Sandow the Strong
“Fat being acquired through sluggish habits and too much food, it must be lost by the reverse—active habits and little food.” That was the instruction Amy (later Aimée) Crocker Gouraud got from her “physical culturist” at his School of Exercise in London when she asked him what she should do, “to be rid of some of my charming self.”
Back in 1898, the heiress began putting on weight. A front page “on dit” (gossip) article about her in Honolulu’s The Pacific Commercial Advertiser reported that she had “grown in embonpoint lately” and looked “a bit outre” in her tight-fitting dresses. Amy was spending nearly every night at some new restaurant after a Broadway opening and it showed in her figure.
A 1904 San Francisco Examiner piece chronicled her battle of the bulge, “I was not by nature stout. As a girl I had been slender, as a woman not more than plump, but in the past twelve months I had grown fat…I surveyed my figure in the mirror with disgust, sometimes with tears. I weighed 195 pounds.” Amy was a fairly recent bride–the third time was a charm–and her groom was nearly ten years her junior. She wanted her youthful figure back again.
“I must exercise, I was told. I must eat less, and my mentor was emphatic about this—I must not reduce my flesh too quickly. Nature must be the guide. I had taken on my surplus weight in a year. I should take a year to rid myself of it.”
And she did it. Mrs. Gouraud in one year, through “absolute insistency and persistency” reduced herself from 195 pounds to a svelte 115 pounds. Amy details in her 1904 article the chain of 18 calisthenic exercises that she performed in her 30 minute morning routine. Her daily workout was followed by a cold shower. Amy drank from two and a half to three quarts of water a day, beginning with two glassfuls on rising. Her trainer insisted that no beverages should be drunk at meals nor for two hours afterward. She abstained from soup, sweets and potatoes and walked from 3-6 miles per day sometimes in an Indian rubber suit.
The Physical Culture movement was in full swing and women were enthusiastic participants. Females were no longer considered too delicate for exercise. The parameters of sex differences were being debated and questioned among professionals and social scientists. Were physical differences between men and women fixed or flexible, important or trivial, locked in nature or amenable to change? To the proponents of physical culture, no one was fated to keep the body they were born with. Anyone could exercise and become healthy, beautiful, and strong.
Training in physical culture (including hygiene, exercise and team sports) became a required part of the curriculum in girl’s schools and colleges. Girls were learning new things about anatomy and the negative effects of physical inactivity, unhealthy diets and wearing restrictive clothing. Dress reformers were calling for emancipation from the “dictates of fashion.” The nation’s first women’s intercollegiate athletic game was held in 1896–Berkeley vs. Stanford–in basketball. Stanford won. The first women’s fitness magazine, Women’s Physical Development, was launched in October of 1900. The Olympics were back after a 1500 year hiatus and women were included in the competitions.
“It is a matter of congratulation that the anemic age of womanhood has passed and the more enlightened era of physical science is come; that, unlike her sisters of fifty or even twenty years ago, all sports and athletic exercise are now open to her without cavil or criticism from either her own or the opposite sex,” Amy’s London trainer told a San Francisco reporter.
Four years after Amy’s dramatic weight loss it was reported that she kept the weight off. Hooray! It also revealed who her trainer was in London. The man who taught Amy how to bring back the blush in her cheeks and stay young, healthy, fit and slim was none other than legendary strongman Eugen Sandow.
Sandow, according to Broadway impresario Florenz Edward Ziegfeld Jr., his one time agent, dramatically refashioned his own weakling body, “into a marvelous human power machine of whipcord muscles and sinews of steel—[and became] the idol of millions in his prime; honored by kings, princes, and presidents; patronized by aristocracy and adored by gentlewomen; worshiped by strength-loving youth everywhere.” Amy’s health was in good, strong hands.
