How did you become a strength performer in the early 1900s? It’s not a trick question but something that I’ve become fascinated with in the past two weeks. This was a time before mainstream competitions. This was a time before social media and it was a time when to be strong was to be truly unique.
How then, did individuals manage to turn their strength into a viable career? Also where did one go when they wanted to earn money for their musculature? Today men and women can gain fame in a variety of ways. They can win weightlifting, strength or bodybuilding competitions, become sponsored athletes or build a social media following.
This was not the case a century and a half ago. This was a time of relative unknowns and curiosity. So, without further adieu, let’s explore how physical culturists became performers.
Physical Culture: A Primer
As a quick reminder, physical culture is the term given to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century interest in going to the gym and building muscle. For many individuals, physical culture was the precursor for the modern day interest in strength and fitness.
Led by people like Eugen Sandow, individuals went to the gym, lifted weights and watched their diets. The leading figureheads in physical culture were not exercise scientists or coaches but were, in fact, strongmen and strongwomen.
Physical culture came at a moment when individuals could earn a living from their strength. In Britain and the United States strong men and women could put on strength shows for money in various theatres and circuses. British audiences went to music halls where they could experience variety shows featuring strength performers, comedians, singers and much more. The same was true of the United States.
For many strongmen and women, the ‘dream job’ was that of a strength performer. In the early 1900s, hundreds of theatres were hiring performers for short term – and occasionally – long term shows. If you were lucky, you could use your time on the stage to sell products, magazines or foods. This is what strongmen like Arthur Saxon did to great effect.
Becoming a strength performer was the first step to becoming a strength celebrity. So how did people become performers?
Route One: The Circus Athlete
The first, and easiest route, was to join the traveling circus. Before the music hall, the circus was the strength athlete’s home. In the nineteenth-century, circuses traveled Europe and America offering variety. Strength athletes provided it. Two of the earliest strongmen, Felice Napoli and Professor Attila, got their starts in the circus.
Even today, the trope of the ‘circus strongman’ is regularly found in our media. Well that connection was forged in the nineteenth-century. Several of the early strength performers either began their career, or at some point performed in, the circus.
Eugen Sandow initially joined the circus as a teenager. The Saxon Brothers toured the United States as part of the circus. Likewise for Katie Sandwina. The circus was oftentimes the first step towards a career on the stage. In many ways it acted as an informal ‘feeder system’ to the music hall.
At the circus many strength athletes learned how to perform for crowds. They also learned what objects to lift. Early strength performers rarely lifted dumbbells or barbells in their shows. Instead, they lifted odd objects like bank vaults, animals, or members from the audience. They did so because these objects were known to the general public. The public generally had an idea of how heavy these objects were.
Rather than lifting a 300 kg barbell, you could lift a horse. People were typically ignorant about the barbell but had a knowledge of everyday objects. This need to connect was central to circus life. It also pushed performers to be creative.
The Challenger Route
The circus was a common pathway. It was not the only one. Equally important was the idea of challenges. Strongmen and women shows in the early 1900s often included a challenge to the audience. Typically included at the end of the show, performers would offer a cash prize to anyone would could defeat them in a strength lift.
At times, this caused quite a few problems for performers. If you were defeated in competition, it hurt your reputation. Likewise, if you beat a performer, this could help launch your own career. The most famous example of this is Eugen Sandow. In 1889 Sandow traveled to London with Professor Attila to face Samson in a strength contest.
At that time Samson was playing at the Aquarium Theatre. Each night he issued a challenge to audience members. Whoever could beat him would win a cash prize and the title of world’s strongest man. Sandow and Attilla learned about this, traveled to London and beat Samson! This launched Sandow’s career as a strength athlete in his own right.
Surprisingly, Sandow didn’t learn from this. In 1893 Sandow faced a challenge from Arthur Saxon. Saxon, at that time, was an up and coming strength performer. Sandow was a renowned star. Sandow had already been beaten in competition some time before by Hercules McCann. He had nothing to gain from facing Saxon. But he did it anyway.
The young Saxon managed to beat Sandow in contest. More importantly, he did it easily. Where Sandow struggled to push barbells overhead, Saxon did so with ease. Although Sandow disputed Saxon’s victory, the damage was done. Saxon beat Sandow. The next several years saw Saxon advertise himself as the man who beat Sandow. In doing so, he helped strengthen his public profile.
The Champion Route
The final route to consider is that taken by champions. Winning a contest was a surefire way of building one’s reputation. There were typically two ways to do this. You could win a weightlifting contest. Or, more rarely, you could win a bodybuilding show.
Two individuals who won weightlifting competitions, on a regular basis, were E. Lawrence Levy and Launceston Elliot. Levy, whose biography is fantastic, was a regular winner of regional and international weightlifting contests. He also organized and adjudicated them.
Rather cleverly, Levy used his champion status to become a music hall performer. The same was true for Elliot. Elliot, who won a gold medal in the 1896 Olympics, did likewise.
You could also win a bodybuilding competition. As a sport, bodybuilding did not emerge until the 1930s. But there were precursors. In 1901 Eugen Sandow hosted a physique competition for British and Irishmen.
Taking two years to complete, Sandow’s show was won by Nottingham physical culturist, William L. Murray. Murray, whose career we already discussed, used his physique win to become a strength performer. He spent the next ten years as a successful entertainer.
Strength performers were a unique breed of men and women in the early 1900s. There was no one exact pathway to this career but instead, multiple ways to the stage. Here were some of the most common beginnings of some of the most uncommon humans.
As always … Happy Lifting!
Fascinating post, Conor…thanks for doing the research!
I like when it’s explained, as you’ve done in part here in a thorough way, how “bodybuilding” didn’t suddenly originate with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Joe Weider around 1975, but actually only became popular AGAIN in the US and Europe due to the influence of those two figures. The true fathers of what later was known as what you’ve intentionally titled your site, “physical culture”, which branched out into the “bodybuilding” known today, were those strongmen discussed in your great post.
Here’s a photo of a gym and trainees dated 1913, in Paris, France; note the globe barbells and globe dumbbells: