The Torturous-Looking Exercise Machines of the Victorian Era

Monday June 18, 2018 Written by Smith

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As these painful-looking photos show, the gym back in Victorian times was a far cry from the world of protein shakes, lycra and bouncy Les Mills fitness classes (although some might argue that running nowhere on a treadmill or doing grapevines and push-ups for an hour listening to techno remixes of Adele might be somewhat on par in the torture stakes.)

These images of dapper, well-dressed men and women on Metropolis-inspired gym equipment are from an 1892 book called Dr. G. Zander’s medico-mechanische Gymnastik. Its author, Swedish physician Dr. Gustav Zander, had noticed that the rapid increase in mechanisation and industrialisation in the west had meant that, well, these increasingly sedentary workers of the late 19th century were getting a bit on the stiff and flabby side. 

He set about studying the physics of body motion and muscle-building, and went on to create his own range of 27 gym equipment machines aimed at correcting physical deficiencies, impairments and ailments. Whether you had a deformed spine or just a spot of constipation, there was something for everyone. Zander's contraptions were thought to comprise the world's first 'gym' as we know it today. 

This one appears to assist with shoulder and lower back flexibility - although we are unsure as to why there is a clamp on the lady's upper thigh, and also - is that a rope that is tying her in place? Perhaps it's to stop her trying to nip off before the end of the work-out for a sneaky bit of Victoria sponge or tapioca pudding. 

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The device below is much more our cup of tea, designed to "increase the circulation of blood to tired and cold feet with a foot massage". 

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The contraption – below left – is described as an "elegant chest-expanding machine" that allows you to "raise your pulse by increasing the flow of blood to the lungs". (Little-known factoid: Victorian women were single-minded in their quest for strong pecs aka elegant chests.) The one on the right could, in fact, be the world's first bucking bronco, described politely as "a moving mechanised saddle to train the core muscles". We have no further comment on this one (except to say that we think this might have been quite, um, popular). 

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As well as being passionate about their pecs, Victorian ladies were also committed to avoiding Ye Olde Tuckshoppe Lady Arms. 

"This arm-bending apparatus is good for the arms, shoulders and back," wrote Dr Zander. 

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Curious for more? Read Carolyn de la Peña's terrific Cabinet article, The Origins of Cybex Space or her book 'The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built the Modern America'.

Images: National Museum of Science and Technology, Stockholm