Mid-century fitness: A baseball player, a Mr. Universe, and plastic weights

SearsWeight

The previous article was an overview of Jack LaLanne’s influence on physical fitness in the mid-century era, and the growing acceptance of exercising with weights. Today we turn our attention to a particular line of mid-century home fitness equipment.

Plastic Weights and You

The various systems of exercising with weights or displaying feats of strength with weights have collectively been called “The Iron Game,” and working out in the weight room is colloquially referred to as “pumping iron.” This is certainly fitting, as weight plates have most commonly been made from cast iron. Well-known manufacturers of iron weights in past decades included the industry-dominating York Barbell, and Weider Barbell, which offered slightly less expensive products.

In the mid-century years, a much more affordable option appeared, and it was about as far away from iron as you could get. Do you remember those plastic concrete-filled weights that came in a seemingly endless array of colors, including red, gold, white, bronze, silver-gray, purple and blue? An example is pictured up top and below. At one time, they were ubiquitous in the sporting goods sections of American department stores, and they were found in many a home garage or bedroom corner. Like certain other items that actually originated in the mid-century era (such as the Parker Jotter pen), many people seem to remember these weights most from around the late 1970s or 1980s for some reason. But they actually came on the scene in the very early 1960s.

These colorful weights of polyethylene plastic, that miraculous jet-age material, along with the slim-yet-sturdy workout benches that went with them, were the innovative work of Forrest Hood “Fob” James, Jr. of Mobile, Alabama, and his company Diversified Products, which was in business until the late 1990s. Mr. James would eventually turn his attention to politics and become governor of the state of Alabama. While today’s fitness enthusiasts may scoff at this funny-looking cheap plastic product, it had a significant role in bringing weight training to the general public.

This spiffy new line of plastic-covered, concrete-filled weights was christened “Orbatron,” and the weights were branded for and sold at various discount department stores, such as Montgomery Ward, K-Mart, and, as in the set shown here, Sears, Roebuck and Co. They were aimed at the home hobbyist exercise enthusiast, as the Orbatron weights were claimed to be more suitable for use at home than solid iron weights that could damage floors and become rusty. The fast manufacturing process and cheaper materials undoubtedly ensured that they were more affordable than iron weights.

It was very convenient for Joe Public to be able to pick up a set of usable cheaper weights at the department store downtown instead of sending away for a cumbersome shipment of iron from the other side of the country, with the long transit time and the extra shipping charges piled on top of the premium cost of the product itself. And besides, the cutesy colors and rounded shapes of Orbatron weights added a more attractive character to your home than a big heap of unsightly metal plates… or some might say.

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Widespread availability at local department stores, mass marketing, and endorsements by sports and fitness figures contributed to Orbatron’s success. Ted Williams, the famous former MLB left fielder for the Boston Red Sox, reached a marketing deal with Sears and lent his name to their sporting goods line. As a quick ebay search will show, this included just about everything from camping tents and fishing poles to footballs, shotguns and shotgun shells. And of course, Sears’ line of Orbatron weights featured the name “Ted Williams” in raised cursive letters, as shown in the photo above. His signature was also on the cover and the introductory section of the instructional booklet “Weight Training for Athletes” that came with the weight set, shown below.

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TedWilliamsIntro

Ted Williams’ endorsement of weights was rather curious, as baseball has never really been associated with lifting weights in the public consciousness, and Mr. Williams had been active as a professional baseball player back in the years when sports coaches strongly discouraged athletes from lifting weights out of a mistaken fear that it would detract from their athletic ability by ruining their agility,  flexibility, and cardiovascular health. Nonetheless, by the 1960s, many a mid-century youth could use these weights in the bedroom corner or the garage, thinking that he was following a physical conditioning program endorsed by, or maybe even personally used by, his baseball hero Ted Williams. In the world of physical fitness today, we still see the same promotion of exercise equipment and dietary supplements by athletic or physique professionals who probably never actually use the product themselves, but are happy to get another paycheck from it. But that’s a story for another day.

