In the mid-1800s, a “Fat Movement” gained momentum when affluent people who didn’t have to work and could afford to eat copiously, started gaining weight.
Self-proclaimed “fat men”, in major U.S. cities gathered themselves together in clubs (with names such as the New England Fat Men’s Club, the Jolly Fat Men’s Club, the United Association of the Heavy Men of New York State, the Fat Men’s Beneficial Association and the Heavy Weights) at various annual events like picnics, excursions, balls or more and of course, anybody who weighed less than 90kilograms would have to watch from the sidelines.
The clubs existed alongside contradictory discourses around obesity. While some commentators decried the mental and physical degeneration that they alleged was caused by obesity, other accounts venerated the good spirits and utter lack of criminality among the fat people.
But what did one do in a fat men’s club? You ate, basically! A lot!
The Fat Men’s Association of New York City, which first met in 1869, is according to Kerry Segrave, author of “Obesity in America: A History of Social Attitudes and Treatment”, the first Fat Men’s club.
It set off a trend that would spread across the country, where members could met themselves, eat a lot, and, most importantly, defiantly show their weight as a badge of pride and honor: ” We’re fat and we’re making the most of it!” they said.
On a warm, sunny August day in 1884, a group of men gathered near Long Island Sound: they arrived in boats that nearly capsized, wagons pulled by horses and streetcars where no space was left to walk between the rows. It was the annual clambake of the Connecticut Fat Men’s Club!
A the New York Times’ journalist wrote about the club’s president these words: “Mr. Dorlon is huge, he is ponderous, his obesity borders on the infinite, and the most hardened lean man cannot gaze upon his magnificent proportions without being unconsciously made purer and holier.”
The event chef, an artist in clams from Brooklyn, baked between 6,000 and 24,000 clams, and on the menu were also “wagon loads of happy Spring chickens, boat loads of cheerful lobsters, and crates of green corn and vegetables”, all covered in seaweed and slow-cooked for hours.
At the end of that feast, there was a final speech by the current president Dorlon, who, holding the club’s ceremonial golden staff with the weights of his presidential predecessors inscribed on it, wept at his size and offered to relinquish his presidency to a worthier, more weighty representative. Of course, he was unanimously re-elected!
In her history of The New England Fat Men’s Club, Polly Tafrate describes that the town enjoyed the annual parties as much as the members:
“Townspeople looked forward to the summer meetings. Children would gather at the railroad station as guests arrived. They enjoyed watching the oversized members walking the streets, exchanging their secret hand clasp and listening for the secret password. As told in ‘The History of Newbury,’ one rainy day a young boy remarked to his friend, ‘Gee, look at that stomach! Let’s get under it and keep out of the rain!‘”
In the beginning years of the 20th century, also the tiny village of Wells River, Vt., was invaded annually by hordes of men with overhanging abdomens and double chins.
“Being fat” started to decline around the ’20s, when obesity was a rising problem (and not just a privilege reserved for the wealthy people), and when the medical community began to understand its negative health effects. But at least for a little while during the end of the century, it was a fat men’s world!
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