Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/February 1892/Homely Gymnastics
WHILE voyaging over many seas of experiment in search of education, some of us are beginning to apprehend that the golden fleece of mental culture will not create for us the symmetrical man or woman. As a consequence, various systems of bodily training are receiving close attention from teachers and reformers, while athletic sports are now honored and encouraged in schools and colleges where not many years ago they were merely tolerated as safety-valves for unsubdued vitality. We are returning to Greek ideals, but the elimination of the mediæval and Puritanic expression of contempt for the body is a slow process, and the formula still meets us variously masked in life and literature. Now, it is the notion of the spiritualizing effect of invalidism, or delicacy of health; their debasing tendencies toward selfishness and morbidity being ignored. Again, it is the exaltation of nerve sensitiveness into an evidence of refinement; forgetting that the healthy nerve, like the pure metal, stands the normal test put upon it, the flinching being a token of failure as the alloy is of gold. In another instance, it is the scorn for manual labor, although this indicates also the survival of feudal feeling. We call the hand the servant of the mind, thinking we have ranked it, but educating the blind shows us that it may turn instructor and incite its ignorant master to action.
This is an age of fads and fetiches, and, as we give up our idol of disembodied intellect, we erect a shrine to meaningless muscle. We have outgrown croquet and archery. Even tennis no longer suffices, and we are founding schools of physical culture and gymnasiums ad libitum. In truth, these are needed badly enough by the physically idle, and if strength of body is our aim, a beginning must be made somewhere in its training. Does it not savor, however, of absurdity that the girls, who not long since were frowned upon for being "tom-boys"—i. e., using their muscles in running and jumping—and afterward were cautioned against running up and down stairs or taking long walks, should be suddenly precipitated upon parallel bars and turning poles, where there is emulation and a slight danger of overdoing? Very far am I from believing in any inherent physical frailty of women, or that it is not good for a girl to turn a somersault or learn hand over hand. It is the inconsistency of such philosophy that calls for comment.
Unquestionably the best exercise is that taken in the open air; and rowing, running, walking, skating, horseback-riding, have forever the advantage over indoor training, in that they oxidize the blood as well as develop muscle. Gymnastics, on the other hand, has two special claims—economy of time and defiance of weather. But it is not only to the gymnasiums, equipped with apparatus and superintended by doctor or professor, that we need betake ourselves if muscular development is our object. These are attractive, and have advocates enough. Within our doors there is a despised sort of gymnastics which has few scholars, fewer teachers, and stands in great need of intelligent attention. The evangel of cookery has been preached to us from all quarters, but what missionary has been bold enough to proclaim the use and dignity of house-work?
"Nothing menial for me!" cries the ignorant woman; while her more intellectual sister exclaims, "Oh, I feel above such drudgery!" Alas! to what giddy heights must those minds be elevated which do not see the necessity nor compensation of muscular work! Mr. Gladstone can find refreshment for his brain in chopping trees, and an eminent jurist of the United States in vigorously plying the saw; but there are women so highly refined that they can no longer employ their muscles for any useful purpose.
In the pretty allegory of Homely and Comely, Moncure D. Conway contrasts for us two common mistakes, neglect of housework and exclusive devotion to it, but shows also a health and beauty balance on the side of Homely.
That there is not much sanitary or strengthening influence in the operation of dusting is evident; and yet many women, disdaining heavier work, reserve this domestic duty for themselves and waste much time upon it. Muscular motion is of little value unless vigorous and swift. The slow walk and loitering movement do not rouse the blood from its torpidity. The lowliest labor when zealously performed may be followed by an unexpected hygienic effect. There is the instance of a penniless young man, threatened with fever in a strange country, shipping as a deck-hand to return and die among his people. During the voyage he scrubbed away the dirt from the ship-boards, and with it the disease that had invaded his life-craft. A story is also told of a family whose women were of the delicate, ailing sort. Misfortune obliged them to perform their own domestic work. What seemed for them a sad necessity proved itself a double blessing. They gained what they had never known before, robust health; and their enforced economy restored them to a prosperous condition.
Not all physicians are clear-sighted or independent enough to prescribe as did one of their number. A young lady supposed to be suffering with anæmia, nervous prostration, and other fashionable ills sent for the family doctor. "Is there anything I can do to get well?" she asked, after the usual questioning, "There is," answered he; "follow this prescription faithfully." The folded scrap of paper read as follows:
"One broom: use in two hours of house-work daily."
That domestic work is not without its aesthetic side many authors bear witness. George Eliot introduces us to Hetty Sorrel at the butter-making, and writes, "They are the prettiest attitudes and movements into which a pretty girl is thrown." But if dairy-work is rapidly taking a place beside spinning and weaving as one of the picturesque employments of the past, what there is to do about the house may be also gracefully done. And here, it may be said of this as of all other work, the spirit and care we put into it endow it with beauty as well as health.
Aside from the physical view of homely gymnastics, there is a social and an economic aspect. Courtship need not wait upon a problematic income if the fair Dorothea has not only a clear head but arms willing to take up the burden of life equally. Does Hermann need to toil? She deems it incumbent upon her, unless busy with young children, to earn her own living within the home or outside of it. When women shall have been educated to a keener sense of justice, they will no longer imagine they have discharged their debt to the community by adding a few beautifying touches to the household furniture! Nor, although they fulfill the higher and more exacting duties of a mother, will they thenceforth fold their hands and do nothing. To be a good father does not absolve a man from work, neither does being a good mother exempt a woman from her share in the maintenance of the home. The maiden of to-day is yet enslaved by caste culture; but the maiden of to-morrow may scorn to be merely ornamental or useless. She may be too proud to allow her husband to support her in idleness and may refuse to be re-enforced by a Biddy or Gretchen unless there is more to do than one pair of hands can accomplish.
The practice of these domestic exercises has also an important influence upon household service. The mistress who understands all the work required by her, and performs part of it herself, rarely has any trouble with servants. But, in order to attain this result, she must know more than the manner in which any piece of work is to be done; she must know how long it takes to do it, and in order to estimate this justly she will need to make practical trial of it herself without assistance. The knowledge and skill she gains in this way will also enable her often to suggest an easier method or better arrangement of work. The ridiculous requirements made in some households where there is a lack of service, and which result in frequent changes, would not be possible if the mistress had learned this lesson in its entirety.
Can it be repeated too often that it is the sign of ignorance to scorn any work well done, or the doer of it? Only when the dignity and importance of labor are rightly estimated can we hope for any well-founded social prosperity. While it is not suggested that wealthy women should discharge their servants and undertake their own domestic work, it may be urged that only good can come from their personal performance of some share of it—physical benefit to themselves and a more wholesome feeling for the labor of their necessitous sisters. Between the small minority who suffer from too easy living and those whose days are overburdened with care, there exists, especially in cities, a large class of women in moderate circumstances whose health would be greatly benefited by more physical exercise. These need not rashly bestride the bicycle, nor rush through the nonproductive drill of the gymnasium as an only means of grace. They may garner their resources, develop their muscles in walking and in reconquering a world of flexibility and strength which lies within their own thresholds.