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.