Perhaps a more fitting endorser of Diversified Products’ Orbatron weights was Bruce Randall, who had most certainly been hitting the weights hard and heavy for many years in different arenas of the Iron Game, making the transition from a 401-lb powerlifter/strongman to the lean 222-lb winner of the 1959 Mr. Universe physique competition. Unlike Ted Williams, Bruce Randall’s involvement in sporting goods marketing appeared to be limited to the sport that he was directly involved in. There were no Bruce Randall hunting rifles, camping lanterns, fishing poles, basketballs or tennis racquets. He was an Iron Game champion, first and foremost.

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Mr. Randall undoubtedly made use of heavier-duty professional equipment in his own workouts, but he was very active in promoting the Orbatron product line for use in home exercise, making personal appearances at department stores to do meet-and-greet sessions with wide-eyed young customers and espouse the benefits of home weight training, as well as depicting himself making use of Diversified Products equipment in his 1970 book The Barbell Way to Physical Fitness, as pictured above and below.

RandallOrbatron

If you can get a hold of a used copy of Bruce Randall’s out-of-print book The Barbell Way to Physical Fitness, it’s definitely worth a read. While not necessarily cutting-edge by today’s standards, it contains very solid advice for getting into weight training, as well as useful reminders for those with more intermediate and advanced experience with the Iron Game. Like Jack LaLanne, Mr. Randall promoted the benefits of weight training for everybody, and this book includes chapters catered toward women, youth, and the busy modern executive lifting weights in his office while wearing a dress shirt and necktie.

Imagine being an impressionable youth in the 1960s and meeting this friendly and bulky Mr. Universe at your local Montgomery Ward department store, shaking his hand, and listening to his enthusiastic endorsement of weight training for strength, fitness, and sports conditioning. Perhaps if your parents bought you an inexpensive 110-lb Orbatron weight set, then you could be well on your way to becoming the next Mr. Universe someday… or at least getting stronger for the upcoming season of school football. You could then fill out a product questionnaire and send it to Mr. Randall himself, c/o the Diversified Products Marketing Department, as shown below on the insert card in the Sears “Weight Training for Athletes” booklet.

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There were a few downsides to Orbatron. For one, the discs were pretty thick and bulky compared to the equivalent amount of weight in iron. That would definitely get cumbersome when you worked your way up to heavier poundages. If you were lifting hundreds of pounds like Bruce Randall and other seasoned Iron Game professionals, you would definitely need to use iron plates, just so you could reasonably fit the weight on the barbell and still have room for a proper grip posture. Nevertheless, Orbatron was a good start for the home fitness enthusiast.

Also, the trade-off for the cheaper price was that the plastic/concrete discs were not as durable as iron plates. If treated too roughly, the plastic would crack, and concrete powder would seep out over time, so then they weighed less than what they said. Furthermore, the amounts of weight may have looked odd to American customers who were used to dealing with increments of whole pounds. The plates came in measurements of 10 kg, 6.5 kg, 6 kg, 4 kg, 2 kg, and 1 kg, which translated respectively to 22 lbs, 14.3 lbs, 13.2 lbs, 8.8 lbs, 4.4 lbs, and 2.2 lbs. That would have given your mental math skills a run for their money as you tried to add those together at a glance.

Despite these quirks, Orbatron was a hit for many years. Diversified Products finally went out of business in 1998, and these days you typically only see their products at thrift stores or yard sales. The next time you come across some bright red plastic weights, take a moment to think back on the intriguing history of “Fob” James, Ted Williams, Bruce Randall, and the mid-century home fitness industry. Now excuse me while I go out to the garage and use my vintage Orbatron weights and Diversified Products weight bench.

Next, we will turn our attention to some mid-century movies and music. Stay tuned…

Further reading:

A great overview of Bruce Randall’s transformation to Mr. Universe:
https://physicalculturestudy.com/2016/06/01/bruce-randall-and-the-most-amazing-transformation-in-bodybuilding/

A 1962 promotional piece on Sears’ sports equipment and Ted Williams:
https://www.si.com/vault/issue/43445/42/2

“Fob” James and Diversified Products Corp.:
http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-3419

http://www.eastalabama.org/diversfied_products.aspx

Mid-century fitness: Physical culture, a health nut, and his television show

The Jack LaLanne Show, Episode 1. From the Official Jack LaLanne channel on Youtube.

