The Rise of Fat Men's Clubs
In the 19th and early 20th century, being chubby was trendy, so much so that high-society clubs with a 200-pound weight minimum began to sprout across the United States. Being in one of these clubs meant you were cool and had some money to throw around.
As Daryl Leeworthy, a historian and research fellow at Swansea University in the UK, told NPR that the fat men's clubs were created out of an idea that being fat was "closely associated with wealth and status."
"For most of our ancestors, the poorer they were, the less food they had to eat, and the tinner and short they tended to be,"
"And power and wealth and status are attractive characteristics: If a person's body is their temple, then being the size of a cathedral told others that you were someone of significance." Lee said.
In addition to showing wealth, it was believed that fat men were chick magnets. The Mineola Monitor ran an op-ed in 1899 about why women should like men:
"It may be observed, without intentional offence[sic] to any young lady who might be enamored of some skeleton-like young man that, as a rule, fat men, besides being the most jolly and convivial of the male species, are also apt to be the most considerate of and charitable to others."
The column concluded:
"The fact still remains that seven out of ten fat men make excellent husbands."
The New England Fat Men's Club
One of the most successful clubs was the New England Fat Men's Club. According to Upper Valley Life Magazine, this group consisted of roughly 10,000 members during its peak. However, joining this sought-after club required two things: Men had to weigh at least 200 pounds and pay a $1 membership fee (roughly $35 today).
Like any club, the New England Fat Men's Club held biannual meetings. Their mantra was "We're fat and we're making the most of it!"
Let's see how they made the most of it.
Grub and Games
The meeting's agenda consisted of eating from sunrise to sunset.
"One nine-course menu included oyster cocktail, cream of chicken soup, boiled snapper, fillet of beef with mushrooms, roast chicken, roast suckling pig, shrimp salad, steamed fruit pudding with brandy sauce, assorted cakes, cheese and ice cream followed by coffee and cigars," author Polly Tafrate wrote for Upper Valley Life Magazine, cited by NPR.
If you ask me, the feast alone was worth the $1 membership fee.
The meetings weren't just about feasting, there were shenanigans as well. They had athletic competitions of leapfrog, broad jumps, and races in between their nine-course meals. An interesting way to burn off calories, to say the least.
The clubs were more than fun and games. They also served as networking opportunities for business leaders and government officials. Even former President William Howard Taft, who at one point weighed 340 pounds, attended one of the Fat Men's Club meetings and was offered membership, but declined.
Some fat men's clubs had pretty good names. Two include the Jolly Fat Men's Club and the Heavy Weights. These American-born clubs extended their influence across the Atlantic. France in 1897 created a fat men's club named Le Club des Cents Kilos or The Hundred Kilos Club, however, the group did not reach the same level of success as the American ones.
The Wild Weigh Ins
One of the main events within the clubs was, you guessed it, the weigh-ins. Some of them were as popular and competitive as a modern-day UFC fight, if not more so. Like any sporting event cheating was a thing. At one fat men's club in Weatherford, Texas, men cheated by stuffing weights in their pockets before stepping a scale before a club baseball game in 1920.
In Ohio, a fat men's club decided that they would base their democratic system on numbers. They would weigh each member to determine who the club's president would be. To no one's surprise, the election went to the highest bidder. Maybe that explains how Taft got elected as president.
The Texas Fat Men's Club Baseball League
The saying is true, everything is bigger in Texas, in this case, there were enough potbelly players to form a baseball league. However, unlike other leagues, transportation became a real problem and often made local headlines.
A Brownsville paper reported on a road- trip on April 6, 1909:
"A report was brought in this afternoon that one of the horses that were hauling the Fat Men's team to the baseball park dropped dead on the way. How the team finally got to the park is not learned."
Don't worry these men were held accountable for their crimes. The price was charged to the Fat Men according to the report.
One of the most notable baseball games in the league was held on October 1, 1920, when heavyweights Weatherford's and Mineral Wells faced off.
Of course, both teams averaged a weight of around 200 pounds, but things kicked off when Mineral Wells accused Weatherford's catcher of not being fat enough.
"What he lacked in weight he made up for in height"
The crowd approved of the comeback and the game soon began. Though baseball is not usually thought of as a contact sport, this wasn't an ordinary baseball game. Sideline brawls were so common that "moderators" were placed around the field to break up the fights. The Daily Herald captured the moments.
"You've seen a large stone thrown into a muddy puddle of water, haven't you? You know the proverbial result of a party stepping on a banana peel? You have read of head-on collisions between freight trains loaded with cabbage onions etc. The combined effects of these three gives a faint idea of the sound, sights and smells when fat meets fat."
Weatherford won the game, but in fat men's club style, the two teams closed out the day with a banquet.
In a toast, the Mineral Wells promised they would win the next game on their home turf where the "real fat men" of Mineral Wells, who had been too heavy to find an automobile to wheel them to Weatherford, would play.
Sportsmanship at its finest.
Around 1910, doctors and insurance actuaries began to promote slimness instead of obesity. Society began to realize the harmful impact of obesity on the body. At the same time, personal scales became affordable, so more people monitored their weight at home. Furthermore, displaying public fatness faded away.
According to Deborah Levine's Harvard thesis on weight in America, she explained that in the twenties, public weigh-ins, like penny scales and guess-your-weight booths, "became distasteful to polite American society's views on weight and it began to fade from relevance."
By 1924 the infamous New England Fat Men's Club dissolved when only 38 members showed up and none of them had met its 200-pound minimum.
No more fat men leap-frog, baseball, or nine-course meals. Gone were the days when fat was fashionable.
Doan, Laura. “Baseball, BBQ, and Dead Ponies-a History of Fat Men's Clubs in Texas.” Texas Monthly.
Ward, Anthony, and Leslie Landrigan. “The New England Fat Men's Club.” New England Historical Society.