Born in Nelson Flats, New York, in 1854 Dowd was, if his own accounts and obituaries are to be believed, a somewhat unathletic child in his youth. Writing some decades after Dowd’s passing, W.A. Pullum, a renowned British physical culturist, claimed that Dowd “showed nothing in his youth to indicate that destiny marked him out to become one day a great physical culture figure.” Pullum went on to claim that while Dowd did not suffer from any serious illness, his physique, according to his peers was “rather on the meagre side.”[i] This idea of the young weakling was, as explained by Ana Carden-Coyne, a common trope in health biographies.[ii] By disclosing one’s own personal shortcomings during a previous stage in their lives, health entrepreneurs could advertise their miraculous transformation using a specific dietary protocol or workout. The most dramatic example of this was of course Charles Atlas who, during the 1930s and 1940s, advertised using his now famous “Insult that made a man of Mac” comic strips.[iii]
In his own writings, Dowd claimed that he only came to fitness in 1877 when he entered a public gymnasium in Springfield.[iv] In this regard Dowd was not alone. Michael Kimmel and Harvey Green both previously highlighted an upsurge in interest in sport and physical exercise among American men in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.[v] Much of this interest was directed toward competitive sport but attention was still given over to the purposeful training programmes found in the gymnasium. Where Tom Pendergast and Ava Baron cited a crisis in masculinity, coupled with an intensified anxiety around one’s own physical fortitude in “a nervous age”, as motivating factors behind the growing interest in exercise, Dowd professed none of these concerns.[vi] In his scant writings, Dowd presented an unproblematic account of his desire to grow strong – he was physically weak and unwell. Underweight and, in his own mind, bereft of muscles, Dowd set about undertaking a physical training regimen.
Training alone, Dowd increased his bodyweight to 138 lbs. after his first year’s “ineffective work.” Undiscouraged by his initial disappointments, Dowd continued to exercise and within three years Dowd weighed 163 lbs.[vii] This was, of course, according to Dowd’s own biography. David Chapman and Dominic Morais have stressed the need for scepticism when it comes to fitness personality’s biographies.[viii] Owing to the fact that such biographies are often part of a broader exercise system which the author wishes to sell, a great deal of fabrication is found in such stories. Eugen Sandow, for example, claimed to have been a delicate and sickly child when the reality appears to have been the case.[ix] So too did Charles Atlas and a host of later physical culturists. In Dowd’s testimony, readers were met with an individual who had trialled several systems of training and, through personal experimentation, discovered the perfect system. The transformation which brought Dowd’s health to “perfect” levels would later be condensed into a half hour work out programme to be conducted every day.
Once his strength had “trebled in nearly every respect”, Dowd spent three years touring with Burr Robins and E.D. Colbin’s circus where he performed a series of strength feats.[x] Later obituaries would credit Dowd with lifting somewhere between twelve to thirteen hundred pounds on his back and with dazzling gymnastic feats.[xi] The circus, as retold by Janet Davis, commonly featured strength acts.[xii] Equally important was the fact that the circus was a key part of American recreational life at this time. The public platform afforded to Dowd through the circus proved influential in securing him the role of director at the Springfield Gymnasium in Massachusetts. Tasked with training adults and children in gymnastics, Dowd slowly gained a reputation as a knowledgeable trainer in body and “vocal culture.”[xiii] In 1886 or 1887, the record is unclear, Dowd moved to East Fourteenth Street in New York, where he opened his own private academy for physical training and vocal culture. New York was, at this time, experiencing great economic growth and, stemming from this, an influx of migrants.[xiv] The rise in office culture, whose participants proved concerned with their own wellbeing and immigration – which encouraged fears about the future of the American race – may well have increased Dowd’s profit margins.[xv]
Dowd soon established a business empire which stretched far outside the United States. Beginning with exercise classes, Dowd produced the first of his exercise monographs in the late 1880s, followed by several subsequent works dealing with accessible forms of exercise for those across the life cycle.[xvi] Prior to his 1890 work, Dowd began to sell his own workout device, the “Dowd Exerciser”, which he patented in 1886.[xvii] Both his monographs and “Exercisers” came to be sold heavily within the United States and further afield as evidenced by advertisements in Great Britain and even Australia.[xviii] It was owing to the scope of his business appeal that the Buffalo Evening News counted him as one of the wealthiest men in America on his death in 1896. Dowd’s untimely death was, in itself, part of his legend. First afflicted with a case of blood poisoning in the late 1880s, it appears that Dowd’s health never truly returned.[xix] In his quest to restore his health, Dowd began experimenting with various forms of eating and behaviours. On the advice of Dr. Salisbury, whose career is briefly discussed by Helen Zoe Veit, Dowd began to consume copious amounts of food.[xx] Soon after he switched to a vegetarian diet before he undertook a new form of eating.
