A century ago it was hardly respectable for a lady to be healthy, much less to engage in sports. She was expected to faint now and then to show her gentility. There were, however, a few revolutionaries among 19th century husbands who thought a wife was more fun when not in a swoon. Perhaps the most effective of these was a short, stocky man with a curly yellow beard named Dioclesian Lewis. In the 1860s he devised a system of light gymnastics, mostly for ladies, and invented the light wooden dumbbell and the beanbag.
His writings quaintly set forth his theories and his successes and, while now out of print, they may still be found in some libraries not recently weeded. His bestseller, The New Gymnastics, was published in 1862 by Ticknor and Fields and subsequently appeared in many editions. Other publications were mostly self-help pamphlets with titles like Five Minnie Chats with Young Women, Chastity; or, Our Secret Sin and Our Digestion; or, My Jolly Friend's Secret.
Lewis also founded the Christian Crusade, a forerunner of the WCTU, and he is credited with such witticisms as, "A clean tooth never decays." But his system of physical education for women remains his most important achievement in social history. It came in the nick of time, for well-to-do women may have been headed for extinction. They spent most of their time lying on their couches, and with good reason, since standing they had to lace themselves to a 20-inch waist and weigh themselves down with some 20 pounds of clothing.
Catherine Beecher, who was unusually energetic for her time and who had talked about exercise for women even before Dio—as he was often called—came along, took a survey of women's health as early as 1856. It was appalling. She said that of her nine married sisters-in-law all but two were either delicate or invalids. Of her 14 married female cousins, all were delicate or invalids.
Dio Lewis' own wife was no better than her contemporaries. In the spring of 1851 she lost 36 pounds, developed a hacking cough, a hectic flush, and she, too, finally took to her couch. The Lewises were living in Buffalo at the time, and Dioclesian was practicing homeopathic medicine and editing a magazine called The Hom�opathist. With the onset of his wife's illness he immediately dropped his career and devoted all his efforts to curing her. He got her off the couch, prescribed a loose dress and low-heeled shoes, then set her to sawing wood, a job he considered most beneficial to deep breathing. That first winter she managed to saw all the wood needed to keep two fires in their home going. The next winter they moved to Fredericksburg, where the climate was milder, but by then Mrs. Lewis was well.
This was also a fortunate move for Dio Lewis, for it was here that he discovered the lecture platform. He was such a success that he began to devote his whole time to traveling and speaking. Six nights a week he lectured on health, and on the seventh he spoke, free of charge, on temperance.
The females in his audience loved Dio, and Lewis loved an audience. He used plenty of props: wands and blowguns, his light wooden dumbbell and his little bag of ticking filled with white beans. There were group games, there was laughter, there was gentility.
To prove all the benefits of his system, he now had, with all the rest of his apparatus, his healthy wife to exhibit and thump and flex. Julian Hawthorne (Nathaniel's journalist son), who did not like Lewis at all, felt especially sorry for his wife. He described Lewis as dapper, suave and full of sly jokes.
But Lewis could afford to ignore his detractors. He had by now received an honorary doctor's degree from Cleveland's Homoeopathic Hospital College, and he had a successful school going in Boston. This was called the Boston Normal Institute of Physical Education and was located at 20 Essex Street. There were seven ladies in the first class of 13.
After this school was running well, Lewis went to Lexington, Mass. and bought a hotel with 110 rooms, and in October 1864 he opened the Family School for Young Ladies. It was a health farm for girls who had broken down at seminaries. The girls went to bed at 8:30, wore strong shoes, ate plain food, walked with swinging arms and dressed in bloomers and tunics.