity of physic to the dogs if they knew the value of a mechanical specific—a few minutes' exercise with the balance-stick, an apparatus which any man can manufacture in half an hour, and at an expense representing the value of an old broom-stick and a yard of copper wire. Take a straight stick, about six feet long and one inch in diameter, and mark it from end to end with deep notches at regular intervals, say two inches apart, with smaller subdivisions, as on the beam of a lever-balance. Then get a ten-pound lump of pig-iron, or a large stone, and gird it with a piece of stout wire, so as to let one end of the wire project in the form of a hook. The exercise consists in grasping the stick at one end, stretching out arm and stick horizontally like a rapier at a home-thrust; then draw your arm back, still keeping the stick rigidly horizontal, make your hand touch your chin, thrust it out again, draw back, and so on, till the forearm moves rapidly on a steady fulcrum. Next load the stick—i. e., hook the stone to one of the notches; every inch farther out will increase the weight by several pounds. Hook it to one of the middle notches, and try to move your arm as before. It will be hard work now to keep the stick horizontal; even a strong man will find that the effort reacts powerfully on his lungs: he will puff as if the respiratory engine were working under high pressure. On the same principle, the lungs of a half-drowned man may be set awork by moving the arms up and down like pump-handles. But the weighted stick, bearing against the sinews of the forearm, still increases this effect, and overcomes the stricture of the asthmatic spasm, as the movement of the loose arms relieves the torpor of the drowning-asphyxia. With the aid of this mechanical palliative (for death is the only radical asthma cure) the distress of the spasm can be relieved before the actual dyspnœa or breathlessness has begun, and, after ten or twelve resolute efforts, the feeling of oppression will generally subside and the lungs resume their work as if nothing had happened. Daily exercise with the balance-stick is sure to diminish the frequency of the attacks, and, if begun in time, would probably cure children from an hereditary tendency of this sort. Two years ago I sent this receipt to an asthma-martyr whom the narcotic-vapor cure did not save from a weekly repetition of all the horrors of strangulation. He has now lengthened the period of his complaint from a week to an average of forty days, and assured me that even a few minutes' exercise with a six-pound weight has saved him many a sleepless night.
Lifting and carrying weights was a favorite exercise with the ancient athletes, and our modern rustics are still very apt to estimate a man's strength by his lifting capacity. The "best man" of a Yorkshire parish is generally he who can shoulder the heaviest bag and carry it farthest and with the firmest step. Feats of this sort require certainly a sound constitution in every way; weak lungs, especially, are sure to tell, but the main strain bears upon the thighs and the small of the back: a good lifter has to be a strong-boned man, and will generally make a good wrestler and rider. Weak-backed children will, therefore, derive much benefit from the various exercises with hand weights and lifting-straps, and, indeed, from any labor involving the addition of an extra burden to the natural weight of the body. Heavy lifts require some precaution against strains—a waist-belt, and unflinching steadiness in rising from a stooping position; but it should be remembered that rupture (hernia)—generally ascribed to the effects of overlifts—results more frequently from the shock of a fall, and a predisposing defect of the abdominal teguments. The history of the lifting-cure records not a single instance of a rupture having originated from the often enormous feats of professional gymnasts, or the more dangerous efforts of enthusiastic beginners. As a general rule, it may be relied upon that a perfectly sound child can not overlift himself before his strength gives way—I mean, before the yielding of his muscles and sinews simply compels him to drop the burden. Here, too, the achievements of ancient and modern Samsons illustrate the tenacity of the human frame and its marvelous capacity for development. The credibility of the Gaza story depends somewhat upon the size of those city gates; but there is no doubt that Thomas Topham, of Surrey, once shouldered a sentry-box containing a stove, a bench, and a sleeping watchman, and carried his burden to a suburban cemetery. Dr. Winship, of Boston, lifted twenty-nine hundred pounds with the aid of shoulder-straps; and, unless the historians of Magna Græcia were afflicted with an abnormal development of the myth-making faculty, it would seem that their countryman Milo carried a bull-calf around the arena, and thus carried it every day till he could tote a full grown steer. If the story is even half true, we need not wonder that Milo's powers as a wrestler put a temporary stop to that sport as a branch of the Olympian games, since "no man or god durst accept his challenge."
