Strength Performers and Early Barbells

Part of the strength-performers’ appeal in America came from a cultural backlash to the excesses of the ultra-wealthy, what Theodore Roosevelt called the “base spirit of gain.” Americans developed a zeal for physical fitness in all forms, leading to the first explosive growth of the commercial fitness industry.

Strength Performers and Early Barbells

By: Nick Soleyn

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 performers. Equal parts illusionists, self-promoters, and authentically gifted people, they were among these first international celebrities. They weren’t just strong. they were entertainers, engaging theatrical hyperbole as much as actual feats of impressive strength.

For example, strongman Eugen Sandow, popularized an act called The Tomb of Hercules. He would hold his body in an arched position, face toward the sky, in a crab walk position, with a plank laid as a bridge across his body. Three trained horses, said to have a combined weight of twenty-six hundred pounds, would walk across the bridge. Another famous strength 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.

Part of the strength-performers’ appeal in America was a cultural backlash to the excesses of the ultra-wealthy, what Theodore Roosevelt called the “base spirit of gain.” Americans developed a zeal for physical fitness in all forms, from sports to entertainment. This zeal was evident on college campuses where “athletic prowess became a major determinant of institutional status.” [1] And it was seen in the first explosive growth of the commercial fitness industry.

Home fitness was a relative novelty. So, people did what they always have done when they aren’t sure how to proceed: they turned to their celebrities for guidance. And the former sideshow strongmen sold sex, aesthetic, and even the latest and greatest fitness equipment, mostly advertising and selling through magazines and mail-order catalogs. 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 Bar

Others looked to change the nature of fitness from the realm of the showtime strongman to home physical fitness. Alan Calvert didn’t like the non-standard, misleading equipment and theatrics that sold the idea of strength to the masses. In “The Truth About Weightlifting” he derided of the vaudeville strongmen claims as impossible or fraudulent. And, he invented the plate-loaded barbell as we most commonly use today.

The first versions of barbells appeared around the 1860s in European gymnasiums, having evolved from the dumbbell design. They came with fixed weights or fillable globes on the ends of a four to six-foot bar. Changing weights either meant you had to get another bar or you had to fill the globes with a different material, making progressive loading and varieties in weight cumbersome.

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

In 1908, Alan Calvert sold the Milo Triplex bar, letting people change the load simply by adding or removing plates to the end of it. Calvert’s invention made strength training more 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.”

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’s in history. The most famous story of Milo 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, so did Milo, his strength keeping up with the bull’s increasing weight. 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.

Calvert’s invention helped bridge the gap between strength as a cultural imperative—strong people being more likely to survive contribute to the community—and the modern era in which strength training is often our way of combating technologically induced leisure and idleness.


References

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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