Victorian women exercised using calisthenic props like canes. (Public Domain)
Catherine Beecher (the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe) campaigned schools to add calisthenic programs for females, and strongly opposed women wearing corsets. She believed corsets deformed women’s internal organs.
Catherine wrote a calisthenic manual and marketed it to educators and families. She didn’t mince words, noting in her book’s preface that “[m]ost school-books on this subject are so encumbered with terms needed only by professional men, as to render them repulsive, and double the labor both of reading and study.” Her manual called for pliés, shoulder-whirling, and tossing weights to partners some 20 feet apart. Marching to music was common, and stretching was a regular feature.
In the Victorian era, calisthenics didn’t mean sit-ups. It meant a lot of careful limb movement, focusing less on building muscle or breaking a sweat and more on just making sure individuals were moving around.