THE BODY AS A MACHINE: GYMNASTICS IN THE MID-1930s


McDOWELL, Thomas. Gymnastic Movements … Diagrams and Sketches by H.E. Young. London: H. Milford, John Johnson for Oxford University Press, 1935.

Quarto (209 x 165mm), pp. 59, [1 (imprint)]. Half-tone frontispiece, title-vignette, 4 half-tone plates, and 17 full-pageillustrations in the text. (Some very light spotting.) Original buff paper covered boards, upper board lettered in black and with mounted half-tone illustration, spine lettered in black. (Extremities very lightly rubbed and bumped, spine and edges of boards a little darkened.) A very good copy. Provenance: B. Harris 1936 (ownership inscription on front free endpaper, pencil correction on p. 21).



First edition. Thomas McDowell was a school sports teacher at the Leyton County High School for Boys, held a Diploma of Physical Education from Silkeborg, Denmark (where he had studied ‘rhythmical gymnastics’ for two years), and was a member of the Institute of Hygiene as well as a Fellow of the British Association of Physical Training. 

McDowell’s approach to fitness and rehabilitation is firmly anchored in early-twentieth-century concerns: ‘[i]n this age of machinery the demand for manual labour tends to decrease more and more’ he explains in the introduction (p. [7]). For office workers and young boys alike, therefore, gymnastics is the ‘simplest and best way’ to keep the body functional. McDowell generally advocates dynamic gymnastics, incorporating rhythm into movement sequences, but also refers to the importance of static exercises in accordance with the fashionable Danish gymnastics of the time, especially the system of Niels Bukh (1880-1950), who had trained the Danish Olympic team in 1912, and developed his technique (which has been likened to a form of yoga by some) in reaction to other Scandinavian systems of rhythmic and medical gymnastics.



McDowell’s exercises are ‘adaptable to babies or children, boys or girls, need never be dull, and most of them may be performed without the use of apparatus’ (loc. cit.), working primarily with body weight and partner work, except for the vaulting exercises and those requiring a wall bar. Appropriately for his young students, the individual movements are named ‘See-Saw’, ‘Corkscrew’ and ‘Rocking Chair’ (names familiar to Pilates practitioners today) as well as ‘Kangaroo Hop’, ‘Bouncing Balls’, or ‘Caterpillar Walk’. Inspired by the all-pervasive military technology of the mid-1930s, he also ‘designed exercises replicating the mechanism and movement of tanks. Two “tank boys” gripped ands and rolled over each other in a circular body motion. Tank technology informed models of masculinity for young boys’ (Ana Carden-Coyne, Reconstructing the Body: Classicism, Modernism, and the First World War (Oxford, 2009), p. 188, referring to pp. 54-55 in Gymnastic Movements). 

Gymnastic Movements is McDowell’s first and most significant book, and is based on his six years of teaching physical movement in England and Scotland. The photographs on which the half-tone illustrations are based may have been taken around the time when McDowell’s pupils were filmed exercising (a ten-minute demonstration was released in 1936, cf. BFI archives). The line illustrations in the later parts of the book use shadows alongside the exercising boys to show movements (start and finish) in the same image.

McDowell’s other publications include Vaulting: A Book for Teachers and Leaders of Gymnastics Classes, including Hints on Teaching, ‘Standing by’, Combined Horse Vaulting and Agility, and Display Vaulting (1937) and Gymnastic Partner-Work (1937).

£25

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