Sandow was born Friedrich Wilhelm Müller in Königsberg, Prussia, near the Russian frontier in 1867. As a boy he devoted himself to sports and athletics until he became quite skilled as an amateur gymnast and wrestler. He studied anatomy in Brussels and at the University of Göttingen. Müller visited museums and studied the musculature and the poses of the statues from antiquity. These sculptures became his goal–his vision of the perfect physique. He then began developing his own system of muscle training.
Müller turned to the circus, the theater and the wrestler’s arena for his livelihood. He tramped throughout Europe town to town developing both his muscles and his strongman act lingering longest in Italy, Belgium and Holland.
In Rome, Friedrich attracted the attention of King Humbert by his performances, which included the defeat of the noted Italian wrestler Basilio Bartoletti. In some cities he would pose for artists. Sandow served as a model for well-known Brussels sculptures, The Tomb of the Wrestlers by Charles Van der Stappen and Jef Lambeaux’s Dénicheur d’Aigles.
While in Brussels in the late 1880s, the young Friedrich visited the gymnasium of Ludwig Durlacher, better known by his stage name of Professor Attila, one of the best known weight lifters of the era. It was under Attila’s guidance that Friedrich changed his name to Eugen Sandow (a variation of his mother’s maiden name), learned the importance of showmanship and of course sculpted his legendary physique.
Sandow and Attila traveled to London in order to challenge another well known strongman, Charles ‘Samson’ Sampson, who was playing at the Royal Aquarium Theater. They had learned of Samson’s standing challenge to his audiences–he would give £500 to any opponent’s £100, who could match his feats of strength. The judges were the Marquis of Queensberry, the originator of the rules of boxing and the nemesis of Oscar Wilde, and avid sportsman Lord de Clifford.
Over a series of showdowns Sandow not only proved that he was stronger than Samson, but also that he was in possession of a remarkably aesthetic figure. He was hailed as the strongest man on earth at only twenty two years of age. In the wake of his well publicized victory, Sandow began stage-posing for large live audiences at the Alhambra Music Hall. Buoyed by his rising stardom, Sandow then commissioned Henry Van der Weyde’s photography studio in Regent Street, London, to photograph him as the new king of strongmen wearing nothing but a fig leaf.
Sandow made his way to America and the Casino Theater in New York to perform in the musical farce Adonis. At the end of each performance, the curtain would be lowered on the lead actor who stood on a pedestal posed as a statue, then raised again to reveal that the actor had now been replaced by the self-sculpted and statuesque Eugen Sandow.
The New York newspapers, in their reviews of the play, had praised Sandow’s appearance as “having the beauty of a work of art, [with] such knots and bunches and layers of muscle [as the audience] had never before seen other than on the statue of an Achilles, a Discobolus, or the Fighting Gladiator.”
In 1893, the young Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., desperate to find original stage acts for the opening of his father’s new Trocadero Theater in Chicago, which was to be one of the main venues of the World’s Columbian Exposition, caught Sandow’s scene stealing appearance in Adonis and immediately saw dollar signs. For his World’s Fair engagements, Sandow was photographed by Napoleon Sarony, who famously shot another well-know poseur–Oscar Wilde. The revealing cabinet cards showed Sandow wearing nothing but his signature fig leaf, Roman gladiator sandals and a handlebar mustache (this at a time when women couldn’t show their ankles and men couldn’t go topless on the beach). The Sarony series sold big at appearances for the rest of his life.
Sandow performed at the popular Midway Plaisance portion of the Fair as did heavyweight champion “Gentleman Jim” Corbett who gave daily demonstrations of his self-styled “scientific boxing method” at the Natatorium café and the Old Vienna restaurant. Ehrich Weiss, who was testing out his new stage name, Harry Houdini, was another Midway performer who would later become famous for his physical feats. Newspapers reported about a war of words between Sandow and Corbett. The strongman claimed that if he ever fought Corbett, “he could literally break the man in two.” Corbett told Sandow that he, “could whip him through and through at any time and in any place he might set.”
