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: http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections/20013073

TR riding a moose: http://museummonger.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/tr-riding-moose-1900.jpg

Boxing

Many of the sports popular today have their roots in the late 19th century; baseball, football, and boxing all became popular spectator sports after the Civil War and the public’s widespread interest in them reveal a lot about postbellum American culture, especially notions of masculinity. I’ll start with perhaps the most controversial of all the sports, and the one that seems to be declining in the modern era, boxing.

Boxing captured public attention (and outrage) and created a number of star athletes, like John L. Sullivan, the first American athlete to earn over a million dollars. As the sport gained fame, it also became the object of scorn and criticism, ultimately leading to regulations. In its inception, however, the rules were few and varied. The Marquess of Queensbury Rules (1867) provided some guidelines and restrictions, and introduced gloves (which changed the fighter’s stance, from the classic “old timey” pose of a backward leaning torso with forearms up, to the more modern pose of a forward-leaning torso and the hands raised around the face). However, bare-knuckle prizefights were still popular in the 1880s and there was no centralized, regulating body to govern the sport. In the 1870s and 1880s, local newspapers in Minneapolis, Minnesota reported on boxing matches, but took an ambivalent tone in their descriptions, describing the fights in great detail but also commenting on their brutality. The New York Tribune was more decisive in its verdict of boxing; the report on the October 22, 1858 match between John C. Morrissey and John C. Heenan was denounced for its “natural gravity of baseness” and the boxing ring was likened to “the grogshops and the brothels and the low gaming hells” (Horace Greeley, quoted in Hage 321). Newspapers were slow to accept boxing, but it was covered more enthusiastically in sports magazines, which saw an enormous boom in the postbellum era.

The physical brutality of the sport was not the only reason for its notoriety, however. It was a working class pastime and, as such, was a feared catalyst for riots; in fact, riots and brawls frequently did occur in the audiences and boxing matches were often broken up by police. Fighters were occasionally arrested for disturbing the peace. Police attempted to storm the ring in the 1860 match between the British champion Tom Sayers and the American challenger John Heenan. However, the crowd of about 3000 spectators prevented them from reaching the ring. Police eventually cut the ropes of the ring, and the crowd flooded onto the platform, “which scarcely left the combatants six square feet to fight in… the whole thing became a mere close mob round the two men fighting” (The St. Paul Daily Pioneer and Democrat, May 5, 1860). Astonishingly, the fight continued for four more rounds, until the police finally stopped it in the 42nd round. Detailed and passionate accounts of fights, such as the Daily Pioneer‘s quoted above, indicate a more positive view of boxing, while newspapers that overtly disapproved of the sport usually offered curt, dismissive reviews that commented only on the result and the disgrace the fight engendered.

The sport’s popularity grew throughout the 19th century, and coincided with changing conceptions and ideals of masculinity in the late 19th century. The ideal of rugged masculinity emerged near the turn of the century in response to anxieties over the women’s suffrage movement and women’s stronger presence in the workplace, concerns that western culture was becoming effete and effeminate, and fears of the feminizing effects of intellectualism, epitomized in dandies like Oscar Wilde.

old timey boxer

The boxer is the polar opposite of the sophisticated dandy. His bloodied, broken face contrasts sharply with the delicate, feminized appearance of the gallant; the boxer’s brute strength and silence in the ring opposes the dandy’s witticisms and social graces. Historin R.W. Connell observes that “true masculinity is almost always thought to proceed from men’s bodies,” and the late 19th century icons of rugged masculinity exemplify this connection between manliness and the body (Masculinities, 45). Sportsmanship became an accepted part of middle class morality and identity by the late 19th century. Physical fitness and concern for health were incorporated into notions of propriety and standard masculine behavior. As the 19th century drew to a close, the preferred physical ideal became more extreme, more brawny and muscular, rather than the earlier ideal of a slender, graceful and well-balanced body. The boxer came to be an icon of manliness, especially in the early 20th century and into the Great Depression, when the famed prize fighter often supplied a rags-to-riches story, the American dream fulfilled. This is an interesting turn from the fear of working class rebellion in the mid-19th century, and indicative of the changing notions of American identity as a whole, which came to embrace the working class as wholesome and admirably hard-working in the face of adversity, rather than the mindless, violent mob that could overthrow the established power structure.

Works Cited:

Connell, R.W. Masculinities. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Hage, George S. “Games People Played: Sports in Minnesota Daily Papers, 1860-1890.” Minnesota History. Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1981.

The St. Paul Daily Pioneer and Democrat, 5 May 1860.

Shipley, Stan. “Tom Causer of Bermondsey: A Boxer Hero of the 1890s.” History Workshop Journal 15 (1983): 28-59.

Image source: http://i.qkme.me/3r5i0f.jpg