Our History: Love That Body!

How a 1920s era Madison man enjoyed fine specimens of the male physique.

Health, Athletics, and Physical Culture—that is the title of a rare manuscript notebook assembled by Julius Beecham Vogel in Madison during the 1920s. Vogel, who lived on the 700 block of Jennifer Street, was an aficionado of the male form and its presentation. His notebook contains documents, booklets, and photos devoted to the physical specimen that is man. Reviewing his collection provides a window into the world of male physical culture—a literature of the era that espoused health, science, and physical fitness—an acceptable form of body worship for its time when any homosexual erotica certainly had to be cloaked.

Today we now realize that participation in physical culture was one way men in earlier ages were able to obtain such slightly homoerotic literature. David Chapman’s introduction to Adonis: The Male Physique Pin Up 1870–1940 gives a brief overview of the development of the physique photos. At this point there is no way of knowing Vogel’s exact motives, but his collection shows that even in less open periods, gay men in Wisconsin could finds ways to engage in cultural alternatives. Vogel’s materials left behind a treasure trove when it comes to his interest in the study of physical culture.

On March 6, 1921, Vogel filled out a questionnaire from the International Health Resort at Battle Creek, Michigan. Among his responses were “yes” to bad dreams. He was led to the Battle Creek institution by reading physical culture literature. There were a large number of muscles-by-post operations in the first part of the Twentieth Century, and Vogel explored quite a number of them.

Vogel corresponded with several of these purveyors of material. In 1922, he bought the Encyclopedia of Physical Culture for $6.00 from the Physical Culture Corporation. The company published several magazines with possible appeal including Physical Culture and Movie Weekly.

In filling in a form for Antone Matysek, a physical training expert who operated from Baltimore, Maryland, Vogel—who described himself as having arthritis—lists “weak wrists” as among his conditions he was most anxious to correct. Among the touted offerings by Matysek was the Real Man Maker course.

Another flyer in Vogel’s notebook was from Professor Anthony Barker of New York who made available a publication entitled “HIMSELF: Talks with Men Concerning Themselves,” by two doctors. Among the topics listed for HIMSELF were Anatomy and Physiology of the Male Generative Organs, the Sexual Necessity, Self Abuse, Night Losses-Priapism-Circumcision, and Venereal Diseases, among others. Professor Barker also made available “TRUTHS: Talks with a Young Boy Concerning Himself.

Alan Calvert of Philadelphia provided Vogel with a flyer on Body Molding. One correspondent wrote, “It took me seven weeks to learn that way of striding from the hips; but after I did master it, then, in the three weeks following my thighs gained one and one-half inches and my calves gained one inch in girth.” Calvert’s response, “That is expected, since there are certain tricks of leg management which, when adopted as a habit, always cause an increase in the power and shape of the legs.”

Correspondence from Calvert shows that Vogel sent him some pictures in 1925 as well as a letter. The response was, “I am interested in the front view pictures which show your chest expansion, because your respiratory chest seems to be unusually large.” On Jan 29, 1926, Calvert requested additional pictures in the future. Pictures of successful students were often published in the bodybuilding magazines.

Calvert also added a post-script to the 1926 letter. “I note you addressed your letter to me as editor of ‘Strength.’ I founded that magazine, but at present I have nothing whatever to do with it. I hate to have my name even associated with magazines which specialize in that girly-girly stuff.”

The Vogel notebook also has a multiple-week course by Earle E. Liederman of New York touted as America’s Leading Director of Physical Education. Vogel corresponded with Liederman in 1924, and the notebook includes pictures, presumably provided with the course, showing a trunk-clad Liederman using a spring-style chest-expanding exercise device.

Another publication of Liederman’s in Vogel’s notebook showed pictures of some students. One of these students was Charles Atlas. One of the Atlas photos shows him discreetly seated nude. Yet another photo shows Liederman nude kneeling in front and Atlas who is also nude standing with hands on Liederman’s shoulders in what is described as “an artistic pose.” A note accompanying says the photo printed on heavy paper is suitable for framing.

In Chapman’s introduction to Adonis, he notes that the photographers drew on classical images of the male nude from Greco-Roman times. Vogel’s collection has a couple pamphlets from the Milo Bar Bell Co. of Philadelphia, showing a nearly nude dude in Roman style helmet with a shield and holding a long spear.

Vogel also wrote in 1928 to Character Reading magazine which provided some horoscope information about his rising Taurus sign. The letter noted those with this rising sign “are fond of pleasure and love beauty in nature, art, and music and literature, and are moved a great deal by feeling and sympathy.” Perhaps this was an apt description of the physical culture-loving Vogel.

This unique collection shows that the inventive gay mind in 1920s Wisconsin could find its way around cultural strictures imposed by society.