Roy H. Noe
Inventor and Exercise Guru
Sometime in the 1920s, a lingering illness helped Roy H. Noe, a salesman for Swift & Company, find his true calling.
In the pages of the self-published booklet shown here, Noe says, “In my early youth, a siege of double pneumonia developed into chronic lung trouble. For years, I was sickly and weak, spending all I could earn for medicine and doctor bills.”
While pining away, he read about a 45-year-old man who regained his health with exercise, so he purchased a pair of dumbbells. That’s when he discovered a rather obvious problem with using weights: They tend to be heavy.
“During this period I was a salesman for a large corporation,” he relates, “and carrying these dumbbells around created considerable joking and ridicule on the part of the other salesmen and hotel clerks.” Well, no wonder!
So Noe came up with his “Graduated Exerciser” — a wooden handle clamped to each end of a two-foot strip of rubber. You grabbed a handle in each hand and p-u-l-l-e-d.
“I soon found this exerciser, primitive as it was, proved capable of doing all the things that the other costlier exercisers failed to do,” says Noe. In fact, in just 16 months, he claims his weight jumped from 139 to a robust 172 pounds, his chest expanded from 31 to 39 inches, and his waist dropped from 31 to 28 inches.
He didn’t immediately grasp the money-making potential of his new device. “When I commenced using my home-made exercisers, I had no thought of commercializing my idea. My friends, however, noticed such a marked improvement in my health and physical condition that they urged me to make similar exercisers for them.”
Thus a thriving mail-order business was born, operated out of his home at 739 North Auburndale. In the first few years alone, Noe claims he sold 7,000 of these gadgets at $5 each, along with a complete Noe-designed exercise program. That initial purchase got the buyer only one rubber strip; as your strength increased, you could purchase more, with a stretching strength from 25 pounds all the way up to a jaw-dropping 200 pounds.
Besides building muscles, Noe claimed his exerciser could cure constipation, rheumatism, and even “weak lungs.” One day he gave one of his gadgets to a fellow with a paralyzed arm “and now he is playing ball, and also has a job that pays him a living wage.” Another time, a customer was a 14-year-old boy, who “used his course for 22 weeks and says it improved his efficiency in playing the cornet 100 percent.”
Noe apparently did okay with his device. In 1930, he made himself president of his own company (called, naturally, Roy H. Noe, Inc.), named his wife, Maude, secretary-treasurer, and opened offices at 90 South Second Street. The company lasted until 1942. During the war years, he faced hard times, with rubber rationed and most able-bodied men enlisted — so the city directories show him working as an examiner with the Office of Rent Control.
But he bounced back when the war ended, with a new, improved version of his device, called an “Xerciser.” He continued to produce his gadgets and preach the gospel of daily exercise until his death in 1959, at the age of 73.
Looking through his ads, testimonials, and other sales materials, I have to admire the common-sense tone of his lectures. It’s hard to believe that anyone ever thought driving a car was good exercise, but apparently they did, and Noe set them straight: “You are living under an illusion if you think that mere out-of-door activities like motoring, golfing, walking, etc. constitute the proper form of exercise. Driving a car continuously, week after week, compresses the chest and decreases the capacity for breathing.” What’s more, he says, driving “is a severe mental strain.”
And if you weren’t going to work at it, he didn’t want your business: “For the lazy man who admits that he is too lazy to exercise, Noe’s Graduated Exercisers have no benefit to offer. He is just a physical suicide, and should save his five dollars.”
Noe’s “Graduated Exercisers” occasionally turn up at local yard sales, and I purchased one recently. This was a beginner’s model, with a skimpy rubber strip that a child could stretch. Or so I thought. To my dismay, when I gripped the wooden handles, I couldn’t get them to budge an inch, no matter how hard I huffed and puffed. Well, the rubber strip must have hardened with age. That’s the only possible explanation.
Read more “Ask Vance” every month in the pages of Memphis magazine and on his blog: www.memphismagazine.com/Blogs/Ask-Vance.