The Charles Atlas direct mail campaign
promised might and muscle
The story was told that a skinny kid, a 97 lb weakling, was humiliated on the beach, or the dance floor, or was it the fair grounds, when a bully kicked sand in his face, or bumped into him, or rang the strongman bell…
He is angry when he goes home so he orders the Charles Atlas book that promises to put layers of smooth, supple, powerful muscles all over his body. Later, the muscular “New Man” returns to the beach, the ballroom, or was it the Fair, where he punches the bully and wins back the respect of his girlfriend.
Charles Atlas, aka Angelo Siciliano, was a bodybuilder who developed a system of exercises called ‘Dynamic Tension’, described in the advertisement as a “natural, tested method for developing real men inside and out.”
The direct mail campaign offered young male readers of comic books and popular magazines a copy of his book, “Everlasting Health and Strength”, revealing the secrets that would change weaklings into husky fellows.
“And with the big muscles and powerful, evenly-developed body that my method so quickly gives you I’ll also give you through-and-through health—health that digs down into your systems and banishes such thing as constipation, pimples, skin blotches and the hundred and one other ailments that rob you of the good times and the good things of life.”
The book promoted a series of courses that would get rid of surplus fat, and give young men vitality, strength and pep that would “win admiration of every woman the the respect of any man.”
This advertisement from Popular Mechanics, November 1933, carries the reminder beneath the Charles Atlas signature that “The 97-lb weakling became twice holder of the title: “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man”— won in open-competition in the only national and international contests held during the past 15 years.”
That title has not been authenticated although Bernarr MacFadden, publisher of the magazine Physical Culture, dubbed Siciliano “America’s Most Handsome Man” in 1921, and “Americas Most Perfectly Developed Man” in a 1922 contest held in Madison Square Garden.
The expression “the 97-lb weakling”, which became a metaphor for puniness and humiliation, was created in 1928 by Charles P. Roman an account executive at the Benjamin Landsman Advertising Agency in New York. Roman went on to become president of Charles Atlas Ltd., from 1929 until 1997.
The advertisement also features many of the standard components of Charles Atlas advertisements; the assertion that “I’ll give you PROOF in 7 days that I can turn you into a man of might and muscle”; the challenge to “Gamble a stamp–to prove I can make YOU a new man”; and the ubiquitous coupon for the free book, in the bottom right corner.