The “boy problem” in 1910

The “boy problem” is not new. In a society that changes, it’s inevitable that ideals about gender roles will be changing--undergoing crisis--as well. For those of you interested in linking talk about masculinity to a 1910 Expedition, here’s an excerpt from an article about Normal Rockwell that provides plenty of food for thought on how an earlier age responded to its “masculinity crisis”:

Rockwell and Mencken were not alone in their concern over the sissy. The consolidation of masculinity in the disciplined and fortified male body at the turn of the century had displaced an earlier conception of masculinity premised on the cultivation of self as a creature of the business or spiritual world.(28) At the beginning of this century the pursuit of healthy boyhood, too, became a subject of national debate in response to fears that new family and professional roles for women, the close of the Western frontier, and the rise of urban living would drain the middle class of its vitality. Responses to changing social patterns and perceived threats were largely shaped by contemporary theories on adolescence.

At the turn of the century, against the backdrop of smaller middle-class families with fewer servants and with working fathers absent from the home, motherhood assumed increased importance in domestic and child-rearing matters. Some social commentators perceived the waning presence of fathers as an impediment to the healthy development of boys. If these critics looked to public schools to provide boys with a refuge from a domestic environment governed by women, they were disappointed there as well. Increasingly amongst the students girls outnumbered boys, while at the front of the classroom women superseded men as teachers.(29) The growing presence and authority of women in schools, according to these critics, supplanted male influence on boys, while the environment, premised on sedentary activities, weakened their young male bodies.(30) Sunday schools received still harsher excoriation: “real” boys were thought to resist sermons by squirming in class while harboring a “wholesome dislike for the youthful prig - especially if he was a religious prig."(31)

Other observers characterized city life itself as an enervating influence and a threat to masculinity. One commentator wrote in 1902 that urban parents “are frequently pained to find that their children have less power and less vitality to endure the rough side of life than they have themselves. . . . Families who live in the city without marrying country stock for two or three generations . . . later are unable to rear strong families."(32) New working patterns for urban industries drew middle-class men from the home, subjected them to enfeebling work environments, and interrupted traditions of father-son apprenticeships through the intervention of corporations. Medical discourse, too, substantiated fears of modern urban life, identifying neurasthenia as an affliction affecting both men and women of “the in-door-living and brain-working classes.” In boys the disorder was treated with outdoor physical exercise.(33)

To counter the influence of these perceived social developments, a variety of groups sought to shape the character of the nation’s youth, through the general rubric of boys’ work. Boys’ works organizations in American cities and towns included the popular Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), founded in 1851 to ease the transition of young men arriving for the first time in large cities, and the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), formed in 1910.(34) Concerned adults - by profession “boys’ workers” - in urban, rural, and farming communities formed extrascholastic organizations to benefit and manage boys from various classes. Character building, a narrower term than boys’ work, focused specific attention on preparing white, middle-class boys to become responsible men. Through extrascholastic activity designed to discipline youths, character-building groups sought to instill in middle-class boys in particular probity, rectitude, and robust physical health. The YMCA began boys’ work in the 1870s and applied itself to character building in earnest in about 1900. The character builders recruited a “better class of boys,” avoiding the “rougher element”;(35) this was left to other organizations and clubs that specifically targeted working-class and street boys (perceived as a delinquent lot including newsboys, bootblacks, and scavenging urchins) and aimed merely to occupy the idle time and divert the dangerous excess energies of youths who would never amount to much.(36) Still other organizations dealt with farm and rural boys. Male character-building organizations, forged into discrete, reproducible units (as in the Boy Scout troop or the local Y), multiplied in cities and towns across the nation, drawing impressive numbers of adult leaders and young members.(37)

Character builders found legitimation and motivation for their cause in the first modern theoretical formulation of adolescence, lasting from the age of about thirteen until the early twenties, by the psychologist G. Stanley Hall. Hall - remembered today for bringing Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung to lecture at Clark University in 1909 - theorized adolescence as a distinct, extended, and precarious stage between childhood and adulthood. Though formulated for an academic audience, Hall’s theories, disseminated in popular abridged editions, resonated with popular conceptions and cautionary literature on adolescence and were eagerly embraced by general readers.(38) Hall, like the BSA and the YMCA, focused on middle-class youth as the most critical and promising social group through which to advance the development of Western culture, a project which would culminate by “ushering in the kingdom of the superman” so as to attain “the summits of human possibility."(39) His neo-Darwinian framework shifted attention to the middle class and away from “the undervitalized poor . . . moribund sick, defectives and criminals, because by aiding them to survive it interferes with the process of wholesome natural selection by which all that is best has hitherto been developed."(40)

