1903 and the birth of American Bodybuilding

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After three years of pumping up, slimming down and posing, Britain, and the world was treated to the first ever bodybuilding competition in 1901. Hosted by the legendary Eugen Sandow, the ‘Great Competition’ as it was known claimed to have found the most perfect specimens alive. Unsurprisingly it wasn’t long before other nations, notably America, began to hold their own bodybuilding shows.

Within two years of Sandow’s ‘Great Competition’, the US was hosting its own bodybuilding show. Today we tell their story.

The Man Behind the Show
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So if Eugen Sandow was the driving force behind Great Britain’s first ever bodybuilding competition, who was behind the US attempt?

None other than Bernarr Macfadden, pictured above. Before you say anything, yes, his name really was Bernarr. He changed his name from Bernard as Bernarr was more “picturesque” and “distinctive”, sounding like a lion’s roar.

Bernarr was the United States equivalent of Eugen Sandow. He ran his own Physical Culture magazine (named Physical Culture) and had gained something of a name for himself in US society in the early 1900s due to his outlandish and outspoken behaviour. At a time when the average American diet was suspect to say the least, MacFadden advocated radical ideas such as fasting, vegetarianism and enjoying sex.

What’s more, he was hugely successful.

By 1903, the year of the competition, monthly sales of Physical Culture magazine were clearing over 100,000 copies. MacFadden’s empire was up to fifty employees over several locations and MacFadden had helped pioneer the extensive use of photography in US books and magazines.

He also published a series of books on health (one of which is available here for free). Considering MacFadden’s resume, there was only going to be one promoter of a bodybuilding show in America…him.

Building the Hype

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Throughout 1903, MacFadden and his colleagues challenged the readers of Physical Culture to take part in his Physical Culture Exhibition being held later that year.

Offering prize money totalling $1,000, MacFadden was soon swamped with aspiring bodybuilders, desperate to take part. Interestingly, it wasn’t just man who wanted to compete, as there were a substantial amount of female applicants. Something MacFadden hadn’t counted on.

Recognising the importance of catering to both sexes, the bodybuilding guru quickly stated that a women’s bodybuilding show would also be held and in the interests of equality, the prize money of $1,000 would be split down the middle. $500 for the male winner and $500 for the female winner.

Using his media savvy, MacFadden went to every length to promote the show. Indeed during 1903, MacFadden’s ‘Physical Culture Exhibition’ appeared heavily in both his own magazines and local newspapers. What’s more, MacFadden went as far renting out Madison Square Garden to host the event. The man meant business and people took notice. Take, for example, the following excerpt from the New York Times (December 28, 1903):

A new epoch in sport is promised by the Physical Culture Exhibition Company at the Madison Square Garden this week, beginning to-day, and the programme comprises almost every form of competitive exercises, in which leading performers in their various lines will demonstrate their prowess.

There will be fencing by women, racing and jumping contests by girls and women; wrestling, physical culture style, for a $500 prize; running and jumping races by boys; three days’ fasting go-as-you-please race, for which seventy men have entered, and a number of Amateur Athletic Union events.

Like Sandow’s ‘Great Competition‘, MacFadden’s exhibition was a ‘three ringed circus’ with entertainment catered to a variety of different interests. Front and centre of all the madness would be the bodybuilding contest for men and women. No stranger to hyperbole, MacFadden would crown the winners ‘Best and Most Perfectly Developed Man and Woman’.

Taking Part

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Due to the overwhelming reader response, MacFadden was faced with the prospect of whittling down hundreds of entrants to a select few competitors. As potential contestants had submitted photographs with their application, MacFadden and his team were left with the unenviable task of going through hundreds upon hundreds of photographs.

This begs the question, how did one make the cut?

First off, entrants had to meet certain physical and age requirements, a rule which helped whittle down the pool somewhat. After that, competitors were judged on their overall look, with express instructions that ‘freaks’ (or ‘mass monsters‘ in current language) would not be accepted. This was made quite clear in promotional brochures for the event (Which can be found in David Chapman’s excellent biography of Eugen Sandow, p. 135).

This competition is not to decide who is the most wonderfully developed man, as we do not desire to select abnormal representatives or freaks from the standpoint of development; we wish the prize to be awarded to the most perfect specimen of physical manhood.

The programme from the Exhibition itself was far more explicit:

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Once the first batch of competitors had been chosen, preliminary shows were held in both the US and Great Britain, in much the same way that Sandow had held qualifying events.

Welcome to the Show!

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Over the course of a week, the Physical Culture Exhibition treated the public to foot races, wrestling bouts and much more. Whilst such events did entertain the public, it is clear that the bodybuilding contest was the main event of the show. Reporting on the Exhibition itself, the New York Times quickly gushed over the athleticism of the athletes involved before getting to the meat of the event, the bodybuilding.

With dozens of men were vying for the title of ‘Best Developed Man’ and prize money of $500, the assembled judges of sculptors, doctors and physical culture enthusiasts had a tough task on their hands. Like more shows, the men were put through a series of poses to determine the winner. Aesthetics was the name of the game and while the competition was strong, the judges had no doubt in their minds that Hugh Jenkins (pictured below) of New York was the far-out winner.

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America’s First Bodybuilding Champion

Aside from being the ‘Best Developed Man’, Jenkins was a particularly interesting fellow. Educated at Harvard, he soon left academia to pursue his love of all things physical, not before gaining a reputation in Boston being proficient in athletics and feats of strength. It’s said he could tear two and three decks of playing cards with his bare hands. Soon after winning the competition, Hugh changed his name to Albert Treloar and wrote a book entitled ‘The Science of Muscular Development’ (1904). Winning MacFadden’s competition clearly opened the doors for Jenkins as by 1907, he was Physical Director of the Los Angeles Athletic Club in 1907, a post he held for 42 years!

Whilst there is a wealth of material on the ‘Best Developed Man’, there is unfortunately very little written about the winner of the ‘Best Developed Woman, Emma Newkirk. We know that she was from Santa Monica, California and that she was chosen purely based on aesthetics, like the male competitors.

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What we do know is that following the show, MacFadden used Newkirk’s image in a number of his Physical Culture magazines to inspire other female physical culturists, a decision that incurred the wrath of New York’s chief vice officer Anthony Cromstock as according to Cromstock, photographs of Newkirk in her posing suit were lewd in the extreme. This was not a trivial matter in early 1900s America and MacFadden was even arrested for spreading obscene photographs!

Unlike Jenkins, Newkirk chose not to capitalise on her victory and according to MacFadden, went on to marry her sweetheart “like a true woman” (MacFadden’s words, not mine!).

Amazingly video footage exists of both Jenkins and Newkirk posing, having been crowned champions

The Show goes on…

Despite losing money hand over fist on the event, MacFadden was thrilled with the results. The wider public had been exposed to physical culture and they loved it!

The publicity garnered from the competition was enough to see the American muscle man hold competitions of various forms for the next two decades in a variety of forms. MacFadden’s decision to host a Physical Culture Exhibition every year following 1903 inadvertently kickstarted Charles Atlas, the guru of bodyweight training, career after Atlas won MacFadden’s ‘Most Perfectly Developed Man’ Competition in 1922.

MacFadden’s vision and ambition in creating a Physical Culture Exhibition had long lasting effects within the bodybuilding and fitness community as they showed the public desire to both compete and watch such events. While Eugen Sandow may be lauded as the ‘father’ of bodybuilding, in the American context, the father is undoubtedly Bernarr.

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