Throughout history, masculinity has played a crucial part of young boys growing up in society. Though the concept of masculinity has evolved over time from men working in the fields to men working at job a behind a desk, there is still a sense of the predominant man providing resources to support their family. Masculinity in men also comes with a sense of competitiveness, where its publicly unacceptable to be less manly then the guy standing next to you.
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The introduction of sports in early Anglo-America in the early 1800’s, helped fulfill this need of competitiveness in men who found lack of enjoyment in their daily schedule. Sports also provided many benefits to men such as good physical condition, self-esteem, friendships, and a sense of belonging. Though sports helped men in many different ways, American men living in cities before the Civil War engaged in sport primarily to define themselves, publicly, as manly.
Although men flourished on being their best in public, this idea of manliness would soon change between the time America was established as a nation to the time the civil war ended. Sports in early Anglo-America started off as recreational pastime when people got off work. Then soon Puritans from Europe looked down upon what they called “idle or sinful recreation” which took place in the New England colonies. As Benjamin notes in his book, American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Televised Sports, “puritans sought to build a society free from the worldly absorptions of the country they had left behind, recreation became on focus of conflict” (10). This was noticed by the Puritans in the early failed colonies of Roanoke and Jamestown where colonist played games on the streets instead of farming and doing necessary work in order to survive. The puritans believed that a sport had to be dissociated from traditional revelries and be able to “refresh the participants” so that they could work their spiritually duties (Rader 11).
A man by the name of John Downame challenged these ideas of embodied sports the Puritans made for the New England colonies and said that sport was a “dichotomous concept” which is implying both conformance and non-conformance of the Puritan value system. Sports later on like bare-knuckle boxing allowed for men to express their toughness and overall masculinity. Boxing allowed for men with no gloves to strike each other until the other man developed a black eye and split lips, yet the fight continued (Gorn 72). The sense of violence that came from participating in bare-knuckle fighting was developed from the society surrounding the sport. Back in the mid 1800’s if two men wanted to settle a dispute between one another, they would settle it in the ring. This did mean that if two men were to fight in the ring it would put their egos and manhood’s to the test. In the writings of Elliot J. Gorn, The Manly Art, “The ring, it was said, taught Englishmen bulldog courage, fostering a sense of national pride while countering effeminacy (Gorn 27).
An example of a man that displayed his manliness in the ring went by the name of Simon Byrne, who boxed James “deaf” Burke for ninety-eight rounds and eventually took his last breath in the ring to show his manliness (Gorn 42). James “deaf” Burke later brought over the sport to America in 1833, where by the start of the 1850’s, middle and upper classes started to question the purpose of Prize fighting. People believed the sport didn’t “mirror” American culture at the time and that there could be an alternative. Reformers like Thomas Wentworth believed that men could improve their mind, body and spirt by getting fresh air and exercise to advocate from cramped urban life (Gorn 130). Unlike boxing, which people of the working class mostly took part in, horse racing and trotting was another sport were men of higher class could show off their masculinity by racing a horse. However, the concept of horse racing that took place in the northern states was looked down upon because it resembled Britain. This however didn’t stop horse racing overall but it just encouraged men to make a new form of racing called trotting. This form of horse racing became increasingly popular over the years because it allowed for anyone with a horse to race against other people in the street. Mel Adelman points out in “The First Modern Sport in America: Harness Racing in New York City, 1825-1870,” “Unlike thoroughbred racing, where the owner and the rider of the horse had long been separated, trotting permitted the sportsman to demonstrate the prowess of his horse, as well as his own skill as a reinsman” (Adelman 8).
This is what made the sport exciting to watch and also for men to participate in because they made a sport similar but different from Britain which gave men sense of manliness for racing their own non-bread horses. Towards the beginning of the 1800s, the idea of manliness began to expand into privatized organizations that men would create to separate themselves from the masses of sport and leisure activates. Also, immigrants were beginning to show up more in America around this time, so they too organized their own clubs with their own customs and traditions. One of the bigger organizations men got into was firefighting factions throughout big cities. This to men seemed manly because they were putting their lives on the line to save others. As far as clubs, there was the New Yacht York Club which was established in 1844 and is still known as one of New York’s finest establishments. This was a group of men who showed their manliness through their wealth. This in a way also formed identities for themselves because it strengthened the bonds of between upper-class American sportsmen (Rader 60).
The New York Trotting Club was also seen as a strong group of men who also had wealth to show. This sport was much easier to commercialize than thoroughbred because it was low cost and it developed a society of gambling between spectators. The growing mainstream of sports like boxing and horse racing created a strong social aspect to it in the form of gambling. Some men primarily wanted to be seen playing, watching or gambling in sports because it defined them as men. Gambling was available to any man at the time that wanted to participate in it, proof that any poor boy could make it in America (Gorn 139). However, wealthy men who believed they were the highest quality of what it means to be a man, would bet on athletes. Tom Hyer and his bankers are examples of the type of people that would accept the importance of wealth as a means of success. In the writings of Elliot J. Gorn, The Manly Art, “they valued money as a means to conviviality more than as a reward for sober self-control, or a sign of God’s grace, or a vehicle of progress” (Gorn 139).
These men presented their manliness through the amount of money they would bet on certain sporting events but also it showed how their lives expressed the values of the working class. Switching gears from sports like boxing and horse racing, the sport of baseball was viewed by many as the new horse racing. At first, baseball was viewed as a child’s game because it was viewed as a very simple game that school-boys would play for relaxation. However, according to the writings of Warren Goldstein, “baseball requires the possession of muscular strength, great agility, quickness of eye, readiness of hand, and many other faculties of mind and body that mark a man of nerve” (Goldstein 44). Also, American men who engaged in the sport would have to show a sense of self-control in their behaviors because it was viewed as a gentleman’s sport. The rules included, swearing, arguing with the umpires, players offering their opinion before the umpire’s decision, and disobeying the captain (Goldstein 35). The idea of manliness was linked to how well they could control their emotions on and off the field. Now, is was assumed at the time that any man that participated in sports was doing so to prove their manliness, but that was not the case for most men. Some men just participated in sports for the leisure effect and also used sports as a way to get away from the hardships of work. According to the writings of Nancy Struna, “popular taste for recreation could and did draw people from work” (Struna 25).
This was seen as a positive but also a negative at the time. A positive side to spots was the puritans encouraged and viewed recreation as a way to “strengthen” the body that would be contributed towards work (Rader 22). A negative side to sports is that of the failed colonies of Roanoke and Jamestown, where colonist engaged in too many recreational activities and didn’t work as much in the fields to acquire food to eat. However, before the civil war we do see sports develop into commercialized events which started to charge people money at the front entrances to watch.
From early Anglo-America to pre-civil war, we see how American men living in cities engaged in sport primarily to define themselves, publicly, as manly. Sports simple started out as a way to pass the time and a way to relax after a long day of work. Then when the sports of boxing and horse racing came around, sports started to become a way of ranking yourself in society. Many men started to become celebrities, which showed everyone their masculinity. Other men, such as gamblers, displayed their masculinity through their wealth. This is where men would tell they guy sitting next to them that they can bet more money on an athlete. We then see sports like baseball where men would express their manliness through their emotions on and off the field. I believe all these factors that express mainlines contributed to men participating in sports pre-civil war and it is also why sports have developed into the successful product it is today.
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