A Historical Association

Page 1.4

Masts, Poles, and Ropes
Dynamic motion
Early Womens Gymnastics

Mast Climbing . . .  

 From GutsMuth's  Gymnastik fur die Jugend (1793):  "The climbing of the mast is far more challenging [than pole climbing], for the surface is smooth and the hands cannot go around it. Here, it is most necessary to have performed well on elementary exercises [gripping with legs and thighs]. This activity is known, by the way, in several areas of Germany and Europe as an amusement for the general public. A few weeks ago one of my pupils climbed a tree trunk 50 feet high. With nonchalance, he held on to the tree with one hand, tore off some leaves and flowers with the other, and fearlessly scattered them, looking down on his ascent. On such tree trunks one must not climb too high because of vertigo; if one loses his composure, he can slide down the tree, rather than fall."

The origins of mast climbing are, of course, obvious in a time of great sailing ships, and it comes as no surprise that it became a recreational as well as functional exercise. Today, lumberjack contests - in which competitiors scale a towering and denuded tree, using special equipment, echo those distant times, and mast climbing usually refers to ascending radio and television masts with safety gear in order to make repairs. Modern masts have climbing rungs or steps, which is ceratinly cheating!
Mast Climber
Recreational Mast Climbing, ca. 1830

Pole Climbing . . .  

Pole Climbers of the early 1800s Solid wooden poles were a standard climbing apparatus whose origin predates both GutsMuths and Jahn. Poles were used in the middle ages in acrobatic routines - indeed, they still are used in acts from circuses like Cirque Du Soleil, where small performers with fairly short legs simply walk up poles like monkeys. The difference between a mast and a pole, of course, is that one can get a hand firmly around a pole and climb it like one would climb a rope, whereas a mast must be gripped and squeezed with the body. Climbing and cavorting about on parallel poles was popular, as well.  

Navy pole climbers



ca. 1830 Germany   &   Navy Pole Climbers 1940s

Ropes in Gymnastics . . .

Garvin Smith, 1950s 1826 Rope Climber Natural fiber ropes, about 1.5 inches in diameter, were once a mainstay of any gymnasium. The rope and rope ladder may have first been used as instruments of physical education at Basedow's Philanthropinun in 1774, although - as mentioned before -  the use of ropes as exercise apparatus goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. (The Philanthropinum was an experimental school in which kindness and consideration replaced the harsh environment of prevailing educational structures). 

1826 rope or pole climber                             &                            Garvin Smith in the 1950s

The oblique rope was popularized by Hjalmar Ling and his followers. The equipment listed for a Higher School for Boys in Stockholm around 1900 includes a heavy climbing component: 60 sections of stall bars, 7 Swedish horizontal bars, 2 vertical Swedish ladders, 2 horizontal ones, 8 rope ladders, 24 climbing ropes, 8 poles, 2 double inclined ropes, stallbars extending to high ceiling (vertical ropes  meet the inclined ropes at their high points) - A Guide to the History of Physical Education, F. E.  Leonard, 1927. The photo of the Stockholm C. I. on page 1.3 shows students exercising on these apparatus.

 Another section of this website goes into greater detail regarding a former gymnastic event: 

Competitive Rope Climbing

Instruction on Rope Climbing in the 18th Century:  

From Gymnastik fur die Jugend (1793): "This exercise is more aggressive than the previous [ladders], for there are no steps for the feet; but all lads who can climb the pole easily find the rope very similar. The only difficulty is grasping the rope with the feet for a firm support. Knees and thights are not useful. By sitting in a chair and clasping the feet about the knuckles, one sees how to pinch the rope with the feet. The feet grip the rope between them and hold while the hands move further up the rope, then grasping the rope and moving the feet up. Nothing more need be known . . ."  

And then, on to more demanding challenges: "We introduce the problem of climbing the rope through the power of the hands and arms alone, without using the feet. The exercise is hard, but the gymnast no doubt knows how to approach it; for it is reminiscent of the warm-up in which a healthy, fairly strong person can support his weight with one hand without great effort. It comes with trying. They fail at first - each individual hand, especially the left, is too powerless to pull the body up high enough so that the right hand can grasp the rope even higher. But the gymnast supposes at the start that pressing down on the under-hand makes it easier to grasp the rope higher with the other hand. It requires the practice of suspending one's self with one hand, especially the left hand. After considerable practice the goal is reached, and the effect lasts many months."  

