Manly Men

I mentioned in my last post that the rise of boxing indicated changes in concepts of masculinity, and I’d like to go more in-depth about those late 19th century shifts in ideals. After the Civil War, the American ideal of masculinity became less intellectual, less focused on manners and grace, and more on raw physical power. Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, John L. Sullivan, cowboys, and other “tough guys” were icons of masculinity at the turn of the century. These men were connected with nature, a sense of belonging in the wilderness and ability to dominate the landscape. Roosevelt played a large role in the contemporary focus on health and physical activity. As I mentioned in the previous post, a robust and brawny body became an important part of the masculine ideal in the late 19th century. Roosevelt was a sickly child, but his father encouraged him to participate in vigorous exercise and sports, even boxing, which TR credited for his recovery and robust physical constitution in adulthood. Roosevelt studied natural history in his youth, which also contributed to his image as an independent outdoorsman and his devotion to conservation of the wilderness.


Ironically, this nature-based notion of masculinity came at a time when the wilderness was disappearing and urban areas began expanding. In 1880, New York City became the first city to have a population of over 1 million people, indicating the massive population shift that concentrated more Americans in urban centers. The 1890 census declared that the frontier region no longer existed; all territories in the United States were settled. This caused an identity crisis at the turn of the century, exemplified in Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis. The figure of the lone pioneer, setting out in the wilderness with only himself to depend on, pushed back against the fact of urban expansion and the “official” loss of the frontier. The late-century masculine ideal supposedly harkened back to an earlier, more authentic and self-possessed type of American man, but the standards of masculinity in the early American period were very different and certainly did not exhibit the hyper-masculinity and anti-intellectualism that characterized late-19th century notions of manhood.

In the early 19th century, the masculine ideal was much more domestic compared to the brawny, often lone, outdoorsman of the late 19th century. Washington Irving was an early defender of the masculinity of bachelors and writers, because they did not conform to the masculine ideal. In the early American period, masculinity was determined more by possessions and mastery of skill. By age 30, a man was expected to have a wife, children, property, secure employment within his social class, and all of the social graces that were necessary for the heavily verbal parlor society. Less emphasis was placed on the body; the ideal man would be physically capable, lean and balanced, but above all, graceful. This is evident in portraits from the period.

Portrait of the Artist

Compare Thomas Sully’s self-portrait from 1821 with the photograph of Teddy Roosevelt above. The Sully portrait highlights more delicate features, a soft and rosy complexion, graceful hands, a thoughtful look. TR riding a moose is, well, self-explanatory.  

The early American standards of masculinity were also less exaggerated, partly because the late 19th century challenges to traditional gender roles were less of a concern several decades earlier. While late 19th century men feared that women were becomign too masculine and abandoning their feminine duties, early American educators sought to reduce the “natural,” feminine lack of reason and excess passion. Republican motherhood was an ideal meant to make women more rational and more fit to raise informed and intelligent citizens. That’s not to say that 18th and early 19th century gender roles were egalitarian; women were still assumed to need strict external control and molding from men, and were considered incapable of complete rationality or full citizenship. Women were still largely contained to the domestic sphere, of course, but the spheres were not so separate in the early American period. As mentioned in the post on theater, early American culture valued rhetoric, and women were expected to be able to speak in semi-public arenas like school assemblies and social gatherings in private homes. Men in the 18th and early19th century were much more involved in the day-to-day activities of domestic life, and the work and home spheres mingled, especially before the establishment of a rigid work day. Bankers, shop-keepers and other urban professionals often spent periods of their work-day at home. Technological developments and changes in the workforce during the Industrial Revolution contributed to the separate spheres ideology that emphasized vast differences between the sexes and ideals of masculine and feminine behavior. Further technolgical changes in the late 19th century, like the invention of telephones, typewriters, and other mechanical devices, created jobs outside the home for unmarried women and more sedentary labor for men. Along with the loss of the frontier, these technological advances caused many to fear that American culture was becoming effete, that women were becoming too manly and men were becoming too weak and effeminate, and so the new masculine ideal emerged to reassure that the sexes were indeed extremely different and that men were in control of their destiny and environment. Domination-based sports like boxing and football exemplify this masculine ideal, which (at least partially) explains their massive popularity in the late 19th century.

Image sources

Thomas Sully Portrait:

TR riding a moose: