When Eugen Sandow took the stage in 1894, clad only in a pair of miniature briefs, audiences swooned. Not only did Sandow have one of the finest musculatures in the Western world, but he made physical beauty his primary talent: Instead of focusing on magic tricks or daring feats, Sandow simply posed like a gorgeous hunk of marble.
Though the bodybuilding trend was initially based on notions of health, it found broad appeal using the allure of physical attraction. Instead of catering to mainstream morals, German-born Sandow played up his womanizing reputation, even encouraging scandalous rumors to circulate. It was no accident that the imagery of “physical culture,” as recreational exercise was known, became closely intertwined with sexuality and pornography.
“He was using allusions to classical art and statuary as an alibi, an excuse for posing practically nude.”
Men and women alike clamored for cabinet cards featuring Sandow in the buff, and his physique inspired the first generation of gym bunnies. As Tim Farrell wrote for Neatorama, “Sandow did more than simply shock and titillate audiences with his tiny waist and ripped muscles; he pioneered the notion of working out for the sake of aesthetics.” Sandow recognized the value of sex appeal and used it to establish one of the earliest celebrity sporting franchises from his headquarters in London, which formed the basis of modern gym culture.
David L. Chapman has written several books on the history of bodybuilding and male physique photography, often drawing from his own extensive collection of related ephemera. His latest book, “Universal Hunks,” offers an intriguing look at the muscled Adonis ideal as it spread across the globe. Chapman explains that during the late 19th century, in addition to sexual power, a strong physique began to convey political power, too. “Control of body was equated to control of the environment and control of others,” Chapman says.
We recently spoke with Chapman about Sandow’s rise to fame and the body worship he inspired.
Collectors Weekly: How did we develop the notion of exercise as a leisure activity?
David L. Chapman: There’s always been a three-pronged reason for working out or exercising, and that’s health, beauty, and strength. Though there had been smaller movements before, the period from the 1890s up through the 1920s was the real start of working out and going to the gym. Now we take it for granted, but it’s not something that people did on their own. Originally, it started as a means to attain health, but then, it gradually morphed into something else because people thought, “I’m feeling better and I’m also looking better, what a happy coincidence.”
I think people always appreciated men with a muscular, well-formed body in the classic “V” shape. But that physique was mainly for athletes like boxers, wrestlers, and people like that; it wasn’t until the 19th century that bodybuilding became an activity that regular individuals could engage in.
The late 19th century was a time when people were discovering sports in a big way, and a lot of new sports were born at that time. Bodybuilding was just one of them. This happened mainly through the work that Eugen Sandow did, making bodybuilding popular. He didn’t invent the sport, but he made it widespread because he was an international vaudeville star. Men were inspired by him, and they wanted to have a body like his. Sandow said, “I can show you how that’s done for a small fee,” and that’s how it got going.
Collectors Weekly: At the time, was it acceptable for women to work out, too?
“Before he glorified the American girl, Ziegfeld glorified the American hunk.”
Chapman: Yes, to a lesser extent. Exercise was what they were after, specifically the health part of it. And of course, they would be given less violent exercises, and little weights to lift or bean bags or something. The guys would be lifting the big weights because, of course, their bodies and musculature would respond in a different way. It wasn’t until the 1980s that women’s bodybuilding became an important sport. Though it had started at roughly the same time, it took a lot longer for the women’s sport to get going.
Collectors Weekly: How did you discover Sandow?
Chapman: My first Sandow piece was a cigar-box label made to promote his appearance in America. The cigar-box labels were made in 1894 and 1895, when he was traveling around the country. By putting himself on a cigar box, he was clearly marketing himself to men.
I didn’t know who this guy was, and there was really nothing out there, no reliable biographical information. I thought, well, how about if I try writing my own? This just isn’t something you find in large university libraries or public collections of any sort, so I had to build my own collection of materials, which allowed me to write about the subject in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without access to these objects. In 1994, 13 years later, I came out with my first book, “Sandow the Magnificent.”
