Part 1 sweeps through the early history of gymnastics. We look at the early sources of gymnastics, and survey the movement up to the Medieval Times. Modern gymnastics is picked up in Part 2. Finally, in Part 3, we come to American Gymnastics. We hope this information will be a useful resource for your research.

Part 1: In The Beginning

There is no knowledge available about the earliest times of man’s acrobatic efforts. There is no doubt, however, that people performed individual tumbling movements, group acrobatics and swing from branches early in their history.

The Egyptians and Chinese

Stone cuttings show that people were building human pyramids (along with stone pyramids!) and balancing stunts in Egypt as early as 2100 BC. Circus like acrobatics was performed in ancient Egypt. In the 2nd century BC, men and women of Minoan Crete developed the art of bull leaping. In bull leaping the performer would run toward a charging bull, grab its horns, and, upon being tossed into the air, execute various midair stunts before landing on the bull’s back and dismount with a flip. The Chinese have probably performed such stunts even before this time.

The Greeks

In Ancient Greece, three distinct programs of gymnastic exercise were developed:

  1. For the maintenance of good physical condition
  2. For military training
  3. And as a part of the conditioning regime for athletes

The early Greek teachers of physical fitness (paidotribes) were the first to design systems of physical activity for both athletes and the general citizenry. Such programs, which included gymnastics, were considered central to the formal education of children. The Greek philosophy portrayed the human body as a temple housing the mind and the soul, and the practice of gymnastics contributed to the health and functionality of the temple.

They coined the word, “gymnastics” which comes from the Greek word, “gymnos,” meaning “naked art.” They built elaborate complexes known as  gymnasia for their physical education training. The philosophers of Greece, Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates would go into the gym where they would exercise their bodies and debate philosophy to exercise their minds. The attitude of those early gymnasts was a “sound mind in a sound body.” With the gathering of young and old alike, the gymnasia was more like a town hall than just a gym.

The famous Greek physician, Galen, who wrote a treatise called, “Caracalla,” developed a form a medical gymnastics of which we would call physical therapy today. His work emphasized the keep fit exercises of gymnastics for the masses as a means for better health. In time, structured gymnastic and calisthenic exercises were abandoned in favor of game sports.

In 776 BC, the Greeks held the first Olympic games, which was a festival dedicated to their god, Zeus. In this game there was only a foot race of 200 yards. The games continued for about 1,100 years with boxing, wrestling, throwing, jumping, and weightlifting added. The Olympic games were finally abolished by the Roman Emperor Theodosius in 392 AD.

The Persians

By 500 BC the Persians had developed the side horse (pommel horse) as a training devise for their cavalry to learn mounts, dismounts, and swinging movements for combat on speeding horses during battle. Even up to just 60 years ago, the side horse had a raised neck and a croup (end) like a real horse.

The Romans

The Romans were a battle tough people who conquered the known world. After their conquest of Greece, they adopted gymnastics as their own, and developed it into a more formal sport. Gymnastic systems designed to give strength for military combat were used extensively by the Romans. Their practical nature turned sport into warfare. Like the Persians, the Roman Circus practiced horsemanship and chariot racing in a circle, hence the term circus. Originally designed as a sporting event where Roman soldiers could match their skills and prowess against one another in an Olympian fashion it quickly evolved into pure carnage. The bloodier the spectacle the more popular it became. People killing people, animals killing animals, animals killing people. It reached its gruesome height under the Emperor Nero.The gymnasiums were used to train their legions for warfare, but with the decline of Rome, interest in gymnastics also dwindled and gymnastics would have been lost completely if it were not for the Medieval Gypsies.

Medieval Gypsies

Gypsies are believed to have arrived in Europe from northern India in the 1400s. They were called Gypsies because Europeans thought they came from Egypt. This ethnic minority is made up of distinct groups called “tribes” or “nations.’ The Sinti and Roma spoke dialects of a common language called Romani, based in Sanskrit, the classical language of India. Many Sinti and Roma traditionally worked as craftsmen, such as blacksmiths, cobblers, tinkers, horse dealers, and toolmakers. Others were performers such as musicians, circus animal trainers, and dancers.

The sad tale of Gypsies being persecuted continues to this day, with the happy exception of Gypsy dances and music celebrated in 19th century romanticism, for example, as expressed by (Hungarian) Liszt and as observed particularly in Russia where there was a famous Gypsy cabaret in Moscow which had trained bears. Acrobats, dancers and jugglers performed in the Gypsy shows.

