Hartvig Nissen (gymnast)

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Hartvig Nissen in 1921

Hartvig Nissen (1857 – February 4, 1924) was a Norwegian gymnast mostly active within Norway and the USA. He later worked in politics.


Nissen was born in Kongshavn, near Oslo in 1857. He was the 8th child in a family of 10 children. His father, Ole Hartvig Nissen, was the owner and principal of a private school with 1000 students and was named chief of Norway's public schools in 1867. Nissen graduated from high school in 1872. An eye injury which occurred during childhood snowball fight prevented him from entering military school.[1]


As a young man Nissen joined the Merchant's Club, Singing Club and Christiania (Oslo) Turnforening or Gymnastics Club. He began teaching gymnastics in April 1875 and was the Instructor of Gymnastics in the Latin School of Drammen. He also taught at the Gymnastic Clubs of the cities of Drammen, Holmestrand and Kongsberg in Norway. Nissen later became a Teachers Assistant and the Principal of Oslo Turnforening.[2]

Around 1879 he studied the German system of gymnastics in Dresden, Saxony. He was considered to be the strongest gymnast in Norway during the late 1870s[by whom?] and up until he left Norway for the U.S. on January 26, 1883. He arrived in New York City on February 15, 1883.

Working days in Washington, D.C.[edit]

In March 1883 he moved to Washington, DC where he visited the German Gymnastic Club a few days after arriving. He obtained a position teaching a class of fourteen women. Within a few weeks he had 50 women students between the ages of 13 to 50 attending his classes. He also held classes at the Franklin School until the spring of 1885.[1]

The following September 1883 he opened a high school in an armory on "E" street between 9 and 10 N.W.

On January 4, 1884, he held an exposition at his high school comprised by girls and boys performing Swedish gymnastics, wand exercises, dumbbells, fancy steps, Swedish folk dances and games. This was the first time Swedish gymnastics and folk dances were officially exhibited in the United States.

In September 1883, he rented a three-story building at 903 16th street, two blocks from the White House, and named it "The Swedish Health Institute".

He married a Swedish woman, Helene Peterson, in the summer of 1884. She had been his assistant since he opened the institute.

Nissen is thought to have introduced the study of Swedish Gymnastics, and Swedish Massage to the United States.


Nissen died of heart failure on February 4, 1924.


Nissen has an extensive bibliography. His best known books include:

  • ABC of the Swedish System of Educational Gymnastics: A Practical Hand-Book for School Teachers and the Home
  • Gymnastic Systems
  • Health by Exercises without Apparatus
  • Practical Massage and Corrective Exercises with Applied Anatomy
  • Rational Home Gymnastics
  • School Gymnastic-Card System
  • A Manual on Swedish Movements and Massage Treatments


  1. ^ a b AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Hartvig Nissen, February 15, 1921 (privately published)
  2. ^ ABC of the Swedish Educational Gymnastics. A PRACTICAL HAND-BOOK FOR SCHOOL TEACHERS AND THE HOME. by Hartvig Nissen, 1892 by the Educational Publishing Company, Boston.

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