The YMCA and Early Gymnastics


The first YMCA in North America started in 1851 in Montreal, Canada. Three weeks later a YMCA started in Boston - the first in the United States.  Other early YMCAs were in:

  •          Baltimore.
  •          Buffalo.
  •          Detroit.
  •          Hartford.
  •          New London.
  •          Connecticut.
  •          New York.
  •          New Orleans.
  •          Portsmouth.
  •          Virginia.
  •          Washington, D.C.
  •          Springfield (Massachusetts).

Right from the beginning YMCA members thought fitness was important.

Building Gymnasiums

Almost as soon as YMCAs formed they started to plan buildings. In 1869, three YMCAs had new buildings with gyms inside:
  •          Washington D.C.
  •          San Francisco.
  •          New York (23rd Street Branch).
Fitness Instructors

Gymnastics training was very important to early YMCAs.  It was the only sport at the Y for many years. But it was hard to find good gymnastics instructors.  Most men who know about gymnastics were circus performers.  They didn’t fit in with the other YMCA values.

Two men changed this.  Robert J. Roberts worked at the Boston Y in the 1870s and 1880s.  When he got hurt in a fall, he started to think about gym exercises.  He stopped teaching gymnastics as many stunts.  Instead, he made up exercises to make men fit. Then he trained instructors to teach his exercises.  He also stressed morals and hygiene.

The YMCA opened a training school for fitness instructors in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1885.  Luther Halsey Gulick was the director for many years.  Trained as a doctor, he added science to fitness training.  He trained many YMCA instructors.  He also created the YMCA upside-down triangle.  It is a symbol for how body, mind, and spirit relate.

When Gulick was director at Sringfield, two YMCA instructors invented games that went on to be very popular:
  •     Basketball - James Naismith, 1891.
  •     Volleyball - William Morgan, 1895.

Trivia from the Early Years

Seattle YMCA
How much did the early Y’s cost to build in 1859?
  • The 23rd Street YMCA in New York cost almost a half million dollars.
  • The much smaller San Francisco YMCA cost $57,000.
(History of the YMCA in North America, p. 151)

What was in the 23rd Street YMCA?
  • Grand Hall that could seat 1,500.
  • $10,000 Organ.
  • Large central lobby, with 7 exits.
  • large gym (50 feet by 70 feet).
  • Bowling Alley.
  • Reading rooms.
  • Library with 20,000 books.
  • Baths.
  • Parlors
  • Class and lecture rooms.
  • Artists’ Studios (they were rented out.)
(History of the YMCA in North America, p. 151)

Equipment in the San Francisco Gym:
  • Wooden Horse
  • (this resembled a typical Harlem goat).
  • Parallel bars.
  • Breast bar.
  • Springboard.
  • Fying and traveling rings.
  • Ladders of various inclinations.
  • Punching bag.
  • Tumbling mats
  • (or stuffed canvas stacks.)
(History of YMCA Physical Education, p. 33)

Why did YMCAs care about gyms?

“It is undeniably true that the young men of our cities, especially to the possession of that physical development upon which health of body, strength of mind and moral stamina are so greatly dependent, require stimulation and recuperative energy of recreation and manual exercises.  Relaxation, diversion and animated recreation are a pressing want.”

(1855 Annual Report – from History of YMCA physical education)

“The gymnasium will afford physical development conducive to health and vigor, and this better fitting members for life’s duties.  While affording an innocent pastime, it will also be a source of revenue and will attract many within your influence who would otherwise be untouched.”