By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian
While visiting the Coney Island exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum (highly recommended), the caption of a photograph caught my eye:
“The Coney Island Polar Bear Club, the earliest organization of its kind, was founded in 1903 by Bernarr Macfadden, known as the “Father of Physical Culture.” An early advocate for outdoor exercise, Macfadden believed that taking a dip in the ocean during the winter could restore one’s immunity and stamina.”
The Academy Library has a substantial collection on the history of exercise, so it’s no surprise that we have more than 20 books by Macfadden. What was surprising was that two of the books are about the wellbeing of an unexpected physical characteristic—hair.
The 1901 edition of Macfadden’s New Hair Culture: Rational Natural Methods for Cultivating Strength and Luxuriance of the Hair begins with a disclaimer that wouldn’t sound out of place in a contemporary infomercial:
The 1922 volume, Hair Culture: Rational Methods for Growing the Hair and for Developing its Strength and Beauty, does not include a disclaimer. But, like any great salesman, Macfadden lets us know that he’s not just the inventor of his method, he’s also a user:
I can assure the reader that I can speak with authority on the subject, from experiences with the particular condition which I, myself, have had. Several years previous to the writing of this book my hair began to fall out at an alarming rate.
I was greatly disturbed. The nightmare of imminent baldness was with me constantly.
I was in such a desperate frame of mind that I even bought a bottle of a hair remedy that was well advertised at the time, but after one application I threw it out an open window and began to apply my intelligence to the solution of the problem that then was indeed serious in my mind. …. The method that I finally evolved forms the basis of this book, and is gone into with painstaking detail.1
To maintain hair health, Macfadden recommends such procedures as scalp massage, regular brushing, “sun baths,” exposure to fresh air, removal of dead hair, and “mechanical and electrical stimulation” through “the use of a well made mechanical vibrator, using a broad soft rubber disk” (sadly, he does not include an image of such a vibrator).1,2
The 1901 edition includes an entire chapter on how to strengthen hair by pulling it: “Nothing gives the scalp the sensation of being so thoroughly and effectively awakened.” Inserting your spread fingers and closing them together “slightly raises the scalp from the skull, and at every point where the scalp is thus raised, the circulation is greatly accelerated.”2
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Macfadden did not approve of applying heat or bleach to the hair. “If Nature gave a girl dark hair, she should accept the gift gratefully, remembering that some of the greatest beauties in history were also thus blessed.” But Nature could be improved upon in non-harmful ways, as through “the little curl-papers and curling kids”: “These are harmless enough, and if they make a pretty girl any prettier than Nature made her, they are entitled to three hearty cheers.”1
Learn more about Macfadden—his fitness empire; his scandalous tabloid; his cult, “Cosmotarianism”—in this 2013 Esquire article.
1. Macfadden B. Hair culture: rational methods for growing the hair and for developing its strength and beauty. New York: Physical culture corporation; 1922.
2. Macfadden B. Macfadden’s new hair culture: Rational, Natural Methods for Cultivating Strength and Luxuriance of the Hair. New York: Physical Culture Publishing; 1901.