Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Religion of Health

New York City & Chicago

In the early twentieth century, there was a growing awareness that physical fitness and diet played an important role in achieving good health. The new movement was aligned with vegetarianism which was then reemerging in the United States, as shown below by the vegetarian menu from the first annual banquet of the Brooklyn Physical Culture Society in 1904. There is a revealing list of toasts on this menu, including one to “The Religion of Health” given by Bernarr Macfadden, an early advocate of vigorous exercise, vegetarian diets, and fasting.1 Macfadden promoted his ideas in the popular magazine Physical Culture which became the cornerstone of his publishing business and other enterprises. Marking an early point in his long career, two menus reflect the loose connection between vegetarianism and the cult of physical fitness.

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

Macfadden published over a hundred books in his lifetime, including his 1906 classic Muscular Power and Beauty, showing how to use tension and resistance to develop muscles, 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” made with wheat, oats, and nuts. Two years later, he relocated his sanitarium to Chicago and renamed it the “Bernarr Macfadden Healthatorium.”

The Heathatorium followed many of Macfadden’s strongly-held beliefs about food, such as having only two meals a day, as reflected by this daily menu from 1911. There are no desserts like cakes, pies, and ice cream on this order card, nor is there any white bread which he regarded as one of the worst things a person could eat. However, 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

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

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!)