Originally posted to djearlybird.blogspot.com, November 13, 2005. Thanks to Wikipedia, I found out some very interesting history about my childhood hometown. Since I’m now on one of those “you know you’re from when…” sites on Facebook, it seems time to revisit it.
Physical Culture City was the branchild of Bernarr Macfadden, the then world-famous “Father of Physical Culture.” Well, apparently he was world-famous. I never heard of him before researching this post. Born in Mill Spring, MO (not far from St. Louis – you can see where this freaked me out a little), he apparently became the forerunner of “physical culture,” which paved the way for today’s fitness craze. In 1899 he founded Physical Culture magazine, and within the next few years organized bodybuilding championships, founded the Polar Bear club of winter outdoor swimmers, and published regularly. Charles Atlas was apparently one of his discoveries.
In 1905, Macfadden was on top of the world. His magazine was a success, he was married with a child, and even his setbacks worked in his favor (such as when he was sued over one of his bodybuilding championships, which the official Macfadden website described as “a lewd display of carnality” – this only sold more tickets). The time had come to set up an entire community dedicated to health and clean living. To this end, he purchased 1500 acres of farmland in northern Monroe on the Spotswood border, and set up Physical Culture City.
Here is a webpage with some photos of the city. Here is a map of the city. I don’t recognize any of the landmarks, but I know the lettered avenues as the Outcalt neighborhood, just north of my Mill Lake Manor home.
Physical Culture City included a new publishing headquarters, homes heated “mostly by sunlight” (paving the way for solar energy decades later), a restaurant and about 200 residents who mostly lived in tents. The idea was to live close to nature and the land. “Because the people who joined Macfadden in PC City shunned restrictive clothing,” the website says, “it acquired what seems to be an undeserved reputation for being a nudist colony.” You can only imagine what was going on in those tents.
Alas, Physical Culture City’s Utopian dream was not to be. “Within several months the numbers began to dwindle,” the website says. “Because of unforeseen legal and financial difficulties as well as other business responsibilities, Macfadden had neither the time nor the money to keep PC City going.”
What legal difficulties? Well, Macfadden seems to have been his generation’s Larry Flynt. The way he saw it, he was a First Amendment crusader, fighting repressive anti-free speech laws and promoting a fusion of mental and physical health. “Since the mind has a tremendous influence on the body, it is important to keep the thoughts positive. He believed that the body and especially sex were naturally good and wholesome; it was prudery that made them seem otherwise.” But to the authorities, he was little more than a pornographer.
In 1907, Physical Culture ran a story about venereal disease. This was the last straw. Macfadden was sued for publishing “obscene material,” and the U.S. Postal Service refused to deliver his magazine. He fought the case and eventually won a pardon from President Taft. However, it broke up his marriage and forced him to sell the Physical Culture City land at a loss.
Macfadden survived the loss of Physical Culture City – he took three more wives and preached his healthful gospel well into his 80s. Monroe Township remained a rural farming community until 1960, when the New Jersey Turnpike built Exit 8A specifically so Leisure World could build the Rossmoor senior citizen community. Later in the 1960s, developers began building in the Physical Culture City area. By the time we moved to Mill Lake Manor in 1971, there were still huge clumps of dirt and open fields where we kids played. (No residual tents, though.)
Next I want to research Electric City, which was the original blueprint for what eventually became Mill Lake Manor. Wouldn’t “Electric City” have been the coolest subdivision name ever?
Update: Here are some more links re Physical Culture City. You can Google more.
“Local residents were horrified at the scantily dressed, and sometimes naked or barefoot ‘residents’ of the city, most of whom lived in tents. Macfadden had dreamed of 30,000 settlers but only ever attracted 200.”
“The community was a failure. Where Macfadden had envisaged 30,000 healthy Americans, there were merely 200 devotees who lived at subsistence level while working night and day trying to build their “city.” Meanwhile, Macfadden, who rarely lived at the site (leaving his wife and his secretary/mistress to run the venture), continued with his physical culture crusades.”
Time magazine, 2/14/27: “A cult must have a shrine or citadel. Bernarr Macfadden built his at Spottswood, N. J., ‘The Physical Culture City.’ Pilgrims groaned when they found they must pay board and yet fast for two weeks. But the city flourished, perhaps on compensations which the New York World misunderstood when it attacked the city as a nest of impropriety and license.”