Journalists couldn’t resist the temptation to compared and contrast Corbett and Sandow. Gentleman Jim was found wanting on the grounds that he was not visibly muscular: “compared with Sandow, Corbett, the fighter, is like a lean spring chicken beside a bulldog.” Fair organizers cut Corbett’s appearances off months before his contract was up. He was outshined by a new superhero.
Thomas Edison chose both athletes as subjects for use in his pioneering kinetoscope motion picture viewing device. They are among the first films ever created.
Before he glorified the American girl in Ziegfeld’s Follies, Flo glorified the Prussian hunk Sandow. Once the legendary Ziegfeld’s flair for publicity was applied to Sandow, his national and international celebrity became astronomical.
Sandow was a crowd pleaser and his act was exciting. When the Trocadero’s velvet curtains parted, colored lights would slowly bathe over Sandow who was posed as a statue. He would cover himself with white powder so that he looked more like marble. An orchestra led by virtuoso pianist and composer Martinus Sieveking played and Sandow would flex in time to the music. The poses of great art would become the basis of his routines (and photo sessions). As long as the chiselled bodybuilder played the part of a Greco-Roman statue, his nakedness was considered art not public indecency. His photos were marvelous not pornographic.
After making his muscles dance under the spotlights, Sandow would then perform dazzling feats of strength: Tear a double deck of cards in two; lift a 500-pound weight with his little finger; balance three horses standing on a plank on his chest; lift a pony over his head with one hand… The agile strongman would turn a back somersault blindfolded, with a fifty-six pound dumbbell in each hand. In a show stopper, Sandow would lift two men in a human dumbbell above his head with one hand.
When Eugen Sandow took to the stage clad only in a pair of miniature briefs, audiences absolutely swooned. Backstage after a theater performance, journalists and select men and women of high society were invited into the dressing room of the curly blonde hunk of German manhood and were given the opportunity not just to ogle “The Great Sandow” up close, but to cop a feel of his bulging biceps, his eight-pack abs or his great muscle-armored chest (his 48in chest could be flexed to 62in). Sandow took enormous pride in his muscles. They were a great masterpiece of his own creation. He enjoyed showing them off and was very aware of his sex symbol status. Titillating both his female and male fans off stage was part of the act.
Never before had the body of a living person excited such universal interest.
Ziegfeld signed Sandow for a four-year contract which returned the promoter a quarter of a million dollars (and Sandow considerably more) from performances in Great Britain and the United States.
From the Chicago World’s Fair Sandow performed in and around The California Midwinter International Exposition. He arrived in San Francisco on April 15, 1894. Filled to the brim with bluster, Sandow immediately challenged the world’s most renowned strong men—Cyclops, Kennedy, Sampson and Cyr.
The Examiner lauded the strongman as a superstar, “The beauty of the human form is a subject that creates universal interest, but the perfection of that beauty creates ecstasy…the idealism of Michelangelo is not a myth, but has been realized in Mr. Sandow.”
The bodybuilder gave nightly exhibitions of his strength and skill at the Vienna Pratera and gave a special exhibition at the Palace, then the largest hotel in the world.
At the big tent at San Francisco’s Central Park, before three-thousand people, Sandow the Strong wrestled Commodore the Lion. Sandow’s majestic opponent was handicapped though with moccasins on his feet and a muzzle on his mouth. The lion was fairly lackadaisical and disappointing as ferocious man eaters go, so Sandow lifted him over his head and spun him around to rouse the crowd.
Later in San Francisco, Sandow posed for a ladies only sketch club. The attendants were first given a desultory talk on “Artistic Anatomy” in order to gain a proper appreciation of the artistic results that could be attained by muscular development. The performance was regarded by the liberal ladies as “perfectly proper, and there were no false modesty blushes, and no side giggles.” Later that year, he posed naked for renowned photographers George Steckel in Los Angeles and Benjamin J. Falk in New York.
Noted physical educator Dudley Sargent of Harvard University examined Sandow thoroughly and judged him to be the finest specimen of manhood he had seen. All of his boastful claims of superiority were legitimized. Sandow was a fin-de-siècle phenomenon.
Back in England, The Great Sandow set up dozens of physical culture studios throughout England and the continent (he later opened a gym in Boston), built a successful physical culture magazine enterprise, published fitness books and patented his own dumbbells and other physique training apparatus.
Sandow’s name was in demand by manufacturers of everything from tonics and health foods to shoes, bicycles, suspenders, cigars and cigarettes (his School of Physical Culture on Ebury Street, near Victoria Station included baths, private consulting rooms and dressing-rooms and a spacious smoking lounge). Sandow’s Health and Strength Cocoa was a much-hyped protein enriched health beverage launched in 1911.
On September 14, 1901, in the Royal Albert Hall in London, some 15,000 spectators assembled to watch 60 finalists chosen by Sandow from various regional trials throughout Great Britain in that country’s first bodybuilding competition. They were judged on the balance and tone of their muscular development, general health and skin condition.
The judges of the night were Sir Charles Lawes, a famous sculptor and amateur athlete and Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the Sherlock Holmes series. The most perfectly developed man in Great Britain was awarded a solid gold statuette sculpted by William Pomeroy of a naked Sandow lifting a dumbbell, with silver and bronze trophies given to the runners-up.
Winners of the Mr. Olympia competition (International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness) are still awarded a version of Pomeroy’s Sandow to this day.
Also in 1901, a life-sized statue of Sandow the Strong was completed. The Director of the Natural History Department of what was then the British Museum commissioned a plaster cast of the living legend, who posed fully-flexed and in all his glory. They wanted to immortalize the great man in his actual proportions.
One of his proudest moments and greatest complements in Sandow’s career occurred in 1906 when the traveling vaudeville show The Dairymaids, which toured across Great Britain and North America, featured the “Sandow Girls” replete with mock dumbbells and form fitting clothing. Sandow was a strong proponent of female physical culture in the British media and was known for chastising those who discouraged female engagement in the gymnasium. Eventually history’s greatest strongman hired his own “Sandow girls” who demonstrated his various physical appliances at live events and shows.
Exercise as Treatment
“It is interesting to glance back through the generations, even as far as the ancients. If we stop midway back we find that we drive where our ancestors walked; we are replacing the stairs with the lift; the automobile is displacing the bicycle; we favour indoor amusements rather than outdoor games and contests. In short, we are in dangers of becoming a race of people whose sole physical exertion will consist in pressing buttons and turning levers.” – Eugen Sandow, The Gospel of Strength
Industrialization drove the expansion of the British Empire, but many believed that it made the bodies of their citizens weak. Technological changes trapped people indoors in factories and offices and made people slovenly. Worry about national fitness helped fuel the exercise craze and the physical culture movement. By the turn of the century, Sandow was hired to train police officers, firemen and soldiers. “I did not train as most persons do who belong to the athletic clubs. That training is all wrong. By it they only develop certain sets of muscles and leave the rest entirely underdeveloped. By the process which I then adopted I began to develop every muscle in my body,” declared the great bodybuilder.
Sandow believed that he had solutions not only to make relatively healthy people athletic and strong but sick people well. Sandow was a passionate proponent of treating illness through diet and exercise. In the late 1800s, Sandow opened a series of medical clinics for clients wishing to treat themselves without the use of harsh medicines or pharmaceuticals.
Sandow’s “Curative Physical Culture” was described as “The Antidote for all forms of Functional Disorder.” He unabashedly claimed that he could successfully cure, “almost every illness which arises from the disturbance of the natural healthy functions of the body.” Among the ailments that Sandow treated were: chronic headaches, rheumatism, indigestion, poor circulation of the blood, obesity, uric acid complications, weakness of the heart’s action and circulatory disorders, “as well as the hundred and one ailments which arise from nervous weakness and breakdown.” Sandow’s Curative Physical Culture clinics/studios helped people, “become healthy and strong, hearty eaters, sound sleepers, thorough enjoyers of life.”
