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Cool Things - Fencing Foils and Masks

Fencing foils and masks

Elegant swordplay doesn't usually spring to mind when considering Kansas history, but it was a common activity at one Topeka club around the turn of the 20th century.

These fencing foils and masks were used by George Krauss at the Topeka Turnverein. Roughly translated, Turnverein means "gymnastics association." Originally founded in Germany as a physical education movement with strong political (even nationalistic) overtones, Turnvereins were largely social and athletic clubs by the time George was a member.

The purpose of the Topeka association, as stated in the Topeka Capital newspaper in 1892, was "to train its members morally, mentally and physically; to educate its members in sobriety, refinement in manners and social intercourse within and without the rooms of the association. These ends are attained by scientific lectures and debates at stated meetings and by gymnastic exercises and literary exhibitions."

The Turner movement greatly influenced the development of physical education in this country. Turners, as Turnverein members were called, began practicing physical education at a very young age. The movement's founder (Friedrich Ludwig Jahn) developed equipment that defines our modern notion of gymnastics, including the parallel and horizontal bars, the balance beam, and the vaulting horse. Turners boxed, wrestled, threw hammers and spears, and pole-vaulted, among other activities.

Born in Germany

Fencing also was common among Turners, and indeed had a centuries-old history in Germany. Although it had begun as a form of combat, by the time George Krauss fenced in America it was considered a character-building pursuit. Turners generally practiced a type of fencing that was a training exercise; it involved thrusting rather than cutting moves. They used foils--training weapons with blunt points to prevent injuries. This conformed to the Turner philosophy that physical activity should bolster mental and moral fortitude.

Men with fencing equipment at Topeka's Turner Hall

The foils pictured here were forged in the Alsace region of Europe by Coulaux & Company. They are marked "Made in Germany" because from 1871 to 1919 most of Alsace was under German control, although the region today is part of France. The use of English words on the foils undoubtedly means they were made for export, probably for the American market.

Although the Turners focused on developing the body (particularly among younger members), socializing and practicing German customs also was important. To this end, the gymnasiums in most Turner halls could be converted to ballrooms. Frequent picnics and concerts were held in Topeka at the outdoor yard next to the Turner Hall. Food, wine, and beer were always plentiful. Turners choirs and bands provided musical entertainment around town, and Turner drill teams marched in local parades. In short, the Turnverein was an important cultural institution for everyone in the community. The Topeka association's only requirement for membership was American citizenship; non-Germans could and did join the Turners.

Topeka Turners took their athletic prowess on the road, competing in "Turnfests" (physical competitions lasting several days). The Topeka Daily Capital reported on the sword and lance skills of the Topeka team sent to the 1909 National Turnfest in Cincinnati: "Every man on the team has been doing gymnastic work since he was old enough, and most of them have been doing it in Topeka's Turner hall. The same is true of the women. . . . Those who think women cannot do this work as well as men should see the women do it." Topeka even sent a team of four to Frankfort, Germany, in 1908 to compete against Turners from around the world.

A variety of factors came together to suppress Turnvereins in the first decades of the 20th century. Temperance reformers attacked the sale and consumption of alcohol at Turner events. Motion pictures and automobiles provided other forms of entertainment than social clubs. Finally, and probably most importantly, Germany and the U.S. were on opposing sides during World War I and anti-German sentiment was high. Turnvereins continued to operate after the war, but their profile and membership declined. When fire destroyed Topeka's Turner Hall in 1911, it was never rebuilt.

A lifelong Topeka resident, George Krauss used these fencing foils and masks at the local Turnverein hall during the 1890s. His German-born father, Oscar, was one of its founders. This equipment was donated to the Kansas Museum of History by George's niece, Judy Bray.

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Entry: Cool Things - Fencing Foils and Masks

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: April 2007

Date Modified: September 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.