They were heavy lifters of the changing female body image. Women were still discouraged from any exercise that could build more muscle. Some doctors even warned female patients that cycling could lead to the dreaded bicycle face, among other serious ailments. Even so, Victorian Strongwomen pushed social and physical boundaries. They embraced the emerging freedoms of the “New Woman.” Gone were thin white arms and frail musculatures.
Many people still considered them circus freaks. But Victorian Strongwomen proved that strength is both beautiful and feminine. Thanks to the Social Media Platforms of the day–Cardomania and Poster Art—their fan base soared and they were able to earn good livings.
Following are just two of our favorite iron ladies who fought for acceptance on the road to contemporary female athleticism.
Circus acrobat Max Heymann fell hopelessly in love with Katie (Kati) Sandwina when she publicly pummeled him in a wrestling match. Her father routinely offered prize money to anyone who could beat his daughter in the ring, but no one ever did. Katie and Max were married for more than 50 years. They often performed together in an act in which she would lift Max through the manual of arms positions, with Max being the rifle.
She was born Katharina Brumbach (1884-1952) in a circus wagon outside Vienna, Austria. Both of her parents performed acts of strength. She began performing when she was just two. As a teenager, she was nearly 6 feet tall. She weighed in at 200 pounds of muscle. Size and strength combined with her naturally feminine good looks made her a crowd pleaser. Kati eventually earned the reputation, as a touring performer, of “Europe’s Queen of Strength, Beauty and Dexterity.”
She and Max moved to the United States in 1909. She joined the prestigious Keith’s Orpheum Vaudeville circuit. She later became a center ring attraction for Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus until she was in her 60s. For nearly three decades, she earned up to $1,500 a week. Her stunts included breaking chains and bending metal with her hands. She routinely had a carousel placed on her shoulders, so she could lift anywhere from eight to a dozen people at a time.
Katie had two sons, Theodore and Alfred. Both inherited their mother’s physical endowments. She performed through both pregnancies up to the moment of labor.
According to “Hercules Can Be a Lady” by Sidney Fields, New York Mirror December 15, 1947, Kati’s son Teddy said:
“When Mama isn’t weight-lifting or bending iron, she throws Papa around, al 155 pounds of him, or she lets him bang a 200-pound anvil on her stomach while she lies bareback on a bed of nails. That’s the easy life that Kati retired to from the circus five years ago.”
In the same article Max recalls, “an dey ahksept me und I wrestle mit Kati. She picks me up vuns und trows me on de floor and I say Kati I luv you. Will you marry me?“
One of the Victorian Strongwomen greats was Charimion. Vaudeville and trapeze artist, she was born Laverie Vallée (July 18, 1875 – February 6, 1949) inn Sacramento, California. She made her debut on December 25, 1897 at Koster and Bial’s, famed vaudeville theater in New York City. For a young performer it was the symbol of success. With 3,748 seats, it was twice the size of most venues. Ticket prices ranged from 25¢ to $1.50 in the orchestra.
Charmion was one of the great Victorian Strongwomen, but she performed with a twist. While Sandwina stuck with pure acts of strength, Charmion added provocative dance and striptease components to her acts. She would start dressed in typical Victorian attire with long skirts, petticoats and ruffled blouse. Her trapeze act showcased her muscularity. Quickly she would move to a highly provocative striptease act that further showcased her strength.
Like the Kardashians and so many others, Charmion knew how to work the emerging sciences of photography, cinema and print for self promotion.
Even Thomas Edison was a fan. On November 11, 1901 he used Charmion as his first female subject of a silent movie. Titled Trapeze Disrobing Act, it records Charmion’s titillating performance along with a few feats of strength.
According to Bieke Gils, from the School of Kinesiology, University of British Columbia, Charmion was part of a wave of female aerialists at the turn of the twentieth century whose performances quite literally “flew” in the face of Victorian values.
In the Journal of Sport History article “Flying, Flirting, and Flexing: Charmion’s Trapeze Act, Sexuality, and Physical Culture at the Turn of the Twentieth Century” Gils writes:
“The carnivalesque atmosphere generally associated with vaudeville performers made provocative acts like Charmion’s not only permissible but also very popular. Her performances certainly embodied both desires and fears of a society that was forced to revisit Victorian ideals about women’s sexuality, physical prowess, and the female body more generally.
She was definitely pushing the boundaries, but not too far. Beneath the Victorian costume she so seductively stripped off was a flesh colored leotard.
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