Part 2: The History of Modern Gymnastics

Germany, beginning in 1774, began putting their educational concepts into practice.

Johann Basedow (1723-1790) was the first to conduct gymnastics as part of education. He was the first modern writer and teacher of organized gymnastics for whom records survive. (2) He was a German, and he is credited with founding the Philanthropinum and Education of the Mind and Body. (3)

Guts Muth (1759-1839) (the Great Grandfather of Gymnastics) wrote many influential books including carefully chosen gymnastic exercises for girls in 1818. (2) He wrote Gymnastics for Youth, the first book on modern gymnastics in 1793. He describes the use of sloping beams, climbing poles, ladders and ropes along with the balancing beam and the swinging beam. (3)

In 1799 a Dane, Franz Nachtegall (1777-1847), formed a gymnastic club, opened a private gymnasium and through his success encouraged the government to incorporate training into its school curriculum. His gymnastics program in Denmark emphasized mass calisthenics, mass vaulting and drills using dumbbells and balls.

Gerhard Vieth (1759-1839) published a book of exercises. He also described the balance beam, jumping ropes, climbing ropes and poles, the horse, the table, and the buck. He wrote of vaulting over horizontal poles at different heights. (2)

In Scandinavia, Per Henrik Ling (1776-1839) was one of the great gymnastics leaders and called the “Father of Swedish gymnastics”. Hundreds of students would participate in mass floor exercise drills.

Johann Pestalow (1746-1827) was noted as the founder of free exercise and calisthenics. (2)

Adolph Spiess (1810-1858) “Father of School Gymnastics” taught gymnastics to his classes in Switzerland and added marching and free exercises to music.

Miroslav Tyrs started the Sokol in Czechoslovakia in 1862. (Sokols, like the German Turners and are still active in America, but are more of a social group for Czech immigrants to this country.)

Archibald Maclaren (1820-1884) was an English educator who used many of Friedrich Jahns’ ideas in his country.

Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852) “The Father of Gymnastics and The Turn Father” started the Turners in Germany and influenced many gymnastics leaders, including:  Francis Lieber(1800-1872) who emigrated to the U.S. in 1824. Two other disciples of Jahn,  Charles Follen and Charles Beck, along with Lieber, started gymnastics in America.

Jahn established the first public turnplatz in Germany in 1811. This was an open field where men and boys would participate in mass exercises as a group. The purpose of the turnplatz was to make able-bodied men physically fit to defend their country. Turnverein is a type of society or organization that emphasized gymnastics exercise, but also dealt with social and patriotic functions. These were very popular in Germany and were useful in opposing the French domination of Germany and they had official approval by the government of Germany. They were organized throughout Germany. After Napoleons fall, they began to dissolve as the government thought they were too liberal. In 1818 the Turner organization was outlawed, and Jahn was arrested the following year. But the members remained loyal and started turnvereins in other countries including America. In Germany, in 1860, there was a revival of the organization but they stayed out of politics.

By 1860, there were over 150 Turnvereins in America. By the 1940’s, many of our outstanding gymnasts had gotten their start in Turner clubs, and some still are in operation today.

Jahn invented several pieces of equipment: the horizontal bar, parallel bars, side horse, and the vaulting buck. (3)

The Olympic Games were revived in 1896 in Athens.

Part 3: The History of American Gymnastics

Early Gymnastics In America 1800’s

In the 1800’s, American usage of the word gymnastics seems to be the all-inclusive word for the early physical training that went on in this country. There are a number of terms used in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to define physical training -since there wasn’t much in the line of Physical Education in the schools. Some of the terms include: Light Gymnastics – which refers to the use of dumbbells, wands and clubs. Heavy Gymnastics – which was the sport of men’s training with the bigger apparatus. Physical Culture – again, this word seems to be interchangeable with what we consider today’s physical education. Calisthenics: stretching and static movements.

It is interesting trying to sort it all out. Usually, the term gymnastics included a combination light and heavy gymnastics, with calisthenics, military drills, running, some track events, and game playing.

The German Influence

A Turnverien

Turnverein: These were German Gymnastics Societies that were first formed in Germany during the early 1800’s. They were a sports and political organization.

When members of the Turnverein fled Europe to escape political persecution, they became instrumental in the establishment of gymnastics in the U.S. and turnvereins were eventually started in different parts of America.

In these tumultuous times in early 1800’s Germany, three followers of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852; The Father of the Turnverein) escaped political persecution in Germany and came to the U.S. They were Dr. Charles Beck, Dr. Charles Follen and Franci Leiber.

