It's a new year. We've all
to drop a few pounds. But before we begin dusting off the Jane
or Richard Simmons workout tapes, let us consider some historic
that show how corpulence is not a new phenomenon and how the most
technology has always been used to streamline the lumps comprising the
average couch potato.
The roaring 20s were known for jazz, flappers, bad booze, and speakeasies. To judge from the pages of Physical Culture (a publication by Bernarr Macfadden), they were also apparently known for the agony of excessive flesh. In its pages could be found advertisement after advertisement for dumbbells, prizes for muscular development, regaining youth through loss of weight, and notably for this discussion, exercise records. Royal S. Copeland, MD, and US Senator from New York, offered to be the Health Director of your home. Money-back guarantees of weight loss were offered by “Pat” Wheelan. Walter Camp of Yale university offered a phonograph to accompany his “Daily Dozen” program. And Battle Creek’s own Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of the corn flake, had a complete program of biologic living to accompany his Health Ladder.
That these recordings survive to this day is testimony to their popularity. That they usually survive in near-pristine condition is indicative that, no matter what the program, weight loss only happens when you actually do the exercises.
I began accumulating these sets while doing research on Dr. Kellogg for an A & E “Biography” episode. Each of the four sets dates from the early 1920s, and all are acoustic recordings; the lungpower of the exercise director must have been formidable. The music on the recordings was provided by studio musicians and made use of public domain waltzes and marches, although a bit of Offenbach slips in on more than one occasion.
Walter Camp's Daily Dozen (1924)
Walter Camp was a Yale coach and self-proclaimed "exercise expert." He offered a five record set and wall-sized chart demonstrating the exercises. In his advertising he wrote that "...the caged tiger does nothing but stretch his trunk and body muscles, yet he can digest huge chunks of raw meat...yet man, with his advanced intelligence, ignores the simple, natural laws until his health begins to fail.” If the chart were lost (as is unfortunately the case with this particular set), each record offered a brief description of each exercise, including such calorie burners as "The Grind," "The Grasp," "The Roll," "The Grate," "The Crawl," "The Rotate," "The Wave," "The Wing," and "The Revolve." At a time when Ford was paying workers $5 a day, the basic payment plan for these records was $2.50 after the first five days (“on approval”), followed by $2 a month for 5 months, or $10 all at once. The “Camp-Fone” phonograph was extra. Participants could expect to lose weight with only “ten minutes of fun a day.”
Victor Records for Health Exercises (1922)
(VIC 18914, 18915, 18916)
Victor put out this series, nicely presented in a trifold record case containing illustrations of each exercise. There was no particular expert cited, nor any specific program promised. The exercises are basic calisthenics that most of us would remember from high school gym class.
Battle Creek Sanitarium Health Ladder, directed
John Harvey Kellogg, Columbia Records (1923)
(COL A3718, A3719, A3720, A3721, A3722)
Dr. Kellogg, who authored over 50 volumes on diet and health issues (from The Living Temple to Itinerary of a Breakfast) dashed off a nearly incidental booklet of 50 pages to accompany his five record Health Ladder. Each record came in its own folder with illustrations on the particular exercise. His discussion on “biologic living,” poorly lampooned in Road to Wellville, represented his years of study on calorie expenditures and muscle building while director of the Battle Creek Sanitarium. While not the first to promote music as a means to minimize the ennui of exercise, his program was probably the most thorough. In fact, the producers at Columbia couldn't understand the detailed instructions provided by Kellogg, so he went to New York City to demonstrate the exercises at the age of 73. While it was initially presumed that the voice on the records was his, later research revealed it to be only “directed” by Dr. Kellogg. Even in the 78rpm format, these records were still being made available as late as the 1960s. (Warning! Uncle Stan is about to reissue these gems on CD!)
Wallace Institute of Chicago (1920-1922)
Columbia evidently had a niche market on exercise records, for they also pressed the output of the Wallace Institute. Designed primarily for women, these single-faced records, five in all, were actually demonstrated by Mr. Wallace himself in the accompanying brochures to help the ladies “Get thin to music.”
As an interesting side note, it cost 11 cents to mail a set of five records and instruction booklets in 1924.
Said Mr. Wallace, “Not only will my course reduce your weight to normal, but absolutely relieve any tendency toward constipation, indigestion, or gas on the stomach.” His charge was $17 for the entire course on an installment plan or $15 if paid at once. “Do not measure the value of my instruction by the cost of amusement records manufactured in vast quantities. My instructional records represent my life's work as a specialist. They give you professional services for which those attending my establishment in person are glad to pay me $300.”
Where Walter Camp suggested “ten minutes of fun a day,” Mr. Wallace preferred 20 minutes every other day. To his credit, he apparently sent along letters of encouragement to his clients, one of which noted, “Don't be afraid that you will not lose every bit of excess weight in the end, for I have taken sixty pounds off women who only reduced one to two pounds in the first week.” He also took care to warn the ladies about how to manage the more challenging positions required by some of his routines.
Would these programs work today?
your humble typist can attest that each of these sets, while different
in tone and philosophic intent, generates impressive caloric
Oddly enough, the Victor series, for all its simplicity, seems to
as much of a “burn” as the elaborate Dr. Kellogg exercises. The
and Wallace recordings seem far too perky at 78rpm, and I had to follow
the program’s suggestion to “slow down your phonograph” to even fully
the exercise coordinator. I have taken to placing the Kellogg
onto tape, and from there, to CD, just to show that a good idea can be
timeless, no matter what form the technology takes.
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