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The Rags to Riches Story of Charles Atlas

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

It is the classic American story. A poor immigrant settles in New York City, has a bright idea, and makes a fortune.

Charles Atlas in all his muscular glory.

Charles Atlas in all his muscular glory.

A Lion Started it

Angelo Siciliano arrived with his parents in America in 1903 from Calabria, Italy. He was 10 years old and skinny. He was bullied by other boys in the Brooklyn neighbourhood where he lived. One day, so the story goes, he was on the beach at Coney Island when a muscular brute kicked sand in the face of the 97-pound teenager. That was it; he was going to exact revenge.

At the time, there was a strongman called Eugen Sandow who worked the vaudeville circuit performing feats of strength such as snapping chains. Young Angelo made Sandow his model and, using improvised weights, started his own bodybuilding program at home. It didn't work.

But, one day he visited the Bronx Zoo and looked upon an elderly lion that still had a muscular physique. Siciliano later recalled thinking “Does this old gentleman have any barbells, any exercisers? . . . And it came over me . . . He's been pitting one muscle against another!” Without knowing it, he had discovered isometric and isotonic exercises.

Eugen Sandow rippling his abs.

Eugen Sandow rippling his abs.

Muscle Flexing Exercises

Thanks to Medical News Today we know that “Isometric exercises involve holding static positions for long periods of time.” An example is the “wall sit.”

  • “Stand around two feet in front of a wall, with the feet shoulder-width apart.
  • “Slowly lower the body into a sitting position so that the back rests flat against the wall.
  • “Bend the knees to a 90-degree angle as if sitting on a chair, keeping tension in the core.
  • “Hold this position for as long as possible.”

An example of an isotonic exercise is doing arm curls while holding a weight.

The Puny Kid Starts Bodybuilding

After his encounter with the lion, Siciliano went home and tossed out the useless gear he had been using. At the Smithsonian Magazine Jonathan Black tells us that “He began flexing his muscles, using isometric opposition and adding range of motion to stress them further. He tensed his hands behind his back. He laced his fingers under his thighs and pushed his hands against his legs. He did biceps curls with one arm and squeezed his fist down with the other.”

The result, after many months of diligent workouts, shocked his contemporaries when the new Siciliano turned up at the beach. According to legend, one of his classmates said “You look like that statue of Atlas on top of the Atlas Hotel!” It was some years later that he changed his name to Charles Atlas.

In the meantime, young Angelo starting working in the leather trade to support his mother. He might have spent the rest of his life making pocketbooks and purses had not an artist spotted him on the beach and asked him to pose for him. That's when he ran into Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a socialite and sculptor. She knew a hunk when she saw one and said of Siciliano “He's a knockout.”

There was an outbreak of putting up public sculptures, and Angelo Siciliano was much in demand as a model. Among others his physique was used in statues of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington.

Charles Atlas in bronze. He was the model for The Dawn of Glory statue in New York to honour those who served in World War I.

Charles Atlas in bronze. He was the model for The Dawn of Glory statue in New York to honour those who served in World War I.

Atlas the Professional Bodybuilder

In 1921, Siciliano entered a bodybuilding contest at Madison Square Garden in New York City. He won, and followed this by entering the World's Most Beautiful Man competition. This event was run by a bizarre fitness fanatic named Bernarr Macfadden, who had some strange ideas about health; he slept on the floor, walked barefoot to his office, and followed a diet of beans, carrots, raw eggs, and nuts.

When Macfadden saw Siciliano in his leopard-skin briefs, he called a halt to the contest declaring a winner had been found. Siciliano walked away with the $1,000 prize, about $15,000 in today's money. The following year, Siciliano defeated 775 rivals in another Macfadden extravaganza, The World's Most Perfectly Developed Man.

This led to a starring roll in Macfadden's next scheme, which was a movie entitled The Road to Health. The director of the film was another fitness expert called Frederick Tilney.

At this point, Angelo Siciliano changed his name to Charles Atlas.

Dynamic Tension

Together with Tilney, Atlas went into the mail order business selling his exercise program. The course involved a series of 12 lessons with exercises involving muscle development, and participants were encouraged to make the exercises part of their lifelong health regimen.

The venture did well for a few years and then started to sputter, Tilney left, and the company's advertising agency gave the Atlas account to a neophyte to handle.

The new man was Charles Roman, 21, newly graduated from New York University. The young man dreamed up the “Dynamic Tension” label and created cartoon-style print ads. Atlas correctly diagnosed that he had a genius on his hands and he offered Roman half his company as long as the young man would run it.

Roman masterminded what was to become a marketing sensation. As the company says “Charles Atlas, Ltd. holds the distinction of owning the most famous and recognized trademark in advertising history with the 'Hey Skinny®' and 'The insult that made a man out of Mac®' advertisements, which have appeared for nearly a century via comic books and pop culture magazines.”

Roman was pitching his ads to the fragile male psyche. As the United States was staggering from the 1929 stock-market crash, Charles Atlas offered a way for men to rebuild their bruised self images.

It was a simple remedy that still works today as described by The New York Times: “It requires no special equipment or classes—only the 'Dynamic-Tension' Bodybuilding and Fitness Course, 12 lessons in a three-ring binder ($45 plus shipping and handling) that promise 'new muscles in days!' through tips on nutrition, wholesome living and a regimen of exercises that pit one muscle against another. The company still advertises in comic books, using its original, now-classic cartoon of a bully kicking sand in the face of a hapless man as his date looks on in disappointment. And the bulk of its clientele is still teenage boys eager to bulk up.”

The company was faltering when the internet came along and revived its fortunes. Very inexpensive banner ads on youth-oriented websites direct customers to the Charles Atlas method. The strong appeal is that there's no need to spend thousands of dollars on recumbent bikes, ellipticals, or weight machines, or get tied into a gym membership. For around $50, the Charles Atlas promises to turn the scrawny into the brawny.

Charles Atlas in about 1920 in a rare image with his shirt on.

Charles Atlas in about 1920 in a rare image with his shirt on.

Bonus Factoids

  • Charles Atlas loved publicity stunts. In one he pulled a steam locomotive weighing 145,000 pounds over a distance of more than 100 feet. He entertained the inmates of Sing Sing Prison by performing feats of strength, prompting one headline writer to produce this gem: “Man Breaks Bar at Sing-Sing—Thousands Cheer, None Escape.”
  • In 1972, Charles Atlas was still following his exercise program even though he suffered from chest pain. He was hospitalized and died on Christmas Eve 1972 at the age of 80.

Sources

  • “5 Isometric Exercises for People to Try.” Aaron Kandola, Medical News Today, September 29, 2020.
  • Charlesatlas.com.
  • “Hey, Skinny! Charles Atlas Lives!; The Man Is Dead, but the Name Has Kept Its Muscle.” Maria Newman, New York Times, May 31, 2001.
  • “Charles Atlas: Muscle Man.” Jonathan Black, Smithsonian Magazine, August 2009.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on June 11, 2021:

I hadn’t thought about Charles Atlas for quite awhile, but it is interesting that his isometric exercise program is still going. I actually bought it when I was a teenager and still do some of the exercises now and then. I remember it came with a booklet of exercises and photos of him doing them, a spring chest expander and two grip/wrist strengtheners. Thanks for sharing.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on June 11, 2021:

Apparently, he was a thoroughgoing nice guy, which is so refreshing in today's cut-throat corporate environment where you need to be a malignant narcissist to succeed.

Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on June 11, 2021:

I've always admired him and his story. Thank you for sharing.

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