Wrestling is still the chief accomplishment of the Swiss village champions, and would be the favorite pastime of our rural districts if it had not been kept down by our sickly prejudice against all rough-and-ready sports. Fifteen centuries ago the Olympic games were abolished by the decree of a Christian emperor; the moralists of Old England have tabooed pugilism; our Sabbatarians now include even wrestling among the "blackguard sports"; and Frederick Gerstaecker predicts that the American Inquisition of a future century will suppress skating and ball-playing "as giving an undue ascendancy to the animal energies over the moral part of our nature." For such a century's sake we should hope that the Patagonian savages will prove unconquerable, for a year's life among healthy beasts would be a blessed relief from a long sojourn in the land of an unmanned nation.
But I trust that the propaganda of the Turnbund will save us from such a fate. What a stimulus it would give to manly sports and manly virtues, nay, to the physical regeneration of the human race, if we could made their yearly assembly a national festival! The river-meadows of Chattanooga, or the mountain amphitheatre near Huntsville, Alabama, would make a first-class Olympia, and our Indian summer would be a ready-made "weather-truce," without an expensive burnt offering to the sun. Olives, it is true, do not flourish on our soil; our mercenary souls need other inducements; but the rent of reserved seats and camp-tents would enable us to gild the crowns of the several victors. Imagine the athletes of every village training for those prizes—thousands of boy-topers turning gymnasts, ward delegates running for something besides office, and the members of a Young Men's Association seeking paradise on this side of the grave!
With the decadence of athletic sports, games of skill come generally into favor; hence, perhaps, the revival of archery in the United States, and the pandemic spread of certain amusements which are properly ladies' plays. Riding has gone almost out of fashion, though few sportsmen will gainsay me if I assert that a day in the saddle is worth a week of other sedentary pursuits. A Mexican boy would part as soon with an arm as with his horse, and I never saw a finer picture of exultant health than a cavalcade of muchachos dashing out into the prairie at full speed, whooping and cheering, though perhaps on their way to school or to a funcion of some national saint. The deportment of such little equestrians is distinguished by a certain chivalrous frankness, and the word chivalry itself, as well as the German Ritter ("caballero"), were originally derived from horse-riding. The rider's management of his nag may tend to develop the domineering, the princely traits of human nature, though probably at the expense of a humbler virtue or two; in Spanish America, at least, the experience of Indian agents and Indian school-teachers has shown that the pedestrian redskins are generally more manageable than their mounted compadres.
The lovers of aquatic sports may combine a useful accomplishment with the best relief from the midsummer martyrdom of our large cities. The art of swimming adds as much to the pleasure of bathing as it does to its healthfulness; but it has often puzzled me that with the human animal that should be an art which is a natural faculty of all other mammals. Dr. Andersson's theory is probably the right solution of the riddle. He noticed that to the young negroes of Sierra Leone swimming comes almost as natural as walking (in which attainment they are also rather precocious), and he concludes that the disability of a white man's child arises chiefly from a general want of vigor. Our mobile arms and paddle-like hands are better swimming implements than the drumstick legs of a dog; but our muscular debility more than counteracts these advantages. The limbs of a child are swathed, confined in tight clothes, kept year after year in compulsive inactivity, till, in proportion to its size, the nursling of civilization is the weakliest of living creatures. After exercise has developed the defective muscles, a swimmer can hardly understand how he could ever be in dread of deep water, swimming seems so easy; the faculty of floating, as it appears to him, is an inalienable attribute of a human creature, requiring neither art nor anything like a great effort except in swimming against the stream; he would undertake to study, read, or dream in a calm sea, and let the body take care of itself. The Marquesas-Islanders witnessed the struggles of a sinking English sailor with mute astonishment, and neglected to help him, utterly incapable of realizing the fact that a full-grown man could be in danger of drowning.
