Annette R. Hofmann


150 years of Turnerism in the United States

Speech given at the Athenaeum in Indianapolis August 3, 1998


1998 is a very special year for the German-American history: it is the 150th anniversary of the 1848/49 revolution in Germany that brought a few thousand political refugees - the so-called 48ers - to the United States. Among these refugees were Turners, who soon after their arrival on the new continent started to build Turner societies after their German models. 1998 is also the 150th birthday of the first Turner societies founded in North America. One can say that the 1848 revolution was the birth of the German-American Turner movement. These German-American Turnvereine were organizations for the development of physical education, as well as vehicles with which German immigrants could continue their cultural endeavours in North America during the 19th century.

In Cincinnati one of the first Turner societies in the United States was founded by famous 48ers. Eleven of the twelve founding members were Swabians. Today we know that the Cincinnati Central Turners was not the first Turnverein in the United States - as one can read quite often - (for a short time a Turner society existed in Louisville, Kentucky which was already founded in July of that year, but it only existed a couple of months) but the Cincinnati Central Turners is the oldest continually existing Turner society on this continent, and it is older than many Turner societies in Germany.

Besides the physical education classes and the cultural programs a major focus of the American Turner societies was to preserve traditional German customs, language and celebrations. They also tried to support and encourage the harsh life in a foreign country, and to establish a bridge between the old culture and the new by offering English language classes and strongly supporting American citizenship among their members. The turner halls provided a social center with lectures and libraries for the further education of the German emigrants, and, what was - and still is - important: many had restaurants or a bar connected to their turner halls.

During the early decades of their existence, the Turner societies´ social and political aims reflected those of the Turners who had emigrated during the German revolution of 1848/49. Their socialistic political orientation is also reflected in the names of some of the first American Turnvereins founded in the late 40s and early 50s which added the term social or socialistic to their names, and to their first union The Socialistic Turnerbund of North America in 1850. The Turner union was to be a „planting school for all revolutionary ideas which have their origin in a natural and rational world conception", as could be read in the Convention Protocols of Socialistic Turnerbund 1859/1860. This reflected the opinion of the freethinkers, an anti-religious movement that included many forty-eighters and Turners. This movement advocated rationalists, science and history as proper guides for living, and criticized the established religions for promoting superstition and bigotry. It fought against the connection between the churches and the government in public areas, such as e.g. in public schools.

One year after the establishment of the union the first National Gymnastic Festival was organized. This Turnfest, which was a competitive as well as social event became an annual event, until the beginning of the American Civil War. The motto of the Turners „mens sana in corpore sano" has remained until today - a „sound mind in a sound body". The peak of the American Turner movement was reached in 1894. At that time 317 societies existed with approximately 40,000 members. Until today there have been over 700 Turner societies in existence in the United States.

The American Turner societies, including their union, have had quite a turbulent history. Like other ethnic groups that had immigrated to the United States the Germans had to fight the hostility that was reflected by some parts of the American population which did not approve of the high rate of immigration into their country. Throughout the country the Turner Societies became victims of the know-nothing-movement in the 1850s. In Cinncinati for example and close by in Covington they had to suffer from severe attacks in 1855 and 1856. As a result of these riots the Socialistic Turnerbund decided in 1855 to look for a place where the Turners would be able to settle down without being frightened by anti-foreign tendencies within the American population. The Turner Union founded a settlement society. Wilhelm Pfänder, founding member of the Cincinnati Central Turners, was elected to draft the charter and look for a suitable location. He and his companions found a place to settle in Minnesota, which had previously been settled by members of the Chicago Land Verein, which also consisted of Germans. The two organizations fused and were reincorporated as the German Land Association and founded a settlement with the name of New Ulm.

Despite the difficulties the Turners had to face through nativist attacks, they tried to express their political opinion not only among their own ethnic group, but to the American public.

The Turners explicitly named following points in their constitution:

Most of the Turners supported the political goals of the Republicans during the 50s and 60s of the last century. This support resulted in the establishment of Lincoln´s bodyguard during his first inauguration, as well as the forming of the Turner Regiments at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. Famous Turner regiments were, for example the 20th, New York Vol. Regiment, the so-called Turner Rifles, the 9th Ohio Vol. Regiment and the Turnerschützenregiment of the West, the 17th Missouri Vol. Regiment. Over 70 percent of the Turners fought on the Union´side. But it should also be mentioned that there were - although they were less in number - Turners and 48ers who fought in the Confederates´army.


Postbellum Period

After the Civil War an era of reconstruction started not only for the American nation but also for the Turner movement, which had suffered many losses among its members. The majority of the societies had ceased to exist during the war. But the Civil War was also an important factor for the Germans and Turners in their Americanization process: together with Americans they had fought at the front and lost their lives for their new home country. Now they felt an urge to be recognized and integrated into the American public.

After the war the number of German immigrants increased again. In the years between 1861 and 1865 only between app. 26,000 and 77,000 Germans immigrated annually to the United States. In 1867 and the following years the numbers reached over 100,000 immigrants per year. For the Turner societies this immigration wave was a source of new members. Not only did the memberships in individual turner societies rise in the 70s and 80s, there were also many new Turner societies founded all over the states.

