Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 927

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 927


This is the grave of Charles Atlas.

Born in 1892 in Acri, Cosenza, Italy, Angelo Siciliano immigrated to Brooklyn in 1904, following that huge Italian migration to the United States in these years. He got a job in the leather industry, which was often pretty nasty work.

The early 20th century was a period where you started to see significant interest in bodybuilding and exercise that could be advertised as a new thing in the growing popular media of the day. This was helped by improvements in advertising that centered images rather than endless small text. So you have a lot of young people, men in this case, who felt insecure about their bodies. Some of this was for good reason–they weren’t eating very well! This was a serious issue all the way into the 1940s, when a shocking number of potential soldiers were rejected by the draft due to a lack of health connected to nutrition issues as they grew up. With wages and working conditions bad, it was hard for bodies to grow properly. Meanwhile, the rise of the movies and other forms of mass entertainment created ideal bodies that were promoted. If you saw Douglas Fairbanks or Rudolph Valentino on the screen, you would want to be like them. And then you looked at your own body.

This is where Charles Atlas comes into American history. He would later describe and advertise himself as a “90 pound weakling,” a term that still has salience in American cultural references today. He really wasn’t that small or weak, I don’t think. In fact, he was inspired by the strongmen one would see at circuses and other cultural events and he wanted to be able to do what they do. He didn’t have the money it would take to work out at a gym or the local YMCA. After all, he was a poor Italian immigrant. So he watched these guys and figured out ways to wing it. But this was a great story he could tell. He claimed that when he was a kid and weighed 97 pounds that a bully kicked sand into his face when he was on the beach. That supposedly was why Atlas became a strongman. I dunno. He also claimed that he was at the zoo and was watching a lion stretch and figured out to build out his muscles like that. Again, I don’t know and it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is Atlas’ role in popular culture, which was pretty huge. He began to develop his own exercise courses and he was able to get publicity around them. The key magazine for this grassroots bodybuilding movement was Physical Culture. This was a magazine dedicated for masculine idealized bodies. Atlas was a good looking guy and so he became the public face of American bodybuilding by the early 1920s. The magazine named him America’s Most Handsome Man in 1921. The next year, he won a contest in Madison Square Garden that got him named America’s Most Perfectly Developed Man. But his name was Angelo Siciliano. What kind of a name was that for an American hero? So in 1922, he changed his name to Charles Atlas. He also became a strongman in the Coney Island Circus Side Show.

So Atlas spent the rest of his life as a male model promoting himself as the ideal man. His picture became common in America, especially comics featuring him. He frequently posed for nude statues for idealized male models. There are any number of songs and books that mention him or play with his image. But mostly he made money on his mail-order bodybuilding programs. This has been called the most successful mail-order campaign of all time. Think about it–how many young boys and men have seen themselves at the 90 pound weakling, unable to get the hot girls because they are skinny and weak unlike those big strong toughs. This enters straight into the psychosis of the male psyche. They just ate it up. Atlas worked with an advertising copywriter named Charles Roman to create the scam advertisements. In 1929, they sold 3,000 courses at $30 each and that grew rapidly in future years. In 1941, over 10,000 people bought it. By 1939, the company had sold $10 million in goods. A 1942 New Yorker article noted that there were 250,000 alumni of his program (I grant you that this does not add up with the likely math listed before this sentence). Even in 1971, Atlas sold 23,000 of course his courses, now as much globally as in the United States. He helped himself out through all of this by becoming close with boxers, from Jack Dempsey to Joe Lewis, often appearing with them on radio shows. He also frequently gave nutrition advice, from rubbing your skin with olive oil to eating lots of vegetables.

Atlas also became an inspiration for the growing bodybuilding movement after World War II that led to the Mr. Universe pageant. Think about it, without Atlas, maybe Arnold never becomes governor of California!

Anyway, Atlas lived in New York for his whole life and died in the city in 1972. He was 80 years old.

Atlas continues to be an inspiration for authors who want to play up the bodybuilding story today.

Charles Atlas is buried in Saint John Cemetery, Queens, New York.

If would you like this series to visit other American bodybuilders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Bruno Sammartino is in Pittsburgh and Art Atwood is in Milwaukee. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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