In the sixteen provinces of the Roman Empire every larger town had a free bath or two, and our entire neglect of this branch of public hygiene is certainly the ugliest feature of our boasted civilization; but our children at least might make shift with the natural bathing facilities which can be reached by a short excursion beyond the precincts of all but the unluckiest cities. A cool bath at the end of a sweltering day can be delightful enough to reconcile a poor city slave to his misery; the sensation of floating along with the rhythm of a dancing current admits no comparison with any terra firma pleasure, and awakens instincts of the human soul which may date from the life of our marine ancestors in the days of the Devonian fore-world. But such enjoyments are the privilege of the aquatic gymnast, and no swimmer should deem it below his dignity to imitate the example of the elder Cato, who taught his sons to dive and traverse rapid rivers. I know that a swimming-school is not always a favorite resort of a young child; weakly youngsters are apt to prefer a sponge-bath; but I agree with the Baptists, that immersion alone will save us. The way of the beginner is hard, but the reward is worth the price. No boy who has learned to "tread water" or to "take a header" from a high bank would exchange the wild joy of his sport for all the taffy of a tame Sunday-school picnic. And it is a great mistake to suppose that hardy habits would harden the character; on the contrary, the bravest lad of a parish can generally be known by his cheerfulness and his frank good nature, and in after-years will be apt to meet the billows of life with a joyous zeal rather than with a shivering "resignation." I am often tempted to quote the remark of a French training-ship surgeon, of blunt speech, but with a sharp eye for the character-traits of his young countrymen: "If I had my own way," said he, "every boy in the marine should serve an apprenticeship in the rigging, and learn to rough it, before he gets a soft berth. The lads that have grown up before the mast make the best men in every sense of the word, brave, honest fellows most of them; while the cabin-boys, who have been pampered with titbits and soft jobs generally, turn out" (I won't risk a literal translation) "prevaricating puppies," or words to that effect.
Per aspera ad astra, and a very important branch of gymnastic education might be included under the head of hard work or voluntary labor. Labor with a practical purpose is not only more visibly useful but more agreeable than mere crank-work at the horizontal bar, and it is sometimes advisable to beguile ourselves into a strenuous and long-continued physical effort. For what we call vice or evil propensities is often nothing but misdirected energy, vital force exploding in the wrong direction for want of a better outlet. The sensible remedy is not to anathematize such energies, but to let our muscular system absorb them by engaging in some entertaining out-door business requiring a good deal of heavy work. In summer-time there will be no lack of such jobs: interest your enfant terrible in horticulture; make him transplant shade-trees and dig ditches; send him to the gravel-pit, and let him fill his wheelbarrow with sand and his pockets with geological specimens. Or enlist his constructiveness: set him to build a garden-wall, and quarry his own building-material in the next ravine. During the progress of the good work the hours will vanish magically, and so will the evil propensities. Novel-reading girls can generally be cured with a butterfly-catcher; entomology and sentimentalism are not concomitant manias.
It has often been observed as a curious phenomenon that the vilest young hoodlums are found in the middle-sized towns. I believe I could suggest an explanation: In very large cities, as well as in the woods and mountains, they find something else to do. A New York street Arab is often addicted to sharp practice, but not often to degrading vices. He can't afford to be vicious: sensuality weakens; physical vigor is a stock-in-trade; the fierceness of competition compels him to use every advantage. For the same reason a training oarsman is generally an exemplar of all manly virtues; to him experience has demonstrated the temporal disadvantages of vice, an argument whose cogency somehow conquers objections that resist the most eloquent argumenta ad fidem. Moreover, such virtues with a business purpose are liable to become habits. If we could keep a record of the longevity of our university crews, we would probably find that the victors outlive the often vanquished; the champions of Olympia (with the exception of the cestus-fighters) generally attained to a good old age.
It is, indeed, a pity that oar-contests should be confined to our lakeshore cities and a few college towns; as an athletic exercise rowing is out and out superior to ball-playing and skating, and a sovereign remedy for many disorders of the respiratory organs. Venice has all the topographical characteristics of a consumption town—stagnant lagoons, damp buildings, dark and narrow streets—and yet the lower classes of her population are remarkably free from pulmonary affections—they have a gondolier in nearly every family. The watermen of the Thames, too, are generally long-lived, in spite of being so much exposed to wet and cold. If I had to limit a child to two kinds of outdoor exercises, I would choose running and rowing: the one does for the legs and the stomach what the other does for the arms and the lungs.