Hall explicitly raised the specter of feminization in his description of male adolescent development involving successive, stratified phases through which a boy would pass, including a “generalized or even feminized stage of psychic development” which the adult male must outgrow.(41) His views on feminization and social institutions, expressed in various articles including “Feminization in School and Home” of 1908, drew angry criticism from educators, but also won the support of New York governor Theodore Roosevelt, who praised “the sound common sense, decency and manliness in what you [Hall] advocate for the education of children."(42) Both Roosevelt and Hall - the latter proceeding from the explicit assumption that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny - conceived of adolescence as a critical stage through which the vitality of “the race” might be enhanced by encouraging the appropriate habits and virtues.(43)

This “race,” for Hall as for Roosevelt, exhibited nationalistic as well as genetic components, referring to both Anglo-Saxon - sometimes Western European - ancestry and a unique, American mind-set. When Roosevelt advocated militarily supported expansionist policies in “The Strenuous Life,” he asserted that the “stronger and more manful race” must prevail in any conflict between nations. That such manfulness of the race was founded upon the character of the individual Roosevelt made evident in his aphoristic statement, “as it is with the individual, so it is with the nation."(44)

Having recognized the need to manage adolescence, and bolstered by a tenable theoretical framework, boys’ workers found further incentive for their mission in the nationalistic rhetoric of expansionism that followed the closing of the American frontier. F. J. Turner’s 1893 address, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” held that the unique national character of the American people was the product of their evolution in confronting the ever-present, though now bygone, frontier. In its place the city increasingly defined American social life at some peril to values established in the conquest of the frontier.(45) Echoing sentiments of the frontier thesis - its nostalgic acknowledgment of the passing of the untamed West and the consequent need for new kinds of frontiers to secure manliness - Daniel Carter Beard, an early BSA leader, argued:

The Wilderness is gone, the Buckskin Man is gone, the painted Indian has hit the trail over the Great Divide, the hardships and privations of pioneer life which did so much to develop sterling manhood are now but a legend in history, and we must depend upon the Boy Scout Movement to produce the MEN of the future.(46)

The Boy Scout movement, then, aimed to counteract the debilitating influences of women, the city, and modern life, taken to be the antithesis of the uniquely American experience of the frontier.

If the BSA was to fill the gap left by the demise of the American wilderness and the manly attributes instilled by the frontier, it was to do so in opposition to the excessive cosmopolitanism of Europe, an opposition implicit in the malediction “sissy” as in the images Rockwell would soon render.(47) Thus, James West, the first Chief Scout Executive of the BSA, wrote, “The REAL Boy Scout is not a ‘sissy.’ He is not a hothouse plant, like little Lord Fauntleroy."(48) In evoking Frances Hodgson Burnett’s enormously popular 1886 novel, West placed the Boy Scout in opposition to the title character, who wears a lace-collared velvet suit and long hair, thereby casting the “sissy” as a distinctly feminized clotheshorse who, though he might succeed abroad by good manners and charm, hasn’t the character of a real American boy.

Advice literature directed at middle-class mothers also recognized the connection between the figures of the sissy and Little Lord Fauntleroy in terms of their shared appearance. One such guide, implicitly intended for women as the dominant agents of child rearing in the family, cautioned that at the age when a boy departs the domestic sphere for school, “he desires above all other things to avoid the opprobrium of ‘sissy’ [and must not be dressed to] suggest a likeness to Lord Fauntleroy in his ruffles and long curls."(49)

The sissy, then, can be understood as a stigmatizing term, explicitly coercing conformity to normative masculine identities in terms of nationhood, middle-class unity, and gender. Frequently, but not exclusively, defined by dress, the sissy is a denigrated figure repeatedly deployed to differentiate the proper and acceptable from the degenerate and repulsive. Thus, the figure of Percy in the St. Nicholas illustration [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED] provides regular fellows with the occasion to define their own identity against that of a vaguely alien, rich, effeminate snob.

