Nudism/Naturism Before the “-ism”

The American Roots of Nude Culture in the United States
Part 1, by Doug Hickok

We all know what the history books say: Naturism/Nudism was born in the Free Body Culture movement in Germany in the early 1900’s. In 1929, Kurt Barthel started the first nudist club in the USA, the American League for Physical Culture (ALPC). In 1931, some of the members formed an offshoot called the International Nudist League (INL), which later became the American Sunbathing Association (ASA), and is now the American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR).

As part of ASA’s 25th anniversary in 1956, this history was authored as an essay (“The Beginning of a National Organization”) written by Barthel, and has been adopted as being “the history”. He asserts that the “first clandestine meetings of the first loneAmerican nudists” in 1929 happened because he imported the idea from Germany.

Books like “Nudism Comes to America” (1932) supported this history. Onpage 27, it goes so far to state: “Before 1930, no record of an article on European nudism is to be found, at least in the better known and established monthlies or weeklies.”

The November 2020 issue of this newsletter presents one about MosesLittauer’s naturist colony in 1921. Another from 1903 will be presented soon in an upcoming issue. That isn’t a typo, a club nearly 30 years before Barthel supposedly started nudism in the USA. I’ll also present a 1,000 member American organization with nudism as a core value that existed around 1920.

Trees have many roots, and the German influence on Kurt Barthel is one of them, perhaps the most significant one since he is a German immigrant.

This article series explores another significant influence; the American one that prompted Barthel to form a club in the first place. 

The all American story revolves around this all­ American guy.

There is so much that could be written about Benarr Macfadden that I’m going to have trouble keeping it to a small newsletter article. There’s plenty of publications about him, all with interesting stories. A notable 400­-page book provides a perfect summary in the title: “Mr. America: How Muscular Millionaire Bernarr Macfadden Transformed the Nation ThroughSex, Salad, and the Ultimate Starvation Diet.”

Macfadden’s publication empire started with Physical Culture magazine in 1899. By 1930, Macfadden waspublishing 10 different magazines and 10 different newspapers which combined reached over 7.3 million people and earned him about $30 million. In 1935, his empire was reaching about 35 million readers. Although Physical Culture was his flagship publication, his “True Story” and tabloid publications were hugely popular and the genres are still highly popular today.Add to that his over 50 books, his 8 volume “Encyclopedia of Health”, countless newsreels, guest appearances, and his morning exercise show on the radio.

He wasn’t just a publisher, but also a founder of the bodybuilding movement. In 1903, Macfadden staged the first bodybuilding contest in America. In 1921 and 1922, the more commonly known “father of bodybuilding” Charles Atlas(pictured below) took home the trophies from Macfadden’s contests, and made bodybuilding a successful career thereafter.Macfadden’s sole purpose was health reform in the US, and his reasons were pretty clear. Through his childhood he was weak and sickly, and was orphaned by the age of 11. At this point, he lived with a farmer until age 13. The hard work on the farm and the wholesome natural food turned him into a healthy, strong kid. After moving to St. Louis and taking a desk job, his health quickly reverted and he described himself as a “physical wreck” by age 16. Since doctors hadn’t been able to help his health (or made things worse), and healthy eating and physical fitness did, he set forth on that path. It must’ve worked; he lived to 87 years old without any medical help.

In his 80’s, Macfadden was still giving lectures on a variety of topics, but important to us was his promotion of nudesunbathing. (He even built a windowed box so he could sunbathe in the winter months.) Even though he never considered himself a nudist, Macfadden was OK with public nudity and was encouraging it for health reasons all through his career.

According to a testimony from Russell Nansen, who corresponded a lot with Macfadden after 1945, Macfadden was aware of his indirect influence in founding nudism. Kurt Barthel was a reader of Physical Culture magazine, and saw the many favorable comments about the “nude cults” that were springing up in America. This encouraged Barthel to place the ads announcing the American League for Physical Culture.

Stay tuned to this newsletter as I dive deeper into the links between Macfadden, Physical Culture, and Nudism/ Naturism in future issues. If you thought that nudism in America started in 1929, you’re in for quite a shock.