Mid-century living is about so much more than the stylistic trappings of design and decor. In considering how people actually lived in those years, and what lessons we can bring forward to contemporary times, we might give thought to what was involved in a mid-century approach to health and physical fitness.

Current thinking in the fitness world seems to view the seventies and eighties as some kind of “Golden Era,” the start of the fitness boom, ignoring anything older in favor of selling the latest marketable gimmick, which in most cases is probably just a rehash or mishmash of something from past decades. Of course, fitness actually goes back much further than that, and the mid-century era had its own systems of physical fitness which built on what had already come before then. This will be the first of my occasional “Mid-century fitness” articles.

The jazzy conveniences of modern living in the mid-century era meant that life was becoming more leisurely and sedentary than in previous decades. Unfortunately, this was not good for your fitness and health, and a few prominent people took notice. For example, president-elect John F. Kennedy wrote the following in his December 1960 Sports Illustrated article “Sport at the New Frontier: The Soft American”:

“But the harsh fact of the matter is that there is also an increasingly large number of young Americans who are neglecting their bodies — whose physical fitness is not what it should be — who are getting soft. And such softness on the part of individual citizens can help to strip and destroy the vitality of a nation.” (source)

Wow… sounds pretty serious, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, since that time, obesity rates among the US population have more than doubled (source). But that’s a story for another day.

By the mid-century years, while society in general was apparently rather lax about health and fitness, there had been a kind of specialist niche for a number of decades known as “physical culture,” which focused on training for physical strength and prowess, together with development of the physique. At best, the public viewed this as some kind of sideshow novelty. It wasn’t something that regular everyday people really did. Heaven forbid somebody lift heavy things if they didn’t have to do so for their job!

Prominent figures in physical culture had promoted various exercise fads in the early twentieth century. Then, in the mid-century years, one physical culturist who worked hard to get the message out to the modern public that they needed to exercise more and watch what they ate was Jack LaLanne (1914-2011).

People’s most recent memories of the late Jack LaLanne may be of an elderly Mr. LaLanne promoting his juicing machine on long television infomercials. But in his younger days, he ran Jack LaLanne’s Physical Culture Studio (a gym) located in Oakland, CA; he wrote several books and booklets on exercise and nutrition; and he hosted an exercise show on television for several decades to get people more active (as seen up top). He entered physique competitions, and he was featured in men’s fitness publications. Mr. LaLanne was also a regular on the original Muscle Beach scene at Santa Monica, CA, where physical culturists demonstrated impressive feats of gymnastics, acrobatics and weightlifting for huge audiences. But that’s also a story for another day.

FoodsForGlamour

One of Jack LaLanne’s excellent books aimed at a general readership.

The type of moderate physical activity promoted on The Jack LaLanne Show was certainly better than sitting around and being a couch potato. However, Mr. LaLanne himself didn’t develop that muscular physique just by doing the basic calisthenics exercises that he demonstrated on television. I mean, just look at his arm on the book cover shown above! If you became a client at Jack LaLanne’s Physical Culture Studio, he would have put you on a regular strength training program with weights. Weights weren’t just for bodybuilders or Olympic weightlifters. They were for everybody!

Jack LaLanne found himself dismissed and derided as a “health nut” by mainstream doctors. Yes, medical doctors actually thought people shouldn’t be so concerned with health and fitness. Unbelievable, right? But of course, those were the days when cigarette ads claimed endorsement by “nine out of ten doctors.” As Mr. LaLanne described in this interview,  he had to fight against various misconceptions of the time; for example, that lifting weights would make you freakishly musclebound and inflexible, that it would give you serious health problems, that athletes and women shouldn’t lift weights, etc. Today we know that those ideas are hooey, and that Jack LaLanne was right about the benefits of strength training.

Over the years, Mr. LaLanne’s concepts of exercising with weights for health were vindicated, as weight training gradually became accepted and its health and fitness benefits gained greater recognition. It became more okay for regular everyday folks to exercise with weights. But if joining a gym to work out was intimidating, disagreeable, or not feasible for whatever reason, what could a mid-century person do? Stay tuned for the next article.