In counterpoint to the sissy, the real boy enjoyed ennobling praise. This rough and tumble “manly little man,” as described in the copy of a Black Cat hosiery advertisement illustrated by Rockwell, possessed all the spunk and innate nobility of Roosevelt’s “American boy,” even under the watchful eye of a schoolmistress [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4 OMITTED]. Like his clothes, he is emphatically “made-in-America,” rejecting the characteristics of “the Little Lord Fauntleroys you read about in storybooks.” This real boy - conventionally conceived strictly in terms of character and bodily fortitude - could equally exercise fashion sense and consumer savvy to effect his transition to manhood. This much is suggested by a clothing advertisement from the Post depicting a youth in his first suit - master of the young pup he grasps effortlessly in one hand - and headed, “Now he’s a man!” [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 5 OMITTED].(50)

Just as real boys might evolve into sissies under the undue influence of mothers and urban society, they might equally, according to the chief of the Scouts, age from “robust, manly, self-reliant boyhood into a lot of flat-chested cigarette-smokers, with shaky nerves and doubtful vitality"(51) - an apt description of the contrast between the admirably truant scamp and the gawking fop depicted in “‘Tain’t You,” Rockwell’s first cover for Life from 1917 [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 6 OMITTED].(52)

In this image, an impish boy with an open box of chalks protruding from his pocket stands with his back to a knotted wood fence bearing the stick-figure likeness of a gentleman with hat, eyeglasses, cane, gloves, lit cigarette, and mustaches.(53) His recreant companion disappears around the fence, but he remains, smiling affably at a dismayed man who leans forward, heels slightly raised off the ground, in an attempt to make out the drawing. The boy, caught in the act of caricaturing the fussy airs of this gentleman, perhaps his schoolteacher, boldly denies the resemblance, declaring, in the words of the caption: “‘Tain’t you.” But, of course, the chalk-scrawled inscription on the fence above the image, “MISS PERSEVAL,” insists upon the contrary, and the lanky man answers the figure in the drawing down to the smoke curling from his cigarette.(54) But how do we account for him as Miss? Turning the pages of the mass-circulation weeklies in order to examine male dress provides some answers.

Clothing advertisements in the Saturday Evening Post of the late teens typically depicted tall, slim men with aquiline features dressed in suits finished with tapered waists, mid-width lapels, and cuffed trousers slightly exposing the ankle.(55) The advertising copy accompanying these images emphasized appropriate male dress as an initiation into adult manhood, a profoundly national expression, or a recognizable characteristic of masculinity. The attenuated figures of the illustrations bear little relation to the physical masculinity one might expect from the copy of, for instance, a notice for Brandegee-Kincaid Clothes offering “Manliness which avoids that effeminate look upon which American taste frowns” [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 7 OMITTED]. Measured against this visual standard, Perseval can hardly be faulted for his unimposing figure or for the range of his accessories, with the possible exception of the glasses that betray his weak eyes. But he does bungle his appropriation of contemporary fashion, with his “high-water” pants, the absurd turn of the hat band, the loose cut of his jacket, and the color medley including a pink hat brim, blue striped shirt, red tie, blue-green suit, and orange socks.(56) In his hyperurbanism, Perseval overshoots appropriate dress codes and reveals himself a fop. “The fop,” a contemporary advocate of dandyism explained, “is a near relative of the fool and a pure dandy may never be that. . . . The fop lacks discrimination; he does not know when he has obtained his effect and continues blindly on till he has exposed all the machinery that might have mystified if properly manipulated."(57)

A distinction was also to be made between a legitimate masculine interest in sartorial matters and the effeminate implications of an overtly narcissistic investment in one’s clothing. This distinction was expressed in retail clothing trade handbooks and self-teaching manuals circulated to train sales staff (it would not be until 1933 that male clothing consumers would have their own publication in the form of Esquire). One such manual identified the values sought by male customers as serviceability, comfort, style or fashion, appearance ("a look of good quality"), a trade name, and becomingness.(58) “Talking points,” techniques for addressing individual customers’ concerns, treated the last value, becomingness, with circumspection.