Collectors Weekly: How did Sandow make a name for himself?
Chapman: Sandow came to the United States from Germany in 1894 for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He was brought over by Florenz Ziegfeld, the same guy that did the Ziegfeld Follies. Before he glorified the American girl, Ziegfeld glorified the American hunk.
Sandow was a huge hit in Chicago and then went on a nationwide tour, ending up in San Francisco, where he did all sorts of crazy stunts with Ziegfeld as his manager. He even fought a lion. Well, it wasn’t a real fight, the lion was drugged or near death or something—no one’s ever quite figured it out—and was wearing huge mittens on his paws. The audience got all upset about it and started booing.
Finally, Sandow left the ring and went to find Ziegfeld to give him a piece of his mind, but Ziegfeld had taken the cash and hopped the next ferry to Oakland while all of this was unfolding. It’s kind of an amusing story now, but I’m sure at the time it wasn’t very funny.
The upshot is that Sandow was able to travel around the country and give these performances, showing off his muscles. He was the first person to base a vaudeville act on simply displaying his musculature. Before him, there had been many strong men, but they had concentrated on lifting heavy weights or bending iron or doing some sort of a stunt. Sandow was the first one to climb inside what he called his “posing box,” with a spotlight shining on him, and imitate the poses of famous classical statues.
He would cover himself with white powder so that he would look more like marble, and he’d assume a pose. Then they’d close the curtain to this little box, and when they opened it again, he was in another pose. He wore tights, but he took his shirt off, and it was quite unusual in those days for a man to remove his shirt in public. He was using allusions to classical art and statuary as an alibi, an excuse for posing practically nude. But that’s what he did, and he was a huge hit among men and women.
Collectors Weekly: Do you think the risqué quality drew people to his shows?
Chapman: I think you can be absolutely sure that was the main reason people went to see him. He was a good-looking guy, and he had the total package: He had a great face and skin and muscles. And people had never quite seen anything like it, so they were amazed.
As far as the nudity is concerned, he was never fully naked onstage, but in photographs he certainly was. Sandow established the vocabulary of physique photography that was carried on until the ’50s and ’60s. As long as the hunk was posed like a statue, you could get away with it. If he was posed in a more provocative style, then it was considered pornography. You had to be careful. There was a thin line you had to tread.
Collectors Weekly: How did gay beefcake magazines differ from early bodybuilding publications?
Chapman: The beefcake magazines didn’t come around until the late 1940s. Physique Pictorial, the famous Robert Miser publication, didn’t start until 1946. It was after the war, and lots of things were opening up. All these GIs were coming back, and they’re horned up, ready for anything. Plus, there was a gay population that finally just wanted their own magazines. They used the vocabulary of the old exercise and health magazines, and put a gay spin on it. Now there were fewer health and strength articles and more of the pictures, and the guys started wearing less and less, and everybody’s happy.
In the 1950s, there was a beefcake explosion. Magazines like Adonis and Trim and The Grecian Guild Pictorial, crazy names. Vim was one. But Physique Pictorial lasted the longest and was probably the most familiar. In “American Hunks,” I talk about buying my first issue of Physique Pictorial when I was 11 years old and just knowing I was doing something really daring, so I stuck it inside my shirt and sneaked it home.
Collectors Weekly: Why did mid-century publishers use visuals linked with bodybuilding?
Chapman: Basically because they could get away with it. If you say it’s a health magazine, people won’t shut you down. If they say this is gay softcore porn, you would get shut down immediately. So they included these ridiculous articles that no one read, but it kept the censors away from them.
They pretended that they promoted health and strength just like the old bodybuilding magazines. People were buying those bodybuilding magazines for all sorts of reasons, and health or strength was certainly one. But it wasn’t the only one, by far.
Collectors Weekly: How were the earliest images of bodybuilders circulated?
Chapman: There had been places like the National Police Gazette where illustrations of muscular guys would appear. But Sandow kicked it up several notches with his use of photography and other visual media.
Cabinet cards were the usual form of photography in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They would disseminate those pretty widely, especially when Sandow was performing at a vaudeville theater, where he would set up a booth in the lobby with his photographs.
When you look at his programs, it’ll always say, “Photographs of Mr. Sandow are available in the lobby,” and people were definitely buying these things. If it was a back view, he would be completely nude—if it was a frontal view, stick a fig leaf on your naughty bits and you can have your picture taken.
Collectors Weekly: But nude photos of bodybuilders were exempted from being labeled pornography?
Chapman: They seem to have been, for a long time anyway. There are accounts of ladies in the mansions of Newport Beach, Rhode Island, having photographs of Sandow displayed on their pianos. I don’t know what they were thinking. Well, I know exactly what they were thinking, but they got away with it because they had this excuse: Here’s this gorgeous guy, but he’s posed like an ancient statue, so it’s okay. It’s “art.”
Sandow’s Magazine of Physical Culture started in 1898, and went until 1907 or 1908, something like that. He was doing everything he could to market himself and get across this message that being physically fit was a possibility for anyone, that you’re not fated to keep the body you were born with. You can exercise and become healthy, beautiful, and strong through his special method, which was a lot of baloney because any good workout would probably have achieved a similar result, but he had the name and he went for it.
Collectors Weekly: What were the elements of Sandow’s training method?
Chapman: Well, he had these spring-grip dumbbells, which he said you should use. They were just regular, 5-pound dumbbells, and he had them cut down through the middle and attached the two halves with springs so that you could squeeze them as you were working out. Of course, a 5-pound dumbbell is not going to do anything, but he got lots of people buying that. He also created a wall-exerciser which was a little better.
What he really wanted you to do was to get addicted to exercise and start going to one his gyms, his Institutes of Physical Culture. He had those all throughout England and the continent, and he opened one in Boston. But if you were serious about weightlifting, that’s where you would pay to train.
Sandow was based in the U.K., but when he traveled around the world, he affected global physical culture. It wasn’t just British or American or North American at that point; he had a huge impact on Australia, New Zealand, and India. Those were the three places where he was most well-received and his method was accepted most avidly.
Collectors Weekly: How was bodybuilding viewed in cultures outside of the West?
Chapman: It depends on which society. By and large, muscularity is a Western mindset; it’s part of Western culture. My new book, “Universal Hunks,” is about how this Greek ideal of muscularity was spread around the world. It wasn’t always there.
China is a good example. Muscularity was certainly not something that the Chinese were particularly interested in: If you were good husband material and healthy, now that’s different. You could be as ugly as sin and they didn’t care, as long as you were able to provide for the family. But that’s gradually changed, too. When Europeans went into these colonial outposts and they started exercising and working out, the inhabitants often saw the control over their bodies as being a mark of a superior person. Control of body was equated to control of the environment and control of others.
Many of these colonial cultures—I’m thinking specifically of the Indians—took to physical culture in a big way. The same thing happened with the Filipinos when Americans arrived, they saw this Western ideal as showing that a mastery of the body equals mastery of the land. That was one of the interpretations that came out of the physical culture movement during the time of imperialism.
Collectors Weekly: Physical strength and control over your own body translated into political power.
Chapman: Yes. That’s exactly what happened in India. The British introduced exercise, not exactly bodybuilding, but a more general physical culture. And the Indians said, “Well, yeah, this is exactly what we want. Now we can show that we’re just as good as they are.”
One of the things that Sandow said when he went to India was that the Indians have the makings of “great physical specimens.” A lot of the men in India took him to heart on that, and having a big, muscular body became one of the ways to show resistance to the British. It was a visual sign of superiority, a kind of superiority that the British were very uncomfortable recognizing at that time.
