Barbells and Bios: Health and Strength Magazine, Part I

Barbells and Bios: Health and Strength Magazine, Part I

A section of the front cover from Health and Strength, December 6, 1919. Caption "Flu. Fiends." with illustrations of a rat in human hand and insects, likely ticks and mosquitoes.
Image Source: ‘Front Cover’, Health and Strength, December 6, 1919

Health and Strength magazine began publishing in the late nineteenth century and, up until very recently, was still in circulation. Designed for a British audience, the magazine quickly became one of the most well read and well esteemed pieces of its time. In an age when information on weightlifting was hard to come by, Health and Strength’s biweekly or biannual issues proved to be a treasure trove of information. In time the magazine spread from Great Britain to the far outreaches of her Empire, from Australia to India and everywhere in between. As a historian of physical culture, it is difficult to emphasise the importance that much magazines have when trying to uncover the past. More informal, and arguably more entertaining than stand-alone workout books, magazines, such as these, provide an intimate insight into the thinking of those involved in the Iron Game across the ages.

            The problem when it comes to these magazines is that they rarely survive. Published on cheap paper, thrown away after reading or simply destroyed, issues of Health and Strength, especially from the early twentieth century are incredibly hard to come by. I learnt this first hand when completing my doctoral work on physical culture in Ireland. As a then budding Ph.D. student, I was forced to travel to the British Library in London to read Health and Strength articles on Irish physical culture. When it became clear that the British Library’s holdings were insufficient, I was lucky enough to make my way to the Stark Center (thanks to a very generous grant from the North American Society of Sport History) to finish my research on the magazine. That my interest in Irish physical culture forced me to leave Ireland twice to read Health and Strength illustrates, in some small way, the difficulty involved in finding these magazines.

            For the next few blogposts then I want to share some of the weird and wonderful found in the earlier editions of Health and Strength. As an assistant professor at UT, I’m now lucky enough to work in the Stark Center which means that visits to the collection’s Health and Strength collection has gotten considerably easier in the past few months. Predictably this means that I’ve spent several weeks simply reading the older magazines from yesteryear. Doing so has reiterated my belief that physical culture was never an isolated interest, but rather one which spoke to, and amplified, the anxieties of the time. Today’s blogpost is evidence of this fact.

            Shown above is the front cover of Health and Strength magazine from December 1919. The Great War, which swept across Europe from 1914-1918, had finally ended. Troops were returning home, the economy was struggling to return to pre-War levels and people were still unsure about what a peacetime society would entail. This was also, however, a time of panic. As the War ended, a global pandemic – the Spanish Influenza – was spreading across countries at a seemingly unstoppable rate. Already suffering from malnutrition and fatigue, many succumbed to the Influenza’s deadly strain. It was here where Health and Strength sought to make sense of the disease.

            On the front cover that month were the ‘flu fiends’ – the animals Health and Strength believed were spreading the virus throughout Great Britain. The ‘cure’ Health and Strength advised was a natural diet, impeccable hygiene and a steady course of exercise. Given that this was a physical culture magazine, the solution was predictable enough. What was surprising at all was that a fitness and weightlifting magazine felt qualified, or even interested, in dealing with the flu. That they did was evident of the multi-faceted nature of these magazines. Yes they cared about weightlifting and bodybuilding but they also expressed an interest in medicine, politics, social welfare, sport and even, at times, religion. This is what makes Health and Strength such a valuable and rare resource. Each issue simultaneously provided a snapshot into the world of physical culture and the world at large. As will become clear over the next few blogposts, Health and Strength’s sheer variety was what made it special.

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