Turnvereine, also known as sporting clubs, first came about in 1811, when Frederich Ludwig Jahn formed the first outdoor gymnasium in Berlin, Germany, with the goal of promoting a nationalist movement, primarily in response to the Prussian army’s defeat during the Napoleonic Wars. He quickly became known as Turnvater Jahn (the “father” of gymnastics), who promoted the idea of the four “F’s”: Frisch, Fromm, Froh, and Frei. Turnvater Jahn adapted these four “F’s” from the sixteenth-century expression “Frisch, Fromm, Fröhlich, Frei,” in order to promote the importance of a lifestyle that is “fresh, devout, happy, and free.” This motto had a political dimension, since Jahn’s idea was to provide a meeting ground where young men—Turnvereine were predominantly male throughout the nineteenth century—could meet, participate in games, and strengthen their bodies and minds in preparation for a unified Germany.
By 1819, however, when Prussia had recovered from the Napoleonic Wars, German rulers deemed this nationalization a threat to their goal of a German confederation. As a result, Jahn was incarcerated for five years and Turnvereine were banned. Jahn’s sentence was reversed in 1825, but he was forbidden to live within ten miles of Berlin, and lived out his remaining days in Freyburg until his death in 1852. Meanwhile, the ban on Turnvereine was lifted in 1842, and Turnen slowly became incorporated into the educational curriculum for young men.
In the years leading up to the German revolutions of 1848-1849, many Turners used Turnvereine as a forum for political activism as well as (or in lieu of) a place to participate in exercises. When revolutionary groups and assemblies failed to unify Germany in 1849, many Turners, known as Forty-Eighters, fled their home country to escape imprisonment or death. A number of Turners emigrated to the United States and helped establish American Turner clubs in the mid-nineteenth century.
In Germany the Turner movement was weakened after 1849. Although a federation of Turners formed in 1868 and Turnen remained the predominant form of exercise through the end of the nineteenth century, the socialist-leaning Turner groups fell away by World War I, and by World War II, they were banned altogether. After WWII, the Allies (the U.S., Britain, France, and the Soviet Union) allowed individuals to form sports clubs, but only let them develop so far, and kept the emphasis on sports rather than politics. Turnvereine remain popular in Germany today, but tend to be affiliated with particular regions and jobs (e.g., Turnvereine for individuals in specific careers) rather than politics.
As early as the 1820’s, many of Father Jahn’s disciples left Germany and established sporting clubs in the United States, while continuing to promote the idea of “a sound mind in a sound body.” In the years leading up to and following the U.S. Civil War, American Turner clubs sprang up in the Northeast and Midwest. At the height of the American Turner movement in the 1890’s, there were more than three hundred societies across the country. Cultural assimilation and two World Wars with Germany took a gradual toll on membership, with some halls closing and others becoming regular dance halls, churches, bars or bowling alleys.
As of 2011, fifty-four Turner societies still existed around the United States, and the current headquarters of the American Turners is in Louisville, Kentucky. The American Turners’ connection with the Y.M.C.A. came about when, in the late nineteenth-century, Y.M.C.A. leaders decided to include gymnastics and other sports as part of their programs. These leaders quickly realized in the need for teachers of physical fitness. The Y.M.C.A. Training School, which later became Springfield College, served as a pipeline for the Y.M.C.A. by supplying it with trained workers. Because the Association needed teachers for physical fitness, and because it wanted to recruit Christian men for the gymnasium, the school incorporated physical education into its curriculum in 1887.