Joseph Hubertus Pilates and the History of the Pilates Method

Early Years in Germany and England
Joseph Hubetus Pilates was born on December 8, 1880 in the German town of Münchengladbach, not far from Düsseldorf. One of four children, he was plagued as a child by rickets, asthma and rheumatic fever. Pilates was determined to overcome these childhood ailments during his youth and took on various physical regimens including bodybuilding, gymnastics, skiing and diving. By the time he reached age 14, Joseph was posing as a model for anatomy charts. His father was a prize-winning gymnast and his mother a naturopath—which likely influenced the path he took in life pursuing the fields of movement and well-being. He was also greatly inspired by Eastern and Western forms of exercise, and in particular by the ancient Greek and Roman philosophies of attaining and maintaining physical and mental perfection.

There are two versions of the story of how Pilates traveled to England in 1912. The first is that he decided to pursue boxing; the other that he and his brother toured England with a circus, performing as a live Greek Statue act. After World War I broke out in 1914, he was interned along with other German nationals in a camp for enemy aliens in Lancaster, England. There, he taught wrestling and self-defense, motivating others to follow his fitness program and boasting that his students would emerge stronger than they were before their internment.

It was here that he began devising his system of original exercises that he later called “Contrology.” Taking springs from beds and rigging up exercise apparatuses for the bedridden, he devised his earliest rehabilitation equipment. Joseph Pilates was transferred to a camp on The Isle of Man and there he became a kind of orderly, working with
internees and soldiers suffering from wartime injuries and diseases. In 1918, an influenza pandemic swept the world, killing millions of people—tens of thousands in England alone. Legend has it that none of Joe’s followers succumbed to the illness, even though internment camps were the hardest hit.

After the war, Joseph Pilates returned to Germany and worked with the Hamburg Military Police, training them in self-defense and physical conditioning. He also began taking on personal clients during this time. This period of his life is not well documented, though if was a time for him of growing interest in Eastern holistic therapies such as holistic medicine, meditation, modern dance, homeopathy and breath therapy. During this period, Pilates met the famous movement analyst Rudolf von Laban, who is said to have incorporated some of Joseph’s theories and exercises into his own work. Mary Wigman, a renowned German dancer and choreographer, was a student of Pilates and incorporated his exercises in her dance class warm-ups, which survives to this day in the technique of Hanya Holm, a student of Wigman.

In 1925, Pilates was asked by the government to train the new German Army, and some accounts say that Pilates decided to emigrate to America because he didn’t like the
direction Germany was heading politically. Other accounts say the departure from his home country was motivated by an invitation from the American boxing manager Nat Fleischer, and Max Smelling, a World Title heavyweight boxer, who was also a friend of Joseph. In any case, en route Joe met a young school teacher named Clara. She became his wife and shortly thereafter, an integral partner in helping develop and teach his method.

New York City and The Berkshires
When he arrived in New York City in 1926, Joe began working in a boxers’ training gym at 939 Eighth Avenue in the same building where several dance schools and rehearsal spaces were located. By the early 1930s he and Clara had taken over the gym. News of Joe’s skill at working with injuries spread by word of
mouth and the Pilates’ client base grew rapidly. His clientele was diverse: it included people in New York’s high society, such as members of the Gimbel and Guggenheim families, along with movie stars Vivien Leigh, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Katherine Hepburn, and others. He also worked with doctors, circus performers, gymnasts, musicians,
dancers, business people, tradesmen and students.

The 30s and 40s were the early years of American ballet and modern dance. Many luminaries such as George Balanchine, Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Dennis, Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, and many lesser-known dancers studied with and sent injured dancers to “Uncle Joe,” to be “fixed.” “Contrology” became an intrinsic part of many dancers’ training and rehabilitation. A number of first generation Pilates teachers would be among these dancers including Carola Trier, Eve Gentry, Roman Kryszanowska, Ron Fletcher, Kathleen
Stanford Grant, Bruce King, and Lolita San Miguel. The majority of aspiring teachers would work in the gym in exchange for exercise sessions. Hannah Sakmirda was Joe and Clara’s regular assistant. Other first generation teachers include Jerome Andrews, Bob Seed, Nadja Cory, and Mary Bowen. The Pilates’ dearest students and assistants were their nieces, Mary Pilates, and Irene Zeuner Zelonka.

Every summer between 1939 and 1951, Joe and Clara spent their weekends and several weeks at a stretch relaxing and teaching at Jacob’s Pillow, a well-known dance camp in the Berkshire Mountains. Pilates wrote two books: Your Health, in 1934, and Return to Life, in 1945. In the later, he writes with passion that if his method were universally adopted and taught in our educational institutions, every facet of life—from individual to universal—would improve. “Contrology” could do no less that eliminate human suffering and reduce our need for hospitals, sanitariums, lunatic asylums, even prisons.

Pilates worked very hard to promote his work. He conducted lecture-demonstrations for medical professionals. He taught at Armed Forces bases in the New York area, created exercise pamphlets, and sold his equipment on Saturdays at Macy’s.

His good friend Dr. Henry Jordan, Chief of Orthopedics at Lenox Hill Hospital was a strong advocate of Pilates work. Dr. Jordan referred many of his patients to Pilates, and took Carola Trier under his wing. Some of Dr. Jordan’s students became prominent orthopedic physicians as well and continued to refer patients to Pilates.

The 50s however, are marked by Joe’s unsuccessful efforts to see his work embraced by mainstream medical and educational systems. The fact that the medical community could not see past what Pilates considered its passive definitions of normal health, narrow vision for preventive medicine, and abysmal standards for
proper physical conditioning, left him deeply embittered.

The Pilates Diaspora
In spite of these rejections, the method was quietly taking root in several Manhattan institutions including New York University, the High School of Performing Arts, Dance theater of Harlem, 92nd Street Y, and Clark Center for Performing Arts. By the mid 60s, the Pilates method had begun to spread beyond New York: Jerome Andrews moved to Paris, Eve Gentry to Santa Fe New Mexico, Ron Fletcher to California. This first generation continued practicing and teaching the Pilates’ philosophy and techniques.

In January 1966, there was a fire at 939 Eighth Avenue. Joe attempted to salvage what he could and fell through the burnt-out floorboards, hanging by his hands from a beam until he was rescued by the firefighters. Some believe this incident may have led to his death in October 1967 at the age of 87. Clara, regarded by many as the more superb or perhaps the more approachable teacher, continued to teach and ran the studio for several years until her retirement in 1970. She passed away in 1976.

In the 1980s, second generation teachers began building their practices across the country, while the Pilates Studio in New York City experienced its own highs and lows—changes in ownership, location moves and an abrupt closing. New studios and teacher training programs were on the horizon, but didn’t appear until the early to mid 90s.