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1930s UW Gym Suit

University of Wisconsin student gym suit worn by George Williams, 1933-1934.
(Museum object #2005.144.1.1-2)

In the midst of the Depression, George Williams of Sugar Grove (Vernon County), Wisconsin managed to attend the University of Wisconsin in Madison during the 1933-1934 school year. At the time Williams went to the university, the school required freshmen and sophomores to take three hours per week of physical training for a year, though they could substitute military science or band instruction. Williams took a physical training class, probably at the Red Gym, where he wore this gym suit. While he only attended the University for a single year he saved the suit and a matching University of Wisconsin towel as a souvenir of his time there.

Williams had graduated from Viola High School in 1932 and attended Indiana Central College in Indianapolis during the following school year. The next year he moved closer to home and attended the University of Wisconsin where he planned to major in Agricultural Science. Unfortunately, he was needed at home to help work the family farm and had to drop out. A lack of money to pay for school may have also contributed to his return home.

Eventually Williams graduated from the Vernon County Normal School in 1936 and went on to teach at schools in Vernon and Crawford County. After serving in the army during World War II, he put some of his agricultural science schooling into practice by working the family farm for the next twenty years.

The University of Wisconsin first established a Physical Culture program in 1894 when President Charles Adams appointed James C. Elsom as Professor of Physical Culture and Director of Gymnasium. Adams and Elsom felt the program would improve the “strength and vigor of students in order to achieve excellence in mental activities.” Elsom based the classes he offered on existing European systems of training and gymnastics.

The staff and offices for Physical Culture, later Physical Education, were located in the University’s Red Gym, which was built in 1893. The building included facilities for gymnastics, a gym for sports and army drill, a swimming tank, and four bowling alleys. For decades it served as the only major sports facility for the Madison campus until the Field House was built in 1930.

In 1911 the University of Wisconsin became the first institution in the Midwest to establish an undergraduate professional course for the training of physical educators. The new program met the “strong demand for physical educators and play leaders, evidenced by the new recognition of health problems, of educational and social values of athletics, [and] of the relationship of leisure time to citizenship, industrial efficiency and community life.”

The year before Williams came to the university, the President’s Office assumed administration of the General Physical Education program with the U.W. Business Manager serving as acting director. Shortly after this change the previous two-year requirement in physical education was dropped to one year — a result in part of campus-wide cuts that occurred during the Depression.

[Sources: "History and Program Information on Physical Education—Men at University of Wisconsin-Madison," August 1974 (University of Wisconsin Archives, 13/6); family history provided by donor.]


Posted on April 13, 2006

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