Who is Joseph Pilates ?
German born Joseph Pilates was living in England, working as a circus performer and boxer, when he was placed in forced internment in England at the outbreak of WWI. While in the internment camp, he began to develop the floor exercises that evolved into what we now know as the Pilates mat work.
As time went by, Joseph Pilates began to work with rehabilitating detainees who were suffering from diseases and injuries. It was invention born of necessity that inspired him to utilize items that were available to him, like bed springs and beer keg rings, to create resistance exercise equipment for his patients. These were the unlikely beginnings of the equipment we use today, like the reformer and the magic circle.
Joseph Pilates developed his work from a strong personal experience in fitness. Unhealthy as a child, Joseph Pilates studied many kinds of self-improvement systems. He drew from Eastern practices and Zen Buddhism, and was inspired by the ancient Greek ideal of man perfected in development of body, mind and spirit. On his way to developing the Pilates Method, Joseph Pilates studied anatomy and developed himself as a body builder, a wrestler, gymnast, boxer, skier and diver.
After WWI, Joseph Pilates briefly returned to Germany where his reputation as a physical trainer/healer preceded him. In Germany, he worked briefly for the Hamburg Military Police in self-defense and physical training. In 1925, he was asked to train the German army. Instead, he packed his bags and took a boat to New York City. On the boat to America, Joseph met Clara, a nurse, who would become his wife. He went on to establish his studio in New York and Clara worked with him as he evolved the Pilates method of exercise, invented the Pilates exercise equipment, and of course, trained students.
Joseph Pilates taught in New York from 1926 to 1966. During that time, he trained a number of students who not only applied his work to their own lives but became teachers of the Pilates method themselves. This first generation of teachers who trained directly with Joseph Pilates is often referred to as the Pilates Elders. Some committed themselves to passing along Joseph Pilates work exactly as he taught it. This approach is called “classical style” Pilates. Other students went on to integrate what they learned with their own research in anatomy and exercise sciences.
Joseph Pilates' New York studio put him in close proximity to a number of dance studios, which led to his “discovery” by the dance community. Many dancers and well-known persons of New York depended on Pilates method training for the strength and grace it developed in the practitioner, as well as for its rehabilitative effects. Until exercise science caught up with the Pilates exercise principles in the 1980s and the surge of interest in Pilates that we have today got underway, it was chiefly dancers and elite athletes who kept Joseph Pilates' work alive.
Joseph Pilates passed away in 1967. He had maintained a fit physique throughout his life, and many photos show that he was in remarkable physical condition in his older years. He is also said to have had a flamboyant personality. He smoked cigars, liked to party, and wore his exercise briefs wherever he wanted (even on the streets of New York). It is said that he was an intimidating, though deeply committed, instructor. Clara Pilates continued to teach and run the studio for another 10 years after Joseph Pilates death. Today, Joseph Pilates legacy is carried on by the Pilates Elders, and by a large group of Pilates teachers.
The History of Pilates as a Living Legacy
Joseph H. Pilates: The History By: MeJo Wiggin
Joseph Hubertus Pilates was born on December 9, 1883, in Monchengladbach, Germany (1) just outside of Dusseldorf. Joe was the second oldest child of nine children. According to Prussian records, his father, Friederich, was a “fitter” or mechanic by trade. Interviews with family members say that he was also a prize-winning gymnast who at some point ran a gym. (2) His mother was said to be a self-educated Naturopath, who believed in holistic ways to stimulate the body to heal itself. Growing up with his father’s commitment to fitness, and his mother’s philosophy on wellness, it mostly likely played significant role on Joe’s philosophy of health and fitness.
Most of his childhood, Joe was plagued with illness. He suffered with rickets, asthma, and rheumatic fever. Other children bullied him, even making fun of his name. They called him “Pontius Pilate, killer of Christ.”(2) Being sick and unable to defend himself, he became determined to overcome his illness and develop his body. Joe began studying the human body when a family physician gave him an old anatomy book that was about to be discarded. Joe said; “I learned every page, every part of the body; I would move each part as I memorized it.”(2) He began studying both Eastern and Western forms of exercise including: Yoga, Zen, and Tai Chi. He studied the ancient Greek and Roman philosophies of exercise and began his own physical regimen of body building, boxing, gymnastics, skiing, and diving. By the early age of fourteen, Joe had changed his body so dramatically, that he was asked to pose as a model for anatomy charts. This was just the beginning of his lifelong dedication to physical and mental well-being.
