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A Bit of History:
Strongmen in the 19th Century

by Jeff Boyle

According to the Space: 1889 rules a character or NPC with a strength of 6 would be counted among the strongest in Europe. But just what does that mean? Who were the strongest men in Europe?
19th Century Gym

By the mid-19th Century the idea of heavy resistance exercise as a way to improve health and strength was gaining popularity. The major cities of Europe had gymnasiums rivaling anything available today. Hippolyte Trait's Gymnasium in Paris was open by the 1850s boasting an enormous exercise area with spectator galleries on the second and third floors. Patrons could participate in group calisthenics, jog, and use free weights or strength machines. Edmund Desbonnet's School of Physical Culture in Lille combined a jogging track, wrestling and boxing rings, and barbells and dumbbells. By the late 19th century the sport was becoming international. In 1891 German Athletic Association was formed for weight lifters and its first competition was held in Cologne in 1892. Feats of strength would also be an integral part of the first Olympic games.

There was actually quite a bit of money to be made for professional strongmen. These men made their living giving demonstrations of strength at country fairs and town theaters. One of the most famous of these strongmen used the stage name Eugene Sandow. Born Frederick Müller in Prussia in 1876, he first gained recognition by breaking with brute strength "test your strength machines" that were the rage in Brussels. When the owners of the machines had him arrested, he had to be released by the police when he demonstrated that he had used the proper coin and followed the machine's instructions. Sandow achieved international fame in 1889 when he jumped onto a stage in London in evening clothes to challenge the English stongman team of Samson and Cyclops. By the Chicago World's fair in 1893, he was making between $1500 and $3500 per week performing feats of strength like carrying a pony over his shoulder, and picking up a barbell with people inside. There were even women involved, most notable Sandwina, "The Strongest and Most Beautiful Woman in the World." Performing for the Ringling Bros. Circus, she bent rods, straightened horseshoes, carried 600 lb cannon on her shoulders, and lifted her 160 lb husband over her head with one hand. Her arrival caused many stongman to sneak out of town.

There are great possibilities for using a strongman (or woman) in a campaign as a character or NPC. The characters could meet Sandow or Sandwina at an exhibition on Earth or Mars, or they could meet them on the street and be unaware of their physical prowess. The strongman career is surprisingly versatile. Its only restriction is that the character have a strength of 6, although only the most eccentric would become a strongman at social level 4 and above. The strongman's physical training accounts for points in fisticuffs and close combat (boxing and wrestling) and the performance aspects of the career give the character points in eloquence, theatrics, and leadership. The strongman's career could take many turns, as a person with such tremendous strength and the skill to use it will always be in great demand.

The Strongman (strength 6)

Skills: Fisticuffs 1, Close Combat 1 (club), Eloquence 1, Theatrics 2, Leadership 1

Eugene Sandow Strongman

St 6 Fist 7, Throw 4, Cc 2 Ag 3 Stealth 2, Marks 2

End 3 Wild 2, Sw 2 Int 3 Obs 3

Cha 5 Eloq 5, Theat 4, Ling 3 (German, English, French, Open) Soc 3 Riding 2, Lead 1


Sandow will nearly always be found travelling in style as befits his income. He is actually quite vain about his looks (with good reason; his pale complexion and muscled body led many to say that he looked like a Greek statue) and travels with a lighted posing cabinet to better display his physique in addition to the other accoutrements necessary for his performances. He will usually have enough money to purchase anything that he might need (within reason -- he doesn't have the money to buy a ship of any kind).

Further information can be found in David Webster's Bodybuilding: An Illustrated History New York: Arco Press, 1979

Posted Monday, 04-May-2009 19:50:56 EDT

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