It is said that Cyrus advised his countrymen "never to eat but after labor," and, as a general rule, the best time for out-door exercise is certainly rather before than after meals; but gymnastics of the heroic kind may induce a degree of fatigue which decreases the appetite instead of stimulating it, and in summer it is by far the best plan to take the last meal in the afternoon, and postpone athletic sports to the cooler hours of the evening. In moonlit nights, out-door games may be continued for several hours after sunset. A nearly infallible receipt for pleasant dreams is a light supper, followed by competitive gymnastics in the presence of (somebody's) sisters and cousins. In stress of circumstances, though, the fair witnesses can be dispensed with. Even an in-door gymnasium will answer the main purpose; it is the relaxation of the strained sinews which makes rest sweet; the soul seems to revel in a conscious sense of health to come. It is a fact that a man may be "too tired to sleep"; but that sort of insomnia is always a sign of general debility. Our latter-day sports are not likely to hurt a healthy boy through excess of exercise. We hear of people having "killed themselves with hard work"; but, if their habits were otherwise correct and their diet not altogether insufficient, they must have worked hard indeed, and with suicidal intent, I am tempted to say, as we have no single word for Lebensmüde—the reckless contempt of life which can make men deaf to the voice of their physical conscience. The Manitoba lumbermen ply their hard trade cheerfully for ten hours a day for months together, and the pastoral nomads of the Caspian steppes often keep their boys in the saddle for two days and two nights.
It can do no harm to let girls join in the athletic sports of their brothers; though in their case an harmonious structural development is of more importance than the attainment of muscular strength. Their natural vocation exempts them from the necessity of engaging in violent exercises, and the experience of every nation has confirmed the somewhat obscure biological fact that a child's bodily constitution depends chiefly on that of his paternal relatives. A weakling can never become the father of robust children; while a delicate but otherwise healthy woman may give birth to an infant Hercules. But, for boys, the most thorough physical education is the best; a child can never be too weakly to profit by gymnastic exercises. If the culture of the bodily faculties were made a regular branch of public education, robust strength would be the rule and debility the rare exception. The puniness and sickliness of the vast plurality of our city boys are indeed something altogether abnormal. If our primogenitor (as we have no reason to doubt) surpassed the other primates of the animal kingdom in strength as much as he still exceeds them in size, he must have been fully able to hold his own against any beast of prey. Dr. Clarke Abel's undoubtedly authentic description of an orang-outang hunt near Rangoon, on the northwest coast of Sumatra, reads like an episode from the "Lay of the Nibelungen," rather than like the account of a conscientious and scientific observer. With five bullets in his body, the hairy half-man still leaped from tree to tree with the agility of a panther, survived the fall of the last tree, and, though crippled by a shower of blows, snatched a spear from the hands of his chief assailant and broke it like a rotten stick. On his campaign against a horde of northern barbarians, one of Trajan's generals attempted to scare, or at least to astonish, the natives by shipping a troop of lions across the Danube. But the children of Nature declined to marvel: "They mistook them for dogs," says the historian, "and knocked their brains out." Even after the middle of the fourteenth century the levy of a small German burgh could turn out more athletes than the combined armies of the present empire; the Margrave of Nuremberg could at any time muster ten thousand men, every one of whom was able to wear and use accoutrements that would crush a so-called strong man of the present day. In the armories of Vienna, Brunswick, and Strasburg there are coats of mail which a modern porter would hesitate to shoulder without the assistance of a comrade.
And yet these mediæval Samsons were the exclusive product of the drill-ground; physical vigor was not valued as the foundation of health and happiness, but rather as a means of military efficiency; the guardians of public education merely connived at such things; and, when the invention of gunpowder diminished the importance of personal prowess, our anti-natural dogmas accomplished their tendency in the rapid physical corruption of their devotees. The dull and gloomy slavery of the monasteries was transferred to the management of all educational institutions; for several centuries the bodily rights of the poor convent-pupils were not only disregarded but willfully depreciated. Educational influences became the chief cause of physical degeneracy, and the superficialness of our reformatory measures proves that we have not yet recognized the root of the evil.
But the voice of Nature has repeated its protest in the yearnings of every new generation. Our children still long for outdoor life, for active exercise, for the free development of every bodily faculty; and, if we cease to suppress those instincts, the regenerative tendency of Nature will soon assert itself, and the time may come when man will be once more the physical as well as mental superior of his fellow-creatures.
- "a. d." 394.
- In 1825 Professor Beck opened in Northampton, Massachusetts, the first American school where gymnastics formed a branch of the regular curriculum. He has found followers, but, considering our progress in other directions, his wheat can not be said to have fallen on a fertile soil. Taking Massachusetts, Ohio, and North Carolina as representative States of their respective sections, it seems that at present (1881) an average of three in every thousand North American schools pays any attention to physical education.
- Strutt's "Plays and Pastimes," p. 176.