Untold lives blog

04 April 2023

Exercises for Ladies

Following on from Walker’s Manly Exercises, we bring you, by the same author, Exercises for Ladies; calculated to preserve and improve beauty, and to prevent and correct personal defects, inseparable from constrained or careless habits: founded on physiological principles.  This book was first published in 1836.

Donald Walker claimed that few young women were exempt from some degree of deformity which always increased with age.  These deformities were caused by the women performing nearly every act of their lives in a one-sided manner.  Prevention required an equal and similar use of the other side of the body.

Illustrations of bad positions leading to a crooked spineBad positions leading to a crooked spine

The book was divided into several sections.

Physiological Principles – the structure of the body, the vertebral column, the chest.

Functions of the body connected with exercise – locomotion, nutritive, thinking.  The effects of excessive exercise – exhaustion of the cerebral and spinal nervous system, and premature ageing of appearance.

Debility caused by constraint – whalebone stays causing debility and wrong positions.: ‘The little girl, in the attempt to render her thin and genteel, speedily becomes hump-backed’.  If boys are straight in figure without the aid of whalebone stays, why shouldn’t girls be the same?

Illustration of two young women showing the wrong and right positions in writingWrong and right positions in writing

Wrong positions which resulted from debility and from the employment of muscles unfavourably situated – standing, sitting, writing, drawing, guitar-playing, harp-playing, riding, lying in bed, all the acts of common life.

Guitar playing - wrong and right positionsGuitar-playing – wrong and right positions

Wrong and right positions in harp-playingPlaying the harp – wrong and right positions

Standing – if standing for a long time, the tendency to balance on one leg throws out the hip and distorts the spine.
Sitting – by always sitting on the same side of the window or fire, persons lean to one side, and this has the effect of raising one shoulder.

Injuries done by wrong positions to locomotive organs and functions, vital organs and functions, mental organs and functions.Utility of exercises to locomotive, nutritive, and thinking systems.

Exercises – active (the body is moved and agitated by its own powers); passive (the body is moved without any effort of its own); mixed.

Position of figure – standing (‘females, in particular, find the standing position very fatiguing’ because of the size of their pelvis), walking, dancing.

Exercises for the arms (rod, dumb-bells, Indian sceptre, clubs). Walker describes Indian sceptre exercises practised in the Army with clubs.

Young woman performing Indian Sceptre exercise

Young woman performing Indian Sceptre exercise Indian sceptre exercises

Exercises for the limbs (balance step, walking at different speeds, running and leaping).

Walking - the quick paceWalking – the quick pace

Running and leaping – ‘Owing to the excessive shocks which both of these exercises communicate, neither of them are congenial to women’.  So Walker moved quickly on to exercises for the feet.

Dancing – Ladies were to dance in a very different manner from gentlemen – ‘lithesome and graceful motions’.  Every lady was to desist from dancing as soon as she felt any difficulty breathing –‘oppression and overheating render the most beautiful dancer an object of ridicule or of pity’.

Gesture.

Deportment – how to curtsey.

Three stages of a curtseyThe curtsey


Games – ‘Le Diable Boiteux’ (which exercised shoulders), 'La Grace' (catching hoops on sticks), skipping rope, shuttlecock and battledore, bow and arrow.

Geary's exercise staysGeary’s Exercise Stays

Walker recommended exercise stays invented by Mrs Nicholas Geary of 61 St James’s Street.  He said that these stays were absolutely essential for all exercises of the arms, especially the Indian exercises for which they were constructed.  Their pressure on every part of the chest was slight as the very elastic shoulder straps were longer and fixed lower than usual, and they also played freely in the lateral direction under a transverse band at the back.

Advertisement for Mrs Nicholas Geary’s stays from Morning Herald (London) 3 October 1836Advertisement for Mrs Nicholas Geary’s stays from Morning Herald (London) 3 October 1836 British Newspaper Archive

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Donald Walker, Exercises for Ladies 

 

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