Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Religion of Health

New York City & Chicago

In the early twentieth century, there was a growing awareness that exercise and diet played an important role in good health. The physical fitness movement was then aligned with vegetarianism which was reemerging in the United States. The menu below comes from the first annual banquet of the Brooklyn Physical Culture Society in 1904. In addition to showing the connection between vegetarianism and the new cult of physical fitness, it also includes a list of toasts, including one to “The Religion of Health” given by Bernarr Macfadden.  An early advocate of vigorous exercise, vegetarian diets, and fasting, Macfadden promoted his ideas in Physical Culture, a popular magazine that became the cornerstone of his publishing business empire.1 

Although he is now all but forgotten, Macfadden once inspired millions of people around the world to live more vigorous and healthful lives. Ahead of his time, he promoted pure health laws and was a noted feminist, encouraging women to exercise and participate in outdoor sports like golf and tennis. He also organized bodybuilding competitions in which both men and women competed, as captured in this 1904 film taken by inventor Thomas Edison at Madison Square Garden.

Macfadden published over a hundred books in his lifetime, including Muscular Power and Beauty. Promoting the use of tension and resistance to develop muscles, this classic exercise book was published in 1906, decades before his protégée Charles Atlas marketed exercise courses based on the same principles. In 1907, following close on the heels of health magnates John Harvey Kellogg and C. W. Post, Macfadden opened a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. He also introduced a breakfast cereal called “Strengthfude,” comprising wheat, oats, and nuts. Two years later, he relocated his sanitarium to Chicago and renamed it the “Bernarr Macfadden Healthatorium.”

The Heathatorium implemented many of Macfadden’s strong beliefs about food, such as having only two meals a day, as shown on this daily menu from 1911. In addition, there are no desserts like cakes, pies, and ice cream on this menu card, nor is there any white bread, something he regarded as one of the worst things someone could eat. Nevertheless, the Healthatorium was not strictly vegetarian, as evidenced by the hand-written inscription, adding two eight-ounce portions of “meat” to the diet of this patient.2

Surprisingly, Macfadden was not a vegetarian, even though he owned twenty vegetarian restaurants by 1911. And when the success of his Physical Culture chain proved to be short-lived, he quickly turned his attention to other projects. The next time he entered the restaurant business it would be during the Great Depression, not to promote vegetarianism, but to provide low-cast, nutritious meals to help feed the poor in New York City.

1. Speaking on the “Highest Aspirations of a Girl,” the Mrs. Macfadden on this program was not around for long. While visiting the U.K in 1913, Macfadden organized a contest to select “the most perfect specimen of English womanhood.” After winning by unanimous consent, nineteen-year-old Mary Williamson married the charismatic, forty-five-year-old health guru. Married four times, Macfadden had eight children, seven of whom had surnames beginning with the letter “B.” (Macfadden changed his own surname from Bernard to Bernarr because it sounded like the growl of a lion.)
2. A menu from the following day shows that “Mr. Hall” was later reduced to a single, eight-ounce portion of meat by the consulting physician.


lostpastremembered said...

Fabulous story, Henry. I am in awe of your collection and your knowledge!

andrea broomfield said...

This intriguing man and his health club reminds me of Eustace Miles, who was not only a champion tennis player, but also an early 20th-century advocate of diet and health. He had a restaurant in London, the Eustace Miles restaurant, which promoted his philosophy of good living and diet. His restaurant is reviewed in Nathaniel Newnham-Davis' Gourmet's Guide to London (1914). Thanks so much for this wonderful post--and video clip!

Jeanne Schinto said...

Great entry! Really enjoyed this! So many, many sides to the story of menus! (And the YouTube movie was a nice touch!)