Strongmen, mustaches, bicycles, and striped pants - the late 1800s

Why is it that I always associate late-1800s America with mustachioed, shirtless strongmen and guys on bicycles? I have this really strong mental image in my mind of muscular, mustachioed guys riding bicycles, lifting weights, doing circus stunts, and wearing tight, striped pants - was that just the most prominent form of popular entertainment back then? I can’t really recall any movie that portrays this aesthetic, except for maybe some parts of Gangs of New York, and yet when I think of the 1890s, I think of magicians, circus acts and strongmen. Surely I can’t be alone in my perception of this time period - do other people make this association as well?

I have a pile of trade cards and calling cards from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, courtesy of my grandmother. I’ll have to go back and check, but I believe that all of the things you mentioned appear in there, so I’d guess that these images were simply a common visual trope of that time, regarded as funny, stereotyped, and memorable.

I’ve seen lots of parodies of those kinds of images, on shows like Family Guy, The Simpsons, etc. You may also have seen images or footage of Sandow the Strongman, the most famous bodybuilder of that time.

Depending on your age, I’d blame Looney Tunes.

Sandow was the “iconic strongman” for years and the image he created lingered on long after he was largely forgotten as an individual.

One hundred years from now I can imagine someone posting a similar question to a futuristic message board:

“Why do all strongmen have German accents?”

“Well … there was this guy named Arnold Schwarzenegger who was famous for a while back in the 20th century … .”

For about 20 min … ok I’ll stop now.

(Note to self: don’t use memes you don’t know that much about, especially on a board that started said meme.)

Oh god, are there barbershop quartets involved, too? :mad: I’m outta here. I really dislike that era of US history, I find it quaint and cloying. I can’t watch those old technicolor movies about that time, (sometimes starring Judy Garland). Just turns me off.

I can’t quite agree with you there; it was also the time when jazz and the blues were being born alongside ragtime; not that you’d know it from the syrupy milieu of the kind of movies you mention. All edgy or contrary currents in the culture of that time were ruthlessly excised from the studio’s finished product.

As for the strongmen (and strongwomen), there really was quite a fad for the genre. They’d perform not only in circuses, but also vaudeville (music halls), and so on. Some of the fascination seems to have been rooted in the increasing use of machinery in daily life, because the performance would often include the strongman resisting some mechanical contrivance. One strongman used to hold an airplane in place, on the runway, with his hair. (I’m not sure what exercises you do to strengthen hair).

I’d come in originally to say “bicycles? what bicycles?”, because I’d never really seen them associated with strongmen in particular. But then I saw Eyebrows’ post and now I stand corrected. As a matter of fact, I do know that about a century ago, it was common for a school or college track team to do bicycle events, too. About a century ago, Los Angeles High School used to have “Field Day” every semester, which was like an all-school track meet. The boy who won the bicycle race was considered the champion athlete of the school.