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Physical Education in Library of Congress Primary Sources

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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.?



Comments (7)

  1. Thanks. What a great source. I am forwarding this to our PE department.

    • Thanks, MaryJane. We’d love to hear how your PE department uses the primary sources and how the students respond.

  2. PE teachers and coaches in one of our workshops loved this early video: (and wow, love these newer video viewers!)

  3. I notice that the link in Anne Bell’s comment is not currently working — we’re checking into it and anticipate that it will be fixed soon.

  4. The link works now, so I got my first good look at the film. Thanks for posting it, Anne – I had not seen it before. I hope others will post their favorites!

  5. This is my favorite PE related items:
    Lathrop School, calisthenics

    This is also a great “get up and stretch” follow along activity when working with students of all ages!

  6. Thanks for the great source Cheryl. Will share with my friend who is PE teacher.

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