Atlas, Charles (1893-1972)

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Atlas, Charles (1893-1972)

Born Angelo Siciliano in 1893, Charles Atlas went on to become one of the iconic cultural symbols of the twentieth century, influencing generations of men to embrace the ideal of muscular masculinity. Through his popular mail-order courses, advertised in comic books and boys' magazines, Atlas outlined his method to transform oneself from scrawny to brawny and, in doing so, become "a real man."

Shrouded in advertising lore, the biography of Charles Atlas must be viewed with a certain amount of skepticism. According to the muscleman's promotional literature, in 1903 the young Angelo Siciliano, newly arrived in the United States, was a puny, ninety-seven-pound weakling and a favorite target of neighborhood bullies and, on occasion, family members. Swearing "never [to] allow any man on this earth to hurt me again," Siciliano set about building his body with a variety of training apparatuses. Despite his best efforts, however, Siciliano proved unable to increase his muscular size to the proportions he desired until a trip to Brooklyn's Prospect Park Zoo yielded an exercise epiphany which would change his life.

While at the zoo, Siciliano watched lions and tigers and marveled at their muscularity. It was at this time that he first theorized the principles of "Dynamic Tension." Noting that the animals had no exercise equipment with which to build muscles, Siciliano determined that they must be working "one muscle against the other." He began experimenting with the principles of what would later become known as isometric exercise and within a year had perfected his system of apparatus-free exercise and, allegedly, doubled his body weight.

With his very own muscle-building system, Siciliano adopted the name Charles Atlas to evoke a classical image of muscularity and began performing feats of strength. While showcasing his musculature on a Coney Island, New York, boardwalk, Atlas was discovered by a sculptor who introduced him to the art world. The young bodybuilder became renowned for his well-muscled physique and served as the body model for numerous sculptures including the statue of Alexander Hamilton in front of the United States Treasury building and that of George Washington on the Washington Square Arch in New York City.

In 1921, Atlas received the title of "World's Most Perfectly Developed Man," having triumphed at a prestigious bodybuilding competition hosted by physical culture advocate and publisher Bernarr MacFadden. To capitalize on his growing fame, Atlas co-wrote and sold a manual that explained his isometric principles and various sporting pursuits, and offered general nutritional and health information and "inspirational" passages such as, "Don't dilly dally!" and "Get Up!" Despite his best efforts, Atlas' mail-order business struggled until 1928, when he teamed-up with Charles Roman, a young graduate of New York University's business school. Roman's advertising acumen and flair for ad copy helped transform Atlas from a mere muscleman into an international star.

Roman concocted a simple but effective advertising campaign centered around a cartoon titled, "The Insult Which Made a Man Out of Mac." The short sketch featured a somewhat trite but highly effective sketch in which a bully kicks sand in the face of a scrawny youth (Mac) in front of the weakling's girlfriend. This action prompts the frail Mac to follow Atlas' course and vanquish the bully, thus winning the respect of his sweetheart. Soon spindly youths everywhere were seeking Atlas' remedy for the neighborhood ruffian. This basic appeal, which blended together violence and stereotypical masculinity, propelled the physical culturalist to great financial success and increased celebrity. Although his cartoon advertising yielded impressive results, Atlas refused to rest on his laurels and continued to engage in strength-related publicity stunts such as pulling train cars and bending iron bars for years to come. He retired to Florida, after selling Charles Atlas Ltd. to Roman, where he continued to showcase his still imposing, although markedly less chiseled, physique. In 1972, Atlas died of a heart attack at the age of 79.

After his death, Charles Atlas Ltd. continued to sell the original Dynamic Tension program using Atlas' trademark cartoons and black-and-white photographs of the muscleman in his prime. While still featured in traditional publications geared for boys and young men, Charles Atlas also took to cyberspace, where his courses and an expanded product line are sold via the Internet.

Atlas' trademark program, combining calisthenics and isometric exercises, once well ahead of its time in the field of exercise science, has long since fallen out of favor with the weightlifting and bodybuilding community. A full range of motion exercises involving free-weights or exercise machines have taken precedence over Atlas' exercises. While considered somewhat archaic, Atlas' exercises often did, and still can, deliver muscular results designed to drive away bullies and stop sand from being kicked in one's face.

—Nicholas Turse

Further Reading:

Butler, George, and Charles Gaines. The Life and Times of Charles Atlas. Angus and Robertson, 1982.

"Charles Atlas: The World's Most Perfectly Developed Man." June 1999.

Dutton, Kenneth. The Perfectible Body: The Western Ideal of Male Physical Development. New York, Continuum, 1995.

Gaines, Charles. Yours in Perfect Manhood, Charles Atlas: The Most Effective Fitness Program Ever Devised. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1982.

Green, Harvey. Fit for America: Health, Fitness, Sport, and American Society. New York, Pantheon, 1986.

Schwarzenegger, Arnold, and Bill Dobbins. Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1987.