One problem these men encountered in America was there was not the great connection between politics and physical training that they experienced in Germany. So, in their subsequent work in starting German gymnastics here, it became merely a fad.

Charles Beck (1798-1866) was instrumental in introducing gymnastics as an educational program in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1825 at the Round Hill School. This marked the beginning of the German influence of gymnastics in this country. (But, again, gymnastics also included the playing of such games as baseball, hockey and football.) He left Round Hill in 1830 to go to another academy, and he eventually ended up at Harvard as a teacher of literature and he gave up physical education. The Round Hill School closed in 1834 for financial reasons.

Charles Follen (1796-1840) founded the second American gymnasium and also introduced German gymnastics at Harvard University in 1826. He originally was hired at Harvard to teach German. Can you imagine the students, directed by Follen, out on a piece ground called the Delta, putting together some wood and iron to make bars, ladders and horses, and hanging climbing ropes? How new, weird, and exciting it must have seemed to them. They also had places for running and jumping. It was a German turner transplanted to America. (1) He is noted for starting the first college gymnasium in America.

Francis Leiber (1800-1872) was the third pioneer and he took over Boston’s gymnastics in 1827 when Follen quit. In the early 1830’s, the novelty of gymnastics wore off in Boston.

The Decline and Comeback

Gymnastics was losing it’s fancy in America and even Leiber couldn’t keep the interest in gymnastics alive, except in the military schools. Some secondary schools and colleges had started programs but by the 1830’s interest in physical education didn’t hold.

Gymnastics came back to America in about 1848 when there was a large influx of German refugees and by 1850 Turner societies were established and helped further the use of gymnastics in school programs.

After the Civil War, gymnastics as a competitive sport began to develop in various gymnastic clubs and societies.

Certain educators and doctors tried hard to push the notion of Physical Education in the schools and finally in the 1850’s-60’s, programs were started. The Normal College for training teachers in gymnastics (physical education) and in schools and clubs established in 1865. (More on this later.)

The first American Turners club was established in Cincinnati in 1848 and the first American Sokol (originating in Prague) in St. Louis in 1865.

The influence of the Turnverein was tremendous and probably had the greatest impact on American Physical Education. (The members of the Turnverein were called Turners.)

As for women, in 1828 Catherine Beecher founded the Hartford Female Seminary in Connecticut, which stressed the physical, intellectual and moral education of women. The physical aspect in the schools was a system of calisthenics. Two years later, she moved and opened a similar school in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (1)


During the mid-century, immigrating Czechs and other Slavs were forming Sokol Societies in the U.S., promoting physical fitness and power using German apparatus. They also contributed to the development of competitive gymnastics in this country.

The Swedish Influence

In the latter part of the 19th century, Swiss societies were established which also used German apparatus. The Swiss American Gymnastics Association or Swiss Turn Verein also had a great affect on American gymnastics.

The YMCA Influence

The YMCA, founded in Boston in 1850, also played a large role in the development of gymnastics in the United States. YMCA built gymnasiums in San Francisco and New York in 1869. The YMCA College in Springfield, Massachusetts was formed in 1887 to provide students with knowledge and skills in teaching gymnastics and other sports.

Philosophical Influences

Dio Lewis, in the late 1800’s, became the principal of the Lexington Seminary for girls. He was principal of the Normal Institute for Physical Education, and the author of “Weak Lungs and How To Make Them Strong”, and “The New Gymnastics”, which he wrote in 1867. He had a theory of free play that required little supervision, which was a widely accepted educational philosophy. As far as I can see, in his book “The New Gymnastics”, he was pushing what we call “calisthenics” today. He decried violent gymnastics, which supposedly caused great harm to men in later life. This system of gymnastics did harm to the gymnastics movement as it was before he got this system into the schools. Interesting that they called this gymnastics. But he did have a great influence in getting a type of physical education into the schools.

Other Influences on American Gymnastics

Dudley A. Sargent (1840-1924) greatly influenced the advancement of gymnastics and the program at Harvard University. In 1881 the Sargent School was established.

The first U.S. gymnastic team to compete at an international level – a championship held in Frankfurt, Germany – was the Milwaukee Turners team. 

In 1885 Amateur Athletic Union Gymnastic Championship Meets were initiated. This meet included such events as flying rings, high bar, Indian clubs, parallel bars and tumbling.

The A.A.U. in 1897 assumed national control of gymnastic competition in the U.S. By the late 1800’s many colleges were equipped with gymnasiums and had installed gymnastic apparatus.

