New Year’s Resolutions, Reconsidered

Cuneiform Tablet
Cuneiform tablet from the Charles L. Souvay Cuneiform Tablets Collection, Early Old Babylonian (ca. 2000-1900 BC). Image courtesy of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative.

The practice of setting (and possibly breaking) New Year’s resolutions dates back several centuries.  Merriam-Webster cites journal entries from the 17th century and an 1813 newspaper article to date the emergence of this annual tradition.  Wikipedia suggests it’s far older, dating back to the Babylonian practice of making promises to their gods to return borrowed goods and repay debts.  While Special Collections and Archives does hold cuneiform tablets dating back to the Early Old Babylonian period (ca. 2000-1900 BC), they won’t be much help for us in this debate since they are in Sumerian.

What we do know anecdotally and via statistics abundant on the internet, is that contemporary resolutions are most often made in support of exercise and healthy eating, saving money, learning a new sport or hobby, and spending more time with family and friends.

If any of your New Year’s resolutions line up with exercise, sports, or hobbies, you might be interested in some of these rare book titles to help you achieve your goals.

Ladies, you could consult Donald Walker’s Exercises for Ladies; Calculated to Preserve and Improve Beauty, and to Prevent and Correct Personal Defects, Inseparable from Constrained or Careless Habits (1837). On second thought, skip it, because Mr. Walker opines women should avoid running and leaping, “owing to the excessive shocks which both of these exercises communicate, neither of which is congenial to women.”

Carriage and horses
The exercise of driving horses, from British Manly Exercises containing Rowing and Sailing, Riding & Driving, etc. etc.

Gentlemen, you’re in luck that Walker also wrote British Manly Exercises containing Rowing and Sailing, Riding & Driving, etc. etc. (1837). Walker proudly proclaims in the introduction, “throughout the work, useful exercises alone are given, and mere pastimes are excluded…in an age when, even with all the improvement of our methods, the acquirements necessary to the highest degree of bodily and mental accomplishment, are sufficiently numerous to occupy the period of life which is devoted to them.” So, slackers need not bother with this book.

Exercises for children in Calisthenic Songs.

Calisthenic Songs (1869) was created as an aid to motivate schoolchildren in the completion of their daily exercises. The author claims “Thus a few minutes of useful play will redeem for earnest work hours which otherwise would have been lost in drowsy inactivity.” Maybe “The Wasp and the Bee” or “Clap, Clap, Hurrah” could be your new go-to workout tracks.

The exercise of driving the “new wheel-horse” from Velocipedes, Bicycles and Tricycles: How to Make and How to Use Them. 

Cyclists might want to check out Velocipedes, Bicycles and Tricycles: How to Make and How to Use Them (1869). Manly men who learned how to “drive” (horses and chariots) from Donald Walker might try this “toy of the hour,” also called the “new wheel-horse of the period.”

Ping Pong
Demonstration of a “very difficult stoke” from Ping-Pong: The Game and How to Play It .

For those willing to waste their life on mere pastimes, let me suggest ping-pong and roller skating. With Roller Skating Made Easy (1884), you can learn “this most graceful accomplishment quickly and easily.” Turns out roller skating isn’t just for fun. “All skating, whether by plain movements or the most difficult figures, is governed by certain scientific principles and rules, which must be learned and practiced…”  Surely, we can unwind with a game of ping-pong!  Author Arnold Parker, the Queen’s Hall Champion of ping-pong, admits that the game has been “jeered at and called ridiculous” in his Ping-Pong: The Game and How to Play It (1902).  But, perhaps you’ve never considered that “a great deal of exercise is obtainable from the pursuit of this game; and many a wet afternoon, be it summer or winter, which would otherwise be passed most probably in laziness with a novel, can now be spent enjoyably and healthily by playing a few games of Ping-Pong.”

If these titles don’t succeed in motivating you, you’re in good company.  It’s said that 90% of New Year’s resolutions fail, with 80% doomed by February.

Might I suggest picking up a good book, and passing your time in “laziness” instead?  You can browse the Unwind the Mind and Graphic Novel collections, or feel free to come by Special Collections and Archives, Richardson Library room 314, to request these six books above or other books from our varied collections.

To learn more about DePaul Special Collections and Archives, visit us in room 314 of the John T. Richardson Library or contact us at

4 Replies to “New Year’s Resolutions, Reconsidered”

  1. Great article, lovely and timely way to highlight items in Special Collections. And fun to read! Thanks. Happy New Year to all!

  2. This was really interesting! I loved the pictures as well as hearing, from primary sources, what people in other times thought about exercise and sports. I’m wondering now if future iterations of my Sports Fandom class should have a rare books/primary sources day…

    1. Samantha – Sounds like a great idea to us! We have other sports and leisure titles as well as the Sporting Collection of Stuyvesant Peabody, which reflects the 19th century British idea of sports – riding and hunting.

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