Physical Culture, an intellectual and practical exploration!

George Severs

Last week, Conor Heffernan from University College, Dublin, put the ‘work’ into workshop. His paper on ‘The Irish Sandow School: Physical Culture in Fin de Siècle Ireland’ investigated the various cultures and networks of masculinity which emerged from ‘physical culture’. And it began by involving attendees of the workshop in some gentle exercises!

Physical culture, Heffernan told us, could be seen as the emerging trends of body building, muscle measurement and generally public forms of exercise. Journals quickly emerged to meet the needs of the (mostly) men who became fixated with tracing their physical progress, and who developed a desire to share the measurements of their ever-increasing muscles with the journals’ growing readership. Read widely across Ireland at the fin de siècle, these journals are a fascinating echo of the modern-day trend of body builders and those who ‘go gym’ to record their corporeally expanding exertions and to share them on social media.

Several fascinating aspects of Heffernan’s paper pertained to the amorphous network of the physical culture journal readership. Letters would be written to the journal, not only for advice on the most efficient ways to build muscle, but also seeking times and places to meet up with fellow male PC enthusiasts. As Heffernan noted, this is a tantalising cipher of underlying same-sex desires within the physical culture network, one which is incredibly difficult to access beyond this.

I was particularly pleased with the intellectual overlap and potential collaboration which Heffernan spoke about in his Q&A session with Lesley Steinitz (University of Cambridge). Steinitz, who presented at the workshop in 2016, works on the advertising of health foods in early-twentieth century Britain. To quote her Faculty page, Steinitz is interested in ‘the industrially manufactured ‘health foods’ such as Bovril, Oxo, Cadbury’s Cocoa and a variety of other brands of ‘patent foods’ which were marketed on the basis of their health-giving powers’. The mutual intellectual interests between Heffernan and Steinitz were clear, and it is wonderful to see communication and collaboration between alumni of the workshop (especially one that now spans the Irish sea).

In all, Heffernan’s was a rich and thought-provoking paper. It prompted us to think about the ways in which physical exercise in this context illuminate the histories of print media, feminism, secularisation and nationalism. As he ploughs towards the completion of his PhD, I’m sure members of the workshop will look forward to reading more of Heffernan’s work on physical culture in the future.


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