Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Mail-order Muscles: A Comparative Analysis of Early 20th Century Mail-Order Fitness Advertisements, Courses, and Literature

Mail-order Muscles: A Comparative Analysis of Early 20th Century Mail-Order Fitness Advertisements, Courses, and Literature

William D. Pizzimenti

Decades before Charles Atlas developed Dynamic Tension, a vocal minority preached about the physical and mental health benefits of voluntary physical exertion. This vocal minority began producing literature: strongmen such as Lionel Strongfort and Eugen Sandow began publishing books and brochures, advertising their products in, health fanatic Bernarr Macfadden’s magazine Physical Culture.  This work investigates the various linguistic strategies utilized in mail-order fitness advertisements and products of the early twentieth century. As the twentieth century unfolded, mail-order products such as books and pamphlets took on more personable tones, shifting from technical, authoritative reading to a relaxed and informal diction. Meanwhile, language use in advertisement copywriting shifted to aggressive, persuasive, and interactive strategies to grab the attention of readers. This comparative analysis of the linguistic strategies and language usage reveals the lasting impact this literature has had on Western perceptions of diet, fitness standards, physical and mental health, and gender representation and visualization.

April 16, 2020 - Posted by | abstract


  1. This is a very cool project! I am especially interested in what insights on gender representations you drew from the material. I am curious what kind of exercise and diet advice were given to men and women, if this advice was different or conveyed differently by according to gender. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that early print on voluntary exercise has influenced today’s perceptions…so what does your research specifically identify as the ways in which it influenced these modern perceptions of health? It’s such an interesting topic!

    Comment by Elizabeth Watson | April 22, 2020 | Reply

  2. I would be super interested to see how the discourse transpired over time, and as per Elizabeth’s mention about, how gender played a role. Also, could your findings be indicative of tendencies we continue to see today on social media? Is there a connection with fitness marketing on Instagram, for instance? I love this topic.

    Comment by Juliette André | April 27, 2020 | Reply

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