Everything was political in the 1930s. It was a haunted decade that “almost made me a Communist,” as Alberta’s premier William Aberhart put it. Strong, Beautiful and Modern captures the oddest political expression of all, the campaign for physical culture. Archival images of mass synchronized exercises of the Pro-Rec league in the parks of Vancouver bear an unnerving resemblance to parades of bronzed youth so popular in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia.
“Interest in fit, strong and beautiful bodies in the 1930s was not the monopoly of totalitarian and right-wing regimes,” writes historian Charlotte Macdonald. “Was it a modernity of individuality and freedom or of mass conformity and national duty?”
Beginning in 1937 with Britain’s Physical Training and Recreation Act and spreading through the “white Dominions” of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, legislators enacted national fitness programs. This is an intriguing story, crisply told.
The interest here was not merely a good cardiovascular workout. It was a movement laced with political themes of national superiority, anti-decadence and regimentation: “Some suspected the Physical Training and Recreation Act of being the wolf of conscription dressed in the innocence of sport as sheep’s clothing,” notes Professor Macdonald. “It was hard to dispel entirely the impression that the coaxing of strong, fit bodies was a sign of a desire for a stronger, even authoritarian politics.”
In British Columbia, volunteers with the Provincial Recreation program numbered 27,000 by 1938. Members could purchase a 15¢ Pro-Rec crest, were encouraged to adopt simple uniforms and abide the motto: “Health, Beauty, Diet and Sports.”
In Ontario, the Women’s League of Health and Beauty debuted in 1935 and had 5,000 members in Toronto alone within two years. In Parliament, Liberal MP Hugh Plaxton, a varsity star who played one NHL season with the Montreal Maroons, in 1937 advocated the formation of a ministry of sport. It was a question of national prestige, he said.
“Sports and body cultures did not sit outside the polarising politics of the 1930s, but were part of it,” writes Macdonald, a professor of history at New Zealand’s Victoria University.
When Canada’s first National Council for Physical Fitness held its inaugural meeting in 1943, directors announced: “This Council stresses the fourfold nature of fitness which is spiritual, moral, mental and physical, and that total fitness must originate in the home, the church, the school and the community.”
There is an undertow to the fitness campaigns the author leaves unexplored – the parallel themes of eugenics and superiority and who was decidedly not fit. Instead, we are left with two souvenirs of this strange era that everyone agrees are so wholesome, it’s just as well the full story is untold.
One is the permanent role of government in amateur sport and the acceptance that phys-ed in schools and maintenance of hiking trails in national parks “became part of what was expected to be provided as public service,” concludes Macdonald. And the other is the British Empire athletic exhibition, first staged in Hamilton, Ont. in 1930 and known today as the Commonwealth Games.
By Holly Doan
Strong, Beautiful and Modern: National Fitness in Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada 1935-1960 by Charlotte Macdonald; UBC Press; 240 pages; ISBN 9780-7748-25290; $34.95