A Vintage New Year’s Resolution: The Natatorium & Physical Institute for Scientific Instruction in the Improvement of the Physical Powers

“How common is the spectacle . . . youth falling into decay before manhood is reached, of middle age weighed down by accumulated ills and infirmities, while slowly, and more slowly move the hesitating wheels of life.”

The pitch from a promotional pamphlet To Philadelphians on Behalf of the Natatorium & Physical Institute. The year: 1860.

Natatorium Physical Institute, 219 South Broad Street. December 13, 1916, Charles P. Mills, photographer (

“Modern civilization, with all its wonderful applications of science and art to the increase of personal comfort and the promotion of social pleasures, tends, unfortunately, to a precocious development of both mind and body.” These modern people “constantly sin against the natural laws established by the Creator” resulting in “weakened frames and puny offspring.”

What are “the primary causes which bring on premature decline and shorten life?” Inadequate, impure air “and want of regular bodily exercise.” These conditions . . . begin as early as the nursery and continue “in the school-room, the study, the store, the shop, and the factory.” The impact: a society of “round-shouldered” men and “women with . . . obliquity of the spine.”

The cure?  Establish a natatorium “following the examples set in European capitals — Paris, Madrid, Vienna, Berlin, Breslau and Copenhagen.” After all, “swimming is not only a healthful exercise and recreation, but it is likewise an accomplishment by which life is often saved.” Consider how a “bold swimmer” converts “moments of agonizing suspense . . . into a time of rejoicing and gratitude at the escape, through his exertions, of a fellow being from a watery grave.”

An authentic natatorium would recreate the thermal springs found in ancient Greece “dedicated to Hercules.” Its time-tested “renovating powers” enabled the original athletes “restoration of their strength after it was exhausted in the exhibitions of the palestrae or the circus.” This modern day “Natatorium and Institute for Scientific Instruction in the Improvement of the Physical Powers” was conveniently located on Broad Street, between Walnut and Locust; it opened in 1862 and remained a popular feature through the 19th century and into the 20th.


Natatorium Swimming Pool, from the pamphlet To Philadelphians on Behalf of the Natatorium & Physical Institute (Philadelphia, 1860) (Google Books)

A glimpse of an opening reception at the Natatorium after its first decade of operation: Renovations and decorated rooms greeted visitors, as did music and dancing. “On the surface of the bath reposed a small single-scull bateau, gaily painted. The galleries were festooned with evergreens, a moss basket being suspended under every loop, alternating with small American flags projecting from the balustrade, which was nearly concealed with the national colors on a larger scale. Five flags were also draped beneath the arches of the ceiling, being looped at the center of the arch with a pendant falling from that points. McClurg’s Band was in attendance and enhanced with good music the brilliance of the scene.”

“At half-past seven o’clock the bath was in readiness for the young lady pupils of [swimming master] Mr. [J. A.] Payne, the evening of the reception being the only one of the season in which the feminine eyes behold the swimming-school and gymnasium by gaslight.” An hour later, “the doors were thrown open to all the invited guests, and the throng of visitors drifted upstairs to the gymnasium, whither the band speedily followed them, and the dance music proving too strong a temptation to be resisted a number of couples were soon moving over the floor in a series of waltzes, redowas and polkas that gave the crowded room very much the appearance of an impromptu ball” for the four hundred guests.

The Philadelphia Natatorium, ca. 1885 (The Free Library of Philadelphia / Print and Picture Collection)

At the fortieth anniversary in 1902, then known as Asher’s Natatorium, the institution celebrated the coming summer season with “a large number of athletic society folk, both men and women . . . who witnessed a program of many unique features in the aquatic line and later indulged in an enjoyable dance.” Twenty-seven young women pupils opened the program with “a highly interesting exhibition of swimming and diving. Professor George Kistler, of the University of Pennsylvania, followed with a fin demonstration of fancy strokes and high-class trick swimming. He was assisted in this demonstration by J. C. Myers. One of the most interesting features was that of swimming gracefully with both hands and feet tied.”

What did such a demonstration prove? That the art of swimming, as the founding argument put it, was not only natural, it was essential. “Man, the lord of all, and so proud of his knowledge, may be lost in a brook, if he has not learned to swim.” Why forfeit “half of his sovereignty by his not becoming amphibious?”

Why, indeed.

Fitness, and swimming in particular, was the answer. And the place to begin: Philadelphia’s venerable Natatorium: “the first and only systematic swimming school in the United States” where the “temperature always remains the same—summer heat” and where even “the most timid person” could learn to swim in “six to ten lessons.”

[Sources: To Philadelphians on Behalf of the Natatorium & Physical Institute. President, Paul B. Goddard, etc. (Philadelphia: J. B. Chandler, Printer, 1860); from The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Philadelphia Natatorium and Physical Institute,” May 1, 1868; “The Natatorium,” May 1, 1871; “Philadelphia Natatorium and Physical Institute,” April 26 1884; “Established 1858 – Natatorium,” April 24, 1895; “Natatorium Opens,” April 27, 1902]