Gymnasium Thumbnail

Body Work:

Americans became “health crazy” at the dawn of the 20th century. The germ theory of disease inspired a new zeal for spotlessly clean homes. Mothers planned meals according to the latest nutritional science. Physical education in schools established the link between personal and national vigor.

This section explores fitness, nutrition, and changing ideas on health.



“The Jewish boys and girls in America continue to strive for physical perfection.” ~ Bronx YM-YWHA Executive Director A. W. Rosenthal, 1926

What’s on your plate 1970: From Veal to Vegetarian

Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking inspired Americans to embrace more “sophisticated” cuisine in the 1970s. While dinner-party hosts fretted over soufflés, a health food movement emerged from the hippie subculture, championing granola, yogurt, and carrot cake (vegetables were in, but fats were not necessarily out). THE MENU Beef bourguignon Lettuce wedges with […]

Read More ...

Fitness Fads: 1970s-80s – Style and Substance

Some of these Fitness Fads Through the Decades posts have proved somewhat difficult to research, with a lack of interesting sources and images. Not so the Seventies!  A quick internet search instantly brought up numerous pages dedicated to the hilarious and puzzling exercise trends and equipment of that always-entertaining decade. (I was born in it, […]

Read More ...

Fitness Fads: 1950s-60s – The Future of America

In 1956, in response to an alarming medical journal article on the state of fitness in America’s youth ,President Eisenhower established the President’s Council on Youth Fitness. Once again, U.S children had been compared to Europe’s, and found wanting. In the early 1960s President Kennedy changed “Youth” to “Physical,” hoping to address the health of […]

Read More ...

What’s On Your Plate 1950: Prosperity and Preservatives

In the prosperous 1950s, advertisers promoted convenience products that brought the latest technologies into the kitchen, so that busy housewives could produce home-cooked meals with ease. Casseroles with cans of cream soup as their base were popular dishes, considered nutritious because they were enriched with vitamins and stamped with the approval of health experts. Have […]

Read More ...

What’s On Your Plate 1940: Making a Little Go a Long Way

During the Great Depression and the wartime food rationing that followed, Americans tried to stretch their supply of meat with dishes like “liver loaf”. Savvy cooks economized by replacing scarce apples with cheaper, shelf-stable Ritz crackers in the national desert, apple pie. The Menu Liver Loaf Baked Beans Creamed Spinach Steamed Brown Bread “Mock Apple […]

Read More ...

Fitness Fads: 1940s – Passing the Test

Shortly before the United States entered World War II, the U.S. Army reinstituted the draft. Thanks to the selective service, many men entered the military who were not always prepared, physically, for this new endeavor.  There were certain parameters set – such as minimum height, weight, and “circumference of chest” – but even those men who […]

Read More ...

Is Sushi ‘Healthy’?

The New York Times just published some great statistics on what American public thinks is healthy food and what nutritionists consider healthy. There are some interesting areas of agreement and disagreement between the two groups, but the article only hints at the importance of the historical element in this discussion, noting that it takes time […]

Read More ...

Fitness Fads: 1920s-1930s – Parks and Recreation

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, interest grew in the physical, educational, and moral benefits of athleticism, particularly for children.  Educators and reformers worked on to introduce gymnastics into school curricula, build playgrounds for children, and promote physical activity from a young age.  By the 1920s, however, attention turned to the needs of […]

Read More ...

Fitness Fads: 1900s-1910s – Swimming for All

The physical act of swimming has been around for millennia, and many cultures around the world have long been aware of its healthful benefits, building strength, endurance, and cardiovascular capacity.  Competitive swimming has likewise been around for hundreds of years, with various countries adding it to their accepted sports repertoire over the centuries.  Here, for […]

Read More ...

“Yeah Team!” Basketball score book, JEA, 1930-1933

In the Gymnasium section, there is a basketball score book used by the Jewish Educational Alliance, Baltimore, in the early 1930s.  The book is closed in the exhibit, so here’s a quick peek at a few of the details you can’t see while it’s on display. The Jewish Educational Alliance of Baltimore was founded in 1909, […]

Read More ...

Fitness Fads: Late 19th Century – Promoting Physical Education in Schools

In the mid to late 19th century, many American doctors and educators studied, debated, and implemented the various scientific exercise programs being developed in Europe.  While some argued for the strict, nation-building German gymnastics and others favored the looser, flexible Swedish method, others preferred more obscure systems . . . or invented their own. (This […]

Read More ...

Fitness Fads Master Post

Physical fitness trends are nothing new, though it often seems like we modern humans have a lock on the continuous reinvention of The Perfect New Method.  Each month, we’ll take a brief look at some of the exercise fads and fashions to sweep the nation. “To the sincere student of physical education nothing has a […]

Read More ...

What’s On Your Plate: Create Your Own!

  Download Create Your Plate PDF We invite you to create your own historic meals and share your creations with us on social media! Happily in this digital age many historic cookbooks, articles, menus, and advertisements are available online. Check out the sources below to find your favorite historical recipes. Feeding America: The Historic American […]

Read More ...

What’s On Your Plate 1920: Jazzing Up the Dinner Table

In the 1920s, nutrition experts endorsed “Dainty Food” – light meals composed of canned fruits and vegetables, gelatin, white sauces, mayonnaise, and egg custards. New canning technologies made packaged foods seem cleaner and more hygienic than fresh ingredients. The 1920s also ushered in the age of “counting calories.” Calorie Counter: A Lesson – Silent film […]

Read More ...

What’s On Your Plate 1900: Plain American Fare

In the early 1900s doctors advised Americans to steer clear of spicy foods. A plain diet with lots of meat and dairy was thought to improve digestion. At the same time food as a science was beginning to come front and center – for instance Fanny Farmer opening her “School of Cookery” in 1902, promoting […]

Read More ...

What’s On Your Plate?

Ideas about healthy eating have changed over time. In the exhibit we ask you to match “healthy” meals to their decade of origin. Check out the posts below for access to some of the original recipes, facts and figures about the ideas and foods represented, and other trivia related to these meals! 1900: Plain American […]

Read More ...