B orn Angelo Siciliano in Calabria, Italy, Atlas came to the U.S.A. in 1903 and was raised by his mother in Brooklyn, New York. According to Atlas's own promotional literature, as a teenager he was a "98 pound weakling," who was the favorite pick of many bullies in the neighborhood ("98 pound" may well be a free adaptation of the British "7 stone [= 98 pound] weakling"). Those who towered over him more and more often bullied the young Atlas. He repeatedly swore that he would build muscles. One day, he toured the Brooklyn Museum and carefully studied the muscular bodies of Roman and Greek gods. He claims that he learned thereafter how they attained their strength through exercise.
Even as he used the statues of the gods for inspiration and began to lift weights, Atlas still did not build the muscle he desired. On a trip to the Prospect Park Zoo, Atlas came across a rather large lion and stopped in awe to admire the lion's behavior. Atlas rationalized that lions' strength was achieved in a more natural way. From that point on, Atlas began to use a system of isotonic exercise, which worked one muscle against a fixed point rather than trying to exercise the entire body at once. The use of barbells and Indian clubs had been a feature of late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century bodybuilding courses, such as those sold to eager young men through the mail by the first, modern bodybuilder Eugene Sandow (1867-1925). This worked not only to transform his body but his life as well. Within a year he perfected his system and, supposedly, doubled his body weight. Actually, a similar system had been earlier developed by strong man Alois P. Swoboda (1873-1938), whose widely sold "Conscious Evolution" course featured isotonic exercise.
By age nineteen, Atlas earned a living by demonstrating a chest developer in a storefront on Broadway. It was there that his peers began calling him "Atlas," because of his growing resemblance to a statue of the mythical Titan holding up the world. He legally took the name Charles Atlas in 1922. His physique became widely recognized by many artists, and they modeled many statues after him, including Alexander Stirling Calder's 1916 sculpture of George Washington in Peacetime in Washington Square Park (New York). In 1921, he won 1,000 dollars as the winner of Bernarr Macfadden's contest for the "World's Most Perfectly Developed Man."
In late 1922, Atlas used his prize money to start a mailorder bodybuilding business to market his exercise methods. Atlas himself was a poor businessman and unable to turn his company into a success. However, after he hired Charles P. Roman, a young advertising director, and eventually sold the business to him in 1928, the company began to prosper. Illustrated advertisements about the "98 pound weakling" getting sand tossed in his face on the beach became ubiquitous from comic books to men's magazines. Indeed, the power of this approach allowed the company to survive and, indeed, flourish during the Great Depression. After his death in 1972, Charles Atlas Ltd, continued to sell Atlas's original "Dynamic Tension" program, a term Roman coined, and eventually expanded onto the Internet.
SLG/Laura K. Goldstein See also Bodybuilding; Macfadden
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