Joe married his first wife, Maria, at the age of 22. They had one daughter, Lena (Helene) born November 30, 1906, in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. Maria died in Germany in 1913, when Leni was only seven years old. (1) Very little is known about Leni or her upbringing. According to US Customs, the only record of her coming to the US was in 1939. She claimed she was visiting Joe. She also claimed her married name was Helene Friedrich and she lived in Heumar, Germany.(3)
In his late twenties Joe decided to go to England to further his training as a boxer. He and his brother Fred were
hired by a German circus troupe. They toured England performing a “live human Greek statue” act. He continued boxing and eventually became an instructor in self-defense.
Outbreak of World War I
In August of 1914, World War I began. A new policy of internment was passed and Britain was suddenly faced with an issue of what to do with the enemy aliens:
“The initial question following the outbreak of the war and the introduction of internment of foreign aliens was where to house internees. During the first few months the solution was to use temporary accommodations such as horse boxes at Newbury Race, and old wagon factory at Lancaster, and a young men’s Holiday Camp at the Isle of Man.” (10)
At the beginning of the war, only a few camps existed, but by January 1918, over 566 different places of internment were recorded. They included schools, hospitals, unoccupied factories, tents, stables, farms, castles, and ships. Most of the foreign civilians ended up at the Isle of Man.(8) According to the British National Archives, there are very few records of individual internees since most of the records were destroyed in World War II. However, Joe’s family members have confirmed that he was held intern at a temporary camp in Lancaster, and was eventually transferred to the Isle of Man.
During the war, there were two internment camps on the Isle of Man. The Cunningham’s Young Men’s Holiday Camp in Douglas was the first. It was already an established camp and able to house men. By October of 1914, it was overpopulated with sailors and internees so a second, much larger camp was built at the Knockaloe Moar Farm. (Since the camp in Douglas was full at the onset of the war, by the time Joe arrived from the mainland; he was most likely sent to Knockaloe.) There are records that document that when Knockaloe started housing prisoners in mid November of 1914, it first took the overflow of 700 men from Douglas. After that, “The first batch of aliens had been interned on ships; the next batch of aliens came from internment camps at Bradford, Lancaster, and one near Cheshire.” (7) The initial plan was for Knockaloe to house 5,000 men, but by July 1915 there were 23,000 internees! (Douglas only had 2,700).
It was during these five idle years of internment that Joe continued to develop and practice his ideas about health and fitness. He taught wrestling and self-defense to his fellow internees and became very popular among them. It was here that he started refining his method of physical conditioning which he called, “Contrology.” It is noted that Joe taught over 8,000 internees his physical culture and later boasted that of all the internees that followed his regimen, not a single one of them contracted the influenza epidemic that killed thousands in England in 1918. (6)
Being away from family and unable to work, boredom was a big problem among the interns. Unfortunately, “interns carried out little work partly due to the trade union opposition and the “German phobia” which existed in the country. In addition, internees could only carry out unskilled labor and only fill a few labor shortages.”(10) In the fall of 1916, a Prisoner of war Employment Committee was formed, which lifted these restrictions
and allowed internees to work in the camps. It was most likely during this time that Joe began working in one of the hospitals as a nurse/ physical therapist.
Having been a sick, frail child, he was determined to find a way to help people confined to a bed from illness or injury. Joe experimented by taking bedsprings and rigging them up to the hospital bed headboards and footboards. He also hooked springs to wheelchairs. These springs provided a form of resistance to those confined. He also devised a variety of handholds above the beds, for patients and nurses to hold to facilitate changing patient positions. These small apparatus drew great attention from doctors as they witnessed tremendous improvement in their patients’ strength and health. These first bed springs led to Joe’s first official piece of apparatus, which later became known as the “Trap Table” or “Cadillac.”
Post War Germany
Joe returned to Germany after the war. He married his second wife, Elfriede, (four years his senior) in Westphalia, Germany on October 10, 1919 (1). They lived in Hamburg, and Joe began training the Hamburg Military Police, boxers, and others in self-defense and Contrology. He continued his study of ancient Greek and Roman philosophies, and took an interest s in holistic therapies. For the next seven years he continued refining his method and developing apparatus. He met Rudolph Von Laban the originator of Labnotation, (the most widely used form of dance notation). Von Laban incorporated some of Joe’s method into his own teaching, and Joe’s method started taking hold in the world of dance.
