The Bodybuilding History of Bovril

Bovril is a blended meat extract created by Scotsman John Lawrence during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Made primarily from Beef, Bovril quickly associated itself with ideas of British nationalism and the caricatured embodiment of Britain, ‘John Bull’. This was certainly the case during the Second South African War when Bovril advertisements explicitly told of its nutritional value for troops at the front (Steinitz, 2017). Readers of British newspapers in 1901 were met with the claim that Bovril was ‘the most acceptable and useful present that Tommy Atkins can receive’ as only Bovril could sustain men’s strength through gruelling marches and equally exhausting battles (‘Send a Case of Bovril’, 1901).

At the forefront of such advertising was Bovril’s association with muscular and strong physiques. Advertisements at the beginning of the twentieth century claimed that ‘Bovril means vigour and strength’ or that ‘Bovril is a strength giver and muscle former’ (Steinitz, 2017). Somewhat surprisingly given its explicit association with male bodies and endurance, Bovril’s use of physical culturists was less impressive than Plasmon. The latter counted Sandow, Miles, Neil and a host of other physical culturists in their advertising material, Bovril’s British agents satisfied themselves with less popular physical culturists, those whom only the most devout would recognise.

One such physical culturist was Tom Burrows, an Australian born athlete who came to Britain in the late nineteenth century. Proficient in boxing, cricket and wrestling, Burrows was famous for two things. First his work with the Royal Army Physical Training Corps, the unit responsible for training British troops and second for his prowess with Indian clubs. Indian clubs, as suggested by their name, are bottle sized clubs, said to have been inspired by traditional heavy Hindu clubs, swung around the body for health purposes (Heffernan, 2017). Originally popularised in Britain in the early nineteenth century, Indian club swinging was still in vogue by the century’s end (Heffernan, 2019). In the case of Burrows, he achieved a national fame in Britain for his ability to swing Indian clubs for hours on end without stopping.

Fig 1: Tom Burrows, The Text-Book of Club Swinging (London: Health & Strength, 1908), p. 57.

In 1913, Burrows successfully swung Indian clubs for a hundred hours without resting (Heffernan, 2019). His promotion of Bovril, which began in the early 1900s, reinforced the company’s claims that Bovril increased strength, endurance and vitality (Burrows, 1908: 60-62). As discussed elsewhere, Burrows’ fame in the early twentieth century was found among a small cohort of physical culture enthusiasts (Ibid). His was not the renown of Sandow. It was perhaps for this reason that Bovril also called relied on Edward Aston and Arthur Saxon to promote the strength giving properties of their foodstuff.

Aston, an English middle-class weightlifter, was deemed by many of his contemporaries to be among Britain’s strongest living men in the early 1900s (Willoughby, 1970: 143). Famed for his weight lifting prowess, Aston briefly enjoyed a commercial relationship with Bovril. In British newspapers and physical culture magazines, like Health and Strength, Aston claimed that Bovril was the only additional foodstuff he needed when it came to diet (Kent, 2012: 172). Further illustrating this point were Aston’s mail order exercise courses which began to circulate from 1905. Mail order courses, like Aston’s, often acted as the primary sites of knowledge for physical culturists (Pollack and Todd, 2017). Magazines and newspapers regularly commented on the importance of exercise but few featured the detailed, systematic nature of mail order courses which would lead consumers through a week by week plan for improving their health. In Aston’s course, readers were told to

Try Bovril, it aids digestion and renders the food taken more nutritious bringing out all the good qualities in the food, which would otherwise pass through the system unassimilated. A drink of HOT BOVRIL after exercise restores the lost energies much quicker and is a safeguard against fatigue (Aston, c. 1905: 3)

A self-styled world’s strongest man, Aston echoed Burrows’ claim that Bovril safeguarded against fatigue. Furthermore, he claimed that it enhanced the nutrition of one’s food which, Aston explained, would increase one’s strength, muscle and nerve. This he knew from his own experience (Ibid). Bovril’s reputation as a physical culture supplement, as attested by those whose feats of endurance were undeniable, appeared then to be legitimate.

