My love of vintage graphics led me to this box; the vintage beefcake didn’t exactly hurt either.
Together, they drew me in and led me to the discovery of more kitsch in vintage exercise plans. Most of the kitsch appeal comes from the fact that there’s little, if anything, new under the health and fitness sun. Just look at how familiar this exercise equipment is!
According to the two pieces of original sales literature, this muscle building set contained a Heavy Tension Nickel Plated 3-Spring Chest Pull with “Saf-Tee Handles”, a “Professional Swivel Handles Skip Rope”, and a pair of “Strong Heavy Duty Hand Grips” — the latter of which is shown comically large in the instruction images. (This boxed set isn’t complete; the jump rope and one of the hand grips is missing.) Circa 1959, this displayed box set sold for $6.75 to $7.95.
For me, the story of this boxed set of vintage exercise equipment began at a thrift shop this weekend; but the story of the Whitely Multi Power 3-Way Combination Muscle Builder set goes back over one hundred years. This despite the “patent applied for” on the box.
The Whitely name comes from Alex Whitely, who had published works on the subject of exercise, for men and women, dating to 1891 — and perhaps earlier. He is credited with inspiring Joe Pilades, among others. The earliest Whitely Exercisers appear to have been manufactured by the Independent Electric Company, but a few years later products would be credited to the Whitely Exerciser Company.
In 1897, the Whitely Exerciser Company signed “the father of modern bodybuilding”, the big man who is the little body of the Mr. Olympia trophies, Eugen Sandow as their European agent. Sandow was to to represent the company and demonstrate the product abroad. It was a great success. Perhaps too much so. According to David L. Chapman in Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding, Sandow did more than take the money and sell:
Sandow found that this device was so enthusiastically received that a year after he began work for Whitely he quit abruptly and established his own rival business in France. There he produced his particular version of the device and called it “Sandow’s Own Combined Developer.”
(“Sandow’s Own”, along with his dumb-bells, can be seen here.)
Whitely’s company would survive the defection.
By the time my Whitely’s boxed set was printed, Alexander Whitely’s company was simply known as “Whitely, Inc.” But not too long after, the Whitely name would end up (along with other sporting goods companies, such as Voit) being co-branded with its parent company, American Machine and Foundry or AMF. (If the AMF name seems to ring a bell, the company is known as the maker of the automatic bowling-pin setter — and the company that nearly killed Harley-Davidson.)
Before AMF would itself fall victim to a hostile take-over in 1985 by Minstar Inc., the AMF-Whitely product list included such notables as the 1978 Jenner Home Gym, named for 1976 Olympic Decathlon Gold Medalist Bruce Jenner. Jenner was so popular then that only his last name and visage was used. No Kardashians needed! Note the jump rope with wooden handles and the now-iconic Whitely hand grips.
Jenner was also picked to promote the cosmic Electronic Ergometer, which was sold under the AMF-Whitely name as well as white-labeled for Sears and other department stores with home fitness aspirations.
Minstar, Inc., along with the AMF-Whitely name, would then be taken over by Irwin L. Jacobs‘ Genmar Holdings Inc. in 2010. But by then the fitness brand was long forgotten by most. However, the Whitely name, with its long history of both notable designs and athletes, is most fit for collecting.