Early History of Emerson Athletics: Part 1

Emerson College has a long history of promoting athleticism and healthy living to its students. Charles Wesley Emerson’s philosophy included the belief that physical culture is integral to proper education and communication. According to Emerson, “the development and refinement of the entire physical person” would allow individuals to express themselves more fully as well as to reach their full potential.1

Due to this belief, when Emerson founded Emerson College, physical culture classes were a requirement for obtaining an undergraduate degree. During these classes, students were guided through various exercises and stretches as well as such activities as gymnastics and fencing. Emerson’s wife, Susie Rogers Emerson, also taught physical culture courses once per week “for the higher education of responsiveness in nerve centres to the end that the body may express the highest attributes of the soul.”2

Sample stretch to enhance the physical culture of Emerson students from Charles Wesley Emerson’s 1891 textbook

By 1930, many students felt that something more was needed to encourage their comrades to be more active. To that end, several female students worked with physical education teacher Elsie Riddell to found the Recreation Club. Each student in the club was given an activity to coordinate throughout the school year, including swimming, hiking, skating, volleyball, and seasonal sports. In many cases, coordinators would schedule weekends in the countryside so that students would have a wider area and fresher air in which to exercise. In 1933, the club founded “inter-class” volleyball for female students in Huntington Hall, with the winning team awarded letters. This was the first time that letters were distributed for sports activities.

A photograph of Physical Education Professor Elsie Riddell from the 1947 yearbook

In 1939, Emerson changed its requirements for female undergraduates to include three physical education courses: educational gymnastics, anatomy and hygiene, and either advanced gymnastics or dancing. There were no such requirements for men. Although the course catalogs do not state why the new requirements only pertained to women, it may be due to the fact that the majority of the students were women. Physical education courses were separated by gender, with all women’s classes held at the College while those for men took place at the local YMCA. It is possible that there simply was not enough space to hold both classes on campus, and to keep expenses down, men’s classes at the YMCA were not mandatory.

Female students participate in inter-class volleyball in the 1930s.

Throughout the 1940s, the Recreation Club and mandatory physical education courses for women provided female students with dedicated time for athletics and fitness. It would not be until 1947 that a group was be founded to provide sports activities for men. To learn about this and other developments in the history of athletics at Emerson between 1947 and 1966, check back for Part 2 of this article next month.



1 For more information, see Physical Culture of the Emerson College of Oratory, Boston by Charles Wesley Emerson.

2 For more information, see A Century of Eloquence: The History of Emerson College 1880–1980 by John M. Coffee Jr. and Richard L. Wentworth.


Jenn Williams (Archives and Special Collections)