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.
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.
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.
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