Based on his belief that food should only be consumed to satisfy one’s appetite, Dowd began to use a home-made stomach pump to empty his stomach after every meal. This, combined with a new love of gourmandising, weakened his health. In early 1896 Dowd was committed to Bellevue Hospital by his wife owing to his new deleterious habits. According to The Boston Globe, Dowd “became such a crank on the subject [of eating], that many of his pupils left him.”[xxi] Released from Bellevue soon after, Dowd’s health declined owing to a bout of consumption, which was ultimately to take his life. Dowd’s later years incurred a great deal of mockery in the popular press but his death in 1896 witnessed an outpouring of admiration from American, and in some instances British, journalists. His obituary in The World was representative of many of the comments found elsewhere
Bulldog tenacity of purpose was this man’s most striking characteristic. He willed to be a strong man – stronger than any other, and he went at it persistently and painstakingly studying every muscle in his body, working out the exercise which would best bring that muscle into play so as to strengthen it and inventing the proper machine with which to get this exercise within the compass of a small room…[xxii]
Dowd’s effective career as a health and fitness entrepreneur lasted just under two decades yet in that short time, the New York strongman managed to create a business empire competitive in several nations, establish a distinctive style of training and institute a series of selling techniques later used ad nauseum by the physical culturists who followed in his wake
[i] W.A. Pullum, “Professor Dowd’s Original Health Exerciser,” Health & Strength, 6 September (1962): 6-8.
[ii] Ana Carden-Coyne, Reconstructing the Body: Classicism, Modernism, and the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 3.
[iii] J. Reich, “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man: Charles Atlas, Physical Culture, and the Inscription of American Masculinity,” Men and Masculinities, 12. 4 (2010): 444–461.
[iv] Dowd, Physical Culture for Home and School, Scientific and Practical, 61.
[v] Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 173-191; Harvey Green, Fit for America: Health, Fitness Sport and American Society (New York: Pantheon, 1986), 1-25.
[vi] Tom Pendergast, Creating the Modern Man: American Magazines and Consumer Culture, 1900-1950 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 15-50; Ava Baron, “Masculinity, The Embodied Male Worker, and the Historian’s Gaze,” International Labor and Working-Class History 69.1 (2006): 145-150.
[vii] Dowd, Physical Culture for Home and School, Scientific and Practical, 62.
[viii] David L. Chapman, Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), xii; Dominic G. Morais, “Branding Iron: Eugen Sandow’s Modern Marketing Strategies, 1887–1925,” Journal of Sport History, 40. 2 (2013): 193–214.
[ix] Chapman, Sandow the Magnificent, 128.
[x] “Death of Professor Dowd,” The New York Clipper, 8 January 1898, 744.
[xi] Anon., “Need Not Have Died,” Good Health: A Journal of Hygiene, 33. 2 (1898): 121.
[xii] Janet M. Davis, The Circus Age: Culture & Society under the American Big Top (Chapel Hill: Univ of North Carolina Press, 2002).
[xiii] D.L. Dowd, D.L. Dowd’s School for Scientific, Vocal, and Physical Culture (New York: D.L. Dowd, 1887), 1-12.
[xiv] David Ward and Olivier Zunz, “Between Rationalism and Pluralism: Creating the Modern City,” in The Landscape of Modernity: New York City, 1900-1940, ed. David Ward and Oliver Zunz (New York: JHU Press, 1997), 3-15.
[xv] Sharon H. Strom, Beyond the Typewriter: Gender, Class, and the Origins of Modern American Office Work, 1900-1930 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 1-33.
[xvi] Dowd, D.L. Dowd’s School for Scientific, Vocal, and Physical Culture.
[xvii] “D.L. Dowd’s Health Exerciser,” The Leavenworth Times 4 March, 1890, 3; D.L. Dowd, “Exercising Machine.” United States Patent US 345, 286. United States Patent and Trademark Office. 13 July, 1886.
[xviii] “Health Exerciser,” The Illustrated London News, 9 January 1892, 63; “Health Exerciser,” North Melbourne Advertiser, 2 February 1894, 4.
[xix] “His Odd Mania,” Buffalo Evening News, 8 February 1896, 21.
[xx] Helen Zoe Veit, Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century (North Carolina: UNC Press Books, 2013), 41.
[xxi] “Dowd Taken to Bellevue,” The Boston Globe, 6 February, 1896, 7.
[xxii] “Weakling a Hercules,” The World, 30 December, 1897, 3.