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 then 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 physical fitness fad, the menu includes a toast to “The Religion of Health” given by Bernarr Macfadden, an early advocate of vigorous exercise and a plant-based diet.

Macfadden promoted his ideas in a popular magazine called Physical Culture that was the cornerstone of his publishing business empire.1 While 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 who encouraged women to participate in outdoor sports like golf and tennis. He even 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.

During his lifetime Macfadden published over a hundred books, including Muscular Power and Beauty in 1906 that promoted the use of tension and resistance. In 1907, he opened a sanitarium in Battle Creek where health magnates John Harvey Kellogg and C. W. Post operated such establishments. Macfadden even introduced a breakfast cereal called “Strengthfude.” Two years later, he relocated his sanitarium to Chicago and renamed it the “Bernarr Macfadden Healthatorium.”

The Heathatorium implemented many of Macfadden’s beliefs about food, such as having only two meals a day. This menu from 1911 does not have any desserts like cakes, pies, and ice cream, nor any white bread which he regarded as one of the worst things someone could eat. However, the Healthatorium was not strictly vegetarian, as evidenced by the hand-written inscription that adds two eight-ounce portions of “meat” to the diet of a 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.


Deana Sidney 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!)