Cover image for Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell By John  D. Fair

Muscletown USA

Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell

John D. Fair

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$38.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-01855-3

432 pages
6" × 9"
70 b&w illustrations
1999

Muscletown USA

Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell

John D. Fair

“Fair’s tale is peppered with stories about ethnic assimilation through weightlifting success, Olympic glory, and the protracted struggle between the empires of York and Weider. At the center of it all is the indomitable personality and visionary spirit of Hoffman, whose dedication to weight training and singular pursuit of strength has indelibly stamped our culture. Meticulously documented and generously illustrated, this important contribution to the history of American culture is essential for the sports and American studies sections of all public and academic libraries.”

 

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From the 1930s to the 1980s, the capital of weightlifting in America was York, Pennsylvania, the home of the York Barbell Company. Bob Hoffman, the founder of York Barbell, propagated an ideology of success for Americans seeking physical improvement. Often called the "Father of World Weightlifting," Hoffman was a pioneer in marketing barbells and health foods. He popularized weight training and inaugurated a golden age of American weightlifting. Muscletown USA—part biography, part business history, and part sports history—chronicles how Hoffman made York the mecca of manly culture for millions of followers worldwide.

Hoffman created his so-called muscle empire out of an oil-burner business that he started in the early 1920s. Within a decade, his passion for sport exceeded his need to produce oil burners and by the outset of the Depression he began manufacturing barbells at the factory. He soon discovered a willing public of aspiring weightlifters like himself who would buy not only barbells but also health and fitness products. Hoffman soon recruited a remarkable group of athletes, whom he tagged his "York Gang." He gave these men jobs in the factory, where they trained for national and international meets. Gradually, Hoffman emerged as one of the most prominent muscle peddlers in America, using his fame and fortune to promote competitive weightlifting, bodybuilding, and powerlifting. Muscletown USA reveals other innovations in which Hoffman played a major role, including weight training for athletes, health foods, bottled spring water, isometrics, and women's weightlifting. Even anabolic steroids, first used by weightlifters in the early 1960s, were a direct outgrowth of the fitness culture spawned by Hoffman.

Meticulously researched and engagingly written, Fair's book will appeal to a wide range of readers, including anyone fascinated by American sports history and the iron game.

“Fair’s tale is peppered with stories about ethnic assimilation through weightlifting success, Olympic glory, and the protracted struggle between the empires of York and Weider. At the center of it all is the indomitable personality and visionary spirit of Hoffman, whose dedication to weight training and singular pursuit of strength has indelibly stamped our culture. Meticulously documented and generously illustrated, this important contribution to the history of American culture is essential for the sports and American studies sections of all public and academic libraries.”
“For anyone interested in the inside story of the iron game in this century, the publication of Muscletown USA is the event of the year, perhaps the decade.”

John D. Fair is professor of history and chair of the Department of History and Geography at Georgia College & State University in Milledgville, Georgia. He is the author of two books on modern British history. He has competed in more than fifty Olympic and powerlifting meets, coached several teams, taught weight-training classes, staged meets, been a national referee, served on the national weightlifting committee, and even judged a Mr. America contest.

Introduction

"What mudsills are to building, muscular development is to manhood." —Daniel Eddy

York, a small city situated in the “Dutch” country of southeastern Pennsylvania, is conventionally known for the manufacture of air conditioners, chains, motorcycles, stoneware, caskets, and dentures; and it is frequently touted by city fathers as the first capital of the United States. It has also been headquarters for York Barbell—a Mecca for tens of thousands of physical culturists throughout the world. From the early 1930s to the late 1970s its founder, Bob Hoffman, dominated the sport of weightlifting and the related pursuits of bodybuilding, powerlifting, and weight training. Eschewing the train-by-mail methods popularized by Charles Atlas and other early entrepreneurs, Hoffman promoted barbells and health foods, produced by his company in York, as the surest means to a strong and healthy body. Strength & Health, through which he propagated an ideology of success, inspired countless readers to seek not only physical improvement but a greater masculine and American identity.

