The Untold History of Fat Clubs


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In today’s world of 24/7 gyms and the ever-present diet and exercise industry it’s definitely not all that cool or fun to be overweight. 


Our perception of obesity is largely rooted in known health consequences of carrying the extra pounds, from heart disease to diabetes, to just plain low energy and stamina. Despite this obesity is on the rise in America and you could pretty easily argue it might be the biggest health issue facing the general population and our healthcare industries resources. For that matter, Obesity is also one of the greatest risk factors aside from age associated with hospitalization and death from Covid 19. 


But why is nation with so much industry and knowledge so overweight?


I once heard a person say “We have the bodies of the Kings and Queens of old because we live like them”


Its relative of course, The idea here, is that we have an abundance of, cheap, easy to get resources. Whether it’s the the internet, delivery services, Air Conditioning or cars. We just don’t have to do a whole lot if we don’t want to. And Oh ya, there’s food, lots and lots of cheap tasty calories and we don’t even have to really make a fire from scratch to cook it, work a garden to grow it, or really even care about how much we consume. 


That being said, throughout history viewed having some extra pounds as a sign of wealth and prosperity. Take Buddha or even Santa Claus for example. “Fat and happy”. 


Being skinny was the look of poverty and less fortunate hard laborers. 


And that brings us to the strange and forgotten topic of this episode. The Fat Men’s Clubs that existed in the late 19th and early 20th century.


Now being overweight was never really considered all that attractive, but it did carry some measure of status. And two things would collide in America in the late 1800s.


Fat Men’s Associations gained steam. And weight was a barrier to entry, you had to weigh atleast 200lbs which in the 1800s was extreme. What these men realized, was that they tended to have genuine status, power and influence in society. That of course allowed them to indulge in food and leisure and obtain their large frames. An article published in the New York Tribune in 1869 titled “A Plea for the Plump” spells this out nicely. Ill Link to it at Lore and and you can get there by clicking the link in the episode description.


A Plea For the Plump


When unified these men had the potential to be a force to be reckoned with socially, politically, and of course literally. The idea caught on and according to an NPR article also linked at the New England Fat Men’s Association at its height had over 10,000 members!



NPR The Forgotten History of Fat Men's Clubs


HuffPost: Fat Men's Clubs



For the most part though, it just remained an exclusive social club. And they ate….a lot of courses, of course. 


They also had their own sports leagues, and compete in baseball tournaments and Olympic style games. Weigh ins were frequently competitive, even weigh ins after meals. 


These men embraced the fat lifestyle and wore it as a sign of pride in who and how they were. It was not without ridicule though. 


Ill quote an Article from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in August 1890 that captures this perfectly  


Brooklyn Daily Eagle: "Fat Men Dance"


Easier to Read Version of "Fat Men Dance"



“Buschman’s Dancing Pavilion at West Brighton bulged out at the sides and the island shook as if suffering from the chill of an earthquake, for the Fat Men’s Association of Coney Island held their annual ball last night, and when large fractions of 25,000 pounds waft themselves over a ball room floor to gentle cadence something has got to give a little bit. It was hard to realize how many fat men make Coney Island a home until last night brought them out. A fundamental rule of the Fat Men’s Association is that no member shall weigh less than 200 pounds and those who weigh 199 gnash their teeth and sit outside the gate. The scales from the coal yard were shifted up for the purpose of proving who was entitled to the pigs which were awarded as prizes to the heavy weights, and it was a wise precaution.

When the guests were assembled Ward McAllister Taggart, in the only dress suit on the Island, stood at the entrance and aired his 230 pounds with evident pride. President William Rockwell, the Adonis of the Bowery, smiled disdainfully as he passed in carrying 249 pounds. Treasurer Henry Popper, who is too fat to run away with the money, puts on airs with 284 pounds to his credit. When Special Officer McGinnis wandered around there was a perceptible widening in the cracks along the walls, for McGinnis tips the scales at 399.


A litter of handsome pigs was waiting to be awarded to the men according to their weight, and the contestants took mental notes of their opponents with varying degrees of satisfaction, until Andy Cullen, of Jersey City, came along and made the heaviest of those already there look like consumptives in the last stages of decline.

The only trouble that occurred during the evening was when Special Officer Billy Smith endeavored to steal a pig. The reception committee sat on him one at a time and they gathered up his remains for the inquest. Seven pigs, twelve ducks and other minor prizes were awarded for proficiency in waltzing, roller skating and weighing. The floor groaned under the weight, and it was a satisfaction to know that there was no cellar under it.”



But as time went on and the Industrial Revolution brought more and more people out of poverty, and advances in our understanding of health were made the Fat Men’s Clubs fell out of fashion altogether.


For the better perhaps, as we shouldn’t encourage obesity knowing the risks it carries. But I think there is something here we could learn as a society about live and let live, as well as accepting your own consequences….


Today, obesity can be found across the income spectrum, but it now tends to hit the poor the hardest. As cheap carbs, minimally labor intensive jobs, and generally less explicit awareness about the long term consequences is the norm. There is real push too in mainstream media about body positivity and acceptance, and it makes me wonder if we might see some sort of new take on the idea of the Fat Clubs from the opposite side of the income scales and for different status reasons….


That’s all for this episode, be sure to check out for references and a transcript of this episode and even a short video of a Fat Men’s Club in action 100 years ago….


Cya Next time!