Further reading on Jack Lalanne and home nutrition: https://physicalculturestudy.com/2015/05/18/changing-household-cooking-jack-lalanne-and-the-1950s/

The Official Jack LaLanne site, with excellent information on Mr. LaLanne’s life and fitness accomplishments, as well as great products for sale, including reprints of some of his booklets from the 1950s: http://jacklalanne.com/

Mid-century decor on a budget, Part 3

EndTablePrice

Today we conclude our three-part overview of getting in on all this spiffy mid-century modern design while avoiding the outlandish pricing of high-profile designer pieces. Part 1 addressed smaller decor pieces, and Part 2 discussed used furniture.

Depending on the selection in your area, you may find great deals on mid-century furniture, such as that pictured above, at vintage home decor stores or antique malls. But what if a used piece just doesn’t meet your particular needs, for whatever reason?

Go for quality

Before we begin looking for new furniture, one thing to keep in mind is that we should look for good value, not just dirt-cheap prices. Those on a shoestring budget may be tempted to get the cheapest item they can find simply because it’s cheap. It’s easy to go for a higher quantity of cheaper pieces, especially if you are looking to end up with a greater variety of items in a shorter time.  However, while a $250 love seat at the messy fly-by-night furniture mart on the corner may be tempting, it’s probably going to break in short order, so you definitely want to consider the longevity of the materials first. Having to wait and save up a little more to get a single piece of more durable furniture, maybe in the $600-$900 range, will be much more worth it in the long run.

While real leather is great, retro-style or original vintage pieces in full-grain leather may not be readily available at affordable prices. Vinyl is almost certainly going to crack at some point. It can be fixed with a repair kit, but the seams may still be visible. Depending on your preferences, that may not bother you, and could even add to a “lived-in” look.

Bonded leather is basically made of shredded scraps of leather held together with a plastic-y polyurethane adhesive. It is to real leather what particle board is to real wood. Depending on how much abuse your furniture takes, the bonded leather material may end up worn down all the way to the backing fabric in just a few years. Not only is that hideous, but trying to repair it may be more trouble than it’s worth. If it’s going to end up looking like fabric anyway, it might be better to just get a fabric-upholstered sofa in the first place!

Sources for new retro furniture

There are a few furniture companies out there that continue the original mid-century modernist tradition of more affordable stylish design aimed at Jane and Joe Public. The pricing on some of the better-quality items may be considered “mid-range,” for example, somewhere in the $600s to the $1,300s or so for a sofa, depending on what you find. This is still significantly less than what you would pay for, say, brand new Herman Miller products.

While it may seem cliché, Ikea’s mid-century Scandinavian heritage is very apparent in certain items. For those who are particular about a specific period look, Ikea’s more retro-looking stuff might fit in better with a 1960s “mod” look than a more “atomic” 1950s setting. For example, take a gander at the “Landskrona” sofa: Click here.

Ikea’s “Lovbacken” side table is very affordable at only $59.99 and is closely based on one of their original designs from the 1950s: Click here. They have sometimes reissued other designs from those years, so keep an eye out for some spiffy retro stuff.

Crate & Barrel has a wide selection of furniture that could fit with a mid-century aesthetic. While much of it is at a more premium cost, you can find some attractive items among their offerings that are available at a more mid-range price. This isn’t too shabby for $800, right?

If you are in the northwest, Moe’s Home Collection, based in Seattle, WA and Vancouver, BC, has some very stylish pieces. Some could be described as more ornamented “Hollywood Regency,” while others are more typical mid-century modern. Their “Madison” sofa can be found for less than $800 at retail:  Click here.

Here are just a couple stores on the West Coast that feature new furniture in retro-modernist design (check web sites for hours and contact info):

Seattle

Kasala Furniture: https://www.kasala.com

Check out their outlet location located here:

1948 Occidental Ave S

Seattle, WA 98134

Los Angeles:

The Hunt Vintage Home Furnishings: https://thehuntvintage.com

Their “Mid century style custom day bed sofa” goes for $925 and is available in a variety of colors.