A lot of Indians started working out, and it took on a life of its own. India had a long history of wrestling and yoga, but they hadn’t put it together in any structured form of bodybuilding. In the 1920s and especially the 1930s, there was a rising interest in exercise and physical culture, creating a specifically Indian form of exercise using elements from the East and the West. Bodybuilding gave many colonized peoples a way to show that they were just as good as the Europeans or the Americans or whoever was lording over them, so it became important politically and physically.
Collectors Weekly: When was the first major bodybuilding competition held?
Chapman: Sandow had his great competition at Albert Hall in 1901. It was packed, apparently. I’ve read newspaper accounts that it was a huge deal. There had been competitions before that, but they were just one-offs. Mr. America only started in 1939.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one of the judges of the 1901 competition. As a matter of fact, there’s a dumbbell in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I’m pretty sure it’s a Sandow dumbbell. I can’t remember the story exactly, but I think it gets thrown out of a castle window and Sherlock Holmes comes in and says, “Oh, there’s only one dumbbell. Wait a minute.” Something like that.
Anyway, they had physical experts at the competition, but that wasn’t primarily what they were looking for. They were looking for the most beautifully developed man, and that’s a very subjective thing. They didn’t allow the guys to take off their lower garments; they had to wear tights, and then they had leopard skins tacked around their waists, so only their upper bodies were displayed. They looked very different from modern bodybuilding competitions.
Collectors Weekly: Did Sandow encourage women to exercise?
Chapman: Definitely. He was too good a businessman to cut out 50 percent of the human race. He had female Institutes of Physical Culture, he had sections of his gyms that were reserved for women, and he even invented a “health corset.” It was supposedly more healthful than other corsets. So yeah, he did a lot in that area.
All of his various projects and enterprises came to a halt during World War I, mainly because people started saying, “Wait a minute, isn’t this Sandow guy a German?” Well, he wasn’t at that point. He had acquired British citizenship, and he had married a British woman and lived there for years, but then all of a sudden he was looked at suspiciously. I don’t think anything actually happened to him because of it, but people were moving on, and his time had come. One by one, his institutes started folding, and the headquarters in London was finally the last one to close.
Sandow died in 1925, and there’s some question about how he died. The official line from the family was that he broke a blood vessel, trying to lift a car out of a ditch, but I think that’s a load of malarkey. More likely he died of some STD that the family didn’t want publicized. I’ve asked members of his family, and they still don’t know what really killed him.
Collectors Weekly: In the U.S., had muscularity become the mainstream masculine ideal by the mid-20th century?
Chapman: Oh, yeah. Think about those gladiator movies in the ’50s, Steve Reeves and all that stuff. The war changed everything: Soldiers came back, and they had been exercising in army gyms, and they liked that camaraderie. It was an alternate place to meet and hang out and be guys together.
Bodybuilding caught on in a big way, and a side product was that guys got hunkier, and people started appreciating a muscular body more. As techniques for building the body improved, as nutrition improved, as people discovered that it was bad to smoke and probably you shouldn’t eat fatty meats all the time, there was a gradual change in physiques.
When you deal with bodybuilding, you typically deal with the ideal, not the real, so there were lots of double standards. The 1950s was a seminal time, and people wanted their men manly and their women womanly. You had the super feminine pinups with the high heels and the Bettie Page type look, and the guys were expected to be super masculine. It wasn’t that everyone looked like that, but that was the ideal.
Things have changed for both genders, and I think part of that is a result of a body consciousness that comes about from the physicality, this newly accepted physicality. It’s become easier and more acceptable to build a muscular body. I could walk out my door and be within a few minutes of any number of gyms. The fact that people are actually using them is pretty amazing. When you look back at people like Sandow, he wouldn’t even place in the top 20 in a modern bodybuilding competition.
Sandow the Great
(For more information on Sandow and the history of bodybuilding, check out David L. Chapman’s books, including Sandow the Magnificent and Universal Hunks. If you buy something through a link in this article, Collectors Weekly may get a share of the sale. Learn more.)