Roy Noe: Memphis' Health Guru, Inventor, and Entrepreneur

Roy H. Noe was an enterprising fellow. He first appears in Memphis city directories in 1923, working as a salesman for Swift & Company, the meatpackers. Then, it seems, he found his true calling in life. The Lauderdale Library contains an illustrated booklet called "Noe's Graduated Exercisers," where he tells us his life's mission. "At the age of five," he writes, "a severe attack of spinal meningitis left me in a delicate physical condition. 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." Sad, sad.

While pining away, Noe says he read about a 45-year-old man who regained his health by regular exercise, so he set out to do the same. He purchased a set of weights and began to work out with them, before he discovered some obvious problems with this approach. Namely: they were heavy! "During this period I was a salesman for a large corporation," he relates, "and my carrying these dumbbells around with me created considerable ridicule on the part of the other salesmen and hotel clerks." Well, no wonder.

So Noe came up with his "Noe's Graduated Exerciser" — a wooden handle clamped to each end of a heavy strip of rubber. You grabbed the handle in each hand, and pulllllllllllled. "I soon found this exerciser, as primitive as it was, proved capable of doing all the things that the other, costlier, exercisers failed to do, and more." In fact, in just 16 months, Noe claims his weight jumped from a puny 139 to a robust 172 pounds, his chest expanded from 31 to 39 inches, and his waist dropped from 31 to 28 inches.

Thus a thriving mail-order business was born. In the first few years alone, Noe claims he sold 7,000 of these gadgets at $5 each, along with the illustrated booklet that showed weaklings like me how to use them. The booklet contains many photographs of Noe himself (such as the one shown here), apparently taken in his own home at 739 North Auburndale, showing the handsome fellow in swim trunks, tugging and pulling and flexing his "graduated exerciser' every which way.

Besides building muscles, Noe claimed his device could cure constipation, rheumatism, and even something called "weak lungs." Why, he tells us that one day he gave one of his gadgets to a young fellow with a paralyzed arm: "He used the exerciser six months, and now he is playing ball, and also has a job that is paying him a living wage."

It apparently helped other people, too. My own booklet has scribbling in it where the previous owner tracked his progress. In August 1936, his weight was 178 pounds, and his chest was 37 inches. By February 1937, this guy's weight had soared to 247, and his chest had swelled to 49 inches. My goodness! Either he was getting very strong — or very fat.

Noe apparently did okay with his invention. In 1930, he made himself president of his own company (modestly called Roy H. Noe, Inc.), named his wife Maude the secretary-treasurer, and opened offices at 90 South Second Street. The company lasted until 1942. During the war years, he must have faced some hard times — with rubber rationed and most able-bodied men enlisted — and the city directories list him as a "business specialist" and an examiner with the Office of Rent Control during this time.

But after the war, he picked up where he had left off, and he began to call his gadget an Xerciser. He continued to produce them for almost 30 years, though I was never sure, exactly, where they were actually made. He finally died in 1974, still living on North Auburndale all those years, and Memphis lost a very interesting citizen, if you ask me.

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business. Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

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