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July 3, 2013

18 Vintage Portraits of Wrestlers From the Early 20 Century

Professional wrestling, in the sense of traveling performers paid for mass entertainment in staged matches, began in the post-Civil War period in the late 1860s and 1870s. During this time, wrestlers were often athletes with amateur wrestling experience who competed at traveling carnivals with carnies working as their promoters and bookers. Grand circuses included wrestling exhibitions, quickly enhancing them through colorful costumes and fictional biographies for entertainment, disregarding their competitive nature. Wrestling exhibits during the late 19th century were also shown across the United States in countless "athletic shows" (or "at shows"), where experienced wrestlers offered open challenges to the audience. It was at these shows, often done for high-stakes gambling purposes, that the nature of the sport changed through the competing interests of three groups of people: the impresarios, the carnies, and the barnstormers.

The popularity of wrestling during the early 20th century was highest in the Midwest, where ethnic European communities, many of them German, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Greek, and Scandinavian in ancestry, continued to carry on fighting styles practiced in their home nations. At this time, during the late 19th century, and early 20th century, the majority of wrestling was still competitive, and it was immensely popular. In fact, wrestling's popularity was second only to baseball from 1900 to the early 1920s, launching trading cards and competitive wrestling programs in colleges, high schools, and athletic clubs, legacies that have endured to the present day.

In the 1930s and 1940s, small wrestling promotions had fierce competition with each other, often stealing talents and "invading" enemy companies to win over fans. With inter-promotional matches occurring nationwide, the promotions were vying for dominance. In 1948, wrestling reached new heights after a loose confederation was formed between independent wrestling companies. This was known as the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). In the late 1940s to 1950s, the NWA chose Lou Thesz to unify the various world championships into a single "World Heavyweight" title. Thesz's task was not easy, as some promoters, reluctant to lose face, went so far as to shoot title matches to keep their own champions popular with the fans.

Wrestler George Steadman ready for action, 1905. (Photo by Reinhold Thiele/Thiele/Getty Images)

Turn of the century wrestler Johann Lemm striking a pose, circa 1908. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images).

German strongman Eugene Sandow and Goliath wrestling with a bear, circa 1910. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A member of the Indian Wrestling Team, Goulam Maihidiu, 1911. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

A children's wrestling contest at the annual festival in Hadong, Indo-China, circa 1920. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Yokio Tani (l) a world's champion wrestler and A. J. Davey giving a display of Kine-no-Kata as part of an exhibition of the Japanese art of self-defence. The exhibition was given by the Budokwai (the Ways of Knighthood Society). (Photo by Edward G. Malindine/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

A match in progress between Argentinian wrester Alvarez and her Swiss opponent Mme Roxanne, April 1914. (Photo by Vidal/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

A group of students in a Ju Jitsu class learn how to break a strangle hold, circa 1925. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

A wrestling match between Jack Dempsey (1895–1983) and Bull Montana, April 1925. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Primo Carnera (1906–1967) the Italian heavyweight boxer and wrestler poses in a leopard skin to represent a cave-man at a “Joy of Life” Ball at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. 13th December 1929. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

A friendly wrestling match at Ingham Old Hall summer camp, Norwich, which has just been opened by the Seaside Camps and Settlements Association in memory of their chairman, the late Lord Knebworth. 150 boys from Woking are currently enjoying their time there. 3rd July 1934. (Photo by Fred Morley/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Indian wrestlers Rashid Anwar (left) and Ajaib Singh in a training bout at Lane's Club in Baker Street London before the Empire Games, 19th July 1934. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Jacobus Van Dyn, known to Londoners as the “Tattoo Man” and lecturer, tries out a few holds in the dressing room at the Manor Place Baths before a contest in his new profession of wrestling, circa 1936. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Mr. Les Oliver's alsatian, “Bruce”, amusing the crowds during a display at Liverpool, June 1936. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Estonian wrestler Kristjan Palusalu, who won the gold medal in both the freestyle and Greco-Roman heavyweight wrestling events at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, August 1936. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Ross Allen is famous throughout Florida for his alligator taming skills and bravery. Allen wrestles with an alligator underwater, keeping a tight hold on the beast's mouth as it easier to keep the dangerous jaws from opening than it is to keep them from closing. 11th October 1938. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Trainee policewomen at Peel House watching as one of their colleagues is held in an arm lock during ju-jitsu lessons for self defence. 22nd July 1939. (Photo by Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Getty Images)

Recruits for the RAF Police receive instruction in strong “ground holds” as part of their ju-jitsu training at RAF Headquarters, July 1940. (Photo by William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images)


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