Physical Education in Library of Congress Primary Sources

This is a guest post by Mary J. Johnson, an educational consultant to the Library of Congress.

May is Physical Fitness Month. Based on America’s popular culture obsession with physical fitness, one might be tempted to label fitness as a modern phenomenon. Primary sources hardly come to mind, but in fact, students can discover a rich and extensive history of physical fitness through the collections of the Library of Congress.

Female students exercising, one with a wall-mounted device using ropes and pulleys

As early as the 1820s, schools began to introduce gymnastics and hygiene training into the curriculum, but physical education did not become a formal requirement until after the Civil War. This 1899 photograph of high school girls exercising with “a wall-mounted device using ropes and pulleys” does not look much different from gym equipment today, although fitness fashion has changed dramatically.

Boys in the “commando” course, part of the physical education program, learning the fireman’s “carry,” or the correct method of carrying a wounded comrade

Conscription data released during World War I and II identified up to half of all military draftees physically unfit for combat.  Schools heard the message.  This 1942 photograph shows  “Boys in the ‘commando’ course, part of the physical education program, learning the fireman’s ‘carry,’ or the correct method of carrying a wounded comrade.” You can find a gallery of similar images here.

  • Work as a whole class to analyze the exercise equipment visible in the  1899 photograph of high school girls exercising and then to compare it with exercise equipment the students are familiar with or have used. How is the equipment today different from the equipment in the photographs? Why has it changed?
  • Encourage your students to interview their parents or grandparents about their physical education experiences and to locate images as illustrations for those stories. What did they wear? What were their favorite activities? Why?

What else can be discovered by exploring the history of physical education in the U.S.?



Assessing Historical Thinking Skills Using Library of Congress Primary Sources

When we ask teachers how they use primary sources, they often have rich and creative answers about how they hook students’ attention, deepen understanding, and even review concepts and content. We hear less about assessment, and most of the responses are questions about how to construct assessments using primary sources.

The Stanford History Education Group has created formative assessments using primary sources from the Library of Congress. With these tools, teachers can gauge students’ historical understanding and ability to apply critical thinking skills by evaluating their analysis of primary source materials.The Spring 2013 issue of the TPS Journal, an online publication focused on pedagogical approaches to teaching with the Library’s digitized primary sources in K-12 classrooms, looks at how a teacher can assess not only content knowledge, but also critical thinking skills.

Two Asian Pacific Americans’ Wartime Experiences: Personal Histories from the Veterans History Project

Like many immigrants to the United States, the earliest arrivals from Asia were motivated by a desire to fulfill their version of the American Dream. Often, these immigrants were met with a difficult reality in their new home. Asian Americans were not always embraced by locals and other immigrants, but they worked hard to earn their place in the history of the United States.

Jackie Robinson: Remembering Number 42 with Primary Sources

Baseball still holds a special place in the culture of the United States. As this year’s season opened around the nation’s capital we began to see more and more people wearing baseball caps, shirts and jackets with their team’s favorite logo. Though baseball has been a part of the culture of the United States for many years, not all were allowed to play in the major leagues.