School children doing pushups and jumping jacks in physical education classes throughout the country can thank the German Turner Societies, which were responsible for the introduction of physical education to public schools in America.
In 1848, America received a large wave of German political refugees known as the 48-ers, and with them came the tradition of Turner societies. The Turn Verein, or gymnastic unions, started in Germany in the early 19th century not only as athletic clubs, but also as political societies.
The functions of the Turn Verein did not stop at physical education or political engagement. The societies also helped to fulfill the cultural and social needs of German immigrants and were active in American public education and labor movements.
In the summer of 1850, New York City’s Turner society was established under the name Socialistischer Turn Verein, and within the decade they became commonly known as the New York Turn Verein.
New York Turn Verein showed allegiance to their new homeland by taking an active role in the Civil War. When President Lincoln called for volunteers for the Union Army in 1861, 1,200 Turners signed up to form the 20th Regiment of New York Volunteers. The regiment fought in several battles, but most notably the Battle of Antietam. In a unique recognition of their service, the State of New York erected a monument dedicated to the 20th Regiment at the location where they charged the Confederacy on the battlefield.
Toward the end of the century, increasing membership led the Turn Verein to move from its Kleindeutschland home on East 4th Street to a new building on the southeast corner of East 85th Street and Lexington Avenue in Yorkville. This building remained the home of the society until the 1980s, and since has been replaced with storefronts and apartments.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the Turn Verein produced many world-renowned gymnasts, many of whom went on to represent the United States in the Olympic Games.
Today, the New York Turn Verein is known as the American Turners of New York, and national society membership is estimated at 13,000. The organization continues to promote health and physical education, as well as cultural projects, from its current home in the Bronx.