- Daughters of the Lost Century: The Playful Pioneers of American Women’s Sports & Fitness
Broadly defined, the Lost Century of Sports Collection aims to preserve and publish rare sources from America’s nineteenth-century sporting past. To enrich the series, and add to the previously published archival texts The American Football Trilogy and The Lost Century of American Football, Greg Gubi combines unique prints, photographs, and illustrations to document women’s sporting experiences in the United States. Through this collection of source material he seeks to answer the question, “[W]hat was life really like for an active American woman at the dawn of the 20th century?” (p. xix). Comprised primarily of primary images and articles, Daughters of the Lost Century not only exhibits the repressive gender expectations of the Victorian Era that seeped into the sporting realm but also highlights critical moments of athletic-induced resistance.
Following a brief introduction, Gubi catalogues the documents into six topics. Section 1 utilizes an array of non-sport-focused sources to convey the societal atmosphere of the United States at the close of the nineteenth century. Relying primarily on newspaper articles, he attempts to demonstrate the anxiety roused by female demands for education, suffrage, and divorce reform, and additionally indicate a connection between physical beauty and health promotion. Section 2 presents illustrations of female exercises from ten books published between 1849 and 1900. Works by renowned health pioneers, such as Catherine E. Beecher and Dio Lewis, appear alongside those of lesser-known advocates, such as E. Angerstein and R.T. Trall. The crux of the book, Section 3, spans over 300 pages and aims to display the scope of female recreation, from 1862 to 1908, as described by the mainstream media. To differentiate themes within this broad compilation, Gubi arranges the material into twenty-three sport-specific categories.
While Section 3 encompasses sources describing a vast assortment of activities, from equestrianism to croquet, Section 4 is dedicated solely to articles and images related to women’s basketball. Specifically, Gubi assembles pieces that covered early intramural games and the first intercollegiate contest, as well as those that expressed concerns over this new form of female physical exertion. He also adds excerpts from the early writings of Senda Berenson, the founder of women’s basketball. Section 5 consists of a complete [End Page 173] reproduction of “Athletics & Out-door Sports for Women,” written in 1903; according to the text, this serves as the first comprehensive study of women’s sports conducted in the United States. Finally, Section 6 offers articles, cartoons, and advertisements from four issues of Bernarr Macfadden’s magazines, demonstrating his endorsement of female physical fitness as a prerequisite for feminine beauty.
Daughters of the Lost Century undoubtedly showcases an extensive amount of informative and indicative primary source material. For example, a telling 1890 New York Times article illustrates the magnitude of anthropometry at the close of the century. The report details the measurements of females at Wellesley College, complete with average proportional dimensions, which includes a foot-to-knee ratio, and incorporates a table to denote ideal physical construction (pp. 27–28). Furthermore, the assortment of unique images sheds light on historical attitudes. The inclusion of M.M. Shepard’s 1898 patent for a full-body bathing suit, revolutionary with a corset-like bodice, conspicuously demonstrates the extent of Victorian notions of propriety (p. 259). In this archived-anthology format, noteworthy sources on female athleticism are clearly more accessible.
While the book offers access to an immense amount of material, one significant limitation is its lack of critical analysis. Although Gubi’s self-defined intent is solely to publish rare sources from the nineteenth century, the evaluative void leaves the significance of the articles and illustrations unattended. Even as the short introduction concisely outlines the broad theme of each section and offers brief biographies of some key individuals—typically only one-to-two sentences in length—the work...