5317 York Blvd

Los Angeles, CA 90042

 

Thank you for joining Living MCM on this three-part overview of mid-century modern decor and furniture on a budget. Hopefully this gives you a good starting point, as well as ideas of the types of sources to search for locally in your area.

Now that the obligatory discussions of interior decor are over with, we will turn our attention to some other aspects of mid-century living. First of all, how does a mid-century modern person stay in shape? Stay tuned!

 

Mid-century decor on a budget, Part 2

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The great selection at Lounge Lizard, in Portland, OR.
Photo provided by Lounge Lizard Vintage Furniture and used with permission. Visit www.pdxloungelizard.com

In Part 1 of this three-part series, we discussed sourcing smaller decor to create a vintage mid-century atmosphere in your pad. Good modern design originally was not meant to be the elitist, almost unattainable thing that it seems to have become nowadays. So don’t be afraid that going for cheaper items makes you some kind of philistine. Today, we move up to the “flagship” items of home decor: your furniture.

If you search for the prestigious standard-bearers of mid-century modernism, such as authentic Herman Miller products or vintage Scandinavian pieces, you may choke on the prices, which easily run into the thousands of dollars each. Does this mean you have to give up on your dream of a mid-century home? Not at all!

Buy used, buy lower-profile

Even at the height of the mid-century era, some national brands were more affordable than others, and there were also lesser known local furniture producers that made pieces designed to emulate the popular style of the higher-profile items from Danish or American designers. The construction might not be quite as solid, and they might be made of lesser quality materials; for example, finished in laminate instead of being made completely of solid wood. But if they’ve lasted sixty years, they’re obviously durable. You can often find vintage pieces of this type at very reasonable prices. But where?

For one, Craigslist (I still don’t know whether it’s supposed to be capitalized or not) is a veritable treasure trove. Through a Craigslist ad, I was able to obtain a walnut-stained “surfboard” side table which was an American imitation of a Danish teak design, for only about $80, as opposed to upwards of $900 for a Danish original. Only I can tell the difference!

Try search terms like “mid-century” or “mid-century modern,” or specific decades of furniture such as “1950s” and “1960s.” Private sellers don’t have all the markups of retail operations, and oftentimes they are trying to get rid of something quickly, either to make room for something else or because they are moving and can’t take all their stuff with them. You may wish to expand your search to surrounding towns to find a greater variety of items. Prices may be even lower in smaller towns where this kind of retro modern design aesthetic hasn’t quite caught on in recent years. You may also want to see what’s available for local pickup on eBay.

Another great idea is to check local antique stores or shops that specialize in vintage furniture. Larger antique malls will often have a dealer space or two that specialize in items from the mid-century period. You can find something with great vintage character, for example, a sofa in the hundreds of dollars, or a dresser under $200, instead of having to shell out thousands of greenbacks. If you are located in my region, the West Coast, you may wish to head to one of the following destinations. Check out their websites for hours, contact info, etc. These are just a few suggestions to get started. Careful online searches will undoubtedly reveal even more great sources in your locale.

Seattle:

Pacific Galleries Antique Mall: http://www.pacgal.com/malls/seattle_AntiqueMall

241 South Lander Street, Seattle, WA 98134

Make sure you look in every corner of this antique mall, as mid-century furniture is found in more than one dealer space. Some of it is more high-profile designer stuff, and some of it is at the everyday affordable level.

Portland:

Lounge Lizard: http://www.pdxloungelizard.com

Original location: 1310 SE Hawthorne Blvd, Portland, OR 97214

Expanded store: 1426 SE Hawthorne Blvd, Portland, OR 97214

I have personally been to both of Lounge Lizard’s locations on many occasions. They never disappoint! The photo above gives an idea of their diverse selection. In addition to vintage furniture and decor, they produce their own reproduction 1950s-style lamp shades, which are conveniently available for purchase through their website, in case you are located elsewhere.

Sacramento:

Midway Antique Mall: http://midwayantiquemall.com

5130 Madison Avenue, Sacramento, CA 95841

Their display areas feel like you walked into one of the sets of Mad Men. Check out the singing Dean Martin doll. (if it hasn’t been sold yet!)

