“Reckhart is Fasting” read the headline of a 1902 El Paso Daily Times. Reckhart, apparently, was “eating only one 15-cent meal a day” so that he could gorge himself at an upcoming party. And not just any party—this was the fat men’s club’s so-called “foolisher.” The foolisher committee, however, had great anxiety about food and drink holding out if Reckhart were to arrive at the festivities with his sizable belly completely empty. To avoid such calamity, the club members were “seriously contemplating holding a courtmartial.” They informed Reckhart that if he expected to come to the party they wanted him at least “partly fed.”
This is one example of the many curious troubles and happenings in the history of Texas’s fat men’s clubs. From the late 1800s to the mid-1920s, fat men’s clubs flourished widely across the state. To enter, members had to be a minimum of 200 pounds, and turn over at least $1 (the equivalence of about $25 today). The clubs’ purpose? According to an address by the president of the budding Fat Men’s Association of Texas, W.A, Disborough, the goal was “to draw the fat men into closer fraternal relations.”
The social clubs had calendars as packed as their plates. They networked at balls, sports events, and banqueting, and before many of the events, they held competitive weigh-ins where the largest members heralded their size. (At El Paso’s Annual Picnic of the Fat Men, the infamous Mr. Reckhart was the top tipper of the scales at their pre-barbecue weigh-in.) Men were so invested in the outcome of club weigh-ins that they were prone to cheating by stuffing weights in their pockets, as the Weatherford fat men’s club was reported to have done before a 1920 baseball game. According to Kerry Segrave’s Obesity in America: 1850-1939: A History of Social Attitudes and Treatment, one fat men’s club in Ohio used the weigh-ins to decide their club’s next president, and whoever sent the scales’ numbers flying highest immediately earned the honor.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries definitions of and attitudes about fat bodies were remarkably different than they are now. What qualified a man for a fraternal order of fat men in 1890, today, is now a mere four pounds over the average male size in America. But as fat men’s clubs were at their peak, people positively associated men of a larger size with wealth and affability. The members of Texas’s fat men’s clubs certainly were not pinching pennies, and the list of member occupations included assayers involved in gold mining, railroad presidents, successful butchers, and liquor dealers.
Men of large girth were also thought to be a kinder, more sociable sort than those without meat on their bones. The Mineola Monitor ran an op-ed in 1899 about why women should like fat men: “It may be observed, without intentional offence [sic] to any young lady who might be enamored of some skeleton-like young man that, as a rule, fat men, besides being the most jolly and convivial of the male species, are also apt to be the most considerate of and charitable to others.” The column concluded: “The fact still remains that seven out of ten fat men make excellent husbands.”
All in all, it was a great time to be fat. A fat man could find himself a club anywhere from New England to Utah. The movement even hopped the Atlantic to the escargot-slurping French, who called their fat men’s club Le Club des Cents Kilos, or “The Hundred Kilos Club.”
But Texas played host to a particularly bustling community of fat men’s clubs, setting up shop in Abilene, Brenham, Brownsville, Dallas, Deming, Edinburg, El Paso, Fort Worth, Galveston, Huntsville, Mineral Wells, Weatherford, San Antonio. And that brush through some of our state’s old periodicals just rustles the surface of layers and layers of chronicled shenanigans.
It’s fitting, then, that Texas’s clubs were fond of barbecues. On June 10, 1902, during El Paso’s annual picnic of the fat men, they served the “tenderest beef ever eaten in Texas.” And the fat men amused themselves with pyrotechnics and riding around town in a trolley. The El Paso Daily Times reports that “The ‘fats’ themselves made ‘Rome howl’ on their trolley ride, scaring all the horses within reach of the cars with their fireworks and making Juarez tremble with the noise.” There were also oyster roasts: on September 1, 1891, the fat men of Galveston had a smashing time at an oyster roast, where the seafood was so good that “quite a number of oysters were stowed away inside the vests of the fat men.” There were vacations. In 1892, the Velasco Times warned readers that “the Fat Men’s excursion” would be coming to their town by steamer. And then there was the Texas fat men’s club baseball league, where clubs traveled far and wide to swing bats with their portly brothers.
