For 80 years, Charles Atlas Ltd. has been helping young men like the fellow above not get pushed around on the beach. But who was Charles Atlas anyway? The man has been dead since 1972 but his business selling a physical fitness program thrives over a nail parlor in Harrington Park, New Jersey. This month's Smithsoanian magazine has a deep profile of Atlas who spent his life trying to "Make you a new man!" From Smithsonian:
Born in Acri, a tiny town in southern Italy, he arrived with his parents at Ellis Island in 1903 at age 10. His name was Angelo Siciliano, and he spoke not a word of English.
He didn't look like much, either. Skinny and slope-shouldered, feeble and often ill, he was picked on by bullies in the Brooklyn neighborhood where his family had settled, and his own uncle beat him for getting into fights. He found little refuge at Coney Island Beach, where a hunky lifeguard kicked sand in his face and a girlfriend sighed when the 97-pound Atlas swore revenge.
On a visit to the Brooklyn Museum, he saw statuary depicting Hercules, Apollo and Zeus. That, and Coney Island's sideshow, got him thinking. Bodybuilding was then a fringe pursuit, its practitioners consigned to the freak tents beside the fat lady and the sword swallower. Alone at the top was Eugen Sandow, a Prussian strongman discovered by showman Florenz Ziegfeld. Sandow toured vaudeville theaters, lifting ponies and popping chains with his chest. Atlas pasted a photo of Sandow on his dresser mirror and, hoping to transform his own body, spent months sweating away at home with a series of makeshift weights, ropes and elastic grips. The results were disappointing, but on a visit to the Bronx Zoo one day he had an epiphany, or so he would recall in his biography Yours in Perfect Manhood, by Charles Gaines and George Butler. Watching a lion stretch, he thought to himself, "Does this old gentleman have any barbells, any exercisers?…And it came over me….He's been pitting one muscle against another!"
Atlas threw out his equipment. He began flexing his muscles, using isometric opposition and adding range of motion to stress them further. He tensed his hands behind his back. He laced his fingers under his thighs and pushed his hands against his legs. He did biceps curls with one arm and squeezed his fist down with the other. Experimenting with varied techniques, and likely aided by exceptional genes, Atlas emerged from many months at home with a physique that stunned school chums when he first revealed himself on the beach. One of the boys exclaimed, "You look like that statue of Atlas on top of the Atlas Hotel!"