Aesthetic Autopsy: Strongman

Historically just about every circus employed a strongman to astonish audiences through physical feats.  The image that has become synonymous with the term is that of a muscled man with a curled moustache clad in a leotard made of leopard skin, lips curled into a smile as he elevates a pliable barbell high into the air.  While the displays these men offered fluctuated between marginally humdrum to vastly remarkable, at the pinnacle of competition from numerous colleagues there was a challenge for one to push further in order to garner the most fame.  Such an innovative individual was born October 29, 1845, though John Holtum had a rather unexciting life until enlisting as a sailor when he was 15, where working on deck and in the shipyards formed the brawny body he would be known for in due course.  He held a job as a professional strongman in San Francisco, where he studied and rehearsed the rudimentary feats, but it was upon his return to Europe in 1870 that he developed the plan to catch a cannonball.  Following two years of intense preparation, Holtum refined the act and went on to build both a successful fortune and reputation.  Standing on stage, he would use a pair of gloves and chest pad to cradle the deadly projectile after it was shot out of a cannon.  Though a reward of 3000 francs would be given to anyone who could duplicate his efforts, none accepted the challenge and it was clear the death-defying feat was one only he could perform and fearlessly pioneered.

Friederich Wilhelm Mueller, more commonly known as Eugen Sandow, was presenting strongman stunts in sideshows at age 19, recognized for extraordinary barbell routines as well as the ability to split a chain that had been fastened around his chest.  The allure of his protruding muscles overshadowed the large quantities of weight he could lift, which led to Sandow established a display of poses that are a precursor to what is seen in bodybuilding competitions today.  The combination of his physique and these routines rapidly made Sandow a popular marvel often likened to a Roman god.  Inspired by the sculptures he had viewed in Greece and Rome as a child, his passion to mold his body into these same forms was sparked.  When he finally fostered his body to the precise proportions, Sandow also became one of the first athletes to deliberately remodel musculature to pre-determined dimensions and is regarded as “The Father of Bodybuilding.  Sandow went on to perform all across Europe and came to America in 1893, where his exhibition at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago involved being displayed in a black velvet lined box with white powder covering his body to convey the appearance of a marble statue.  A cultured appearance, high intelligence and well-mannered disposition coupled with dressing well, a charming European accent and hearty laugh were all traits that only increased his popularity.  Reported to be perceptive businessman, Sandow authored five books, owned a mail-order physical instruction/exercise equipment, invented a unique spring-loaded dumbbell and weighted resistance band training system, produced and promoted Sandow Cigars, Sandow Health & Strength Cocoa and a magazine dedicated to physical culture, and opened a Physical Culture Studio in London which was one of the first health clubs which starkly contrasted the ‘sweaty’ gyms at the time.  He also organized the first ever bodybuilding competition in 1901, and in recognition of his contribution to the sport, a bronze statue of Sandow has been presented to winners of Mr. Olympia since 1977.

the-mighty-atom-joseph-greensteinThe man revered as ‘The Greatest Strongman’, Yosselle Greenstein was three months premature when he was born to the poorest family in Suvalk, Poland in 1893 and lucky to have endured such an early hardship.  Though he was small in stature as a teenager, he retained an enormous amount of resolution, heart and purpose.  Drawn to the depiction of chiseled Russian strongman Champion Volanko who was in town with the Issakoff Brothers’ Circus, Greenstein attempted to sneak into the show because he had no money, but was caught, beaten and left for dead.  It was then he encountered Volanko in the flesh who helped him overcome physical limitations and two years later, had a body as firm as his determination.  The beginning of his career as a strongman began in 1914, when he was shot in the head in Galveston, Texas yet was able to leave the hospital the same day, citing his physical conditioning for saving his life.  He became The Mighty Atom and was able to: snap apart chains with his hands or by expanding his chest, bend iron bars or horseshoes with his teeth, curve half inch rolled steel rods into heart shapes, and drive nails through wood with his bare hands.  The Mighty Atom was also a true superhero, known for fighting intolerance which resulted in the hospitalization of six longshoremen after a dramatic fight in 1936.  During another incident that occurred after he tore down a sign that said “No Dogs or Jews Allowed”, it is reported that defeated twenty men, and while he was arrested, he was subsequently released without charge due to the court refusing to believe he acted alone.  During World War II Greenstein volunteered his time and demonstrated his strength which in turn sold hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of war bonds, and also assisted in the recruitment of New York City’s Police Force without asking for compensation.  The Mighty Atom continued to perform well into his eighties, with a final appearance at Madison Square Garden in 1977, but remains as the “mightiest little man to have ever walked the earth.

Though the choice to be tattooed or a strongman was not a rare sight by the time Rasmus Nielsen accumulated his own collection of ink, he still managed to concoct an act that was virtually unheard of in order to set himself apart.  His septum, tongue and nipples were subsequently pierced, and was able to lift anvils from these piercings through strengthening elasticity and pain tolerance.  It is believed that he also had a surface piercing in his chest, though there is not much information to confirm how, when or where it was done.  An image of him hanging his anvil from this piercing was one he became well known for and was used as a pitch card that Nielsen often signed the back of.  These feats were an instant sensation and his fame quickly rocketed as people came to see the “Tattooed Wonderman”, who went from lifting anvils that weighed 50 pounds to those that weighed up to 250 pounds, allegedly able to lift 115 pounds with one nipple and a 25 pound hammer with his tongue.  He also had a piercing in the back of his neck that was used to pull a cart loaded with spectators or sledgehammers.  Sadly this amazing pioneer who certainly set records few have been able to beat dwindled into oblivion following his retirement in the 1950’s, though he has certainly earned a place in both body modification and sideshow history a memorable and remarkable figure.




