Charles Atlas (1893-1972) embodied the nineteenth-century ideal of the self-made man—a dream of self-improvement and rapid transformation that began with a strengthened, healthy body. By 1942, more than 400,000 copies of the Atlas program of self-development had been sold.
According to published accounts, Atlas was born Angelo Siciliano on October 30, 1893, near Acri, in Calabria, Italy. He came to the United States in 1903 with his father, Santo Siciliano, a farmer, who soon returned to Italy. His mother, Teresa, a devout Roman Catholic, raised him in a waterfront section of Brooklyn, New York, while working as a seamstress in a sweatshop. However, Santo Siciliano's naturalization papers state that Angelo was born April 20, 1893, in Brooklyn, New York. They suggest that he lived much of his childhood with his father. Lacking interest in his studies, Angelo left high school in 1908, taking a job as a leather worker in a factory that made women's pocketbooks.
Frail and possibly anemic as a youth, Angelo was twice victimized in incidents that shaped his life and career. At age fifteen he was attacked and beaten on the streets. The following year, still the "ninety-seven-pound weakling" of future advertisements, he was humiliated when a Coney Island bully kicked sand in his face and he was unable to respond. That summer, while touring the Brooklyn Museum, Angelo learned that the muscles he had observed on statues of Greek and Roman gods were the result of exercise. Determined to develop muscles of his own, Angelo joined the YMCA, where he worked on stretching machines, fashioned a set of homemade barbells, and began reading Bernard Macfadden's Physical Culture magazine. Though disappointed by the results, Angelo nevertheless remained open to other solutions. At the age of seventeen, on his regular Sunday trip to the Prospect Park Zoo, he stopped to admire a muscular lion. Its physique, he reasoned, must have developed in a more natural way, perhaps from the animal pitting one muscle against another.
Using a system of isotonic exercise that he derived from this observation, Siciliano transformed his body and, with it, his life. By the age of nineteen, he was able to earn a living by demonstrating a chest developer in a storefront on Broadway. His growing resemblance to a hotel (or bank) statue led his peers to start calling him Atlas—a name he took legally in 1922. Beginning in 1914, Siciliano performed feats of strength in vaudeville with Young Sampson, with Earle E. Liederman in The Orpheum Models, and in the Coney Island Circus Side Show.
In 1916, while doing the Coney Island show, Siciliano was seen by an artist and introduced to New York City's community of sculptors, including Arthur Lee, Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, and James Earle Fraser. In 1918 he married Margaret Cassano; they had two children. Until 1921, Siciliano was one of the nation's most popular male models, his physique serving as the basis for some forty-five statues, including one of George Washington in New York City's Washington Square and another of Alexander Hamilton at the Treasury Building in Washington, D.C.
Siciliano's career took another turn in 1921, when he won $1,000 as the victor in Macfadden's contest for the "World's Most Perfectly Developed Man." He won again the following year at Madison Square Garden—provoking Macfadden's lament, "What's the use of holding them? Atlas will win every time." Late in 1922, he used his prize money to open a mail-order bodybuilding business to market his exercise methods. The Atlas course required no special equipment, stressed a holistic approach that included advice on diet, grooming, and personal behavior, and held out as an ideal a body that, like Atlas's own, was "perfect" in its symmetry and proportions (5 foot 10 inch; 180 pounds; neck, 17 inch; chest, 47 inch; biceps, 17 inch; forearm, 14 inch; waist, 32 inch; thigh, 23 3/4 inch) rather than heavily muscled.
For several years the enterprise foundered, even while competitors thrived. The amicable and obliging Atlas—a poor businessman, by most accounts—spread himself too thin. He opened and then closed a Manhattan gymnasium, and for two years served without compensation as the physical director of a summer camp. The turnaround began in late 1928, when he hired Charles P. Roman, a young advertising executive whose firm had serviced the Atlas account. Charles Atlas Ltd. was incorporated in February 1929, with the two partners holding the stock in equal shares. This arrangement held until 1970, when Atlas sold his interest to Roman and retired.
Under Roman's management, the Atlas company prospered. Atlas ran the addressing machine, bent thousands of railroad spikes and removed his shirt for awestruck visitors. Through a series of publicity stunts—in 1938 he pulled the observation car of the Broadway Limited along 112 feet of Pennsylvania Railroad track—he became a celebrity. Roman coined the term "Dynamic Tension" to describe Atlas's methods and, in the 1930s, wrote the famous ad depicting a young man who, having taken up the Atlas system, avenges his humiliation at the hands of a beach bully.
These and other advertisements appeared in Popular Science, Moon Man, and other pulp magazines aimed at lower-and middle-class males. The advertisements, which had great appeal for young men coming of age during the Great Depression, offered more than a thirty-dollar set of bodybuilding exercises. Atlas embodied the nineteenth-century ideal of the self-made man, a dream of self-improvement and rapid transformation. This was not unlike the Clark Kent/Superman character which first appeared in 1938. The transformation began with a strengthened, healthy body but also encompassed confidence, ambition, and worldly success. Moreover, the advertising copy reflected Atlas's own deeply held belief in the importance of bodily health to general well-being.
The company weathered investigations by the Federal Trade Commission in 1932, 1937, and 1938—the last for "misrepresentative advertising." A London branch was opened in 1936. One in Rio de Janeiro followed in 1939. By 1942, when Atlas Ltd. received another stimulus from the predictable wartime enthusiasm for physical fitness, more than 400,000 copies of the Atlas program of self-development had been sold.
Despite continued financial success and international celebrity, Atlas lived a private, simple, and patterned life— not unlike the one advocated in his course materials. His routine consisted of morning exercises, work at the office, an evening with the family, and more exercises. Atlas died of a heart attack in Long Beach, Long Island, not far from his home in Point Lookout, New York on December 23, 1972.
Gaines, Charles, Yours in Perfect Manhood: Charles Atlas, 1982.
American History Illustrated, September 1986.
Boys' Life, October 1983.
Fortune, January 1938.
Men's Health, October 1991.
New York Times, December 24, 1972.
Saturday Evening Post, February 7, 1942.
Time, February 22, 1937.