Sandow “skillfully and scientifically” designed the exercises to meet the requirements of each patient’s individual case, “not only to strengthen weak organs and to build up the fabric of the body as a whole, [but] encourage concentration of the mind, the building up of the will power.”
Eugen Sandow claimed that over 90% of his ailing clients recovered. By the 25-year silver jubilee celebration of his first Institute for the Cure of Illness without Medicine, Sandow claimed that more than 200,000 sick people were, “rendered healthy, strong and capable of enjoying life, work and play to the full—all without any operation, medicine, drastic dietary or other unpleasant experience.” Sandow’s 1919 book Life is Movement details both the strongman’s successful medical clinics and his belief in a world free from disease.
Eugen Sandow counted kings Edward VII and George V, as well as the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Theodore Roosevelt and Amy Crocker, among his adherents. Disciples of Sandow were many and include modern day legends Lou Ferrigno and Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course, but also Bruce Lee, whose great library of books included all of Sandow’s writings. Much of Lee’s fitness philosophies can be attributed to the corpus of knowledge that Sandow left behind.
In 1911, Eugen Sandow was appointed by King George V as Professor of Scientific Physical Culture to His Majesty.
“It is the mind—all a matter of the mind,” he would tell his pupils. “The muscles really have a secondary place. If you lift a pair of dumb-bells 100 times a day with your attention on some object away off, it will do you little good. If, however, you concentrate your mind upon a single muscle or set of muscles, for three minutes a day, and say ‘do thus and so,’ and they respond, there will be immediate development.”
“The very secret of my system,” he once said, “lies in knowing just where you are weak, and going straight to work bringing that particular part up to the standard of your best feature; for there is a best feature in every man, as there is also a worst. Knowing your weakness, the secret is to concentrate your mind and energies on that weakness with a view to correcting it.”
“A Lion Was His Antagonist, but the Beast Would Not Play,” The Brooklyn Eagle, May 23, 1894, p 1.
Amy Crocker Gouraud, “How I Got Rid of 80 Pounds of My Charming Self in One Year,” The San Francisco Examiner, Nov 14, 1904.
Conor Heffernan, “How Britain Became the Birthplace of Modern Bodybuilding,” British Society of Sports History, Physical Culture, www.playingpasts.co.uk, Nov 7, 2016.
David Chapman, Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., “From a Weakling to a Hercules: How Puny Boy Became the World’s Strongest Man (As Told to Arthur A. Stuart),” Popular Science, Feb 1926, pp 19, 137-140.
“He Posed for Ladies Only,” The San Francisco Examiner, May 17, 1894.
Hunter Oatman-Stanford, “The World’s First Hunk: Why We’re Obsessed with Muscle Men,” www.collectorsweekly.com, Mar 3, 2015.
“Ironing Out the Fat,” The San Francisco Examiner, Mar 14, 1908.
Martha H. Verbrugge, “Gender, Science & Fitness: Perspectives on Women’s Exercise in the United States in the 20th Century Health and History,” Australian and New Zealand Society of the History of Medicine, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2002), pp 52-72.
“Mrs. Harry Gillig,” The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, (Honolulu, HA), Dec 23, 1898, p 1.
“Mrs. Gouraud’s Obesity Remedy,” New York Press, Mar 7, 1905.
The Perfectible Body: The Western Ideal of Male Physical Development, Continuum Intl Pub Group, 1995.
“Sandow is Angry,” The San Francisco Call, Apr 16, 1894.
“Sandow’s advice to women,” The Fort Wayne Sentinel, Dec 27, 1902.
“Sandow’s muscles,” The San Francisco Call, Apr 22, 1894.
“Where Britain Leads. The Cure of Illness,” The Times, Nov 2, 1909.