Tuesday, February 4, 2014

More Adventures in Cataloging: What is a Manly Man?

Illustration from Vitality Supreme, 1915.
I've been noticing while cataloging artifacts and documents at the museum that things have an odd way of forming clusters for no apparent reason. There'll be a whole string of things that all tie together in some way even though they were seemingly placed at random in the original chaos. This week's theme appears to be Virility and Clean Living.

Mixed in with old menus, service station receipts, and other weirdness like the pinup I mentioned a couple days ago were lots of booklets on healthy living: a 1930 brochure published by the Cleanliness Institute that explained why bathing is a good idea, a 1948 pamphlet on the evils of venereal diseases that was written for a teenage audience, a 1920's advertisement for a fitness camp, and similar items. By coincidence, a stack of books I was sorting through that day also contained a number of items that seemed geared towards young men, particularly two gems by Bernarr Macfadden, the Jack LaLanne of the early twentieth century. The books made me curious enough about Macfadden to Google him; he was an interesting man.

Like many fitness fanatics, Macfadden's philosophy was grounded in his personal experience. He had been a sickly youth, but living on a farm and engaging in vigorous outdoor exercise (pitching hay and similar chores) improved his health. As a young adult, he found a job that required spending the day sitting at a desk; he noticed he was turning into a weak, sickly person again and resolved to do something about it. Walking and other vigorous exercise combined with a healthy diet and clean living (no alcohol or tobacco) restored Macfadden's vitality. He decided to promote what he had learned. Over the following decades, he turned his ideas about exercise and health into a multi-million dollar fortune. He began publishing one small magazine; by the time he died at the age of 87, he headed an international publishing house. From his first spectacularly successful magazine (Physical Culture) he built a firm that published every type of pulp periodical, including True Story, Amazing Stories, and True Detective. It's the classic American success story: from 90 pound weakling to wealthy fitness guru and influential businessman.

In Vitality Supreme (published in 1915) Macfadden advised both men and women on how to achieve a vigorous and healthy body, one with a straight spine, strong lungs, and fully functioning alimentary system. The Macfadden physical fitness plan involved avoiding vices such as alcohol and tobacco, vigorous exercise (lots of walking), and a vegetarian diet. He also advised eating food in as close to its natural state as possible with raw food being preferred if it was feasible. He wasn't an absolutist, however. He did note that for some people a purely vegetarian diet was not possible; there were individuals who needed to eat meat in moderate amounts in order to remain healthy.

A few years later, Macfadden's book Manhood and Marriage counseled men that, among other things, masturbation did not cause acne but that nonetheless it weakened a person. It was a "dissolute" habit to fall into. Macfadden worried a lot about impotence and infertility and cautioned that mastubatory practices could damage the male reproductive system. I got the distinct impression he believed that the amount of sperm a man was blessed with was a finite number; if a man wasn't careful, he might run dry. In a number of sections of Manhood and Marriage Macfadden asserts that being excessively sexually active in your twenties could result in impotence by age fifty.

Actual sexual relations, on the other hand, were fine, as long as it was with the right woman. Granted, even in the marital bed one had to keep in mind that excessive passion was not good due to the debilitating effect that losing too much sperm could have on a man. There was a caveat, however. If a couple was well-suited and "the man and the woman cooperate there is an exchange of magnetism or vitality, call it what you will, which makes up for the loss."

In skimming these books, I was struck by Macfadden's permissive attitude for the time. He railed against the prudery that treated sex as something immoral and instead argued that "The sex instinct is the source of all that is sweet, beautiful and ennobling in the love of man and woman." He deplored the lack of practical advice young people were given when it came to "intimate relations" as he believed ignorance about human physiology was the leading cause of unhappy marriages. He denounced men who persuaded their sweethearts to engage in the marital act before the wedding and then jilted the girls for being immoral; Macfadden placed the blame on the men who had made promises the girls had believed. He also noted that if a woman was passionate before the legal marriage, this was a good sign she would continue to be so after the ceremony, thus reducing the possibility of physical incompatibility and long term unhappiness. In addition, what a man should look for in a potential mate was a woman who was as physically fit as he was, not some shrinking violet who worried about her figure and wasn't interested in healthy pursuits such as brisk walks in the park. One assumes the female model pictured in Vitality Supreme fits Macfadden's image of what the ideal woman would look like. By today's standards, of course, the lady is much, much too zaftig; she's obviously not a size 2.