In education in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, it seems that the words gymnastics, physical education, and physical culture were still all interchangeable. For example, one book titled “One Hundred and Fifty Gymnastics Games” compiled by the Boston Naval School of Gymnastics Alumni in 1908, is merely a book on P.E. games.

Baron Nils Posse. Originally from Sweden, he became the Director of the Posse Gymnasium in Boston. He wrote the 1890 book “Special Kinesiology of Educational Gymnastics”. Posse died in December of 1895 and his wife took over the gym. In the early 1900’s there was the Posse-Nissen College Swedish Gymnastics University in Maine. Both Nissen and Posse were early gymnastics leaders and wrote books in the late 1800’s.


In the early 1900’s high schools were getting gymnastics equipment. Following World War I, the number of grade schools installing equipment grew. During the depression of the 1930’s all gymnastics was curtailed. At the end of World War II, the AAU renewed gymnastic programs and interest grew rapidly.

However! There were three main influences in American public schools and colleges, which impeded the use of apparatus:

  1. Dio Lewis introduced exercise that did not require apparatus and schools accepted his program enthusiastically.
  2. The Swedish influence of about 1900 emphasized calisthenics.
  3. A trend toward more recreational activities about 1920 after WW1. (2)

For the first three decades of the 1900’s, the YMCA, and exhibition teams in different parts of the country promoted interest in gymnastics. High schools started programs and the development of competitive gymnastics grew. 

The Normal College of the American Gymnastics Union was a training school for physical education teachers. It was associated with the German Turnverein and moved from Milwaukee to Indianapolis in 1907. In 1941 the Normal College became affiliated with Indiana University and in 1973 became the Indiana University School of Physical Education.

Starting in 1920 and continuing until about 1950 school gymnastics programs began to decrease, and Turnvereins and Sokol Clubs shut their doors. YMCA started to drop their programs.

Other Historical Influences

World Wars I and II had negative effects on gymnastics throughout the country. Many men, who were our coaches and college gymnasts at the time, joined the service. An example of this can be seen with our own Eric Hughes and his college coach. They both went into the service, and returned to the college after WWII.

Wars and other economic conditions affected the progress of gymnastics. Title IX positively affected the women’s programs.

During WWII the U.S. Navy established the Naval Aviation Physical Training Program for the purpose of getting American service men into shape! Four of that era’s great gymnasts/coaches were involved in that program, and a book was published detailing the program. At the end of the war, officers who had conducted the programs returned to civilian life and many got jobs as coaches and directors of physical education.

A new impetus was given to the development of gymnastics, and regional and national associations carried on the progress attained during the war years.”  (2) (One of those men was Joe Giallombardo who taught me how to tumble in the 1970’s. Unfortunately I didn’t have a clue who he was, and I didn’t find out until recently that he was one of America’s greatest tumblers. -Lee)

Following WWII, gymnastics began to grow again. During the lean years, gymnastics was kept alive by the unselfish and untiring work of dedicated leaders. (4) Men such as Leslie Judd and Dr. Hartley Price presented gymnastics demonstrations with their teams. In the late 1940’s, Eric Hughes traveled the U.S. and Canada with an exhibition troop, and W.S.U.’s Hubie Dunn started traveling around Washington State with his teams.

Roy Moore did a lot to revitalize the sport. The National Gymnastics Clinic, started in 1951 in Sarasota, Florida that caused many other areas of the country to start their own clinics that the gymnasts, both girls and boys, and their coaches and parents attended for instruction. Many gymnastics camps were begun.

USA Gymnastics, formally known as U.S. Gymnastics Federation, was established in Tucson, Arizona in 1963. It is the umbrella organization for men’s, women’s, rhythmic gymnastics, trampoline & tumbling and Sports Acrobatics, now called Acrobatic Gymnastics. The Modern Gymnast magazine was started in 1956, by hand balancer Glenn Sundby, who co-founded the US Sports Acrobatics Federation with George Nissan. The magazine, later called International Gymnast was later sold to Bart Conner and published by Paul Ziert.


  1. A Brief History of Physical Education: Emmett Rice.1926; A.S. Barnes and Co.
  2. Gymnastics and Tumbling: Price, Keeney, Giallombardo, Phillips. U.S. Naval Institute. 1943; George Banta, Co., Inc.
  3. Judd, DeCarlo, Kern. Exhibition Gymnastics. 1969. Associated Press, New York.
  4. Bailey, James Handbook of Gymnastics in the Schools. 1974, Allyn and Bacon, Inc.

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