Newsstand: 1925: Physical Culture

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a virtual newsstand from the summer of 1925


           Physical Culture began in March of 1899 as a 25-page instruction in bodybuilding written entirely by Bernarr MacFadden. Growing with its success, the magazine quickly branched out to include articles on health and fitness, prescribing activities for both men and women to increase their energy, success, and happiness. As the magazine garnered popularity, it became a forum for MacFadden’s views on the medical profession, morality in society, and the keys to a happy marriage. Physical Culture would continue despite public outrage against obscene images printed in the magazine, MacFadden’s failed political aspirations, and title changes, until ending with MacFadden’s death in October, 1955.




           The emerging view of American nationhood at the turn of the twentieth century can be summarized by Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “The Strenuous Life,” in which he states: “[A] healthy state can exist only when the men and women who make it up lead clean, vigorous, healthy lives; when the children are so trained that they shall endeavor, not to shirk difficulties, but to overcome them…” (Roosevelt 3). With the West taken, white Americans sought a new outlet for personal discovery, and a new identity of masculinity characterized by “the vigor and prowess of the individual male body” (Kaplan 662). Eugene Sandow, a German-born body builder, would provide the model for male physical perfection when he started to tour the United States in 1893, displaying the capabilities of male musculature through various exercises and exhibitions, such as breaking chains with his neck. MacFadden would meet Sandow at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago of 1893, and design a regime around Sandow’s exercises, even going so far as to base his magazine on one of Sandow’s British publications under the same name of Physical Culture (Ernst 17). Teaching bodybuilding and natural health remedies in New York of 1894, MacFadden would change his name in search of a manlier moniker to Bernarr MacFadden.

Published in March of 1899, MacFadden’s Physical Culture started as a pure bodybuilding magazine for men with a 25-page instructional pamphlet which sold for five cents (Ernst 21). Over the coming months the magazine expanded to increase readership by including articles for women’s health, celebrity news, and sexualized stories or images. MacFadden wrote many of the stories under pseudonyms of both sexes (Ernst 21). MacFaddden said “For health to be known, it must be seen,” and so a segment for every issue was started in which professional photographers would capture Grecian-idyllic poses of famous bodybuilders and dancers along with the everyday men and women who represented the active and healthy reader. The publishing of near-nude photographs would become a common theme for the magazine, as well as generating discussion on the morality of publicizing such images. Natural health was a major concern forthe magazine, as Bernarr MacFadden believed that to be healthy was to be happy, and the best health came from the consumption of natural foods, clean air, and exercise.


 [1]           [2]

Photos from “The Body Beautiful” segment of Physical Culture, showcasing the musculature possible with an active, healthy lifestyle. Professional dancers pictured.


MacFadden’s distrust of the medical field would become an attack against the profession. Doctors were viewed as “serum squirters,” with a motive to inject readers’ children with disease in order to have something to cure. The magazine went so far as to include numerous articles based upon the opinion of non-medical doctors, and their secrets to sustained health and vitality through an active regimen of exercise. A falsity supported by the publication was that the writers of these articles were medical doctors with vast years of experience in their field, and over time they learned that their cures could not rival the power of natural living in regard to health.

           Physical Culture began printing letters submitted by readers, and how, in the readers’ own words, they were destitute and ill, but through the tenets of Physical Culture became strong, healthy, and successful in leading a full and happy life. The majority of these letters were re-written for publication or completely fabricated so as to propagate a lifestyle in which the magazine is a necessity. The success of such “reader” submissions, lead to the creation of True Story magazine also published by MacFadden Publications, which sought to garner attention through its use of reader-submitted confessions. The magazine is still in print today.

           The profits from MacFadden’s publication were used to start new magazine publications such as True Story, True Romances, and True Detective. True Story began in May 1919 and would become one of the most successful publications of the time with more than one million and half readers in 1925 (Ernst 77). Along with these investments, MacFadden also used company funds to found a “Physical Culture” city in New Jersey, which was to be a symbol of a health conscious community. MacFadden leased lots in order to control the property, its inhabitants’ behavior, and to prohibit “saloons, tobacco and drug stores, opium joints, and whorehouses” (Ernst 45). The venture was short lived, failing in less than three years.

The 1930s would see a decline in readership, and with MacFadden Publications as a public company, MacFadden had a difficult time differentiating between the company’s  and his own assets. Amidst lawsuits, MacFadden sold the rights to the magazine in 1941, when it was renamed Beauty and Health and became primarily a woman’s magazine for the next two years until MacFadden purchased the rights back to his first publication. Physical Culture would continue to be published until MacFadden’s death in 1955.


—Contextualization by Josh Joyner




1. "The Body Beautiful." Physical Culture Aug. 1925: 49. Ball State University Library. Web. 12 Nov.


2."The Body Beautiful." Physical Culture Aug. 1922: 19. Ball State University Library. Web. 12

Nov. 2010.


Work Cited


Benwell, Bethan. Masculinity and Men's Lifestyle Magazines. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

Ernst, Robert. Weakness Is a Crime: The Life of Bernarr MacFadden. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1991.

Jacobson, Lisa. Raising Consumers: Children and the American Mass Market in the Early Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia UP, 2004.

Kaplan, Amy. "Romancing the Empire: The Embodiment of American Masculinity in the   Popular Historical Novel of the 1890s." American Literary History 2.4 (1990): 659-90.

"Physical Culture Magazine." Ball State University Library. Ball State University, 25 Oct. 2007.. Web. <>.

Roosevelt, Theodore. "The Strenuous Life." The Strenuous Life; Essays and Addresses. New York: Century, 1900.




click cover for magazine

June 1925


Health and Lifestyle


MacFadden Publications

Place of Publication:

New York, NY

Years of Run:

1899 — 1955

Frequency of Publication:


Circulation in 1925: