I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the corpulent belly was an item to be admired. Being rotund was a symbol of success and wealth, so those of ample girths joined together in clubs to rejoice in their plump endowments.
New York Starts a Trend
By the end of the nineteenth century, New York boasted dozens of fat men’s club. The membership was exclusively large, white males who were well-connected. The first of the breed was the Fat Men’s Association of New York, which began life in 1869.
Before long, other clubs opened to glorify the prosperous and portly.
There was the United Association of the Heavy Men of New York State, the Heavy Weights, the Fat Men’s Beneficial Association, and, naturally, the Jolly Fat Men’s Club. Members of one club had the motto “I’ve got to be good-natured; I can’t fight and I can’t run.”
The gatherings featured weigh-ins with a prize, usually a pig, for the heaviest heavyweight. There are dark stories of men stuffing their pockets with loose change in order to cheat the scale and take home the porker.
Clubs for Networking
Of course, the men gorged themselves on rich food, no doubt smacking their bellies and bragging about their size, but the get-togethers had another function.
The prerequisite for obesity is access to lots of food and that meant having plenty of money. So, the membership of fat men’s clubs was pre-selected to be filled with men of influence, such as politicians and industrialists.
Meetings provided ample opportunities for moneyed men to strike deals and negotiate government procurement contracts: “Isn’t it Tubby Hanson’s turn to win the bid on re-grading the turnpike?”
Think of these solid men groaning under the oppression of the franchise and crying out against custom! If lean men have one [vote] why should fat men not have two? Two did we say? Why not vote entirely by avoirdupois, so give the Fat Men’s Association a whole district at once?”
New-York Daily Tribune, November 11, 1869.
The Hale’s Tavern Banquets
New England’s Fat Men’s Club required members to be in excess of 200 pounds and to learn a secret handshake. They lived under the slogan “We’re fat and we’re making the most of it!”
Twice a year, the club’s members gathered at Hale’s Tavern in Wells River, Vermont, which was somewhat grander than the word “tavern” suggests. In 1904, The Boston Globe reported on the festivities: “This village is full of bulbous and overhanging abdomens and double chins tonight, for the New England Fat Men’s Club is in session at Hale’s Tavern. The natives, who are mostly bony and angular, have stared with envy at the portly forms and rubicund faces which have arrived on every train.”
The day’s action started, as it should, with a massive breakfast, followed by farcical “athletics.” The rope used for the tug-of-war broke and a chain was substituted. Another event was a 100-yard dash (more of a waddle one would think), and on one occasion contestant F.C. Dignac, in the 370-pound range, fell over and couldn’t get up again with assistance. But this was a sideshow before the main event.
To keep up their paunches up to the required standard, the gentlemen sat down to feasts of monumental proportions. Polly Tafrate, of the now defunct Upper Valley Life, wrote of a blow-out : “One nine-course menu included oyster cocktail, cream of chicken soup, boiled snapper, fillet of beef with mushrooms, roast chicken, roast suckling pig, shrimp salad, steamed fruit pudding with brandy sauce, assorted cakes, cheese and ice cream followed by coffee and cigars. The evening was laced with large portions of wit, sarcasm and roaring laughter.”
Well, of course, because we know that all fat people are jolly.
Long Island Clambake
As we've seen, the consumption of gargantuan meals was a feature of fat men’s club meetings. One such event took place on Long Island in August 1884 under the sponsorship of the Connecticut Fat Men’s Club.
Rohini Chaki writes (Atlas Obscura) that the fat men “arrived in boats that nearly capsized, wagons pulled by heaving horses, and streetcars where no room was left for conductors to walk between the rows.”
The President of the club, a suitably rotund Mr. Philetus Dorion, was described by The New York Times as “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.”
Mr. Dorion and his stout pals tucked into 60 bushels of clams, along with chickens, lobsters, and vegetables. As the feast steamed over hickory logs and under a blanket of seaweed for several hours, the worthy gentlemen quaffed gallons of beer.
Ode to Obesity
A toast to us my good, kind friends
To bless the things we eat
For it has been full many a year
Since we have seen our feet
But who would lose a precious pound
By trading sweets for sours?
It takes a mighty girth indeed
To hold such hearts as ours.
Eventually, the fun had to end. During the Roaring Twenties being fat and bloated started to fall out of favour, and the medical community was becoming more vocal about the dangers of obesity. Also, life insurance companies were having something to say about the need to increase premiums along with poundage.
The New England Fat Men’s Club, which at the peak of its popularity could muster a membership list of 10,000, met for the final time in 1924. The turnout was just 38 men, and none of them were said to be excessively fat.
Now, we’ve come full circle to a world with a massive (no pun intended) obesity problem and in which those carrying extra weight are shamed.
By 1932, Fat Men Were Figures of Fun
- On one occasion President William Howard Taft, a man of generous proportions, was invited to take in a New England Fat Men’s Club meeting at Hale’s Tavern. A car was sent to fetch to pick him up from a train station. However, when the 340 pounds of presidential flesh climbed aboard, the vehicle sighed and broke down. Taft got back on the train and went home.
- The idea for fat men’s clubs spread across the United States and also across the Atlantic Ocean. Les Cent Kilos de Paris (The Hundred Kilos―220 pounds) was founded in 1896 and G. Megan of The Strand Magazine attended one of its functions in 1898. He wrote that the club had three purposes: “1. The establishment of amicable relationship between the members. 2. To organize, on certain occasions, excursions on steam-rollers, and banquets, etc. (Here the secretary is interrupted by one of the burliest members, who, with an appreciative laugh, shouts out, ‘Certainly, we must amuse ourselves in the best possible way.’ The secretary, with a withering look at the offender, proceeds.) 3. To create a centre of support (surely a matter for an engineer) and of brotherhood to members of similar societies visiting Paris.”
- “The Fat Men’s Clubs that Revelled in Excess.” Rohini Chaki, Atlas Obscura, January 17, 2019.
- New-York Daily Tribune, November 11, 1869.
- “The Forgotten History of Fat Men’s Clubs.” Tanya Basu, National Public Radio, March 10, 2016.
- “Fat Men’s Clubs Existed, and They Were the Ultimate Celebration of Body Acceptance.” James Cave, HuffPost, January 4, 2016
- “The New England Fat Men’s Club.” New England Historical Society, 2019.
- “A Fat Men’s Club–Les Cents Kilos de Paris.” G. Megan, Strand Magazine, 1898.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on February 16, 2020:
Fascinating and hilarious! I didn't know anything about this!
Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on January 08, 2020:
Rupert, you wrote a comical interesting story about something peculiar in the good old days, but eventually, they discovered there wasn't anything good about being too fat.
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on January 08, 2020:
Fat has gone from being glorified to being demonized. Thanks for this interesting article!
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on January 07, 2020:
Goodness, I never knew of this club. How interesting! Imagine that club nowadays!