Artifact of the Week: Indian Clubs (“Meels”)

By Claire Layton

These clubs originated in the Near East as a form of exercise equipment for strength training. The wooden clubs would be made in various sizes and weights and would be held and swung in particular patterns that were part of an exercise program. The first recorded use was by wrestlers in ancient Persia, Egypt and various other places across the rest of the Middle East. It is still commonly used among athletes training in these areas. The colloquial name comes from the British colonists who first came across these meels in India and referred to them as ‘Indian Clubs,’ despite their Middle Eastern origin. British troops based in Indian began to incorporate these clubs into their own exercise regimens, in place of calisthenics routines, often training while listening to music. This was later incorporated in a similar manner into choreographed routines that would be included in aerobics classes.

Victorian-Era Woman Demonstrating Clubs (Kehoe 2016)

Indian Clubs became extremely popular in the late Victorian era, during the health craze throughout Europe and North America, with men and women of all types embracing this equipment as a panacea for fitness. Club swinging was even included as a gymnastic event in the 1904 and 1932 Olympics. In the Victorian era there was a strong moral connection to fitness and sport, with exercise being connected to the strengthening of one’s character; warding off laziness. In 1834, British author Donald Walker published a book entitled British Manly Exercises, where he discussed the use of the Indian Clubs by British army officials and the benefits of these for the layman. This was followed the next year with his book entitled Exercises for Ladies Calculated to Preserve and Improve Beauty, where he promoted the benefits of exercising with Indian Clubs for women.

A strongman in the 1850s named Professor Harrison was a major proponent of the Clubs, becoming the popular embodiment of what they had to offer. After seeing Professor Harrison and his ‘mammoth war-clubs,’ during an 1862 trip to London, author and fitness-enthusiast S.D. Kehoe brought the Indian Club craze back home to America.

The Clubs lost their popularity in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s, as organized sports became more popular. Though, exercise routines requiring the Clubs remained common among professional athletes and the military. The concept underpinning the Club workouts remains present today, among equipment such as Clubbells, kettlebells, popular among CrossFit workout programs. There are currently kettlebell swinging competitions that strikingly resemble the gymnastic competitions of Indian Club Swinging.

Gymnastics Team with Indian Clubs (Springfield College Archives and Special Collections)

Heffernan, C. (2015, 02 02). Indian Clubs in Victorian Britain. Retrieved 06 15, 2017, from Physical Culture Study:
Kehoe, S. D. (2016). The Indian Club Exercise: With Explanatory Figures and Positions (1866). Worcestershire: Read Books Ltd.