It was perhaps for this reason that Arthur Saxon likewise proved so enthused with Bovril. Saxon, like Aston and Burrows, was another physical culturist whose fame stemmed from his legitimate feats of strength. Where vaudeville strongman shows still featured dubious feats of strength, achieved through sleight of hand or a shrewd mastery of physics, Saxon held a reputation as a strong and honest performer (Kent, 2012: 123-125). Saxon came to England in the late 1890s and achieved a nationwide fame in 1898 following his victory over the previously mentioned Eugen Sandow in a weightlifting match (Chapman, 1994: 107). Eschewing pageantry in his shows, Saxon’s physical culture monographs were often brutally honest. In The Development of Physical Power (1905), Saxon rejected the traditional physical culture trope of claiming a sickly childhood to state that he was always strong. Furthermore, he claimed that successful physical culturists needed to have the constitution of a horse from adolescence. Turning to Saxon’s relationship to Bovril, he revealed that in a growing world of physical culture supplements the

one preparation … which I can conscientiously recommend is that known as “Bovril.” It is a fact that most leading athletes recommend “Bovril,” and nothing can be better either before or immediately after practice than a cup of hot “Bovril.” It prevents and dispels fatigue (Saxon, 1905: 19)

Through Burrows, Aston and Saxon, a clear message was presented to male physical culturists. To be men of endurance and great strength, Bovril was a necessary addition to one’s diet. After all, three of the most trusted physical culturists told them as much. Health and the ideal muscular physique, was one small purchase away.

For women, Bovril focused instead on the promise of radiant health and slender physiques. Echoing Plasmon’s assumption that women were lesser in physical endeavours, the beef-based extract focused on outer beauty rather than internal strength. The underlying message however was still similar to those aimed at men – namely that a daily dose of Bovril would enhance one’s health. Thus early Bovril advertisements linked the product to ‘health and beauty among women’, noting its use by dainty women and beautiful girls. To further illustrate this point, captions often used the silhouette of a young slender woman, laughing freely (‘Bovril Advertisement’, 1900). For those unconvinced, Bovril included images of its supposedly typical female consumers

Fig 2. ‘Bovril for Health and Beauty’, 1907.

The above advertisement was particularly interesting for its conflation between beauty and health. One was typically implied to assume the other. Other Bovril advertisements featuring women generally focused on women as housewives, cooks or domestic servants (‘Bovril for Housewives’, 1909). Akin to Plasmon’s contemporaneous advertisements, Bovril’s advertisements in this regard stressed its ability to enhance the nutritious value of foods. Accordingly, readers of the Northern Whig were told that the ‘tired mother will find a cap of Bovril a wonderful reviver and strengthener when ‘fagged out’ because ‘Bovril is liquid life’ (‘A Bottle of Bovril’, 1900). Whereas male readers were told that Bovril’s regenerative capabilities would allow them to work harder, run faster, or at the very least longer, women were told that Bovril would improve their beauty or allow them to continue their housework (Steinitz, 2017). The messages were similar in that they pertained to appearance and work but the underlying gendered assumptions spoke of a subordinate role for women and a sense of greater mobility for men.

This was not, of course, unique in fin de siècle advertising in Great Britain. What marked Bovril, Plasmon and Iron Jelloids as unique was their repeated association with the world of physical culture, a world which although containing its own gender hierarchies, was nevertheless more fluid when it came to female participation in the public sphere. It is interesting therefore that these nutritional supplements ascribed to the potential freeing identities being aimed at men while simultaneously eschewing traditional  discourses for women. Instead the company relied on older traditions of femininity to promote its value as a nutritional supplement. This approach was later modified in the early 1910s when ‘Bovril for Health’ advertisements began to feature women playing golf as an acknowledgement of the ‘new woman’ ideal emerging in the British press (McCrone, 1988: 177). Despite the emergence of ‘new woman’ advertisements, far more advertisements focused on women in the home and women as mothers.