Sometimes, even after all that searching and antiquing, you may find that, for the particular piece of furniture you are in the market for, the used or vintage items that you find in your area just have a little too much wear and tear for your taste, and you’d rather not go to all the trouble of restoring and refinishing. What can you do in that case? Stay tuned for Part 3, later this week!

Mid-century decor on a budget, Part 1

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Left: Oval Shade lamp by Design Classics Lighting.
Right: A George Nelson knockoff clock purchased on eBay.

Mid-century modern! It’s sleek, it’s stylish, it’s retro, and it’s all the rage. A few MCM pieces such as a sofa, a credenza, a lamp, or a clock can give your place just the distinctive “space-age bachelor pad” character that you were looking for.

But it can also get prohibitively and dishearteningly expensive, especially if you are looking at the higher-profile items such as vintage Danish pieces or those from the well-known American designers. This is quite unfortunate, and I would dare say that such elitist pricing is also contrary to the original spirit of mid-century modernism. Part of the appeal of modernist design was that stylish and functional items could be put together fairly quickly and easily, sometimes using lower-cost materials such as plywood and laminate surfacing, and were therefore widely accessible to the general public at affordable prices.

So what are some alternatives to shelling out $4,000-9,000 for a designer sofa or $500 for a wall clock? Let’s start this three-part series with smaller decor items, and work our way up to furniture later on in Parts 2 and 3.

Vintage or vintage-inspired small decor

Sometimes smaller pieces of decor such as wall art, lighting, or functional everyday accessories like curtains and towels are enough to create a vintage atmosphere. Since this type of interior design aesthetic has made a comeback in recent years, it’s fairly easy to find such items in retro/modernist-inspired designs, even in places where you may not have expected to find chic decor. Believe it or not, a few of the product lines sold at Target are quite retro or “mod” looking.

Perhaps you would like to give a retro touch to your plants. Is $200 for a vintage planter a bit much for you? You may find something useful at the places you normally shop at. For example, the succulent in a cylindrical modernist pot pictured below cost only $10 at Whole Foods. While it may not have the striking appearance of a “bullet” style planter, a couple of these will certainly give your place a bit of that good old Palm Springs “desert modernism” feel.

WholeFoodsPlant

A succulent in a modernist pot, from Whole Foods

You can find some interesting vintage pieces by perusing thrift stores, antique malls, and vintage specialty shops in your area, and of course searching on eBay. Paintings, prints, and various bric-a-brac such as small sculptures or vases can augment your pad’s stylish retro quality. Kitchen appliances and cookware such as blenders and fondue pots add a nice touch to your food prep and dining areas. You might also think a little outside the box by steering away from conventional artwork for your walls; instead, decorate with old postcards, record album covers, and vintage advertising. You can often find such items dirt-cheap, and it’s also easy to get inexpensive frames in neutral, streamlined designs that go well with a mid-century-inspired room.

Also be on the lookout for cheaper alternatives to higher-profile designer pieces that you may have seen. George Nelson bubble lamps run into the several hundreds of dollars. So instead, look up the “Contemporary Floor Lamp with Oval Shade” by Design Classics Lighting (pictured up top), available for a very reasonable $70, as opposed to $450 for an actual Nelson floor lamp.

While some readers may scoff at the idea of outright knockoffs, I would argue that they are a valid option, especially if you are on a budget. Searching on Google or eBay will reveal clocks very similar to George Nelson designs (an example is pictured up top). The level of craftsmanship won’t be the same, but the designer-“inspired” products can be had at only $60, instead of $400 to $1,300 for an actual designer piece. Similarly, an authentic Herman Miller Eames “Hang it All” wall hanger costs about $200. But if you search on Amazon for something Eames-“inspired” instead of going for an official branded piece, you can find something very similar in the range of only $35 to $65. Believe me, your guests will never know the difference between copies and originals. And you may be surprised how many complements you get!

Smaller items can make a big difference in creating the vintage atmosphere you want, but the prominent standout in any room is the furniture. So what are some more affordable options? Stay tuned for Part 2!