Project (2016)

Papering Over the Gendered Body: Clelia Mosher, the Posture Sciences, and the Schematograph

One of Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher’s professional life goals was to fix the American slouch, making all the “uneven shoulders and hips, the drooping heads, the winged scapulae, and the flat chests” symmetrical and upright. Best known for her 1892 work The Sexual Attitudes of 45 Victorian Women, Mosher was also a leading figure in the emerging field of posture science. Along with other medical scientists, anthropologists, and physical culturists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Mosher saw posture as a window onto both health and civility and sought to capture its ephemeral topographies with the use of graphic recording technologies.

While most posture experts favored photography as a measuring tool, Mosher eschewed photography in favor of a paper technology of her own devising. Known as the “schematograph,” it consisted of a reflecting camera equipped with tracing paper, which allowed an examiner to outline a mostly disrobed person’s figure from behind a screen. The standing posture of the examinee’s body was thus translated by Mosher’s hand through pencil onto paper. The final product was known as a schematogram, a visual artifact that Mosher collected for every student and used to create individualized physical exercise regimes. To measure a student’s progress (or lack thereof), Mosher conducted baseline and follow-up examinations, superimposing the tracings on top of one another.

In her physical education laboratory at Stanford University, Mosher analyzed her collection of schematograph readings to both make the epidemic of bad posture statistically legible and combat scientific theories of sex difference. A self-avowed physiological feminist, Mosher saw the posture sciences as undercutting arguments of sex difference, for plumb line verticality applied to both the male and female frame equally and in the same way. Mosher’s schematograph thus demonstrates how female expertise and concerns for gender equality shaped the material life of the posture sciences.