WOMEN, PHYSICAL CULTURE, AND THE WOLFSONIAN LIBRARY
Last evening we hosted twenty-seven visitors for a special presentation of rare books, periodicals, and other ephemeral items in the Wolfsonian-FIU library complementing the exhibition Women in Motion on display in our museum galleries.
In presenting the library items for our visitors, I began by organizing my selection chronologically, and then by grouping the materials together along certain common themes.
The first artifacts laid out on the main reading room table included some late Victorian and Art Nouveau images of women engaged in sport activities. The library holds a portfolio published in 1902 titled: Das Weib im modernen Ornament [The woman in modern ornaments] with illustrations by Julius Klinger (1876-1942). From this portfolio I chose a few representative plates to show how women engaged in sports activities were “objectified” and transformed into beautiful design motifs in this era.
Pared with an advertisement designed by the American “dean of Art Nouveau” Bill Bradley, one can imagine just how difficult it must have been for sports-minded Victorian women judging by the layers of clothing a woman of this era was expected to wear even while playing tennis or riding a bicycle.
Thanks to a donation by the late Robert J. Young of Deland, Florida, the Wolfsonian library also holds a large collection of rare periodicals and ephemera documenting the physical culture movement in America. An early and influential critic of Victorian prudery and advocate for clothing-reform and physical fitness, bodybuilder and publishing magnate Bernarr Macfadden helped change the way American viewed women and physical activity.
Leaving behind the Victorian corsets and bustles that distorted the female figure, the attractive women in tight-fitting sports and bathing suits pictured on the covers of his Physical Culture monthly might at first glance be mistaken for curvaceous nudes were it not for the bright colors of their skin-tight sports attire.
GIFTS OF ROBERT J. YOUNG
Though the “pin-up”-like women gracing the covers may have been designed to persuade reluctant husbands to open their wallets and subscribe, the articles combining homeopathic remedies with Cosmopolitan-like articles and personal advice were definitely aimed at a female audience. While some of the article titles sound frivolous or smack of medical quackery, Macfadden was dead serious in his advocacy for physical education for women, as is evident from this double-sided broadside providing both men and women with healthy exercise regimens.
As the Wolfsonian library is also justly famous for its ocean liner promotional materials, I had also pulled a photograph album, brochure, and some postcards produced by various steamship companies to show prospective travelers of every class the fun possibilities for exercise available aboard their passenger ships. First class passengers contemplating a voyage aboard the Monarch of Bermuda could have browsed through this photograph album to get a peek not only at the staterooms and public salons, but also at the gymnasium. This particular gym even included a mechanical horse for patrons who might worry about losing their riding skills on a long sea voyage!
Tourist class passengers taking a Mediterranean holiday cruise aboard the Arandora Star in the late 1930s, on the other hand, might choose instead to participate in more middle-class frivolities, like playing “tug-of-war” on the sports deck.
Postcards published by the Navigazione Generale Italiana and Cosulich lines also pictured men and women enjoying a wide variety of sports activities aboard ship.
Of course, the Wolfsonian library also possesses an important collection of Olympic Game publications and ephemera, including materials from the so-called “Nazi” Olympics held in Berlin in 1936. Recognizing that even the worst possible programs (and pogroms) could be packaged and sold to the public by a good publicity campaign, Adolf Hitler won some of Germany’s “best and brightest”—like filmmaker and photographer “Leni” Riefenstahl (1902-2003) and commercial artist Ludwig Hohlwein (1874-1949)—over to the cause.
In between periodical covers depicting the Aryan “ubermensch,” Associate Librarian Nicolae Harsanyi discovered our very own Miami Beach swim team!
GIFTS OF NICOLAS BLAGA
From the Nazi Olympics, it was a short hop, skip, and jump over to the totalitarian exercise regimens developed by the Communist and Fascist regimes. Russian propaganda graphics, for example, were designed to show the great strides that both men and women “physical culturalists” were making in the new Soviet state.
Young schoolgirls in Fascist Italy were also being encouraged to participate in “patriotic” sporting events and to strive to keep physically fit, as can be seen from these notebook covers.
Of course Italian Fascists were hardly interested in promoting gender equality, but rather in instilling a sense of unity through conformity, and in forging hardy mothers capable of re-producing and producing large numbers of healthy future-soldiers for Mussolini’s empire. When the Second World War did come, the Fascist Party continued to organize Olympic-style games on a national scale and to use prominent designers to encourage female participation in these events. Gino Boccasile, an Italian commercial artist who specialized in designing “cheesecake” depictions of women in advertisements, contributed with other artists to books celebrating the annual sports meets of the Fascist youth organizations, (or, Annuario Sportivo Generale della Gioventù Italiana del Littorio).
In the United States in these same war years, a series of comical postcards were published encouraging women to serve in the W.A.A.C.s (or, Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps). But even as these postcards encouraged women to do their patriotic duty, it did not hide the fact that for many enlistees, the grueling physical demands of basic training, marching, and physical exercise would be anything but a pleasant experience.
GIFTS OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA AND CLARA HELENA PALACIO LUCA
Even as the war ground to a close in 1945, and wartime restrictions on paper and printing began to be eased, periodicals extolling the benefits of outdoor activity continued to reach American consumers. Among the most controversial of their time were those like Sunshine and Health, the official organ of the American Sunbathing Association, Inc. Carrying Bernarr Macfadden’s views on clothing reform to the extreme, nudist magazines even promoted winter sports in the buff!
GIFT OF ROBERT J. YOUNG
The ridiculousness of this last magazine cover called to mind a nursery rhyme I remembered hearing as a young boy growing up in New England: “Ladies and gentlemen, take my advice. Pull down your britches, and slide on the ice!” Not an idea that I actually recommend my readers take too seriously!