There is something cordial about a fat man. Everybody likes him and he likes everybody. […] Food does a fat man good; it clings to him; it fructifies on him; he swells nobly out; and fills a generous space in life. He is a living, walking minister of gratitude to the earth, and the fullness thereof; an incarnate testimony against the vanities of care; a radiant manifestation of the wisdom of good humour. A fat man, therefore, almost in virtue of being a fat man, is, per se, a popular man and commonly he deserves his popularity.

Monmouthshire Merlin, 1855

As a historian of sport and physical activity, I have often sat in on conference papers exploring issues related to the body. Typically, the bodies under discussion have been in peak physical condition: sculpted perfectly for the type of sport being played. One of the leading scholars in the field of body building – herself a former strong woman – Jan Todd, of the University of Texas, has shown persuasively how athletic bodies were formed in a variety of ways since the nineteenth century. John Fair’s forthcoming book on body image in the Mr America contests in the mid-twentieth century will, no doubt, similarly illustrate the social contexts in which physical form has helped to govern (and been governed by) the requirements of sport. By contrast, efforts to grow a fitness industry in the 1950s failed: Americans were little interested. Even in the 1960s less than a quarter of Americans exercised regularly. Yet by 1987 nearly three quarters of Americans polled said that they took some form of fitness activity, after a period in which (to adopt the words of Benjamin G. Rader) ‘strenuous living was widespread’.

Most people live most of their lives with a relatively healthy body: neither too fat, nor too thin. Yet, whereas historians have focused a good deal of attention on the ideas about and motivations behind peak physical fitness and training, they have overlooked – to a large extent – the question of obesity and fatness. With contemporary society having taken to its zenith body worship and medicalised awareness of the need to keep healthy, it’s now quite hard to imagine anyone celebrating obesity or forming fat men’s associations. Yet, a century ago the United States enjoyed a vogue for the larger man, both as music hall comedic fare, museum exhibitions which ‘normal’ people could come and gawp at, and as a genuine organised group within society. Fatness was as valid as fitness.

The core of the American fat men’s community was an organisation called the New England Fat Men’s Club, based in Well’s River, Vermont but with branches in Connecticut, Maine, Boston, New York, and even abroad. Established in 1903, it a peak membership of 10,000 in the early 1920s, comprising men whose weight tipped the scales at over 190 pounds, it was an association quickly expanding in size and keeping true to its motto “fat and glad of it”. One of those who sought (and gained) coveted membership was President William Howard Taft, but when he went on a diet in the summer of 1909, hoping to shed some of his 336lbs, the club wondered whether he was truly committed to its ideals and threatened to revoke his membership. William Jennings Bryan, however, was warmly welcomed at a ceremony at Concord in 1908. One of those present declaring that:

History shows that the greatest men in the world have been fat men. On the other hand, the sneaks, the pessimists and the stingy are likely to be thin. Take Jonah, for instance, he was thin and so he had a bad conscience. If he had been a fat man the whale could never have swallowed him.

The New England Fat Men’s Club followed the example of the Fat Men’s Club of Connecticut which was formed in 1866, predating by some years the progressive era turn towards fitness and physical conditioning. It aimed at the welfare of members and hosted an annual feast in Connecticut. In later years balls and even ice skating events were added to the association’s calendar of events. Interestingly, the club is absent from Peter Stearns’ examination of fat in American society, although there is little reason to doubt his chronology. As he writes: ‘the initial crusade against fat, shaping up around 1900, would seem tame by later twentieth-century standards, but it set the fundamental culture’. Whereas Stearns’ focus is on anxieties around fat and obesity, the Fat Men’s Club was about pride. Less pride in one’s appearance, more pride in one’s continued relevance and humanity: for most of the nineteenth century (and in to the twentieth) larger men had been the subjects of ridicule or comedic put downs. The Club was a statement to the effect that fat people have feelings too.

Fat pride was, of course, not exclusive to the United States. In 1897, a group of Parisians formed an organisation they christened ‘les cent kilos’. The Cardiff-based Evening Express took a sardonic delight in relating its activities: ‘every man who joins is expected to increase his bulk by all reasonable means. The rules of the association enjoin eating, drinking, and sleeping as much as possible and avoiding all work that is not absolutely necessary. Ladies are strictly banished from all social gatherings, for their presence is regarded as incompatible with the proper assimilation of food’. In America and in France, as well as in Belgrade, where a fat men’s club was formed in 1932, and Milan, obesity marked a particular form of masculine awareness and homosocial relationships. Elsewhere in the Anglophone world, however, the idea of the fat men’s association was regarded with derision. In Britain, the first clubs were not formed until the 1930s. In 1936, for instance, a fat men’s club was formed in Blackpool as a charitable organisation: the club’s membership rules levied fines on those who slimmed down which were subsequently donated to good causes.

The presence of fat men’s associations across North America and Europe is indicative of one of the great rules of nineteenth and early twentieth century history: pretty much anything can become the basis of a club. And in the same period many fat men used their size as the basis upon which to form sports clubs – usually baseball or bowling – aiming to rival the great achievements of Babe Ruth and other larger than life sports stars. Amongst the most notable were the Jolly Fat Men of Washington DC, who were regular fixtures in the city’s bowling league at the start of the twentieth century. Theirs was far from the body image fixed in the minds of those who promoted physical fitness. But then, the body has always been a contested idea. One correspondent of the Welsh Gazette, for instance, complained in 1901 that ‘the genie of athleticism has grown to an inordinate size and it is now difficult to reduce him […] the border line between usefulness and exaggeration is in a danger of being, if it has not already been, overstepped’. Another complained to Goleuad a few years later that ‘athleticism is running riot’. It might be better for society, it was argued, to let things develop without a rush to athletic competition. Most doctors disagreed – they still do. And yet, somehow, Babe Ruth wouldn’t have been quite the same had he been skinny.