When fat men’s clubs were big

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An 1885 illustration from an unknown magazine depicting a gathering of fat men in Connecticut for a clambake.

During the mid to late 1880s and early 1900s, fat men’s clubs had a hefty presence in the U.S.

A newspaper in Indiana in 1870 reported that the Fat Men’s Association of New York had agreed that men had to weigh at least 200 pounds to join. But, its members genially allowed that “a falling off shall not be good cause for expelling a member.”

At their Christmas ball in 1869, The New York Times noted the “ponderous movement of the Titans dancing” and their joy at the table where “they joined heartily in their devotions to the voracious deity from whom they derived their inspiration and their fat.”

Many other groups of large fellows met around the nation, from the Fat Men’s Base-Ball Club in tiny White Pine, Nevada, in 1870, to the jolly New England Fat Men’s Club that led the annual parade at the Vermont State Fair in 1911.

By the late 1800s, there were many fat men’s clubs, with more than 10,000 members in New England alone. Presidential candidates such as William Jennings Bryan and William Howard Taft spoke at some of their gatherings.

In 1904, the Lewiston Evening Journal wrote about a basketball game in Livermore Falls that drew a big crowd to see the Fat Men and the Professional Men compete on the court. “The cheering was deafening,” the paper reported, though it’s not clear which side more people rooted for.

Games between lean and fat men were common across America at the time. The U.S. Senate even took note of the phenomena.

During an 1871 debate on whether federal law should require integrated schools and churches, an Ohio senator, Allen Thurman, took issue with the notion, using the fat men’s clubs as an example.

“There is in the city of New York, I believe, a club of fat men, and no man is allowed to be a member unless he weighs 300 pounds,” the senator said, getting his facts wrong.

The Senate burst into laughter.

Cover page for the 1869 “Fat Men’s Polka Redowa” played at the first ball held by the Fat Men’s Association in New York City in 1869. Hathi Trust Digital Library

“Is that an infringement of the rights and privileges of the lean men?” Thurman asked his colleagues. “Must Congress pass a law to force the lean men on those fat fellows in the social intercourse of their club, and in the enjoyment of all its rights, privileges and immunities?”

That drew another round of laughter from senators.

The custom of plump people gathering together apparently had deep roots.

In 1721, English essayist Joseph Addison, writing in The Spectator, mentioned “a Club of fat men” that met in “a considerable market-town.”

They came together, he said at the time, “to keep one another in countenance,” not for any sprightliness or wit. Its rule was men who could fit through a single door were unfit to join, but those who required entrance through a pair of folding doors were “saluted as a brother.”

“I have heard that this club, though it contained but 15 persons, weighed above three tons.”

Addison added that in opposition to the club, a competing one of “Scarecrows and Skeletons” had formed, “being very meager and envious.”

As late as the Great Depression, occasional news stories about fat men’s clubs appeared in the press.

When business slumped in 1931, the Associated Press reported that the United States Fat Men’s Club’s 1,472 members collectively lost more than 3,600 pounds, a sign of some real belt-tightening in those hard times.

The club’s president, Carl Shaw of Boston, told the AP that “to get back to parity the club wants new members: big, plump, hefty ones.”

But it didn’t find them.

Once huge, fat men’s clubs quietly withered away.

Or perhaps corpulence became so ubiquitous that special clubs seemed pointless.

After all, according to the yearly findings of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the average American man between the ages of 40 and 60 now weighs 201 pounds.

In short, a typical American male these days would have been heartily welcomed into the Fat Men’s Club when it formed 150 years ago.


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