Early Barbells and the Physical Culture Movement

By: Nick Soleyn, BLOC Staff Coach and Editor in Chief

How vaudevillian strongmen led Alan Calvert to invent the barbell.

The rise of the strongman circus performer

Promotional poster for the vaudeville act showing dancers, clowns, trapeze artists and dogs in costume.

The traveling variety show—big top circuses and vaudeville—was one of the biggest spectacles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among its many stars were illusionists and stunt performers like Harry Houdini, promoters like P.T. Barnum and Flo Ziegfeld, and people who were considered oddities at the time like General Tom Thumb. And somewhere in this mix fell the Strongman and Strongman performers. Somewhat equal parts illusionists, self-promoters, and authentically gifted people, they were among these first international celebrities. These strongman performers weren’t just strong; they were entertainers, engaging theatrical hyperbole as much as actual feats of strength.

Revered strongman, Eugene Sandow, popularized a spectacle called The Tomb of Hercules. He would hold his body in an arched position, face toward the sky—think about the dreaded crab walk from grade school PE. Three trained horses, said to have a combined weight of twenty-six hundred pounds, would walk across a bridge laid across his chest and abdomen. Another famous strongman performer, Siegmund “Zishe” Breitbart, took this act a step further. He would perform the Tomb of Hercules supporting a motordrome—a cage that motorcycles could drive up onto the walls in circles—while two motorcycles chased each other around inside. This type of escalation and one-ups-man-ship was typical of the Gilded Age strongman entertainer.

Also during this period of time, Gilded Age Americans experienced a cultural backlash to the excesses of the ultra-wealth and what Roosevelt called the “base spirit of gain” in the form of a zeal for physical fitness. This backlash was evident on college campuses where “athletic prowess became a major determinant of institutional status.” [1] And it was seen in the growth of a commercial fitness industry.

In pursuit of this relative novelty, people did what they always do: they turned to their celebrities for guidance. And the former side-show strongmen sold sex, aesthetic, and even the latest and greatest fitness equipment though a fairly new form of mass media and the vast mail-order catalogs of Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. People wanted to be strong like Breitbart, look like Sandow, and live like Bernarr McFadden (millionaire, magazine tycoon, presidential candidate, and some time nudist cult leader).

 

A strongman performing the Tomb of Hercules

Setting the record (bar) straight

One man, however, was not entirely taken with the showtime strongman. Alan Calvert didn’t like the non-standard, misleading equipment and theatrics that sold the idea of strength to the masses. He wrote a controversial book called “The Truth About Weightlifting” that exposed some of the vaudeville strongmen claims as impossible or fraudulent. But, he is most well known for inventing the barbell as we know it today.

The first versions of barbells appeared around the 1860s in European gymnasiums. Essentially evolving from the dumbbell design, the first barbells had fixed weights on the ends of a four to six foot bar. These spheres were either manufactured at given weight or could be filled with substances like sand or lead shot to adjust the weight. The problem with these were either that the weight could not be changed, meaning more bars and more space taken up in one’s home or gym, or that the adjustable versions took too long to change the weight and were not easily measured.

Calvert’s patent for an early barbell, which would eventually become the Milo Triplex

In 1908, Alan Calvert released the Milo Triplex, a bar that allowed you to change the load simply by adding or removing plates to the end of it. Calvert’s invention made meaningful strength training accessible to any person of any level of skill, removing some of the mystique of the strongman performers’ regimens. Strength historian David P. Willoughby called Calvert’s invention “the single greatest impetus ever given to weightlifting in this country.” Those who have engaged in meaningful training would readily agree.

Calvert’s company was aptly named The Milo Barbell Company after a famous Greek wrestler Milo of Croton. Milo’s strength was legendary and even though he lived in the 6th Century BC, records of his career survive and speak to a man whose strength and skill were as close to mythological as anyone in history has been. There are many stories about him, but the most famous is that he began lifting a calf every day from the time it was very young until it was a full grown, 4-year-old bull. As the bull grew, Milo adapted and his strength grew in tandem—perhaps the most gradual and longest linear progression in history. Perhaps to Calvert, Milo’s strength, built through years of hard work was a counterpoint to the antics of the showtime strongman who were as much entertainers as athletes.

Regardless of his own motivation for naming his company after Milo of Croton, Calvert’s invention helped bridge the gap between strength as a cultural imperative—strong people are more likely to survive and contribute to the community—and the modern era in which strength is, at best, an aspiration to combat technologically induced idleness.

 

 

 

[Note] This article heavily references From Milo to Milo: A History of Barbells, Dumbbells, and Indian Clubs by Jan Todd, Ph.D (Iron Game History, Vol 3 #6)

[1] John Higham, “The Reorientation of American Culture in the 1890’s,” from Ed. John Weiss “The Origins of Modern Consciousness” (Wayne State University 1965).

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