The other week, while perusing our oversize materials, I ran across a drawer that had previously escaped my notice. It was labelled “Dr. Phillips’ Figure Study Charts” and was full to overflowing with great big pages of simply drawn figures, obviously advocating for the health and aesthetic benefits of proper posture and unrestrictive clothing. These charts are a fantastic example of the complicated, contradictory character of nineteenth century science, medicine and health advice.
These charts, “Outline Studies of the Human Figure,” are a published collection of teaching tools created by J. H. Kellogg and published in 1898 (2nd edition) by Kellogg’s Modern Medicine Publishing Company in Battle Creek, Michigan. John Harvey Kellogg is a well known character in the late nineteenth century health craze. Best known as a co-inventor of corn flakes (with his brother), he also ran a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan with a focus on healthy eating, exercise and enemas. He published extensively and advocated for many causes, from the very reasonable to the merely quirky to the downright terrible. He was a champion of vegetarianism, an anti-smoking advocate, and was clearly opposed to corsets. However, he also promoted almost complete abstinence, was so opposed to masturbation that he recommended genital mutilation to prevent it, and was a significant player in the American eugenics movement.
“This series of charts… illustrating the influence of dress, bad posture, and the neglect of physical development, in the production of disease and deformities. These original studies are selected from the results of a careful observation of thousands of different nationalities, including the following: American, English, Welsh, Scotch, German, French, Italian, Icelandic, Scandinavian, North American, Mexican, Chinese, Samoan, Egyptian, Nubian, East Indian, and Congo.
These outlines are not diagrams but
Tracings made Directly from the Human Body
By an apparatus devised by the author for the purpose.”
It goes on to promote the utility of the charts to all teachers of physical culture and the appropriateness of the charts for all schools and gymnasiums. From the final page of the prospectus, we learn that the charts can be purchased for $6.00, or $10.00 with an exhibition and carrying case.
Even in the service of the admirable anti-corset movement and the goal of proper posture, these materials point out the tenuous relationship that science once held with objectivity in evidence collection and presentation (for instance, how was he making these tracings, exactly? Of whom?). To me, the most astonishing piece of scientific “evidence” presented in these charts are the following graphs… nowhere could I find any explanation of what these graphs were measuring! (Also, holy sexism and racism batman!)
Because I’m in the process of arranging the Physical Education Department Records (I’ll tell you all about it when I’m done, promise), I knew right away that these charts would have been used in Dr. Phillips’ Hygiene classes.
Why yes, the Amherst College Hygiene and Physical Education Department was founded in 1859, not just for the teaching of muscular development, but also the teaching of a healthful and wholesome lifestyle, which was encompassed by the dubious title of “Hygiene.” The courses seem to have resembled our modern high school health classes – they covered nutrition, the importance of exercise, the evils of alcohol and drugs, the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, a certain amount of anatomy – although they also covered good manners, actual bathing tips, the horrible dangers of masturbation, how to properly address faculty and upperclassmen and, of course, what to wear and proper posture. Hygiene was a required course from the founding of the department up to World War II. I like to hope that generations on Amherst men told their wives to burn their corsets, all on account these charts…
Amherst’s hygiene courses and Kellogg’s charts are both artifacts from a larger societal interest in modern, “scientific,” healthful living in the nineteenth century (some of the goofier products of which can be found in our Pseudo-science post); they are artifacts from a time when science and medicine were still young, when “evidence” lived in quotation marks, and anyone could be an expert.