Old Time Selling – Eugen Sandow and the Business of Supplements

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Type ‘Eugen Sandow Supplements’ into Google and you’ll find an interesting result. Half the results will talk about the virtues of Sandow and other physical culturists who ‘didn’t need supplements’ and the other half will discuss the selling technqiues of these very same men.

Whilst it is not the case that the impressive physiques from the men of yore were built on supplementation, it is fair to say that these pioneers of health and fitness had few qualms about selling supplements to aspiring fitness enthusiasts. This was especially the case of Eugen Sandow, the “World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man”.

The Birth of a Business Man

Whilst Sandow’s rise to fame in the late 19th and early 20th centuries has attracted the attention of several authors, few people have bothered to discuss the growth of the Sandow Empire. A shame really when you consider that as early as 1894, Sandow was capitalizing on his fame to sell products. In this instance, a health pamphlet entitled Sandow’s System of Physical Training. Indeed as the 1890s rolled into the 1900s, Sandow began to flog a variety of paraphernalia ranging from Physical Culture magazines to a specially designed set of Dumbbells.

Always searching to expand his empire, Sandow would even host the World’s first major bodybuilding contest in 1901. The success of such endeavors varied as despite his almost mythical status, Sandow too was subject to the whims of the consumer market. Where Sandow differed from others was that he was continually searching new avenues of revenue, something which inevitably led to supplementation.

Sandow’s Supplements

mFhUFCGIt is perhaps unsurprising that Sandow eventually turned his hand toward supplementation.

As Cambridge Historian Lesley Steinitz has shown, the early 1900s were a time primed for a new food alternative market. In her work on Bovril, Steinitz has argued that a boom in England’s urban population fuelled a need for the mass production of affordable, non-perishable foodstuffs sold in cans and jars. This boom eventually resulted in the emergence of convenience foods labelled as nutritious.

In 1901 Sandow would begin to endorse ‘Plasmon’, a mysteriously effective protein source found in Germany. At the time of writing, it seems that Sandow’s endorsement was the first case of a bodybuilder promoting a supplement.

Indeed, Sandow promoted the drink heavily. In interviews Sandow was adamant that Plasmon was effective. See for example the following extract from an interview in 1902

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It’s hard to interpret Plasmon as anything other than a wonder food when one reads Sandow’s claims. Sadly details of what exactly Plasmon was are difficult to find. The best guesses suggest it was some form of whey or egg white isolate.

What’s interesting is the fact that prior to his endorsements of Plasmon, Sandow was a keen advocate for healthy eating. By 1902, the message had changed to healthy eating plus supplementation.

Sandow’s Own Supplement Line

120kt37In 1911, Sandow took his first real plunge into the supplement industry with the creation of ‘Sandow’s Health and Strength Cocoa’. The cocoa itself was similar enough to Plasmon in that it was seen as a rudimentary protein drink.

Given that Sandow was so deeply immersed in British culture prior to the outbreak of WW1, it was perhaps inevitable that the produce was initially successful. A quick investigation into the annals of history even finds reference to the product in the 1913 British Journal of Nursing, which suggested that British Doctors were happily prescribing Sandow’s cocoa for their ailing patients.

Sadly despite Sandow’s initial success, his supplement range would fold in 1916 thanks to a variety of factors ranging from underselling by rivals and anti-German sentiment in England thanks to the First World War. Nevertheless, Sandow’s foray into muscle building supplements marks a seminal moment in the history of Bodybuilding when the promotion of ‘miracle’ food sources began to take hold.

45 Comments

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  4. I enjoyed this article. There has always been an air of commercialism and showmanship around bodybuilding, with stars happily promoting stuff that they don’t actually use themselves, and which won’t ever make you look like them.

    But what is the deal with all the “t shirt design” spambots posting comments here??

    1. Thanks so much for dropping by! It’s interesting isn’t it to see that bodybuilding has always been about snake oil?

      The t-shirt design spambots slipped in whilst I was on holidays! That’ll teach me!

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