Historical Perspective on Posture

Excellent piece regarding the history of posture by Matthew Danzinger: Historical Perspective on Posture

“Those with traditional values sought to counteract the growing trend toward relaxed postures in the late 1800’s, citing ramifications on health and morals as cause for concerns. Doctors and etiquette manuals blamed modern civilization, the need to sit in schools, and social habits for the decline of strict postural habits, and gave detailed instructions for proper behavior in sitting and standing. These guidelines were prominently featured in manuals for raising children, where exercise and postural education was heavily stressed.

Many in the medical establishment warned parents about the consequences of poor posture in children, incorrectly believing that relaxed posture would lead to spinal deformities and the organs to move or become compressed against each other thus impeding function. Many doctors also warned about the nebulous concept of the moral consequences posture would have on the body.

Perhaps because doctors through much of the 19th century were quick to blame the extended periods children spent seated in schools, school physical education programs developed around postural education and training around the same time. Physical education teachers developed a wide variety of tests and treatments for postural problems, including enforcement of habits, exercises, and new furniture designs. These programs were chiefly focused on posture as a reflection of moral character, physical fitness, and even personality. Students would be graded according to these standards and would be shamed if they were found to fall outside the preconceived ideals.

While postural training programs were present in many school settings, they were the most rigorous in the Ivy League universities and similar schools that were generally regarded as the more elite and exclusive institutions. From the late 1800’s to as far as the 1960’s, a great deal of these schools took photographs of each student in varying states of undress upon their admission. Some of these schools would go as far as to reject students if they found their posture (or any other element of their physical condition) lacking. Training programs varied from specific exercises to more general fitness and awareness campaigns, which generally focused on women over men.”