Charles Atlas and the Golden Age of American Constipation

Constipation: a condition in which there is difficulty in emptying the bowels, usually associated with hardened faeces.

Constipation may seem an odd topic of study, but the history of the condition and efforts aimed at relieving it open up interesting social, political and economic histories . From 1900 to 1940, the United States suffered a pandemic of constipation. The condition was widely acknowledged in public discourse and a thorn in the side of the medical profession. Today’s article focuses on Physical Culturist Charles Atlas’s role in promoting anti-constipation remedies. In examining Atlas’s story we will look briefly at what the medical profession had to say about the condition and what marketers were selling to consumers before examining what the ‘World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man’ had to say. It’s a story as bizarre as it is interesting.


Constipation and the Medical Community

For centuries, mankind has worried about the danger of constipation. James Whorton, a medical historian interested in this field, has traced  fears regarding constipation as far back as 1500 BC, when Egyptian medical books discussed the problem of ‘autointoxication’. Autointoxication is the

 “Stagnation of the large intestine (colon), which causes toxins to form that are absorbed and poison the body.”

It should be noted here that as a theory, autointoxication has largely been discredited. That’s not to say constipation doesn’t matter anymore but that the theory of autointoxication is largely full of…well you get the idea. Regardless of what we now believe we know about constipation, physicians right up until the 1900s century believed in autointoxication. Why wouldn’t they? It had been a basis of knowledge for over three millennia and scientific theories such as germ theory (which came in during the last quarter of the 19th century) and bacteriology seemed to buttress the theory of autointoxication and not discredit it, in early 20th century America.

Germ theory is a particularly interesting example of how a one size fits all discovery doesn’t always come about. Germ theory is based on the idea that some diseases are caused by micro-organisms. Stretching this theory, it can be argued that micro-organisms in faeces cause diseases and poison the body. Under this line of thinking the colon is a sewage pit teeming with bacteria, a cesspit that has to be regularly emptied. If not, dangerous micro-organisms could spread throughout the body. Medical practitioners, perhaps excited by what Germ Theory had to offer, overstretched Pasteur’s discovery and used it to reinforce their ideas of autointoxication.

Germ theory wasn’t the only idea that seemed to support theories of autointoxication. In the mid-1880s, bacteriologists realised that flora within the intestine broke protein residues from faeces into several compounds. When such compounds were injected into animals, toxins emerged in the animals’ cells. It was reasoned that thanks to constipation toxins would emerge in the bowel, which would then be absorbed into the bloodstream. Thus, medical experts promoting both germ theory and bacteriology found a common ground with constipation. Both argued that not only was autointoxication real, it was potentially deadly. French physician Charles Bouchard summed the thoughts of many of his colleagues when he spoke of the constipated person as

“always working toward his own destruction…he makes continual attempts at suicide by intoxication.”

mad_scientist_bigScience can be scary at times

Outside of the laboratory, autointoxication also met a clinical need to explain and diagnose patients who insisted that they were sick but were unable to present the physician with any evidence. As years progressed, an increasing array of autointoxication symptoms began to emerge in the US including headaches, impotence, nervousness, insomnia, indigestion and really any other unexplained disorders you could think of. Constipation became all things to all men in the medical community. At the dawn of the 20th century, concerns over autointoxication began to rise in the US. In fact, Whorton went so far as to define the period from 1900 to 1940 in America as the ‘Golden Age of Constipation’.

Books from both sides of the Atlantic ranging from The Conquest of Constipation, The Lazy Colon, and Le Colon Homicide contained articles from physicians warning that the colon’s contents were

“a burden, fermenting, decomposing, putrefying, filling the body with poisonous substances” and creating “sewer-like blood”

And that autointoxication

“is the cause of ninety per cent of disease” or that “constipation shortens life.”

There’s Money in Constipation

It is unsurprising that certain sectors of the American public became anxious about the threat of autointoxication. Hoping to assure their patients, American physicians were quick to claim they had the perfect cure for constipation. Unfortunately it seemed that this particular cure didn’t fully satisfy the patients. Diet, exercise and listening to one’s body were presented as the simplest means of staving off autointoxication but the problem was that few patients listened. Thousands of Americans chose to ignore this advice, whether for economic or practical reasons, and hence looked for ‘simpler’ alternatives. This provided the perfect opportunity for the American marketer to supply a vast array of snake oils purporting to cure constipation.

