University of Texas, Austin
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century, the term physical culture was born. Used to describe the practice of lifting weights, monitoring one’s diet, exercising in the gym and generally attending to one’s appearance, physical culture was distinguishable from previous health terms by its popularity. Men and women, who identified as physical culturists, were found across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. It was a worldwide phenomenon and has, quite rightly, been described by scholars as a precursor to the modern interest in strength and fitness.
Leading the way in popularising physical culture were strongmen and women who performed in music halls and circuses, wrote books and magazines, sold exercise equipment and advised the public on diet. The most well-known example of this is undoubtedly Eugen Sandow, whom many credits as the first ‘modern’ bodybuilder. Advertised as a physical culturist from 1889 to his death in the 1920s, Sandow travelled the globe, sold exercise ephemera and inspired countless masses to take up exercise.
For good reason, a great deal of work has been conducted on Sandow and his importance. Far less research exists on many of his contemporaries. This is especially the case with strongwomen. Operating in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century female strength performers in the circus, or on the music hall stage, challenged ideas about the ideal female body and visually proved that strength for women was not dangerous, but empowering.
Previous historical research on female strongwomen has, generally speaking, been conducted within the American context. Jan Todd, David Chapman, Patricia Vertinsky and Gils Bieke have all produced excellent work on strongwomen who captivated American audiences with their feats of strength.
Far less attention has been placed on the British context aside from sporadic comments about strongwomen who toured in Britain during the early 1900s. The purpose of this article was to shed light on one of the first female strongwomen to earn a sustained living in Britain, as well as the difficulties she faced.
In 1884 a German circus performer named Julia Veidlere, or ‘Victorina’ as she became known, travelled to Belfast to perform as a strength athlete in a local music hall. At that time Victorina was unknown to British audiences. Within five years she was the premier female strength act of the music hall circuit. Her rise to fame, and efforts to expand her ‘brand’ are the focus of this article.
Examining Victorina’s efforts to distinguish herself from competitors, the article examines several ways in which Victorina marketed herself as a female strongwoman. First there were her innovative strength performances. Throughout her near decade in England, Victorina continually changed her music hall acts to remain relevant. During times of war in the British Empire, she adopted British logos and emblems in acts. When female criminality became a popular topic in the press, she used a bank vault during her performances which she mimicked stealing. When Eugen Sandow captivated audiences by carrying a horse overhead across a stage, Victorina mimicked it. Such creativity and fluidity, it is argued in the article, ensured a steady audience.
Quite remarkably for the time, Victorina also distinguished herself by marketing several books and athletic products during this time. While this was a common tactic of male strength athletes, it was relatively rare for women. Publishing her own book and becoming the sponsored athlete for a muscle relaxation cream, Victorina elevated her profile as a strength athlete to someone of importance beyond the stage.
There was much success in Victorina’s efforts but, as the article makes clear, hers was not an entirely happy time in the spotlight. The article also examines the societal and commercial barriers Victorina faced in the music hall circuit. She was, for many years, the only strongwoman of note in Great Britain. While strongmen challenged one another in exhibition contests, made connections with physicians and military thinkers, or went on public lecture tours, Victorina isolated from these broader connections.
On the night in question, the horse began violently moving as Victorina held it aloft. Her husband, Gustav ran on stage, calmed the horse and allowed Victorina to complete the feat.
Likewise Victorina was continually forced to assert the fact that although she was a strongwoman, she was still feminine. Thus newspaper interviews with Victorina asserted the fact that despite her strength, she was elegant, delicate and graceful. This downplaying of her strength and athleticism stood in stark contrast to her male colleagues whose strength was seen to accentuate their masculinity.
Finally, Victorina suffered from the instability of the music hall circuit. In 1893 She was sued by her former employers for failing to fulfil her contract. Hired by the London Pavilion Company to carry a horse overhead across a stage, Victorina was deemed to have ‘cheated.’ On the night in question, the horse began violently moving as Victorina held it aloft. Her husband, Gustav ran on stage, calmed the horse and allowed Victorina to complete the feat.
The Company claimed Gustav’s interference had invalidated the act, despite the protestations of several music hall experts that it had not. Victorina ultimately lost the case – one of the few times a strength performer did so – and was declared bankrupt shortly afterward. One year later, in 1894, she had fled England with Gustav to avoid their debts. The cruel irony was that it was during the 1890s that physical culturists, and strength performers like Victorina, experienced an exponential increase in popularity and interest. Victorina had missed out.
Studying how Victorina built her ‘brand’ as a performer, as well as the structural barriers facing female strongwomen during this time, the article thus examines a previously unstudied individual in the history of strength while simultaneously discussing both the music hall circuit of the era and the place of strength performers within it.
Copyright © Conor Heffernan 2021