GutsMuth continues: ". . . We've climbed high, the hands lose power. Then what? Should we climb down or fall down? We may not be able to go either up or down. What should we now do? We must hold on until we recover. Good, but how, without using the power of the hands? Each student must reflect upon that and discover how to wrap the rope around themselves so that they may be held comfortably by it. The student presses himself to make the attempt, and after several tries he solves the problem: he climbs to a moderate height. Here he stops. He wraps the rope, using one foot, twice to four times around the other foot, then squeezes the twisted rope together firmly between both feet. The friction between the rope and feet supports the body's entire weight."  (Illustrations on previous pages show this technique clearly)

Finally: "I know some who climb up and down, very lightly. This feat is one of the prettiest and most appropriate for strengthening all the muscles of the breast and arms and hands - it is a true 'touch-stone' of the powers of these members and indicates the increase of these in a very certain manner"  

A Description of Gymnastic Facilities at Harvard, circa 1826 . . .  

The new Gymnastics Room at Harvard was designed by an architect of the Round Hill facility. "We began with a large room, fitted with parallel and horizontal bars, ladders, climbing poles, wooden horses, dumb-bells and the like".  An outdoors exercise area was subsequently created, in which, ". . . there was an upright mast, about 70 feet high, stayed with guys, which ran from the top of the mast in opposite directions to the ground, at an angle of about 30 degrees. Half-way up the mast was a platform, from which large beams ran out on either side, at right angles, supported at each end by strong posts. To this platform one could ascend by a ladder, but from the platform to the top he must climb the bare mast, aided only by a knotted rope" - J. F. Clarke, Autobiography(1888).


1885 Harvard Gym Within ten years the Harvard Gymnasium had closed.  Some correspondance from the time indicates the exercises might have been too severe - the apparatus too demanding - and that physical educators moved to other venues. Another possibility is that gymnastics in America was merely another fad, with interest waning quickly. Others point out that American students lacked perserverance, unlike their German counterparts. 

A later Harvard gym: Hemenway Gymnasium, 1885

Dynamic Motion . . .  

High Bar Dynamics P Bars Dynamics:  In the late 1700s and early 1800s, F. Jahn and others devised several pieces of apparatus that form the basis of modern gymnastics. The horizontal bar, parallel bars, (and still rings -1842) were added to the ancient pommel or side horse, whose origins - military in nature - go back at least two thousand years. Swinging moves on the new apparatus appeared quickly. Years later free-aerial moves or releases in which the athlete is separated from the apparatus momentarily, would become part of the repertoire of the average competitive gymnast.

Jumping Rungs ca. 1942
Dynamic motion on ladders and ropes evolved as ladder-climbers , ascending the underside, began hopping from one rung to another, and rope-climbers began to use the momentum of an initial hard and fast pull to propel them rapidly up the rope. Strongmen, following in the footsteps of the great Sandow in the late 1800s, could jump from one rung to the other with facility.  "Modern" rope climbers during the period 1896-1963 developed momentum to trim the recorded time for competition rope climbs from 7.0 seconds (8 meters) in 1904 to 4.5 seconds (25 feet) in 1947 - and a remarkable 2.8 seconds (20 feet) in 1953.

Navy gymnast jumping rungs on a horizontal ladder ca. 1942  

Free -aerial 1970s
Young John Long, mid 1970s
Southern Colorado
Dynos . . .  

 Controlled free-aerial moves - as opposed to desperate lunges - from one set of holds to another on overhanging rock first appeared in America in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Earlier, Pierre Allain and his companions sometimes added a jump start to a problem. Other dynamic activities, prior to 1960, included doing moves on rock with one arm on rare occasions.

On some of the harder boulder routes these days, climbers use short dynamic reaches to move from one microscopic handhold to another - "popping" from hold to hold.

Generations of young climbers have pushed dynamic motion on the rock to spectacular levels


Early Women's Gymnastics . . .  

