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Original Issue

The Pioneer of Genteel Gymnastics for Ladies

Armed with beanbags, light dumbbells and oratory, a 19th century reformer named Dioclesian Lewis led the bold fight for the unpopular idea that women had a right to be healthy

A century ago it was hardly respectable for a lady to be healthy, much less to engage in sports. She was expected to faint now and then to show her gentility. There were, however, a few revolutionaries among 19th century husbands who thought a wife was more fun when not in a swoon. Perhaps the most effective of these was a short, stocky man with a curly yellow beard named Dioclesian Lewis. In the 1860s he devised a system of light gymnastics, mostly for ladies, and invented the light wooden dumbbell and the beanbag.

His writings quaintly set forth his theories and his successes and, while now out of print, they may still be found in some libraries not recently weeded. His bestseller, The New Gymnastics, was published in 1862 by Ticknor and Fields and subsequently appeared in many editions. Other publications were mostly self-help pamphlets with titles like Five Minnie Chats with Young Women, Chastity; or, Our Secret Sin and Our Digestion; or, My Jolly Friend's Secret.

Lewis also founded the Christian Crusade, a forerunner of the WCTU, and he is credited with such witticisms as, "A clean tooth never decays." But his system of physical education for women remains his most important achievement in social history. It came in the nick of time, for well-to-do women may have been headed for extinction. They spent most of their time lying on their couches, and with good reason, since standing they had to lace themselves to a 20-inch waist and weigh themselves down with some 20 pounds of clothing.

Catherine Beecher, who was unusually energetic for her time and who had talked about exercise for women even before Dio—as he was often called—came along, took a survey of women's health as early as 1856. It was appalling. She said that of her nine married sisters-in-law all but two were either delicate or invalids. Of her 14 married female cousins, all were delicate or invalids.

Dio Lewis' own wife was no better than her contemporaries. In the spring of 1851 she lost 36 pounds, developed a hacking cough, a hectic flush, and she, too, finally took to her couch. The Lewises were living in Buffalo at the time, and Dioclesian was practicing homeopathic medicine and editing a magazine called The Homæopathist. With the onset of his wife's illness he immediately dropped his career and devoted all his efforts to curing her. He got her off the couch, prescribed a loose dress and low-heeled shoes, then set her to sawing wood, a job he considered most beneficial to deep breathing. That first winter she managed to saw all the wood needed to keep two fires in their home going. The next winter they moved to Fredericksburg, where the climate was milder, but by then Mrs. Lewis was well.

This was also a fortunate move for Dio Lewis, for it was here that he discovered the lecture platform. He was such a success that he began to devote his whole time to traveling and speaking. Six nights a week he lectured on health, and on the seventh he spoke, free of charge, on temperance.

The females in his audience loved Dio, and Lewis loved an audience. He used plenty of props: wands and blowguns, his light wooden dumbbell and his little bag of ticking filled with white beans. There were group games, there was laughter, there was gentility.

To prove all the benefits of his system, he now had, with all the rest of his apparatus, his healthy wife to exhibit and thump and flex. Julian Hawthorne (Nathaniel's journalist son), who did not like Lewis at all, felt especially sorry for his wife. He described Lewis as dapper, suave and full of sly jokes.

But Lewis could afford to ignore his detractors. He had by now received an honorary doctor's degree from Cleveland's Homoeopathic Hospital College, and he had a successful school going in Boston. This was called the Boston Normal Institute of Physical Education and was located at 20 Essex Street. There were seven ladies in the first class of 13.

After this school was running well, Lewis went to Lexington, Mass. and bought a hotel with 110 rooms, and in October 1864 he opened the Family School for Young Ladies. It was a health farm for girls who had broken down at seminaries. The girls went to bed at 8:30, wore strong shoes, ate plain food, walked with swinging arms and dressed in bloomers and tunics.

The school's purpose was to beef up the girls, not slim them down, and during the first year Lewis noted an average enlargement in his students of 2½ inches in the chest, 5 inches in the waist, 1½ inches around the upper arm and 1 inch in the forearm.

"I attended his school," wrote Mrs. Lillie Chase Wyman of Hingham, "worn out in body and mind and a mere bundle of damaged nerves, but gained there courage and strength to take up the battle and begin anew."

Elizabeth Weir of Concord, who attended the school as a spectator now and then, wrote to a friend long afterward: "I remember that Louisa Alcott was a leading member of the class. One of our (then) Concord young ladies, Una Hawthorne, attended his school in Lexington, and we always enjoyed the accounts of it that she brought home from time to time."

Una Hawthorne, as a matter of fact, was only reluctantly allowed by her mother to attend the school and only under the condition that she wear her bloomers down to her shoe tops and put on a skirt when she crossed the street or was otherwise in public view. When she eventually decided to become a physical education teacher, her mother said no, and that was the end of that.

But if Una Hawthorne did not make it to the career of gymnastics teacher, there were others who did, more resolute and less dominated. A Miss Evans, a graduate of the Lewis Boston school, had for some time been instructing Mount Holyoke girls in the approved method of wand waving and marching and, when Vassar opened its doors in 1865, it had Delia F. Woods as its competent lady professor in charge of the Lewis system of gymnastics. Lucy Hunt, in the same class with Una Hawthorne, was on hand in Northampton to take over when Smith opened in 1873.

By 1882 improvement in female health had become so evident that the Associated Collegiate Alumnae was able to put forth a flat statement to the effect that of its 1,290 members, 77.85% were alive and robust and had not been harmed by college learning at all.

Today Dioclesian Lewis is all but forgotten. But in his day he was given testimonial dinners and silver bowls, and a book was written in his honor. The author was one Moses Coit Tyler, and the title was The Brawnville Papers—a story of a gymnastic Utopia centered around the Lewis system.

The citizens of the fictional Brawnville sang in chorus this tribute to Dr. Dioclesian Lewis:

Then work away till a better day
On our pill-cursed race is shining;
For the "bell" and the "ring" shall defiance fling
At the fiends of Disease and Pining.