As one expert salesman says, “Men are interested in whether or not a thing is becoming, but we don’t use that word. We tell a man, ‘This hat is good on you,’ or ‘This is better on you than that.’. . . Don’t you believe it when men say they are not interested in getting becoming clothes. They are, but they don’t use that word."(59)

Without clarifying why men might avoid “that word,” the section concludes by implicitly relegating it to a feminine lexicon. Unable to confess a personal interest in his appearance with regard to clothing - in other words, its becomingness - the customer ascribes responsibility for it elsewhere: he “frequently says his wife or mother does not like a certain thing on him."(60) Advertisements for men’s clothes, like the floorwalker or sales assistant of the department store and retail shop, emphasized the other talking points, leaving becomingness to the eye.

It would be interesting to examine images of masculinity in the ads in popular magazines with a class of high school students.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/27 at 07:30 AM
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2006 Montana Heritage Project

Government, business and culture

A global context for the 1930s:

The 1930s were described as an abrupt shift to more radical lifestyles, as countries were struggling to find a solution to the global depression. In Australia, this decade was known as the Dirty Thirties. In both Central Europe and Eastern Europe, Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism,dominated as the solution, the first two adopting war-oriented economic policies and the latter emphasizing heavy industrial development, all of them described as totalitarian regimes. In East Asia, the rise of Militarism occurred. In Western Europe, Australia and the United States, more progressive reforms occurred as opposed to the extreme measures sought elsewhere. Roosevelt’s New Deal attempted to use government spending to combat large-scale unemployment and severely negative growth. Ultimately, it would be the beginning of World War II in 1939 that would end the depression. Wikipedia

One way of thinking about the the twentieth century is provided by Reinhold Niebuhr--who looked at modern society as being shaped by the interplay of three domains that exert power and influence. All three changed during the twentieth century because of developments that made broader and deeper organization manageable. In economics and business, developments in modern transportation, communication and manufacturing technology led to commercial enterprises on an unprecedented scale. In politics and government many of the same technological developments made it possible to organize political campaigns, government programs--often prompted by a need to regulate large-scale business--and military actions on a vast scale.

The third area is culture and ethnicity, including religion. People do not always passively accept whatever changes are advocated by business and government leaders. Various ethnic heritages and cultures provide resources for critiquing, modifying, selecting and thwarting changes sought by business and government.

In the 1930s, radio became a powerful cultural force.

How did different religious or ethnic groups interpret and respond to the turmoil of the decade?

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/06 at 06:30 AM
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2006 Montana Heritage Project

1930s Montana - Economic Condition in Agriculture

Drought, dust, hail, and grasshoppers beset the eastern plains of Montana in the late 1910S and early 1920S. Few communities had the resources to weather these plagues as Dagmar did.

Between 1919 and 1925 almost half of Montana farmers lost ownership of their land and many left the state. For those who remained, there were occasional good years in the late 1920S, but in general the Great Depression simply intensified conditions of the late 19105 and early 1920S. Sheridan County was especially hard hit by “recurring droughts, grasshopper infestations, and [wheat] rust,” which resulted in near total crop failure for several years. The county extension agent reported in 1934 that farmers replanted “blown out crops two or more times only to see grain wither away during the latter part of June.” The farm tenancy rate in Sheridan County climbed from 11.2 percent in 1920 to 31.4 percent in 1935, while that for the state was 27.7 percent. In 1938 county officials estimated that the taxes on 85 to 90 percent of all farm real estate were delinquent; only contiguous Daniels County had a higher rate. For many who stayed, economic security was tenuous, although some met the crisis with creativity. As in other parts of the droughtriven West, an overabundance of jackrabbits cursed the county and residents engaged in rabbit drives to round up and kill them. Some young men in Plentywood launched the Midwest Hide and Fur Company, headquartered in an old laundry, and proceeded to market the rabbit skins.

excerpted from “Representing Gender in Montana Farm Security Administration Photographs” by Mary Murphy. Frontiers - A Journal of Women’s Studies. Volume: 22. Issue: 3. Publication Year: 2001.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/01 at 04:12 PM
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