In the late twentieth century a new cultural dynamic, shaped more by media images, has overtaken muscledom. Today Arnold Schwarze- negger, the Mr. Olympia contest, Weider Publications, Gold’s Gym, and Hulk Hogan are prominent icons in mainstream America, but they could hardly have reached their present level of acceptance without the anaerobic underpinnings established by John Grimek, the Mr. America contest, Bob Hoffman, Paul Anderson, and York, none of which has ever been a household name outside the iron game. Still, these figures will evoke for Pennsylvanians and those whom Hoffman called “Strength & Health boys grown up” a nostalgic feeling for the unique manly culture that once flourished in Muscletown, USA.

Bob Hoffman and York Barbell embraced many of the assumptions of American capitalism as this country developed into a world power nearly a hundred years ago. Hoffman fit the nineteenth-century (Horatio Alger) concept of self-made manhood, epitomized by “industrial work habits, extraordinary moral discipline, and . . . indomitable will.” American culture at the turn of the century had a strong social Darwinian aspect, and athletic achievements mirrored the larger game of life. “Ambition and combativeness” were hallmarks of a new passionate manhood that stressed “strength, appearance, and athletic skill.” Hoffman subscribed strongly to these congruent images in his youth. As an adult, he projected them to others seeking middle-class acceptance. Central to Hoffman’s outlook was his interest in fitness in its broadest sense. During his formative years American sport was relatively immature. Professionalism and specialization were less evident than now, and weightlifting was scarcely distinct from juggling, tumbling, handbalancing, wrestling, and many other fitness endeavors. Hoffman began his athletic career in aquatic sports, especially canoeing, and he was always interested in track and field. Health and fitness, he maintained, were prerequisites to strength and success in athletics. But competition was never pursued for its own sake. It was valued chiefly for the psychic satisfaction it summoned forth, which was always an end in itself. Bob Hoffman was never a great weightlifter, bodybuilder, coach, writer, nutritionist, or businessman, yet he was a great man—chiefly because of his capacity to promote an ideology of success.

The American model of success has often been measured in commercial terms, but no less important to Hoffman and those who subscribed to his ethos was the need to reaffirm sexual identity. The acquisition of health, fitness, strength, and ultimately athletic victory had as its object not only the attraction of the opposite sex but a primal need to acquire domination over the same sex. Maleness, notes a leading sport historian, “seemed most emphatically confirmed in the company not of women, but of other men.” Thus seemingly innocent sporting endeavors can be viewed as expressions of sex drive and virility. While sociologist Paul Hoch interprets athletics as reflecting an urge to dominate other males, “the competition behind the competition,” psychologists have focused on inadequacy and compensatory behavior. The weightlifter’s strenuous feats are merely attempts to overcome feelings of inferiority and “to demonstrate both to himself and to others his male potency,” writes Robert Harlow. That Hoffman was gender-conscious is evident not only from his well-deserved reputation as a “womanizer” but from his role as patriarch in the sport of strong men. What more visible way could there be of displaying virility than by asserting authority over the strong?

What enabled Hoffman to advance weightlifting and promote his ideals for a strong and healthy America was the recruitment of a remarkable body of athletes, the York gang, to engage the fitness-minded public. Notwithstanding such early muscle peddlers as Alan Calvert, Bernarr Macfadden, Earle Liederman, and Charles Atlas, performers like Warren Lincoln Travis, or gym operators such as Siegmund Klein, few realized prosperity in the iron game. Hoffman succeeded because he first established an independent financial base in the oil-burner business during the 1920s.Within a decade his passion for sport exceeded his need to produce oil burners. Gradually this business enterprise was converted for use in underwriting and promoting American weightlifting.

In the early 1930s the company began to make barbells on the side and to accommodate Hoffman’s lifters with jobs. That the training platform was situated in the middle of the oil-burner factory aptly characterized the relationship of lifting to the business. Then, with the founding of York Barbell Company in 1938, Hoffman created a “Muscle Empire” that became the envy of promoters worldwide. But making money, even lots of it, was never more than a means to the greater end of fostering weightlifting and other fitness endeavors, all of which drew attention to himself. His musclemen not only won Olympic medals and physique contests but brought Hoffman fame and fortune by producing his barbells and publications. It was a company of “jocks” trying to be businessmen that emerged from the depths of the Great Depression and helped awaken America to the need for physical fitness.

