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How it Looked: The Birth of Bodybuilding

In today’s issue, we have the story of a mighty man from Prussia whose performances at the end of the 19th century had an effect on women similar to Beatles’ concerts in the 1960s.

Bodybuilding began gaining popularity in Europe only around the middle of the 19th century. Men and women were just gazing in awe at the physiques of ancient statues around this time, but they still didn’t know how to shape their own bodies similarly. A young Prussian, however, did find a way to achieve such a figure, and now this man, Eugen Sandow, is known as the father of bodybuilding.

Eugen Sandow (real name: Friedrich Wilhelm Muller) was born in Konigsberg in 1867 into a jeweller’s family. He looked like a girl as a child and didn’t have any inclinations towards bodybuilding. However at age fifteen, while in Rome, he saw the statues of ancient Greek fighters and felt the strength and desire within to be like them, separating himself from his contemporaries who placed greater importance on intellectual development.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Sandow_07.jpg”, “text”: “Eugen Sandow, approximately 1893-1895. Photo by Napoleon Saronni, property of the Library of Congress, USA.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Sandow_16.jpg”, “text”: “Eugen Sandow, approximately 1893-1895. Photo by Napoleon Saronni, property of the Library of Congress, USA.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Sandow_17.jpg”, “text”: “Eugen Sandow, approximately 1893-1895. Photo by Napoleon Saronni, property of the Library of Congress, USA.”}

The young man made it his own way – in the words of journalist David Waller, Sandow spent all of his free time on physical training and on performances at the local circus. He ran away from home in 1885 to avoid being conscripted into the army and started making a living by showing off his strength. He traveled around Europe together with a circus troupe, taking part in routines as a strongman and a fighter, and eventually his employer, Ludwig Durlacher (nicknamed Professor Attila) suggested that Sandow go to London for a strongman competition.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Sandow_05.jpg”, “text”: “Eugen Sandow, approximately 1893-1895. Photo by Napoleon Saronni, property of the Library of Congress, USA.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Sandow_12.jpg”, “text”: “Eugen Sandow, approximately 1893-1895. Photo by Napoleon Saronni, property of the Library of Congress, USA.”}

Friedrich easily accepted the challenge and amazed the London crowd so much that within a few years he was making money just through his performances. “He was a handsome man of marvelous proportions and a natural showman, as well,” recalled his girlfriend and pop artist Vesta Tilley. Eugen once showed her a box filled with bracelets, rings and brooches, expensive things which had all been thrown at him by frenzied women. The women who came to see him even cried for a chance to go to private parties after shows where they might have a chance to touch Sandow’s muscles.

Eugen Sandow was actually quite strong. At a height of 170 cm and a weight of 88 kg, he could do 200 pushups in four minutes even with a few seconds to spare to hold his hands forward. At one of his performances, a platform with three horses standing on it was set up on his chest. Sandow set a world record in 1894: he bench-pressed a barbell with two hollow baskets with one hand while each basket had a man sitting inside. The weight of the barbell was around 120 kg.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Sandow_03.jpg”, “text”: “A poster for vaudeville with Sandow, 1894. Property of the Library of Congress, USA.”}

At the end of the 19th century, Sandow moved to the US to live for seven years where he was making money on his performances and on participating in advertising campaigns. However, it wasn’t enough for him to be just the man with the ideal body. He founded the Institute of Physical Culture in London in 1896, which was the prototype for modern fitness clubs for men and women. He began publishing “Sandow’s Magazine of Physical Culture” two years later. His authority as a propagandist of healthy living had a great influence on many; his book, Strength and How to Obtain It, sold out in Britain and people were training according to his personalized system of physical development.

Sandow made himself into a brand – his name was plastered on spring weights, health corsets, athletic lotions and even cigarettes.

A telling story happened to one of Sandow’s students, writer Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. In the winter of 1904, he was on his way back to his country home in his car. The car crashed into a pole at high-speed, went up a slope and overturned. Doyle’s passenger left unscathed, but the writer himself was hurt by a heavy wheel collapsing on him. The entire weight of the car was laying on his spine, right beneath his neck. Conan-Doyle remained under the pressure of the weight while the crowd attempted to flip the car over. “I think that not many have had a tonne fall on them and lived to brag about it,” the writer admitted later. Doyle later wrote in notes to his friends that he survived only thanks to the exercises prescribed in Eugen Sandow’s courses.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Sandow_02.jpg”, “text”: “Covers of Physical Culture Magazine from 1906. Property of David Chapman.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Sandow_01.jpg”, “text”: “Label on a cigar box, approximately 1894. Property of David Chapman.”}

It was Sandow who held the world’s first athlete beauty contest. He invited Arthur Conan-Doyle and another one of his students, sculptor Charles Lowes, to participate as judges. In 1901, 56 British athletes dressed up in black tights with leopard skin draped over their shoulders. The winner, William Murray, was given as a prize a golden statue of Sandow with the hollow-basket barbell.

In March of 1911, King George V of Great Britain awarded Eugen with the title of professor of physical development. Sandow’s performances weren’t as riveting at the beginning of the First World War as they used to be, so he stopped making personalized systems for physical development completely.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/sandows_002.jpg”, “text”: “Contestants in Sandow’s beauty competition, 1901. Property of David Chapman.”}


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/sandows_001.jpg”, “text”: “Norty School of Physical Culture in New Zealand which carried out training based on Sandow’s methods. Property of the Library of Alexander Turnbull.”}

In 1925, Sandow’s car got stuck in a ditch and some passers-by asked him to pull the car out with one hand. It would be his last trick; the strongman died of a brain haemorrhage.

Eugen Sandow’s training system became the basis for modern methods of physical training. A statue depicting his figure is now awarded to the winner of the “Mr. Olympia” contest run by the International Bodybuilding Association.


{“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Sandow_19.jpg”, “text”: “Arnold Schwarzenegger receives the Eugen Sandow trophy at the Mr. Olympia contest in 1980.”}

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