Filling the proverbial shoes of such extraordinary figures is no easy feat, but as always I strongly urge to use inspiration as a jumping off point when it comes to translating it into wearable fashion while maintaining a prominent sense of self that allows your inner confidence to come forth.  The result combines vintage and retro designs with prevailing trends among alternative fashion to provide a comfortable base that one can add their personality to.  Since the strongman is all about showing off those hard earned muscles, that can be accomplished with a Nat Nast Shaken Not Stirred Camp Shirt, a long name for a short sleeved button down in a classic corvette red that has a unique all over dash pattern which compliments the vertical stripes on each side of the button line.  The high performance technology inside these ClimaLite Classic Plaid Shorts wicks moisture away from skin for quick evaporation to keep the athlete dry, and the colors reflect those of the shirt for a relaxed resort vibe.  No need for socks when you are wearing the Iron Fist Lounge Leopard Oxford, a closed toe brogue that has a tan background covered in orange leopard spots along with pieces of red flowers and blue wings, as it is flamboyant enough on its own.

Moving on to accessories, it was rather difficult to find ones that were quality and not something found on the discount rack for those who want to be categorized as ‘punk’ or ‘metal’ or that were too ridiculous even for my taste.  Minimalism and urbanity are reflected in the Ben Sherman Woven Belt, which is made from black cotton cord with leather trim that makes it both smart and efficient.  These days the strongman can be known for hoisting large amounts of weight with various pierced parts, most commonly stretched ear lobes, and I cannot think of anything better to showcase these anatomical anomalies than with a pair of Anatometal Bullet Eyelets, seen here in ASTMF-138 stainless steel with bronze bullet inserts and a crown of black princess cut CZ gemstones.  Continue to flatter body parts with severe jewelry such as a Black Onyx Ring in sterling silver carved with scrolling vine work, and a Twister Ring that is distinguished by a spiral of silver that cuts through the polished black titanium.  The stainless steel front plate of this Wide Leather Buckle Bracelet merges naturally with soft black leather to form a sleek, novel piece which is easily balanced by kitschy and colorful watch you can use to time workouts.  In fact, you can store your keys on a ring attached to anvil that actually has a bit of weight to it, while your ID, cash and various cards are tucked safely inside of Circus Strongman Case, the brilliant illustration on the outside serving as motivation.





If one is going to spend any amount of time working on the body, it is always important to treat your parts right to maintain health and happiness both inside and out!  Get on the right track with these amazing products from LUSH, hand selected for their fragrances and promised performance.


1 – Exotic essential oils inside the Ultimate Shine shampoo bar effectively balances the hair and scalp, while aromatic scents such as ylang ylang, violet leaf and elmi oil will soften locks, and a touch of golden glitter add a boost of shimmer.

2 – Rich and moisturizing without weighing hair down, Happy Happy Joy Joy is a vegan conditioner that has a base of almond mild with a mix of rose and orange water to make hair more pliable, leaving behind a cheerful perfume thanks to orange flower absolute, rosewood and grapefruit oils.

3 – While in the shower, revive skin with an invigorating scrub using Rub Rub Rub, an extra cleansing and exfoliating shower gel that uses mineral-rich sea salt, lemon juice and mimosa blossoms to leave you feeling refreshed.

4 – Afterwards reach for Angels on Bare Skin, one of the best-selling cleansers LUSH has to offer that removes all sorts of debris that has been built up in your skin.  Kaolin clay reaches deep to purify pores, ground almonds gently clear dead skin away, then rose and lavender kick in for a soothing finish.

5 – Suitable for all skin types, Gorgeous is an aptly named moisturizer made with quality ingredients like orange blossom honey, fresh pineapple juice, and extra virgin olive and wheat germ oils.  They melt together on your skin wonderfully, and you are sure to see an improvement within four to six weeks.

6 – For a strong hold to your hair style without that stiff, sticky feeling, The Big Tease offers versatility while keeping your mane moisturized and happy with cupuacu and cocoa butters, as orange flower, bergamot, lemon and jojoba oils naturally uplift both your roots.

7 – Combat bacteria that causes stinky sweat by using T’eo, a zesty deodorant that is packed with powders that absorb perspiration and essential oils which neutralize odors.  The fresh scent is powered by juniper berry, tea tree and lemon grass oils, with a touch of green grapes as a natural antibacterial defense system.

8 – Inspired by the mythology behind the Agglestone, the Devil’s Night Cap is part of LUSH’s new Gorilla Perfume line and invokes imagery of wandering through dark oak woods.  This is captured by bitter oakwood andoakmoss, with clary sage to sharpen perceptions and ylang ylang to befuddle the senses.

9 – Before getting dressed, dust with Silky Underwear, a luxurious powder that has been crafted from grated cocoa butter to keep skin supple and kaolin to absorb excess moisture; jasmine and vetivert surrounding you in an aphrodisiac fragrance.

Resources: John Holtum, Eugen Sandow, The Mighty Atom, Rasmus Neilsen

Reading & Research: Oldtime  Strongman, Tattoo Archive, Sideshow World

Photo Credit: 1 – the Adrenalist, 2 – Fine Art America


2 comments on “Aesthetic Autopsy: Strongman

  1. jtpednaud says:

    Wonderful article, and thank you for referencing my site.

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