Monday, December 21, 2009

Vintage Exercise Routines

1920s and 30s women had a wide selection of exercise or “reducing” records available to choose from, like our Victor Records for Health Exercises 78s from 1922. Complete sets of these are fairly easy to find and are fun to play if you have a windup phonograph. Alternatively, This set of WALLACE Reducing Records, "Get Thin to Music," is dated to 1942 but we’ve seen earlier (alas, incomplete) sets from the 1920s. We feel a kinship with the former owner, as it does not appear to have been used at all. It’s intact with all 5 records, instruction booklets and brochures. We enjoyed this article, “Sweatin’ to the Real Oldies,” which references some other such records. Exercise routines were also broadcast over the radio, typically in the early morning hours. Gymnastics and calisthenics, introduced decades earlier, remained popular in the 1920s-30s. In E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia (1931), Lucia practices the “Ideal System of Calisthenics for those no longer Young” and later gives classes in the same. Pilates, developed by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s, were used primarily by ballet dancers. Biking, especially with a vintage or retro-style bike, can be fun. Swimming is another option. Don’t have access to a pool? You could do as one 1920s beauty book recommends and "loosely imitate the motions employed by lying across some pillows and kicking vigorously with the same motion that is employed in swimming.” Or how about dancing? As Sylvia of Hollywood suggests in No More Alibis (1934), “get up and dance about the room, sway and swing to the music of a snappy foxtrot.” Golfing and tennis are also superb forms of “vintage” exercise but we find the fashion requirements of these sports demand their own posts. Ditto skiing, skating and horseback riding.
Diet & Exercise Books Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters, a graduate of the University of California (Doctor of Medicine, class of 1909), was a household name in the 1920s. Her book Diet and Health, with Key to the Calories, made the non-fiction best seller lists for five years running (1922-26). Diet and Health was also the name of her popular syndicated newspaper column. She once wrote "My idea of heaven is place with me and mine on a cloud of whipped cream" – how could we not love this woman? Dr. Lulu is witty and funny, but also full of practical advice. Having struggled with a weight problem since childhood, she later lost over 70 pounds. Her secret? Calorie counting - then a new concept; in the book she has to tell readers how to pronounce the word (kal'-o-ri), and lists food proportions in units of 100 calories – very much ahead of her time in this respect. Diet and Health also includes a chapter on exercise routines. The book remained in publication well after her untimely death from pneumonia in June 1930, and is still in print. Then there is the aforementioned Sylvia of Hollywood, aka Madame Sylvia, aka Sylvia Ullback, a beauty writer for Photoplay magazine in the 1930s. We adored No More Alibis, a 1934 non-fiction best seller, and Streamline Your Figure (1939) with its Deco cover. But after we read her article in the May 1932 Photoplay with the horrifying title “Quit Those Cocktails if You Want a Figure,” we rather went off Sylvia for good.
Richard Kline of Paramount was another 1930s personal trainer to the stars. Arriving in Hollywood in 1927, it became his job to whip the studio’s lovely luminaries such as Clara Bow, Nancy Carroll and later Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard, into shape and keep them there. His advice to housewives (“since you are not in Hollywood to receive personal attention to your individual problem”): “when you bend in your housework, do it gracefully, be conscious of the rhythmic use of your body and legs as you do it. Think rhythm when you sweep; your arms and back will be beautiful” (Beauty Review magazine, October 1939). He also marketed a series of home exercise devices in the ‘30s: Dick Kline’s “Stretch to Health” and Dick Kline’s “Bend to Health.” These can often be found new in the box.
Photo: actress doing arm exercises, date unknown.
Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein had exercise facilities at their upscale salons starting in the late teens and early 20s; Miss Arden’s 1937 Gymnasium Moderne at her Fifth Avenue salon in New York is widely held to have been the model for the gym in the movie version of The Women (1939). Madame Rubinstein advises 20 minutes of exercise daily in her book This Way to Beauty (1936); a chapter “Keep Fit” discusses and illustrates some basic routines.
During the Deco era, anyone interested in exercise or physical fitness would also have been familiar with the name Bernarr MacFadden (1868-1955). He published the long running Physical Culture magazine and the Physical Culture Cookbook, which saw numerous printings following its début in 1901 (1929 edition shown; Physical Culture cover from 1927).
One final book to mention, Better Than Beauty: A Guide to Charm by Helen Valentine and Alice Thompson (1938), discusses diet tips and illustrates several routine exercises. This book was republished a few years ago, and is again widely available for modern readers to condemn as "outdated."
As Always, the Question Remains – What to Wear?
Early ‘20s exercise wear seems to typically resemble the gym suits/bloomer outfits of the previous decade. We have this McCall pattern, dated 1921, for "ladies pleated gym bloomers" – often worn with a middy blouse- type top as in the above illustration. We’ve also seen them as a one-piece bloomer outfit. For more on these, see Fuzzy Lizzie’s excellent, informative article, “Bloomers and the Gymsuit.” Many women pictured in 1930s exercise books and articles that we have seen are wearing bathing suits. In Mapp and Lucia, Lucia dons a “dazzling bathing suit of black and yellow” for her calisthenics (this was faithfully depicted in the Mapp & Lucia television series; you can see a snippet of her “skipping” in this lovely montage, at about 0:18). Joan Crawford manages to look glamorous in slacks and a sweatshirt while working out with Clark Gable in Dancing Lady (1933). Simple shorts and a top, including singlet-style T-shirts like the one Clark is sporting, were worn by women as well. Footwear includes anything from pumps to canvas or leather beach shoes; rounded toe ballet-like flats (see the woman in white, above, from a 1928 Physical Culture cover); or ankle socks and simple, white Keds-like tennis shoes. Scans of tennis shoes from period 1929-31 sources may be seen in this article on the Model A Ford Club of America's website.

Some ‘workout scenes’ in 1930s movies:

The “Bend Down Sister” routine in Palmy Days (1931)

Carole Lombard in a shipboard gym in No More Orchids (1932)

Joan Crawford in the gym with Clark Gable in Dancing Lady (1933)

Rosalind Russell and Joan Fontaine in The Women (1939)

...And honorable mention: Patsy Kelly demonstrates an electric exercise belt for department store customers in There Goes My Heart (1938)

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