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Who knew there would be money in constipation?

Early 20th century American stores soon became lined with anti-constipation drugs, foods and devices, each promising more relief than the other. All-Bran, a 21st century favourite for digestive health, emerged during this time as one of many anti-constipation foods. Incidentally, one of All-Bran’s rivals was ‘DinaMite’, a graphic, if not humorous name for an anti-constipation food. Regarding foods, physicians and marketers also promoted yeast and yoghurt as important health foods but it appears that cereals such as All-Bran and DinaMite were the preferred meal of choice if one could afford them. For those who didn’t have the means, or simply didn’t want to buy anti-constipation foods, alternatives emerged in the form of laxatives.

Remarkably it seems that laxatives were as popular, if not more popular than foods in dealing with constipation. Hundreds of laxatives began to flood American shelves, often accompanied by rather graphic advertisements. As evidenced by the following advertisement,


Despite the proliferation of several laxatives, a king had emerged in the American laxative world in the form of Phenolphthalein, a cathartic first introduced in 1900. Phenolphthalein proved popular in part thanks to its advertisements aimed at both children and adults. Phenolphthalein weren’t the only company to target parents’ fears over their child’s well-being as evidenced in the following liver pill anti-constipation ad

babyHow were parents to respond?

From A to Z brands initiated a relentless campaign aimed at parents and their children to take or administer laxatives to their children. What were parents to do? The medical profession was regularly warning against the danger of autointoxication and the fear of constipation had effectively reached a fever pitch. For some in the medical and health communities, such laxatives were an abomination, thoroughly destroying gut health and making the body even sicker. For marketers however it was only the tip of the iceberg. Foods and laxatives may have seemed the most obvious remedy for constipation but there was a third contender in the form of devices. In the words of Whorton,

A horde of device salespeople swept over the land as well, peddling an astounding collection of merchandise: enema and colonic irrigation equipment, abdominal support belts, abdominal massage machines electrical stimulators, rectal dilators and on and on.”


An abdominal massage machine sold by S. Gant of Philadelphia c. 1908

If abdominal massage machines weren’t to your liking, you could always purchase a ‘rectal dilator’ from Dr. Young.


Dr. Young’s Rectal Dilators

If foods, laxatives or devices weren’t the cure, people could also pay for surgery. Namely a colectomy, which consisted of in the words of famed colectomy surgeon, Sir William Arbuthnot Lane,  a streamlining of the human “drainage scheme.” Lane himself is an interesting character in this story due to his belief that constipation was a disease exclusive to urban, industrial civilization. In other words, it was a ‘disease of affluence’. People’s living habits in the developed world interfered with the natural mechanisms of the colon. This distorted the colon’s anatomy in a way not suffered by “savage races.” For Lane, constipation was the white man’s burden as the ‘savages’ (people in Less Developed Countries), didn’t suffer from it. The diet of the working man in the US was out of sync with nature. Lane wasn’t shy about voicing his opinion either. He was known for pithy one liners such as

“the whiter your bread, the sooner you’re dead.”

Enter Charles Atlas

As detailed previously on this site, Charles Atlas was one of the most famous physical culturists in early 20th century America. According to his legend, he was an Italian immigrant who went from being a ‘97 pound weakling’ to winning Bernarr McFadden’s ‘Most Perfectly Developed Man’ competition in 1921 and 22. Atlas preached a healthy, clean life, reminiscent of ‘Christian Muscularity’ and spent many years selling his own brand of exercise, known as Dynamic Tension. Atlas had set up an exercise mail order programme in 1922, but the company did not take off until 1929 when advertising guru, Charles Roman joined. With fear of constipation at an all time high during the growth years of Atlas’s business, it was perhaps no surprise that Atlas capitalized on constipation.

