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The wellness revolution: body culture

Discover body culture and the emergence of fitness in this blog.

Jolan Wuyts (se deschide într-o fereastră nouă) (Europeana Foundation)

A toned body, an agile mind and tons of energy: who wouldn’t sign up for that? A state of complete contentment - ‘eudaimonia’ as the ancient Greeks called it, or ‘wellness’ as it’s been known since the 1950s - has been at the pinnacle of human aspirations for many centuries. From the early 1900s onwards, this very ambition began to spin a billion dollar industry, offering services, facilities and products to the health-conscious consumer. In this blog we revisit revolutionary 20th-century ideas to bolster physical fitness and a fit physique.


Search the internet for ‘wellness’ and 859 million sites offer to guide you to a world of bliss. Whereas the term became mainstream only in the late 20th century, the concept is as old as humanity. Thousands of years ago, Chinese traditional medicine aimed at addressing aspects of both physical and mental health. In Ancient Rome and Greece too, it was the norm for men as well as women to frequent gymnasiums and take care of their body as a prerequisite for sanity of mind.

a Roman vase with an illustration of a naked man

Roman bather holding a strigil or scraper, 400-375 BCE
Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Egyptian clay painting showing four women bathing in a public gymnasium

Women bathing in a public gymnasium, 6th century b.c.
Wellcome Collection. CC BY

In the Middle Ages, Sephardic Jewish philosopher Moses ben Maimon - commonly known as Maimonides - explicitly championed physical activity as a means to achieve ‘genuine wholeness’, or knowledge of God. Taking care of the body was regarded as generally beneficial, but essential to spiritual development in particular.

a black and white drawing of the bust of Moses Maimonides

Moses Maimonides, 1913 Ost und West : illustrierte Monatsschrift für das gesamte Judentum
Universitätsbibliothek JCS Frankfurt am Main. Public Domain

From the beginning of the 20th century onwards, going to the gym and engaging in indoors and outdoors activities gained momentum. This was partly due to a rise in people working in specialised professions, which allowed for more time to pursue healthy and rejuvenating activities The industrial revolution had brought about a more sedentary lifestyle and with it an increased awareness that this could have negative effects on the body. 

two women dressed in sporty outfits from the nineteen twenties

Sporty outfits for an active lifestyle, 1921, Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. CC BY-NC-SA

Woman in a two-piece gymnastic suit,

Woman in a two-piece gymnastic suit, 1927, Almberg & Preinitz Fotografiateljé, Stiftelsen Nordiska museet. CC BY-NC-ND

Fashion advertisement with girl in gymnastics attire

Fashion advertisement with girl in gymnastics attire, 1960-1965, Carl A. Nordin, Stiftelsen Nordiska museet. CC BY-NC-ND

With the emerging body culture, the focus on exercising grew stronger. As sports and leisure activities became more widely accessible, the veneration of those excelling in physical activity and demonstrating an exceptional physique boomed as well. Being muscular now equated to being beautiful, and beauty was considered healthy.

Contestants in a chest-expanding contest in London, 1929
Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Contestants in a chest-expanding contest in London, 1929
Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Bodybuilding competitions were organized as early as 1901: the year of the ‘Great Competition’ at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The show, in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sat as a member of the jury, was an immense hit, with a sold out venue and disappointed, turned-down visitors as a result. The number of bodybuilders and competitions steadily rose in the next decades but exploded in the 1950s and 1960s. Bodybuilding magazines started to appear, federations and specialized organizations were established, and food supplements aiding to achieve that perfect shape were introduced to the market. 

Registration form for the Charles Atlas correspondence course in bodybuilding, 1930s
Wellcome Collection. CC BY

A strong performance in the city theatre of Middelburg (The Netherlands), c. 1990, J. Wolterbeek, Zeeuwse Bibliotheek. CC BY-NC

For the less ambitious, the integration of body exercise in the office environment or a dedicated sports holiday were viable strategies to increase mobility and counter weight gain.

Gymnastics for moms, 1943, K.W. Gullers, Stiftelsen Nordiska museet. CC BY-NC-ND

(00:06:45) Working out at Schloss Schielleiten; Austria’s oldest sports resort, 1936, Selenophon Licht- und Tonbild, Österreichisches Filmmuseum. Public Domain

Office clerks on a healthy break, 1950s-1960s, K.W. Gullers, Stiftelsen Nordiska museet. CC BY-NC-ND

Jacob's Biscuit Factory workers at the gym, 1950-1965, Dublin City Library and Archive. CC BY-NC-ND

A new boost in the wellness industry occurred in the last quarter of the 20th century, when the baby boomer generation started to explore ways to stay active and youthful. This generated a continuous demand for new products and services: from personal trainers to superfoods and from self-massage devices to infrared sauna cabins.

This blog is the first of a series on wellbeing in the twentieth Century. Discover body culture and the emergence of fitness in this blog, and read more about 20th-century wellness trends in our blogs about nutrition and water wellness in the coming weeks!

Sofie Taes for KU Leuven – Photoconsortium

This blog is part of ‘Europeana XX. A Century of Change’, a CEF-project co-funded by the European Union that focuses on the 20th century and its social, political and economic changes.

Feature Image: Exercise is part of the regime at the Ronneby Brunn resort, early 20th century, Blekinge museum. Public Domain