Arguably the best-known physical fitness advocate of the first half of the twentieth century, the muscular but not muscle-bound Atlas became the physical model of the ideal American man. He epitomized personal transformation, self-reliance, and a quest to impress others.
Charles Atlas in a characteristic bodybuilding pose on a beach.
Charles Atlas was born Angelo Siciliano to farmers in the Calabria region of southern Italy. After his parents separated when he was ten, he joined his mother when she immigrated to Brooklyn, New York, in 1904. As a teenager, Atlas suffered bullying from other young men. The experiences left him with a lifelong fear of weakness. In search of an identity, he found the ideal model of a man while viewing classical statuary at the Brooklyn Museum. Soon he pasted a picture of strongman Eugene Sandow on his mirror and religiously read Bernarr Macfadden’s magazine, Physical Culture. Atlas undertook an exercise program with the aim of imitating Sandow. A friend likened the results to the mythological figure Atlas, thus giving the bodybuilder his professional name.
Atlas followed other strongmen into vaudeville. In 1921, he won Physical Culture’s contest as “World’s Most Handsome Man.” A year later, he began the mail-order bodybuilding course that brought him fame. Advertisements in pulp magazines portrayed Atlas in a breechcloth alongside the slogan, “You, too, can have a body like mine.” He became synonymous with health, muscles, and manliness.
Fair, John D. Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. Gaines, Charles, George Butler, and Charles Roman. Yours in Perfect Manhood, Charles Atlas: The Most Effective Fitness Program Ever Devised. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982. Grover, Kathryn, ed. Fitness in American Culture: Images of Health, Sport, and the Body, 1830-1940. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.
History of immigration after 1891
New York City