Meet Well+Good’s fitness historian, Natalia Petrzela, PhD, a history professor at The New School in New York City and a premier IntenSati instructor, who shares the sweaty past with us in this new column.
Luxury! The latest technology! Weight loss GUARANTEED! Sound familiar?
But these marketing slogans don’t describe a flashy new Equinox club or a shiny Peloton bike—they promoted one of the most popular fitness technologies of the mid-twentieth century, a now-forgotten contraption with a name as clunky as its construction: the “reducing machine.”
Located at “slenderizing salons” or in the comfort of one’s home, “reducing machines” encompassed a range of exercise equipment used by women from the 1930s–1960s to achieve that time-honored goal of reducing (yep, you guessed it!) their weight.
While stationary bikes fell under this category too, the most popular reducing machines involved were enormous devices with straps (the 1930s models) or platforms (the ’50s and early ’60s) that primarily… shook “the right spots” into submission with electric vibrations intended to “dissolve fatty tissues” and “eliminate inches” with a kind of intense massage. Watch this video from the 1940s reminding ladies that they might have helped win World War II, but they still had crucial “Battles of the Bulge” to wage on their own bodies. (BTW, electric vibration has never been proven in a single study to promote fat distribution or loss.)
The reducing-machine craze
The reducing-machine craze was national–“figure control rooms” (another name for slenderizing salons) popped up in small towns and suburbs as well as coastal cities and some featured installment plans for as little as $1.00 for a fifteen-minute visit–during which you could lose “AS MUCH AS THREE POUNDS OR YOUR MONEY BACK!”, as one Milwaukee business advertised in 1956. Even as late as 1969, a Philadelphia salon catered to “everyday American damsels in distress—housewives, career girls, college coeds” who despite their diverse lives shared in the “unending nightmare” of “weight control.”
While the machines didn’t go down in history as effective, or even cause women to break a sweat, they weren’t FDA approved either. In fact, in 1949, the Los Angeles Times reported that one young woman was trapped in a malfunctioning machine and suffered “bone bruises” even after an emergency police squad came to her rescue (suddenly getting stuck in your clip-in cycling shoes doesn’t seem so bad!).
“Slim yourself without unladylike sweat or building dreaded muscles”
Ironically, nearly every reducing-machine business promoted itself by how little physical activity it demanded from women: “Just relax in luxurious comfort.”… “No moving from one machine to another”… These “cage-like platforms housing a contraption of coils and metal poles” might be intended to increase women’s vitality, but not at the cost of inducing an unladylike sweat or building dreaded muscles, both of which mainstream beauty ideals considered masculine and unattractive.
Reducing machines were often adjacent to beauty salons or located in private homes—not in gyms, which were still considered the preserve of sweaty, grunting men and entirely inappropriate for respectable ladies who often kept their high heels on during a reducing session.
The reducing machine craze is more than a humorous historical blip, however; it gives us a glimpse of the changing status of women in this era. By the 1970s–not coincidentally as the feminist movement, sexual revolution, and, um, disco were underway—the idea of passively shaking away your body fat after getting your hair set with your lady friends began seem a little, well, passé.
By the early 1980s, “feeling the burn” was all the rage in women’s fitness, and as gyms as became increasingly coed, men and women alike used very different machines like treadmills, Stairmasters, and Nautilus to, yes, (gasp!) unapologetically break a sweat.
Further reading: Jonathan Black, Making the American Body: The Remarkable Saga of the Men and Women Whose Feats, Feuds, and Passions Shaped Fitness History (2013).
(Photo: Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images; an ad for Figure Magic Salons )