Margaret Ann Graham extolled as the “strongest woman in the world” in 1911 is/was my husband’s first cousin, twice removed.  On Trove, I came across an in-depth article.  In her own words, Margaret tells “Her Story” [edited].

Growing up in a working class environment, at seven years of age Margaret joined the Ludlow Recreation Society.  The Society, a club attached to the factory where she now works was founded to develop health and strength among the employees of the mills; there should be such a society in every community of mill workers.

Perhaps I was a little stronger than most children, though my parents did not observe it.  My strength might have remained undeveloped and my growth remained unstunted had it not been for the Recreation Society.  It has a good gymnasium equipped with a horse, parallel bars, high bars and rings; a big swimming tank and a fine athletic field.  These were among the means of my growing strong.

I think I began to grow strong with one lesson my wise teacher taught me.  That was “to regard exercise not as a penance, but a privilege”.  She gave me the impression that I was a lucky little girl to have a chance to play all I wanted in the big gymnasium and run about all I liked in the fields and the sensation that something wonderful had been given me for which I should have a heartful of gratitude has always remained.

One curious lesson that we do not learn in all places for the development of the physical side of us was that while indoor exercise is good outdoor exercise is far better.  I don’t know where I learned this.  Perhaps a teacher told me so.  Perhaps the knowledge was an inheritance from my sturdy Scotch ancestors.  Oatcake, you now, rears strong men and women.  Perhaps nature itself taught me that the true elixir of life is the oxygen that one takes in great, grateful gasps into one’s lungs.  But I did learn somehow that the indoor work of physical development is merely a preparation for the real out-of-door work.

As a little thing, I learned to use the rings, the parallel bars, the horse, dumbbells and Indian clubs, but what was infinitely more valuable; I learned to breathe to the full capacity of my lungs.  I learned the delight of the wholesome sort of intoxication – the intoxication of fresh air.

Doctors who have come to see me have asked how I can keep strong while working from 7 till 12 and from 1 to 5 in a room where the dust from the bagging I help to make is so thick that one of them said “Every day you inhale enough for a square meal”.  I answered that on my walk to the factory in the morning, during my hour at noon and in the hour from 5 to 6 I pack my lungs with fresh air.  I never bring my dinner to the mill, as many of the girls do.  They say they are too tired to go home, that when they go home for mid-day dinners they have to eat so fast that they suffer from indigestion.  I don’t agree with them, but believe the theory that we need food to repair worn-out tissue but our actual energy is drawn from the air.  Food patches up the worn flesh but air gives us our force and power to do things.

I always made a point of living near the factory so I could go and come back in half an hour’s brisk walking; all the while ridding my lungs of their dusts.  I don’t believe in heavy eating.  A little food, well chewed is better than much food, bolted; preference for eating the crusts from bread; tea and coffee undermines the nervous force – no woman can be strong if her nerves are weak or lumpy; every ounce of my 189 pounds is muscle, sinew and bone.  I don’t like sweets but learned to love my greens.  Stewed dandelions or dandelion salads are my faves.  I look for them in early spring and eat them twice a day until they are too old; spinach, a vegetable I did not like at first is the head of the street cleaning department of the human body.  I eat no meats except beef and that rare.  The white meats are next to worthless as strength makers.

All my life I have had but one warm bath a week.  That is enough to keep the body clean, but every morning no matter what the weather, I take a cold plunge or if there is no time for that, at any rate a shower.  My father’s house being that of a labourer is not provided with expensive shower appliances but I bought with part of one week’s wages a strong rubber tube finished with a large spray and I turn this with all its force upon my shoulders and chest every morning.

Every Saturday I have a half-holiday.  I don’t spend that indoors fussing with my clothes as a lot of girls do.  My mother keeps my clothes in order.  It isn’t hard to do for I wear no chiffon and I wouldn’t know a hobble skirt if I saw one.  What silly things women wear and then criticise the habits of the Chinese.  The Chinese women dress far more sensibly than American women do.  Only a few of them have little pinched feet and they are members of faculty and nobility.  Believe me, we dwellers in American glass houses only make the world laugh when we ply stones at Chinese customs.  [Warwick Examiner & Times (St Lucia, Qld) 7 January 1911: Page 3 under heading:  WORLD’S STRONGEST GIRL – Tells Story of Methods that Made Muscle]

The photo of Margaret appeared in a Ohio newspaper with commentary by Dr Dudley A Sargent, director of the Hemingway gymnasium of Harvard.  “Woman has been thoroughly made over since the composite Greek statue by Theophile Gautier was designed.  Her figure is approximately more that of man …”

Did Margaret suffer at the hands of teasing children during her early life; how did she feel about her own body compared with girls her own age; the article sounds like she was on top of healthy living with a positive outlook; but surely there must have been moments when she just wanted to be like other little girls.  And, whatever happened to Margaret after her relocation to California?

YOU GO GIRL – The Springfield Daily News, Wednesday August 23, 1911 Page 5.

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