“Weakness is a Crime.” With those four words Bernarr Macfadden launched a media empire built on health. Within a year, his Physical Culture magazine brought its growing readership arguments for fitness and against refined foods; arguments for contraception and against the corset. Macfadden wrote and published books with seductive titles: Virile Powers of Superb Manhood (1900); Power and Beauty of Superb Womanhood (1901). His boldly shared opinions on health, sex, exercise, diet and hygiene were famous; his name became a household word. Circulation of Macfadden’s Physical Culture magazine topped 150,000 in 1899, the first year of publication. In time, it would reach 500,000.
Mafadden’s ambitions extended beyond publishing. In 1902, he opened a Physical Culture vegetarian restaurant in New York City. Before long, restaurants opened in Boston, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cleveland, Chicago, and Philadelphia—at 25 South 9th Street. By 1911, the year Macfadden published his first Encyclopedia of Physical Culture, his health-food restaurant chain had twenty locations. Macfadden opened Physical Culture sanatoriums, health resorts and planned a Physical Culture City. The man had presidential aspirations.
“We need stronger, more capable men; healthy superior women, wrote Macfadden in 1915, introducing Vitality Supreme, another of his popular books. “The great prizes of life come only to those who are efficient. … The body must be developed completely, splendidly. The buoyancy, vivacity, energy, enthusiasm and ambition ordinarily associated with youth can be maintained through middle age and in some cases even to old age. … Why not throb with superior vitality! Why not possess the physical energy of a young lion? For then you will compel success. You will stand like a wall if need be, or rush with the force of a charging bison toward the desired achievements. … Adherence to the principles laid down herein will add to the characteristics that insure special achievements. They will increase the power of your body and mind and soul. They will help each human entity to become a live personality. They will enable you to live fully, joyously. They will help you to feel, enjoy, suffer every moment of every day. It is only when you are thus thrilled with the eternal force of life that you reach the highest pinnacle of attainable capacities and powers. Hidden forces, sometimes marvelous and mysterious, lie within nearly every human soul. Develop, expand and bring out these latent powers. Make your body splendid, your mind supreme; for then you become your real self, you possess all your attainable powers. … It will be worth infinitely more than money. … Adhere to the principles set forth and a munificent harvest of physical, mental and spiritual attainments will surely be yours.”
Whatever were they serving at Macfadden’s Physical Culture Restaurants? Foods “in their natural condition.” Macfadden believed “the process of ‘refining’ is the great food crime of the age.” He believed conventional methods of food preparation had “a destructive effect” upon their “nutritive value.” He pointed out the evils of “white bread” where “the best part of the wheat has been eliminated in the process of milling.” Likewise, he noted, nutritional value is “removed from our vegetables in the process of boiling” and from rice, in the process of polishing. “Trying to secure adequate nourishment,” he observed, many Americans consumed “an excessive amount of the refined defective foods.” Bread is “supposed to be the ‘staff of life,’” wrote Macfadden, but “it might reasonably be termed to be the ‘staff of death’.”
Macfadden urged his followers “to select only natural foods” arguing that “unquestionably, a perfect diet is furnished by nuts and fruits.” In their raw state, “foods…possess a tremendous amount of vitality-building elements,” he wrote. Macfadden relied on salads of “celery, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, water-cress, parsley, cucumbers” with spinach and dandelion, dressed in olive oil and lemon juice. Macfadden woudn’t serve vinegar “partly because it is seldom pure, and one can never tell what combination of chemicals it contains.”
Bernard Adolphus Macfadden (he changed his first name to Bernarr for effect) barely survived a miserable childhood to become America’s first public bodybuilder/empire builder. He survived four marriages, founded his own religion—Cosmotarianism—made and lost fortunes and planned to live to the age of 125. Judging from his confidence and physique in middle age, Macfadden might have actually believed he could.
But Macfadden didn’t achieve that ultimate goal. In 1955, The Washington Post and Times Herald summarized the accomplishments of his 87 years. Macfadden’s “proudly avowed aim” was “to rescue sex from the stuffy and unhealthy atmosphere of the smoking room and the honky-tonk into the clean sunlit world of outdoors, and also perhaps to dignify it as a subject of serious and high minded conversation in physical culture restaurants over a nut-and-spinach ragout and a magnum of chilled carrot juice.”
In the end, Bernarr Macfadden got credited for what he was most of all: a 20th-century American life-style pioneer.