The Socialistic Turnerbund, which had ceased to exist during the war, was reorganized under a new name in 1865. Now it was called Nordamerikanischer Turnerbund or North American Gymnastic Union. Although it had dropped the ´socialistic´ from its name, it still was politically engaged.


Female Turners

One of the new tasks that the union had to face was the opening of their societies to girls and women. Some societies had started to introduce gymnastic classes for girls already in the 1850s. In the 70s they became more common. Gymnastics or `turnen` women was introduced later. During the Victorian period it was not proper for women to exercise. Especially physicians and educators saw a danger for future childbirth.

Nevertheless, the German women, mothers, sisters and wives of Turners wanted to be part of the exclusively male Turner Societies. They started founding Women´s Auxiliaries over the next decades. Examples are: Milwaukee 1868, Indianapolis 1876, Cincinnati 1877, New Ulm 1889, Los Angeles 1897. These auxiliaries, some are still existing - supported the Turners financially, helped organize social events, and worked „for the good of the Turner Clubs". The time when women were only allowed to „cheer the performers and helped consume quantities of lager beer" had passed.


The Turners´ Influence on Public Education

One major goal of the Turner union after the Civil War was the reformation of the American educational system. In 1868 they demanded compulsary school attendance for all children until the age of 14 and devoted themselves to the promoting of German gymnastics in American public schools. The first city to introduce Turnen as part of the public school curriculum was San Francisco, followed by Cincinnati, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Denver and Milwaukee, only to name a few.

In 1880 Dr. H.M. Starkloff of St. Louis, chairman of the executive committee of the Turners, praised the German system of physical education:

„We (the Turners) in America have gained that personal liberty the German Turners once dreamed of (...) and now it remains for us to find a new field for our energies. How would it be if we should work with all our might to introduce physical training into the public schools of this country? We could not conceive of a more beautiful gift than this to bestow upon the American people".

For these physical education classes teachers were needed who were qualified to teach the German system of physical exercises. In 1866 the American Gymnastic Union founded a „Turnlehrerseminar", a Turner teacher´s seminary. In its first years it changed its location every year. In 1874 it remained for several years in Milwaukee under the leadership of the American Turnfather, „George Brosius", and was transferred in 1907 to the Atheneaum in Indianapolis, where it turned into a Normal School. The seminary was located in the Atheneaum until it merged with the physical education department of the Indiana University in the1940s. Today traces of this school can be found in the Department of Physical Education of the Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis (IUPUI).


Labor Movement

After the Civil War the Turners also engaged in the industrial labor movement of the 1870s and 80s. During that period an economic crisis started which brought a cut in salaries and a raise of the employment rate. Among the Turners were quite a few workers, and the Turnerbund decided to help to find a solution for this social question. Especially the Turner societies in Chicago and Milwaukee, which attracted large numbers of working class immigrants, were involved in the militant labor streams. It was their goal to achieve better working conditions, introduce the eight-hour day and to forbid children´s employment under the age of 14.

The peak of the labor movement was a bomb explosion on Chicago´s Haymarket in 1886. The explosion killed several people. Among the eight persons who were charged was August Spies, publisher of the Chicago Arbeiterzeitung and member of the Aurora Turnverein. He was hanged for his deed.

But radical Turner societies were the exception. Most societies focused their energies on athletic, social and cultural programs. Politics was an area for debates and discussion - as part of the mental turnen - rather than for organized actions.

This led to growing tensions and confrontations between the conservative middle-class members and working-class union activists. There were cases were societies split and new ones were founded (especially in the Chicago area). The conservative Turners saw their influence on the American educational system endangered by this political agitation.

Until World War I the radical and social revolutionary tendencies in the Turner movement declined. This was certainly due to the change in generations; most of the forty-eighters and pioneers in social reforms were dead. So the Turners´ engagement in social reforms was reduced to local areas. But there were individual members who remained politically active until our century. For example in Kansas City, Milwaukee and St. Louis, Turners were elected mayors or served in state legislatures, city councils and on school boards.


The Turner movement during the World Wars to the Present

The 19th century was the period of German-American symbiosis (Moltmann 1986, 49), and German immigration to the United States and German culture was flourishing. The peak year of German immigration was 1883, when over 215,000 Germans entered the country. Afterwards the numbers dropped again. In the years 1895-1923 less than 50,000 Germans immigrated to the States annually.

Over the years an assimilation process had started among the German population, especially with the growth of the second generation. These Germans weren´t fluent in the German language anymore and lost the cultural relationship to a certain extent. This development towards assimilation and Americanization was also forced by the anti-German politics of the American government in the years between 1914 and 1918. Many Americans with a German background were accused of lacking loyality to the American nation. This anti-German hysteria fought everything that was German, especially German language and culture. „Kultur of the Kaiser´s kind not to be promoted (...)" or „The German tongue has no place in America (...)" one could read here in a Cincinnati newspaper (Ott/Tolzmann 1994). This resulted in vandalism, a ban of German language in schools and universities, elimination of German journals and newspapers, ban of German composers from concert halls, closing of German theaters and Americanization of German names of persons, streets, towns and organizations and.