Impressed by his skills, the German government asked Joe to come and train the New German Army. Since Joe did not like the political direction that Germany was heading, he decided to move to America. On April 27, 1926, at the age of 42, Joe arrived in New York. (3) It was on this voyage that he met Ann Clara Zuener (Clara) who became his lifelong partner.
Life in America, 1926
During his first years in New York, Joe took over a boxers’ training gym near the original location of Madison Square Garden, at 939 Eight Avenue. At that time, this was a busy training area for boxers, dancers, and athletes. Joe became well know in the boxing world and news of his method of physical and mental conditioning spread to other professionals. Joe met and quickly became friends with Nat Fleischer, the founder and editor in Chief of “The Ring” magazine (the most respected boxing journal of the time). Nat autographed a magazine for Joe stating: “To Prof. Pilates, whom I recognize is the world’s
greatest teacher of physical education and corrective exercise.” (6). Nat later became a sworn witness on Joe’s official petition for U.S. citizenship(1) and Joe dedicated a special thanks to Nat in his first book, Your Health.
By the early 1930”s, Joe’s method of “Contrology” was gaining popularity. His clientele increased, and his ability to help people recover from physical ailments was becoming well known. His work was endorsed by Frederick Rand Rogers, President of the North American Physical Fitness Institute. Frederick wrote, “For twenty years I have studied professionally the leading systems of body development proposed and used in schools, colleges, private gymnasia, and other institutions, and have no hesitation in saying that the Pilates system is not merely 20 or 50 or 80 percent more efficient, but must be several times as effective as any practicable combination of other systems.”(11)
Photo of Joe and Clara’s studio, Life Magazine
Soon Joe and Clara were busy teaching movie stars (Sir Lawrence Oliver and Katherine Hepburn), circus performers, gymnasts, musicians, professional athletes, doctors, business people, and students. At the same time, American Ballet and Modern Dance were emerging. Famous choreographers and dancers like George Balanchine, Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Dennis, Hanya Holm, and Martha Graham all studied with Joe and Clara. Dance schools would often send their injured dancers to “Uncle Joe” for rehabilitation. During the summers Joe and Clara often spent time at Jacob’s Pillow, a well-known dance camp in the Berkshire Mountains, teaching professional dancers.
Joe actively promoted his method of Contrology. He began documenting his work with photographs and film, and even displayed a series of before and after photographs of his students. He published his first book, Your Health, in 1934, and his second book, Return to Life, in 1945. He gave lectures and demonstrations for medical professionals, including
post graduate courses at the Academy of Chiropractic, Inc.(6) He taught at Armed Forces bases, appeared several times on the Mike Douglas Show, (9) sold his equipment at Macy’s, and formed a health group called “Return to Life.” He continued to invent and build apparatus, and became a member of the Chartered Institute of American Inventors for developing over 20 pieces of apparatus. (6)
Joe using his headpiece apparatus to teach young dancers at Jacobs Pillow
Joe’s Patents in the United States
Joe invented over 20 pieces of apparatus to help strengthen and correct the body. His first patent on record was applied for in August of 1924. At the time, Joe was still living in Hamburg, and he filed a patent for a “Gymnastic Apparatus” in Berlin. A year later, Joe filed for the same patent with the United States Patent Office. This Gymnastic Apparatus was issued a patent (#1,621,477) by the US Patent Office on March 15, 1927,(5) and was officially named the “Universal Reformer.” Joe used that name to create his own label for his apparatus. (Original apparatus is still being used today at True Pilates, NY and Art of Control at Purchase College)
Label Joe used on his apparatus
Some of the other rare apparatus Joe invented and filed for patents are:
The Sitting Chair (Feb. 1930) : an ergonomically designed chair with a spring back and a slanted seat to support the low back, legs, and knees. Designed to correct poor posture. He kept this chair in his studio and it can be seen in the Joseph H. Pilates Archive Collection
V-Bed (June 1930): a bed that is in a V shape for sleeping. Joe advertised this, “for perfect relaxation while resting and sleeping, showing anatomical balance in every position. “(6)
Rejuvenating Bed: Joe advertised this as, “The Pilates Automatic Posture Correcting and Rejuvenating Bed”.(6) It’s a portable cot that has a tower attachment to the head of the frame, so you can exercise in your own bed.