"Women were popular gymnastic dancers and their movements were performed to music, like the modern floor exercises. One famous woman was Matilda Makejoy, who was in and out of royal service for fourteen years. She performed in 1306 when England's King Edward I celebrated the knighting of his son with a feast for 300 nobles" - The Illustrated History of Gymnastics by John Goodbody (1982). 

ere's the earliest  illustration I can find of a girl on "modern" apparatus. It's from a handbook on exercises for young ladies. Although women had performed as "gymnastic" dancers and balancers for centuries, they were rarely instructed in such exercises for the sake of health and well-being. With the introduction of formal gymnastic apparatus came several efforts to encourage girls and women
to participate in this new sport :

1827 Women's Gymnastics "You know the prevailing notions of female delicacy and propriety are at variance with every attempt to render females less feeble and helpless . . . But the beneficial effects of what I had already introduced led me to persevere, and I have finally succeeded in contriving apparatus and exercises enough to keep all employed . . . Besides the ordinary exercises of raising the arms and feet, and extending them in various directions, we have various methods of hanging and swinging by the arms . . ." - William Fowle, a teacher at Monitorial School, Boston, in a letter to Dr. John Coffin via the Medical Intelligencer, 1825

"We value this letter mainly . . . because it is the first account we have seen of gymnastics having been successfully practised in any school for girls, in any part of the United States . . ."
- Editorial reply by Dr. Coffin  

Here are two (or one) female gymnasts in appropriate costume from Dr. Dio Lewis' New Gymnastics for Men, Women, and Children , 1862.

Music:  "Exercises with the upper extremities are as much improved by music as those with the lower extremities . . . A small drum, costing perhaps $5, which may be used as a bass drum, with one beating stick, with which anyone may keep time, is, I suppose, the sort of music most classes in gymnastics will use at first . . . The violin and piano are excellent, but on some accounts the hand organ is best of all . . . Feeble and apathetic people, who have little courage to undertake gymnastic training, accomplish wonders under the inspiration of music. I believe five times as much muscle can be coaxed out, under this delightful stimulus, as without it."   (From New Gymnastics . . .

(My mother played the piano for women's gym classes at the University of Texas in the late 1940s)
Female gymnasts, 1862

y the late 1800s, however, the natural gymnastic and climbing abilities of women were recognized by physical educators and gymnasium architects. It is clear that by this time expectations for the ladies were quite high.

1891 Womens Gym The Charlesbank Women's Gymnasium in Boston, 1889.  The equipment included:  two pole ladders, two perpendicular ladders, four hanging ropes (fastened at the bottom), one long inclined rope and attachments, four long and four short inclined poles, four perpendicular ladders combined, five serpentine ladders united, two perpendicular climbing poles, twelve swinging ropes, one horizontal rope ladder, two sets of flying rings.

ventually, gymnastic climbing activities for women would fade away, except as preparation for a circus career . . . as they would for men . . . but return as indoor wall climbing in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Womens P Bar Pre-1950s An interesting factoid: it is not generally known these days, but until 1952 women's competition included men's parallel bars, as opposed to the uneven bars used today.  By adopting the uneven bars, women could perform both on the bars and, in a sense, on the high bar - avoiding direct competition with men.

Pat Hirst, British Women's' Champion  

Muriel Davis 1956 By 1954 Women's Gymnastics had been standardized and the Soviets and Eastern Europeans led the way. My initial exposure to this aspect of the sport was at the 1959 Pan Am Games in Chicago. There I saw a youthful, vibrant Muriel Davis (later Grossfeld) perform. I still recall, in amazement, watching her do a straight arm, straight leg press to handstand on the balance beam. This caused me to revise my opinion on the future of women in climbing! I thought to myself: Look out guys . . .  

Muriel Davis Grossfeld later became the coach of the USA Women's Olympic Squad.

Muriel Davis in 1956

Modern "Women's" Gymnastics . . .    

1956 USA Women's Team What of the current state of women's gymnastics?  Here is a photo of the 1956 USA Women's Squad.  Observe that the team members are indeed women.

In its contemporary incarnation, it seems more appropriate to call the international sport Girl's Gymnastics, the price paid for an unwavering, intense, and unforgiving  focus on difficult stunts, rather than easier routines judged more on grace of performance. That's just my opinion - there are many, many supporters of the diminutive sprites, and I'll admit, they're fun to watch as they spin and twirl through the air!

A few of these youngsters have become leading rock climbers and boulderers . . .        

ortunately, college gymnastics in America offers an appealing venue for slightly more mature young women.  

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