Macfadden was apparently a strong believer in marriage; according to Wikipedia he had four wives (serially, not simultaneously). He saw nothing wrong with divorce if a couple was unhappy; his philosophy was that if a couple was incompatible, if their love was truly dead, then divorce could help rectify mistakes and allow both the husband and the wife to move on and possibly find happiness with a different partner. Not surprisingly, Macfadden's rather hedonistic attitude towards sexual intimacy and his emphasis that good health, vitality, and virility were all linked made him a convenient target of moral conservatives.  

These are interesting books. One thing that intrigued me was the way Macfadden carefully skirted describing explicitly various aspects of human sexuality. In Manhood and Marriage he devotes a chapter to abortion, including what would motivate a woman to get one, and notes that one problem could be that in the United States it was illegal to sell contraceptive devices or to counsel women on how to prevent pregnancy. He then does a eugenics pitch saying it's important to think carefully about bringing children into the world who might not be wanted, but he never directly tells the male reader to use contraception. If anything, he advises against it. However, at the same time he does describe the time of the month when a woman is most likely to conceive.It's an intriguing contradiction. Was he deliberately alerting men to the times to avoid intercourse? Given some of the other contradictions in these two books, who knows?

Of course, no one talked directly about sex at the time. One of the other items I cataloged this week was a mid-1920's booklet published by the U.S. Public Health Service that was purportedly the advice a mother would give a daughter as that daughter neared adulthood. The booklet is multiple chapters long, probably contains several thousand words, and is notable for its complete lack of any actual information. It's all euphemisms about behaving like a lady and avoiding intimate relations before marriage. What "intimate relations" are is never specified; for all a girl knew, they could be passionate kisses. It warns that unspecified nasty diseases exist but never comes right out and says "syphilis" or "gonorrhea" or describes how they're actually contracted. It's no wonder that, as Macfadden noted, many young couples entered the marital chamber for the first time having no idea just exactly what went where or that women often suffered sufficient pain and injury that their affection for their husbands turned to loathing.

Did men actually follow Macfadden's advice? That's another unanswerable question. He was a prolific writer who sold numerous books on multiple topics relating to health and physical fitness. The two books I found don't appear to be particularly heavily-read -- Vitality Supreme in particular looks like I was the first person to actually open it -- but that doesn't mean his physical fitness advice wasn't influential. At the same time, you have to wonder how long any person stuck with Macfadden's suggested diets or exercise regimens. The milk diet, for example, suggested a person subsist on a diet of milk alone; the dieter was supposed to drink 6 to 8 quarts a day. The only creature I can think of that would thrive on that diet would be a calf.

The little bit I did learn about Macfadden through Google has inspired me to go looking for an actual biography.The articles I found described him variously as an early feminist who empowered women to a thorough sleaze who took advantage of women much younger than himself. Those are interesting contradictions. There have been several studies of Macfadden's life published; I'm going to see if I can track down a copy of Mr. America: How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation Through Sex, Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation Diet by Mark Adams. It's the most recent so it may also be the most readable. 

As for the Macfadden books the museum owns, Vitality Supreme is going into a display that features a number of early 20th century artifacts relating to men: straight razors, pocketknives, hair brush sets, shaving mugs, and other paraphernalia. If I get lucky and stumble across some early exercise equipment, like some vintage hand grips, I'll include them, too. In any case, there will be an interpretive card explaining who Macfadden was and when the book was published. I'm not sure what to do with Manhood and Marriage. Stick it back on the shelf, I guess, and let someone else worry about it 20 years from now. 


  1. The Macfadden physical fitness plan involved avoiding vices such as alcohol and tobacco, vigorous exercise (lots of walking), and a vegetarian diet.

    And he still died, didn't even make it to 90. Never mind, time for me to whack off.

  2. Coffee. Keyboard. Should have set the cup down before moderating comments.

  3. You can always delete it. :-)

    Speaking of keyboards, mine sure has held up well, I've spilled things on it many times and there is a grove worn in the space key where I always smack it and some of the letters are worn off but it keeps thumping along.

  4. Parents are historically bad about giving concise sexual discussions to their kids: Thus, sex-ed in school should be a requirement...but in the religious bible belt their horror of sex as evil dirties any discussion.
    the Ol'Buzzard

  5. BBC: too much information.
    the Ol'Buzzard

  6. I don't delete comments that are appropriate to the topic of the post and/or make me laugh.


My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.