How Bernarr McFadden Changed America: Telling the Story of the Founder of America’s Most Successful Media Empire

6:00 pm  |  19.10.2021

In 1925, an American daily tabloid called New York Evening Graphic began to publish a series of rather extravagant comic songs called «Antics of Arabella». Each issue consisted of several episodes with collages from the photograph and a signature. The episodes featured real dancers from Broadway shows.

The subtitle of the comics read: «These girls teach you physical culture while they amuse you». Girls dressed in underwear are able to do a variety of exercises: comic books contain instructions to that effect. 

At the same time girls participate in humorous dialogues – about sex, love, marriage, etc. The last new episode «Antics of Arabella» was released in December 1929, but they were re-published until the closure of the newspaper in 1932.

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Where did the idea of ​​physical culture and erotic photocomics come from, extravagant even by the standards of the 1920s? It is worth learning about the eccentric author. The New York Evening Graphic was published by Bernarre McFadden, an evangelist for healthy lifestyles, exercise, healthy eating, and open sexuality, as well as the creator of the most successful publishing empire in US history.

Where Did Everything Begin?

McFadden was born in 1868 and was named Bernard, but later changed his name to Bernard to sound more masculine. He was a weak boy and was often sick, but then he took up physical education, became a vegetarian, and recovered. So McFadden turned into a real fanatic of health and physical strength for life. His most famous saying is “It is a crime to be weak. Don’t be a criminal!”

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In the 1890s, McFadden made a living as a coach, lectured for two years, demonstrating his success in bodybuilding in the UK, invented the expander and successfully sold the rights to it, and in 1899 he returned to New York, where he began publishing the “Physical Culture” journal. A few years later, the magazine was selling in one hundred thousand copies and was published continuously for over 50 years.

At first, the magazine was mainly devoted to bodybuilding: its pages published photographs of half-naked men, often McFadden himself. It is believed that McFadden was the first publisher to use a large number of photographs in his magazines, newspapers, and books.

Soon articles on other topics began to appear in “Physical Culture” and significant, according to McFadden, public issues were discussed: the revision of the institution of marriage, the refusal of women from corsets, high heels, cosmetics, and everything that prevents them from developing physically and being healthy. including a puritanical attitude towards sex. 

McFadden considered sex primarily beneficial to health, and puritanical feelings of guilt and shame, on the contrary, harmful.

In 1904, McFadden organized the first-ever bodybuilding show in Madison Square Garden. Both men and women competed there.

It was then that McFadden came under attack from conservatives. The aggression came especially from the famous anti-obscenity and preacher of Victorian morality Anthony Comstock. In 1905, on the eve of the second show, Comstock got McFadden arrested, and he received a suspended sentence. Nevertheless, the show took place: a huge crowd came to see it – however, this time the participants were dressed much more modestly.

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Further Career

Having grown rich thanks to the success of magazines and numerous books, McFadden decided to pursue his old dream. In 1905, he opened the City of Physical Education in New Jersey, which at one time was home to about 200 of his followers. Soon the “city” began to lose popularity, and McFadden opened another center, “Sanitation”, and in 1909 moved it to Chicago and renamed it “Healthatorium”.


These were serious institutions with dozens of employees, in which patients improved their health using methods developed by McFadden and his followers. He also established the Bernard McFadden Institute, where he taught students these techniques, which he decided to call “physical education.” Finally, he owned two restaurants in New York.

In 1907, McFadden was arrested again for one of the materials in his magazine. There was material on sexually transmitted diseases that were deemed obscene. This time, a real verdict was issued, which he tried to appeal, including in the US Supreme Court, but the latter found the case not raising constitutional issues.

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As a result, McFadden was pardoned by President Taft, but the legal battles and related troubles caused huge losses for McFadden. In 1913, he sold all his businesses, except for publishing, again went to England.

There he first organized something like a beauty contest – to select “the perfect example of English femininity.” A couple of months later, McFadden married the winner, swimmer Mary Williamson. He was 45 and Williamson was 19.

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The newlyweds immediately embarked on a tour of the country with a show titled “The World’s Healthiest Man and Woman.” At the end of the show, Mary jumped onto McFadden’s stomach from a two-meter height and bounced upward, like on a trampoline.

After the tour, the young couple had an adopted daughter named Helen – it was rumored that the biological mother was one of McFadden’s loyal associates. However, soon a daughter was born to Mary – she was named Bernice. In total, McFadden had six daughters and three sons; all of the kids’ names, with the exception of Helen, began with B. Of course, they were all constantly involved in physical education and participated in the McFadden show.

To be continued…

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