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Exercising is weird.  Everyday I see people running or jogging down the street and I wonder to myself why are they doing that?  Imagine if they could ‘feel the burn’ by doing something productive while burning calories.  Yard work, helping your neighbour clean their gutters, even collecting litter from the street are all physical activities that accomplish something and get you moving.  I’m pretty sure if we just looked around our neighbourhoods we could see where we could put our desire for physical activity to good social use – I know I can always use a hand with some of the more labour intensive outdoor tasks (snow shovelling anyone?).

Questioning of the utility of jogging/running aside, the humble treadmill has a somewhat darker past than what I knew about.  They were used as punishment for prisoners, sometimes being forced to work 10 hours a day to break down the ‘criminal spirit’ in them.  Given that people tended to die on them quite regularly they were abandoned as a ‘reform’ method in Britain, but of course the US seeing some serious punishment potential, adopted treadmills to help with its criminal population.

I’m speculating here, but I notice that in the US the treadmills were not phased out primarily because of their inhumane nature, but rather the appeal of forcing convicts into slave labour where profit could be made. <Insert snark about ‘ethical capitalism’ here.>

The JSTOR article is quite interesting as is the excerpt:

“Inside of a century, the once-popular prison treadmill proved too cruel and pointless for its home nation [Britain], but that did not stop it from being imported to the U.S. The treadmill came to America in 1822, and was set up in four different prisons. It was briefly popular at the prison on East 26th Street in New York City. The first one installed there, which cost $3,050.99 to build, busied 16 prisoners at a time, who ground 40-60 bushels of corn a day. Within two years, the prison had built three more, two of them used by women. But, by 1827, the mills had fallen into only sporadic use and then were abandoned when the prison relocated. In Newgate, Charleston, and Philadelphia, treadmills were installed, used sparingly, and given up on in short order.

Just as in Britain, Americans were struggling with what to do with their criminals. Should they work alone, contemplating their former bad ways? If they worked while in prison, what was the purpose?

In America, it seemed, the answer could not be “toil for its own sake.” In 1827, the Prison Discipline Society of Boston wrote that “the treadmill… teaches the convict nothing that can be useful to him on his discharge. It is not a profitable employment of human power.”

At a prison opened in 1822 in Auburn, NY, a new approach emerged. Dubbed “collective industry,” prisoners sat together and worked, turning the prison into a factory, albeit a strict one. “The rules typically called for downcast eyes, lockstep marching, no talking, and constant work when outside the cells. The usual punishment for infractions was the lash.” This new system was considered both humane and, most importantly, highly industrious. Outside the prison walls, there was a labor shortage. Instead of milling a few dozen bushels of corn a day— work that an animal could do—these convicts were making shoes, clothing, hardware, furniture, rifles, and clocks. Private manufacturers brought raw materials or unfinished products into the prison and paid for the labor.

The idea soon spread, and prisoners all over the country were put to work—until concerns about prisons interfering with the open market surfaced, that is. Prevailing ideas about incarceration, work, and punishment continued to evolve, but the treadmill was long gone.”

A little historical perspective is always a good thing.  My moralizing – maybe not so much – but I would suggest that rather than sweating on a torture device from the early 20th century, perhaps put your physical labour toward helping others and improving your community.  Seems like a win for everyone.

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