Most susceptible to Hoffman’s appeal was a large body of neurasthenic and hyphenated Americans who were striving for improvement and an entrée to mainstream culture. A common trait of his followers, underscoring their need for virility, was a physical ailment or debility. Often it stemmed from a traumatic experience in childhood and was accompanied by a self-perception of inferiority. To the desire for selfimprovement through physical recovery, Hoffman coupled the higher ideal of national regeneration. But he hardly originated this concept. Since the time of Father Friedrich Ludwig Jahn in the Napoleonic era, physical fitness had been an important component of nascent nationalist movements. In America it was epitomized by Theodore Roosevelt, who suffered from asthma and cholera morbus as a youth and hardened his body through physical exertion. The indomitable Teddy served as the nation’s foremost advocate of the “strenuous life” at the turn of the century. Unique to Hoffman’s nationalist embrace was his equation of the aspirations of his company and weightlifting with those of America in its cold-war struggle against the Soviet bloc. A fit America was perceived as necessary to beat the Russians, and Hoffman headed a crusade to defend his country’s values against Communism. Success in weightlifting was critical to the triumph of the West.

While Hoffman’s ethos, like that of other regeneration movements, appealed largely to individuals with physical deficiencies and low selfesteem, it also had an important sociological dimension. Like boxing and wrestling, weightlifting had a negative image. It was practiced in sweaty gyms, dingy garages, and dirty basements by members of lower socioeconomic and immigrant groups. But “sport has often served minority groups as the first rung on the social ladder,” notes Robert Boyle, helping to “further their assimilation into American life.” Of the 105 national champions from 1945 to 1960, the period of York’s greatest success, at least 73 (70 percent) fell into this category. Of the 28 world champions, 25 (89 percent) were ethnic Americans, and 12 out of the 13 Olympic gold medalists (92 percent) were from recent immigrant families or distinctive minorities. From the East Coast came the Germans, Italians, and Slavs, and from Hawaii and California came various Asian peoples of the Pacific Rim. Hoffman became their father figure, providing largely second-generation Americans with a sense of purpose, inspiration, and identity in an otherwise alien environment. For three decades his teams embraced the ideal of the melting pot. Strong sociopsychological forces were at work inducing the sons of immigrants to strive for success and, through weightlifting, gain assimilation and realize the American dream. At the vanguard of this process was the York gang, the pantheon of iron-game heroes assembled by Hoffman to serve as models for the nation’s youth—strong, virile, hardworking, and committed to American ideals.

At least until the 1960s York’s formula for socialization and homogeneity worked. But it was chimerical to believe that the comparatively meager resources of Hoffman’s company and the minor sport of weightlifting could engage and overcome those of entire nations. At the height of York’s powers, British writer George Kirkley noted the predominance of weightlifting’s superpowers: “On one side, in America, we have a great weightlifting team gathered, supported and encouraged almost solely by the efforts of one man, Bob Hoffman of York, Pa. On the other there is a huge country of over 100,000 weightlifters, state organized and controlled on a vast scale.” When his teams started losing regularly to the Soviet Union and other Communist nations in the 1960s, it was a tremendous blow to Hoffman’s colossal ego and the myths he had fabricated about the superiority of the York way.

Likewise, within the American iron game, Hoffman’s delusions of grandeur were challenged by a rival organization headed by Joe and Ben Weider of Montreal. The Weiders sprang from recent (Jewish) immigrant stock and staked their success on an alternative commercial strategy. Effectively excluded from competitive weightlifting, monopolized by Hoffman, the Weiders emphasized bodybuilding, and rooted it in the postwar California showbiz culture. The resulting feud between Hoffman and the Weiders, where money, power, and ego were at stake, consumed about two decades, as both parties vied for control of muscledom. Hoffman, with his moralistic and patriotic pitch, triumphed at first. But his failure to keep up with the times and to appreciate the appeal of bodybuilding as America’s tastes changed enabled the tenacious Weiders to surpass him by the mid-1970s. It was Joe Weider who arrogated the title “Trainer of Champions” and promoted Arnold Schwarzenegger to international fame. But much of his early inspiration and sales technique was derived from Hoffman. The road that led to the new muscle Mecca of the 1990s in Woodland Hills, California, very likely began in York, Pennsylvania.

