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

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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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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.

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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.

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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/