The History of Before/After Shots



Today’s fitness market is heavily saturated with amazing before and after photos taken to promote the latest diet, exercise system or piece of equipment. This style of marketing has become so synonymous with the fitness industry that it is difficult to imagine a time when fitness instructors relied solely on their word to promote their wares.

In today’s post we’ll briefly examine two of the earliest before/after photos from the fitness industry. The first, published in the 1860s by a British army instructor was widely circulated in the United Kingdom and Europe while the second, published in the 1880s by an American physical culturist, arguably kickstarted the United State’s obsession with transformation photographs.

Archibald MacLaren and the transformation of a century

Though his name is only known only to the most avid fitness historians, Archibald MacLaren was one of the biggest names in British fitness in the mid-nineteenth century. By the 1860s, the Oxford based gym instructor had become the go to figure for both the public and the British army.

MacLaren was no ordinary gym instructor. In fact, he was in many ways the man responsible for introducing systemised exercise regimes into the British army.

By the mid-century army officials in England had grown incredibly concerned the condition of the average recruit joining the army. While such concerns were as old as time itself, the English context at this time was hugely important.

Victorian England was undergoing something of a sports revolution during this period with many of our favourite sports such as football, rugby and tennis beginning to tentatively emerge. Coupled with this, modern gymnasiums were beginning to open up to larger numbers of people, something which helped normalise the idea of weight training amongst sections of the British public.

It was thus the combination of concern and the Victorian love of sport which opened a door for MacLaren to radically impact British army training. Having established a identity as a reputable gym instructor in Oxford, MacLaren was approached by British army officials in the late 1850s about performing a trial training programme for a select bunch of recruits.

The recruits, 12 in total, would spend the several months training with MacLaren and learning his methods in the hope that they would be able to pass on what they learned to others. So in 1860 the experiment began and much to the delight of both MacLaren and the British army, it proved successful. Under the Scotsman’s tutelage each man increased muscle size, lung capacity and strength, a point of considerable pride for MacLaren.

Following the successful trial, MacLaren’s methods of dumbbell, barbell and Indian club exercises were introduced into the British army through the establishment of the Royal Army Physical Training Corps in 1860. Not content to remain a military figure, MacLaren spent the next two decades writing in books and magazines about the importance of physical training for both adults and children.

The most influential of MacLaren’s works came in the 1860s when the results of his army training programme were published. The work, quite significantly, came with a series of measurements and photographs detailing recruit’s progress. One such ‘transformation’ is shown below



MacLaren’s work not only became a success in Victorian England, it also became one of the earliest works to display a before and after photograph in the English and indeed the European context. It would take nearly two decades for an American author to follow suit.

America’s First Before/After Shot?

While MacLaren’s reputation has somewhat lasted the test of time, the same cannot be said for David L. Dowd, the man responsible for one of America’s first before and after photographs. Publishing his own fitness work in 1889, Dowd’s ‘Physical Culture’ book sought to promote the author’s own brand of physical fitness for lay exercisers interested in improving their health.

Following the common theme of others in his field, Dowd claimed to have been born a sickly child before physical culture helped to transform his physique and his life. As proof of his methods, Dowd’s work included the following engravings

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Dowd claimed that in just three years he had managed to add 25 pounds of muscle, going from 138 pounds to 163 pounds alongside ‘trebling’ his strength in every regard. It was a bold claim for his advertising but the results seemed to speak for themselves.

Though the before/after shot has become something of a cliche in the modern climate, the works of MacLaren and Dowd were almost entirely novel in their inclusion of such illustrations. While we may sneer at such photographs nowadays, at the time they were nothing short of revolutionary.

They were seen as examples of each man’s respective knowledge and success with pupils and they were seen as examples of what hard work could achieve.

A picture is worth a thousand words and the fitness industry has known as much for the last century and a half.

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