Wunda Chair (August 1931) – a main piece of apparatus still used today. In Joe’s advertisement of the Pilates Wunda Chair, he states, “It will give you the surprise of your life and make you “Wunda” when you witness an exhibition covering over 100 different exercises”.(6)
Tens-O-Meter (Feb. 1937) – a precursor to the Magic Circle as seen below
Magic Square: also known as the Tens-o-Meter for the toes as seen below Tower: “a Gym in a Doorway,” also known as the “Guillotine”
8. The Devana: one of Joe’s last inventions which is a Mat, Spine Corrector, Barrel, Universal Reformer, and Cadillac all in one unit.
Joe at 72 years old, showing some of his apparatus: holding his headpiece apparatus, Tens-o-Meter between his legs, Magic Square in his hands, Sand Bag hanging from his arm, and Magic Circle resting by his feet
Joe on his Armchair, 1914
“All new ideas are revolutionary. When their underlying theory is proven through practical application, it becomes only a matter of time for them to develop and flourish. Truth will prevail. That is why I know my teachings will reach the masses and finally be adopted as universal.” - Joe Pilates, Your Health, 1934
Joe was a true visionary in his approach and methodology to health and fitness. His defined science of Contrology has been nothing short of revolutionary on the impact on the world of fitness. Over 70 years of his life was spent on studying various physical regimens and techniques to help attain and maintain a uniformly developed body with a sound mind. He devised a scientific method that combined the best of Eastern and Western philosophies, one that engages both the mind and body. It has proven to work for virtually every body, regardless of their level of fitness.
Joe preached his physical techniques to thousands of people. He followed his regimen well into his 80’s and was a living testimony to the validity of his own teachings. He died
from advanced emphysema on October 9, 1967 at Lenox Hill Hospital. His New York Times obituary described him as “a white-maned lion of a man with steel blue eyes (one was glass from a boxing mishap), and mahogany skin, Mr. Pilates kept and as limber in his 80’s as a teenager.”(4)
It wasn’t until the late 80’s when the Pilates fitness craze began. Today there are over 10 teacher certification centers throughout the world and Pilates is offered in fitness classes, physical therapy offices, dance schools, hospitals, professional sport training centers, corporate retreats, luxury spas, and private studios. There is even a magazine devoted to the Pilates industry. It is estimated that over ten million people worldwide regularly practice Pilates and the numbers are still growing. Joe should be proud. He claimed, “My work is 50 years ahead of its time,” and he was right.
Resources and References:
1. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC; Petitions for Naturalization from the US District Court for the Southern District of NY, 1897- 1944; Series: M1972, Naturalization Record 243109.
Thompson, Bruce. “Joseph Pilates Life & Biography.”
The National Archives, Washington, DC;
Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, NY 1897–1957; Records of the US Customs Service, Record Group 36. (National Archives Microfilm Publication T715, 8892 rolls)
“ Joseph Pilates, Body Builder, 86”; New York Times 10 Oct. 1967, p.47
US Patent and Trademark Office, Joseph H. Pilates patents <>
Gallagher, Sean and Kryzanowska, Romana. The Joseph H. Pilates Archive Collection. Bain Bridge Books, 2000.
Sargeaunt, B.E. The Isle of Man and The Great War. Brown & Sons, Ltd. 1920 Douglas; Isle of Man, Chapter 3, Prisoners of War Camps
Panikos, Panayi. The Enemy in our Midst: Germans in Britain During the First WorldWar.Oxford:Berg,1991. p.70-98
Television section, The Seattle Times, 5 Feb. 1969
Panikos, Panayi. Prisoners of Britain: German Civilization, Military and Naval
Internees during the First World War. Yearbook of the Center for German and
Austrian Exile Studies, 7, 2005. p.29-43
Pilates, Joseph and Miller, William. A Pilates Primer: The Millennium Edition.
Presentation Dynamics, 1998
Pilates, Joseph. Your Health. Presentation Dynamics, 1998
For a more comprehensive investigation and biography of the life of Joseph Pilates, see Joseph Hubertus Pilates: The Biography, By Esparanza Aparicio Romero and Javier Perez Pont. (To be released 2013)