Bob Hoffman and York Barbell constitute an important subculture in the twentieth century and a kind of gender construct that has just begun to attract scholarly attention. Recent books on early physical culturist Bernarr Macfadden by William Hunt and Robert Ernst shed light on this examination of Hoffman. Also relevant are Alan Klein’s Little Big Men and David Chapman’s Sandow the Magnificent, both of which contribute significantly to our understanding of sport and fitness in the twentieth century. In spirit this study resembles the depictions of traditional manhood by John Neuright and Timothy Chandler in Making Men and Kim Townsend in Manhood at Harvard. But with most current literature in men’s studies this book does not readily connect. It is a genre that is highly theoretical, usually informed by a feminist or mythopoetic perspective, and more concerned with the present than the past. Even Michael Kimmel, whose Manhood in America deals fully and frankly with self-made men over the past two centuries, seems embarrassed by the concept of traditional masculinity. “Self-Made Manhood is our legacy,” argues Kimmel, “but it is not our nature.” Much scholarship on males has become apologetic of alleged past transgressions. As Garrison Keillor playfully puts it, “Years ago, manhood was an opportunity for achievement, and now it is a problem to be overcome.” Presentmindedness, however laudable for social engineering purposes, corrupts our understanding of the past. This representation of manhood in Muscletown is neither prescriptive nor ideological; rather, it is descriptive and interpretive in the sense of attempting to recapture what Herbert Butterfield calls the “past-ness” of the past. This study therefore seeks neither to condemn nor to glorify Hoffman and his movement but to view them with historical perspective.

Critical to this approach is the use of original sources. Any previous understanding of the York phenomenon has been hampered by a longstanding reliance on oral tradition and an absence of bona fide historical records. To compensate for this void, I have collected information on three levels. First, members of the York gang and others directly linked to Hoffman contributed greatly through their candid observations about the past. Memories, however, can be tricky and not always reliable. Even the most vivid recollections can be distorted to suit current preoccupations or designs. A fuller understanding is possible when oral testimony is anchored to written sources. Such evidence has been notoriously scarce in the iron game, but in the present instance a corpus of such material is readily available in Hoffman’s many books and magazines, Strength & Health and Muscular Development, published for fifty-four and twenty-five years respectively. Furthermore, Hoffman had a keen appreciation of history. Not only did he feature old-timers prominently, but he detailed the accomplishments of himself and his followers with an eye on how they would appear to posterity.He wanted to be the prophet and patriarch by whose hand traditions were set. For this reason, and because of his desire to promote his products and ideology of success, Hoffman extrapolated on the truth. He also wanted to cut a wide swath in history and often stated his intention to reach a hundred and live in three centuries. If this were not possible, he believed he could live forever through his writings. Such cravings for immortality usually mislead more than they inform. However valuable Hoffman’s extensive writings might be as a source, they must be used cautiously.

The kind of resource most valuable in gaining an accurate view of the past is manuscript evidence. I asked everyone I interviewed whether he or she had any papers pertinent to York. Almost no one did, but success came unexpectedly from Bob’s widow, Alda Ketterman, who led me to a treasure trove of materials at her home in Dover and two other locations. Some of it was filthy and water damaged, but it was unexpurgated, the kind of collection most useful to historians. Also, John Terpak Sr. made available, in successive stages, large quantities of company records— from the Ridge Avenue warehouse, the old Broad Street offices, and the modern plant near Emigsville—that complemented the Hoffman Papers. Eventually he allowed me to obtain whatever I needed from his personal files, enabling me to carry my story through the period of Bob’s illness and beyond. The value of the generosity and cooperation of Ketterman and Terpak to the telling of this story cannot be overestimated. With these manuscripts, along with extensive printed sources and interviews, a more revealing picture of Bob Hoffman and the manly culture of Muscletown, USA, is possible.

© 2006 The Penn State University

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