The modern history of children's posture involves an important episode of intense concern, followed by an equally interesting relaxation. Around 1900 American parents were told to devote a great deal of attention to the posture training of their children, but roughly fifty years later the campaign was receding dramatically. Posture history in other societies remains to be traced, but the beginnings of modern posture standards in Western Europe emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as part of the growing concern about precise MANNERS and body discipline in the middle and upper classes. Children, and particularly boys, were urged to hold themselves erect. While most boys did not serve in the military, growing attention to formal military training may have played a role in the wider posture concern.
Books about manners dealing with children's posture spread to North America by the 1760s and 1770s. Middle-class Americans such as John Adams began to write about their concern for proper carriage of the body, so that social relationships would not be troubled by slouching or twitching. These new posture standards became a regular part of child-rearing advice through the nineteenth century, as a means to help children grow up to be respectable. Proper posture began to denote self-discipline. Doctors supported the movement, arguing that good posture was essential for proper health. At the same time, there is no indication that many people worried greatly about posture training, except perhaps in urging children to sit up straight at the dinner table. Rigid furniture and stiff clothing for formal occasions, including corseting of young women, helped maintain posture without too much effort.
This situation changed at the end of the nineteenth century, as a flurry of posture advice emerged. Doctors stepped up their campaign, arguing that a number of modern conditions, including cramped school desks, were leading to widespread physical deformity. More important still was the emergence of posture testing and training in the schools, backed by a growing body of physical education instructors. An American Posture League was formed early in the twentieth century, staffed mainly by the physical education group. Posture kits allowed teachers to evaluate children's posture. A number of school districts set up active posture programs, involving thousands of children. Children identified with bad posture were sent to a variety of remedial lessons, and in severe cases physical devices were imposed to straighten the body. More informally, habits such as walking with a book on the head gained in popularity as a means of acquiring attractive posture. The posture movement spread to American colleges in the 1920s, particularly for women. Schools like Vassar actively tested the posture of all entrants, often photographing them, and mandatory courses included posture training.
Several factors propelled this striking new concern. First, clothing and furniture became looser and more relaxed, and the posture programs were deliberately set in this context, seeking more generally to compensate for the growing indulgence of modern life. Second, the professional self-interest of doctors and physical education instructors supported what was a sincere but obviously advantageous interest in convincing parents and children that most young people suffered from posture defects. Third, the posture program served as an expression of anxiety about a number of more general features of modern society, including compulsory schooling and the lures of consumerism. Posture standards were now imposed quite widely, and not just for the respectable middle classes, though elite colleges developed a special concern. The democratization of standards was juxtaposed with concerns about immigrants and the need to use school programs to help bring their children into line.
By the 1940s the posture movement was past its peak. National associations disappeared. School programs were dropped or diluted. By the 1960s, doctors began to attack the old posture anxieties as false and misleading; few children had posture problems, according to the new wisdom, and those that did could be helped through medical treatments. Posture interests did not fade entirely, however. Interview manuals of college students still included reminders about good posture, and conservatives continued to lament the slouching of modern young people as part of their claims that character standards were deteriorating. In general, however, presenting oneself in a relaxed, informal mode replaced stiff posture as the expression of choice for American young people.
See also: Child-Rearing Advice Literature.
Kasson, John F. 1990. Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth- Century Urban America. New York: Hill and Wang.
Roodenburg, Herman. 1997. "How to Sit, Stand or Walk: Toward a Historical Anthropology of Dutch Paintings." In Looking at Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art: Realism Reconsidered, ed. Wayne Franits. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Yosifon, Davis, and Peter N. Stearns. 1996. "The Rise and Fall of American Posture." American Historical Review 103: 317-344.
PETER N. STEARNS