Swinging clubs from Indian culture and society to British fitness culture: A history well told

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Hans Bolling
PhD in History, Independent scholar


Conor Heffernan
Indian Club Swinging and the Birth of Global Fitness: Mugdars, Masculinity and Marketing
288 pages, hardcover, ill
London: Bloomsbury 2024
ISBN 978-1-350-40162-4

As I was reading Conor Heffernan’s book about Indian club swinging, an activity which according to the author might have been the first global fitness fad, in late May, I visited the doctoral conferment ceremony at Uppsala University. One might ask what a book about the birth of global fitness and an academic ceremony at Sweden´s oldest university has to do with each other. At first glance nothing; however, among the 253 persons invited to receive their degrees as jubilee doctors was Jan Lindroth and even if he didn’t attend the ceremony, his dissertation from 1974, Idrottens väg till folkrörelse [Sport’s path to popular movement] comes to mind when reading Conor Heffernan’s Indian Club Swinging and the Birth of Global Fitness: Mugdars, Masculinity and Marketing. The physical cultural influences Heffernan highlights when he introduces Indian club swinging in Europe are to a large extent the same as the ones Lindroth highlighted fifty years ago, when he wrote about the influences of Pehr Henrik Ling’s gymnastics, with the exception that Heffernan also puts forward Ling himself. To my great surprise, there were quite a few similarities between Indian club swinging, Ling gymnastics and Swedish physical culture in general during the nineteenth century.

According to Heffernan the Indian clubs existed in a lane parallel to Turnen and Ling gymnastics rather than modern sport and they were used by proponents of both gymnastic systems, unsurprisingly to a greater extent by followers of Turnen, at various periods even if their commercial element meant that they took a different trajectory: “Alongside the calisthenic regimes of Pehr Henrik Ling and Friedrich Jahn, Indian clubs were undoubtedly one of the world’s first global fitness movements.” Indian club swinging was popular not only as a commercial activity but also in the medical, educational and military fields. The nineteenth-century anxiety about the fit and healthy body appears and physicians showed interest in “using Indian Clubs to treat a host of medical illnesses and ailments”.

And that constitutes the brilliance of Heffernan’s book. He has written an interesting, readable and well-researched book about a phenomenon that fell out of fashion not a decade ago but well over a century ago.

The book has two purposes. The first on is to provide a definitive account of Indian club swinging’s popularity in the nineteenth century, the second, and most important, to use the clubs to explore international and domestic concerns about the male and female body, about military preparation and about education. It is interesting that prior to their arrival to England, the clubs were used a as means of exercising, preparing for conflict and for spiritual reasons by select populations. In Europe they were emptied of their original meaning and refilled with new ideas and thus used in schools, the military, public gymnasiums and private homes.

The structure of the book is chronological. After an introduction where Heffernan shows great knowledge of the history of physical culture, gymnastics and sport, not unsurprising since he has previously written about the history of physical culture in Ireland[1], six empirical chapters about the fate of Indian swinging clubs in Great Britain and the United State follows.

In the first chapter we are introduced to the long history of swinging clubs in Indian culture and society; they were also used in Persia. Swinging clubs had a role in physical culture but also in religion and mythology. Heffernan makes a point of the fact that when the British took the clubs to Europe they did it without importing any of the cultural meanings they had in India, so even if they were called Indian clubs their history were forgotten and they were emptied of their old meaning.

The second chapter deals with early British interactions with the clubs. This simple device (the clubs were changed from large and colourful artefacts to small and plain training equipment) had great influence in health and medical practices and were embraced by the physical culture establishment and high society. In time they become a practice enjoyed across the class spectrum.

In the third chapter we meet Professor Harrison, a mid nineteenth-century strongman who was instrumental in spreading the popularity of Indian clubs, and Sim D. Kehoe, an entrepreneur who popularised the clubs in the US. Harrison was able to popularize club swinging by tapping into the theatre tradition. Here we have some similarities with one of Jan Lindroth’s adepts, Leif Yttergren and his dissertation from 1996 – Idrottens organisering och sportifiering i Stockholm 1860–1898 – about the organization and sportification of sports in Stockholm where he points out that sporting activities connected to strength and agility had an obvious place on the city’s circus stages before the establishment of bureaucratized sport. Kehoe was the first mass marketer of fitness equipment, at the same time as Turnen and Ling gymnastics were spreading around the globe. With regard to the often-stated connection between mental and physical health – mens sana in corpora sano – it may be appropriate to point out that the life courses of the showman and the entrepreneur probably can be said to falsify this thesis.

Indian Club Swinging Tutorial for the Combo Sequence with the ZenKahuna, posted on YouTube June 28, 2020.

Chapter four deals with the proliferation of Indian clubs in Great Britain and the US. The mass-production of clubs in the US helped the democratization of club swinging as new, cheaper clubs were sold across the continent. The 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s thus became the heyday of Indian club swinging with the practice also popularized by the publication of books and German Turners’ use of them, and they were widely used in schools, gymnasiums and military barracks. The use of Indian clubs, now in its European guise, even returned to the Indian subcontinent with the British army.

In the fifth chapter the decline of Indian club swinging and the increased popularity of “physical culture” (defined as a late nineteenth and early twentieth century concern with the ideological and commercial cultivation of the body) with its dumbbells, barbells and complicated pulley systems is in focus. The clubs lost popularity not only among recreational fitness practitioners but also within the educational system and the military.

Chapter six, the last empirical chapter is about one individual, Tom Burrows known as the King of Clubs due to his ability to swing Indian clubs not for hours but for days without rest. In 1913 he was swinging his clubs for 107 hours! Burrows performed his feats at a time when Indian club swinging had been replaced by new and more commercially attractive forms of physical exercise.

There is no doubt that Heffernan has written an important account of Indian club swinging; if it is the definitive account only history can tell. There is still room for local case studies of the phenomenon. The book has a place within the literature on the diffusion of different physical activities and sport. Heffernan is also successful in putting Indian club swinging in the context of nineteenth century concerns about masculinity and femininity, health and degeneration. It was as true then as it is today: the older we get the better we were.

The first question I asked myself when reading Indian Club Swinging and the Birth of Global Fitness was: What is an Indian club? The answer: “bottle-shaped weighted clubs swung in the hand for gymnastic exercise”. None of the reference books on sport I have in my private library provided a definition. And that constitutes the brilliance of Heffernan’s book. He has written an interesting, readable and well-researched book about a phenomenon that fell out of fashion not a decade ago but well over a century ago. Indian clubs belong to the losers in the history of physical activities, as sadly enough does Ling’s gymnastic systems even if it had a longer life, as one can read on the dustcover of another book by Jan Lindroth, Ling – från storhet till upplösning [Ling – from greatness to dissolution] from 2004: Ling gymnastics has been dead for several decades. So even if it was true that history is written by victors, the history of losers is well worth writing.

Copyright © Hans Bolling 2024


[1] Conor Feffernan has published The History of Physical Culture, and he also runs the Physical Culture Study website, including a blog that started in August 2014. (Editor’s note)

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