When town teams carpooled—or carriage-pooled—to games, it was newsworthy. A Brownsville paper reported one such road-trip on April 6, 1909: “A report was brought in this afternoon that one of the horses that were hauling the Fat Men’s team to the baseball park dropped dead on the way. How the team finally got to the park is not learned. The price of the horse will be charged to the Fat Men.”
On October 1, 1920, Weatherford’s and Mineral Wells’ heavyweights gathered to play ball. The average weight of a player from the visiting Mineral Wells Team was 205 pounds, the Weatherford boys averaged a respectable 200, and the competition was tight. There was a flurry of drama when Mineral Wells accused Weatherford’s crack catcher of not being sufficiently fat. Weatherford had to think fast. Their defense? “What he lacked in weight he made up for in height.” The crowd was satisfied with that rebuttal and gameplay soon began. Though baseball is not usually thought of as a contact sport, the two fat clubs were so prone to sideline tussles that “moderators” were planted around the field to break up brawls. The physicality of the ensuing game is best described by a Daily Herald reporter who preserved the moment forever:
You’ve seen a large stone thrown into a muddy puddle of water, haven’t you? You know the proverbial result of a party stepping on a banana peel? You have read of head-on collisions between freight trains loaded with cabbage onions etc. The combined effects of these three gives a faint idea of the sounds, sights and smells when fat meets fat.
Weatherford bested the Wells’ boys on the field, and the two teams closed out the day with a banquet. In a toast, the Mineral Wells promised they would win the next game on their home turf where the “real fat men” of Mineral Wells, who had been too heavy to find an automobile to wheel them to Weatherford, would come out to bat.
That gripping 1920 game was likely one of the last one’s held. In the 1920s, doctors and insurance companies pushed warnings about the negative side-effects of obesity, beginning to recommend both healthy diet and exercise for life longevity. At the same time, personal scales became affordable, so the number of people regularly monitoring their weight from home increased. Weighing in became a private affair, not a public celebration, according to Deborah Levine’s Harvard thesis on weight in America. She explained that in the twenties, public weigh-ins, like penny scales and guess-your-weight booths, “became distasteful to polite American society’s views on weight and it began to fade from relevance.”
Decreasing, not celebrating, fat became the prevalent public conversation. The first issue of Reader’s Digest in 1920 even contained an article titled “How to Regulate Your Weight,” in which they provided dietary tips for reducing waist-size.
As a result of the shifts in medical and societal perspective on obesity, men thinned and so did fat men’s clubs’ membership. New England’s Fat Men’s Club had 10,000 members in its heyday, but by 1924 the club disbanded with a measly 38 members, none of whom met the 200-pound standard. By the time it petered to a close, it was not much of a fat men’s club at all.
Texas fat club’s activity similarly fell off, but the little-remembered history of their antics rests in the black and white of old newspapers. Aside from entertaining, the fat men’s clubs’ history offers a window into the relationship between classes and genders during their time. Historian Daryl Leeworthy told NPR that a few female fat clubs did exist, but fat women’s reduction clubs were much more common. Body standards for women were much more restrictive than those of men. In 1923 a writer for the Brownwood Bulletin wrote, “Fat men may be popular but the fat lady is always awkward.” The fat men’s clubs were also not places for the impoverished or those with physically demanding jobs. These were clubs of men with enough money to sustain themselves and then some, as their massive culinary indulgence required a fair bit of funding.
The histories of these clubs constitute an odd chapter in the narrative of rich male privilege. If you haven’t had your fill of the complexity and quirk of fat men’s clubs’ history, you can dig into the decades of fat men’s coverage in our state’s old newspapers. There are guaranteed to be a few more ridiculous stories to consume from the time in Texas when fat was fashionable.