Atlas and Physical Culturists like him, seemed to exist as a middle ground between marketers and physicians. They had a product to sell but they were also concerned about people’s well being. It was a fine line to walk. Atlas’s publications frequently cited the prevailing medical consensus in his lessons and combined them with pitches for the Atlas system. Take lesson one of Atlas’s twelve-week mail order lessons, in which it was promised that Atlas’s exercises would

aid in the eliminations of toxins in the blood”

The medical community was frequently writing about toxins, something Atlas picked up on and used to his own advantage. Similarly Atlas, like Lane and many other health professionals, believed that diet had a large role to play in a large number of medical cases in the US and frequently dismissed ‘modern’ foods such as white bread and white flour. Again returning to Lesson One of the Dynamic Tension course, Atlas wrote

“Before going further I will describe those particular foods which are hardly worth eating, because of their lack of nourishing qualities. Undoubtedly, the greatest food products condemned as lacking in the vital elements of nutrition is white bread and all white flour products

In Atlas’s opinion foods such as white bread, white flour, sweets, candies, pies and so on and so forth were


Atlas presented himself to his customers as an authority on what foods would provide ‘magnetism and vigour’ and what foods would cause problems in the body. In many ways Atlas was telling people what the medical community had already established a decade or two before. What was different was that Atlas was ‘the World’s most perfectly developed man’. For many, Atlas’s body and feats of strength were proof that his methods would work.


Atlas’s Body was his Greatest Argument

Atlas is a particularly interesting Physical Culturist from this period as he dedicated a lot of his writings to Constipation. Others such as Bernarr McFadden advertised anti-constipation remedies, wrote articles on it and discussed it, whereas Atlas mentioned it almost continually throughout his lessons. Lesson 3 of the Dynamic Tension Workout was dedicated solely to the subject of constipation, “a condition from which many of thousands of people suffer…’the Great American Complaint’.” We get some idea therefore of how prevalent constipation was in the minds of some health enthusiasts for Atlas to devote so much ink to it. Time and time again however Atlas recommended the same things as the medical community

“Ordinary temporary constipation is often caused by wrong foods and combinations of foods, an insufficient supply of liquids to dissolve the waste products from the body and lack of proper exercise”.

The difference between Atlas and doctors was that Atlas and his marketing partner Charles Roman, knew how to market. Attempts were made by the pair to explain the dangers of constipation on several levels

“What would you think of a fireman who continually choked up his furnace with coal and never cleared out the accumulated ash…

If the waste is not removed daily, it is absorbed through the linings of the intestines and permeates the blood, thereby forming one of the principal causes of other diseases, poisoning the entire system. Headaches, stomach trouble, pimples and many other conditions are sometimes merely symptoms of constipation.”

It was made clear to customers that constipation was dangerous and needed to be dealt with. Atlas was a man of his times though and wasn’t completely adverse to advocating devices to reduce constipation. Like other Physical Culturists, he recommended an internal bath appliance, or an enema in modern parlance to combat constipation. Unlike marketers of other devices however, Atlas stressed the internal bath appliance was an aid and not the sole solution to reducing constipation.

How Did Atlas Present His Message?

Charles Atlas was famous for his bold advertisements, which challenged sickly boys to become ‘real men’. Such forms of aggressive advertising were also used in the fight against constipation. Atlas was selling a product and needed some way of getting his face noticed amongst the hoard of other salesmen with anti-constipation messages.


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Courtesy of

 Such advertisements were accompanied with grandiose claims that


By the mid-1930s, Atlas was ordered by the American Federal Trade Commission to limit the number of health claims he made about his Dynamic Tension course. This was part of a wider government involvement in the regulation of advertising in the 1930s along with the relative abandonment of autointoxication by the American medical profession. By the 1950s, the fear of constipation had subsided (although the condition continues to plague many people today) and marketers had moved elsewhere. Atlas himself had sensed a sea change and less than two decades after writing on the dangers of constipation, had largely erased any reference to constipation in his advertisements or his writings.

Atlas was not the only Physical Culturist to use constipation as a means for selling his product during the ‘Golden Age’ of the condition but he was perhaps one of the more interesting due to the focus he placed on constipation through his writings and advertisements. From this brief article it is clear how medical conditions can and often are exploited for economic means from several sectors. Constipation was once a dreaded condition in the United States. Something marketers and Physical Culturists capitalized on quite well.

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