Many German institutions and societies had to suffer from this „German hunt". They had to limit their activities or dissolved. But the Turner Societies survived this difficult time. In 1917 the Turner union emphasized that the home of each American Turner was the United States and they should follow their duties as American citizens. It was also mentioned that not the people but the governments were involved in this war, and the Turner union urged its members to protest against an entry to the war and strongly supported the neutrality of the American government. After the war the leaders of the American Gymnastic Union appealed to its members of German descent to do everything in their power to work against the feelings of hatred which the war had evoked and to reconcile all races in this country.

The number of and societies and membership remained constant in the years of World War I. The Union had around 200 societies with app. 38,000 members. The declining tendency started after the war in 1918 and didn´t stop until 1943 when less than 100 societies with only 16,000 Turners belonged to the American Turners (minutes and statistical reports of the North American Gymnastic Union/ American Turners from 1917-1948).

During that time all political and socio-political engagement of the Turners had ceased. They concentrated mainly on their societies´ affairs and still tried to promote physical education in schools.

In 1935 the president of the Turnerbund, George Seibel, mentioned in a Turner meeting that the Turner movement „has been the most American of all American Association" (minutes of the North American Turner Union 1935, 3). This mirrors the engagement of the Turners in World War II. These Germans were Americanized and fought in the American Army against Hitler´s soldiers. The Turner union had at least 3,000 soldiers among its members in 1945 (minutes of the North American Turner Union 1942; 1946). During the period of German National Socialism and World War II, there was no repetition of the anti-German tendencies from which the German-American population had had to suffer during World War I.

In 1938 the Gymnastic Union changed its name into todays´ American Turners. Already in 1925 the Philadelphia District made a futile application for such a change. Individual societies had Americanized their names before the Union did; in 1944 all societies were urged by the union to follow this step (minutes of the North American Turner Union 1944, 27).

After World War II the American Turners changed their constitutions. Their main goals were no longer the political activities of their founders and the forty-eighters, but the promotion of physical, health and cultural education and programs which work towards a life of peace and happiness, as well as civic projects on local and national levels (minutes of the North American Turner Union 1948, 4). During these years the numbers of societies did not rise, but a growth in membership started again in 1944. In the 1950s there were again over 25,000 Turners. Responsible for this raise is also the new wave of German immigrants that reached over 100,000 per year at this time.



In the last century turnen in Germany developed into a national form of physical culture. In the United States turnen never developed into a movement for the masses as it did in Germany. Here, every ethnic group brought its sport and physical culture with its cultural luggage into the country and „a battle of the systems" started, as Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the Modern Olympic Games, stated. Some systems survived, others died.

But the American Turner societies had an important social significance during their early years, providing German immigrants with their own culture and simultaneously, a part of their native homeland. Although the American Turners always had to struggle for their existence, through their solidarity and commitment to their principles they survived in a foreign country, despite the many internal and external problems they had to face.

The Turners´ involvement in the American Civil War shows that they were willing, as an ethnic minority, to fight for the democratic principles of their newly chosen homeland. With this step the American Turners and its societies have made their contribution to American history. It was also a step toward Americanization. From this point on the Turners lived in a country whose rights they had fought for and whose history they were part of.

After the Civil War, new Turnvereins were founded in many American cities; others enlarged their membership. It was the beginning of a boom which lasted until the turn of the century. In these postbellum years the Turnerbund concentrated on educational goals such as the introduction of their physical training programs into public schools, and the opening of their Turnlehrer Seminary, while some societies were active in the industrial labor movement of the 1870s and 1880s.

The boom ceased at the time of the two World Wars. A difficult era for German-Americanism had begun, and with it for the Turner movement. Not all of the Turner Societies survived this period; some, however were able to withstand the difficulties and troubles of the recent decades.

What is left today are app. 60 societies divided into 14 districts. The total membership of the American Turners is about 13,000. The political tendencies and the spread of German culture through songs, poetry and literature have lost their significance and importance because today many members of the existing Vereine aren´t purely German anymore. People of different national backgrounds take advantage of the great variety of offers in physical education and the extended social programs.

The American Turners also have lost their influence on physical education in public schools. But they can be proud to be among the first to have introduced physical education to American public schools.

50 years ago in the history of the 100th anniversary of the Cincinnati Central Turners an article was published that started with the question „What is turnerism?" The author explained it: „Turnerism is a system of education combining rational physical and mental development, for the express purpose of strengthening the national power and fostering true patriotism - and true patriotism stands for the preservation of democracy and the attainment and maintenance of political, economic, religious and personal liberty".

Today the American Turners and its societies have dropped their political engagement, but they still claim to promote not only health and physical education through their programs, but also cultural education, recreational and social activities and the participation in local and national civic projects, urging their members „to exercise the right of independent thought and action through the ballot and to follow the dictates of their conscience in religious matters", as it is stated in the revised principles of 1984.



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