A History of the American Bachelor: Part II — Post-Civil War America

by Brett & Kate McKay on April 12, 2012 · 33 comments

in A Man's Life

Welcome back to our series on the history of the American bachelor. Last time we discussed the bachelor in colonial and Revolutionary War America where we learned about his origins as well as the laws and taxes levied specifically against single men. Today we turn our focus to the state of the American bachelor after the Civil War.

Post-Civil War America: The Golden Age of the American Bachelor

As urbanization and industrialization began to take off in the first half of the 19th century, thousands of young, single men migrated from farms to cities. The large immigration of European men, particularly from Ireland, only added to the growing pool of urban bachelors in antebellum America; in some cities bachelors made up more than 50% of the male population.

The bachelor population in urban areas only grew faster after the Civil War. Consequently, single men often greatly outnumbered single women in the cities. This gender imbalance, along with the rising costs of living, resulted in young men putting off marriage longer than previous generations of bachelors. By 1890, the average marrying age for a man was close to our modern marrying age: 26. With so many men putting off marriage, a feedback loop formed that increased the proportion of urban single men even more. In that same year, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 67 percent of all men between the ages of 15 and 34 were bachelors.

Despite the devastating loss of tens of thousands of young, single men during the Civil War, the bachelor became a demographic force to be reckoned with in the closing decades of the 19th century. With so many bachelors living close together in cities, an entire bachelor sub-culture formed that would fuel new businesses and industries and shape America’s conception of masculinity in the 20th century. Indeed, the period between the Civil War and World War I became the golden age of the American bachelor.

Living Arrangements of Urban Bachelors

Five Points, NYC

The thousands of young, single men who flowed into cities tended to congregate together as they set up a new life for themselves. Many large cities developed unofficial districts that contained a large number of unmarried, working class men. Working class bachelors lived, labored, and relaxed in these “Bachelor Districts.” If you’ve seen Gangs of New York, the Five Points neighborhood where the movie takes place is a good representation of these late 19th century Bachelor Districts–dirty, lawless, and crowded.

To house all these unmarried men, boarding houses were built. For a dollar or just a few cents a week, a young bachelor could have a bed to sleep in and (maybe) a place to bathe. Boarding houses varied in their amenities and comforts. Most boarding houses in the working class districts were dirty and provided no privacy. Men were forced to share a small room with five or sometimes ten other men. Sharing beds with complete strangers wasn’t uncommon, nor was choosing to share a bed with a friend to save money. Middle class bachelors could usually afford more refined boarding. For a few extra dollars a week, a man could get a room to himself that included a dresser, a rug (hot dog!), and daily hot water for shaving.

The atmosphere of these boarding houses in many ways resembled that of the modern day frat house. Young men living alone in the cities found companionship and camaraderie with their fellow residents. Jokes, ribbing, and social drinking were all part of the experience.

Despite the boarding house boom in post-Civil War America, most bachelors lived with their parents or a next of kin. In 1860, 60 percent of native born unmarried men between the ages of 15 and 30 lived with family. Chances were your great-grandpappy lived with his parents well into adulthood (the idea that living at home past age 18 is an unprecedented modern problem and represents a failure on the part of contemporary young people is a myth based on comparisons to the unique circumstances in post-WWII America…but we’ll save that discussion for another day).

Socioeconomic factors played a significant role in whether a bachelor lived with family or by himself. Working class bachelors were more likely to live with their families than their middle-class counterparts, simply because their blue collar brethren couldn’t afford to pay for boarding elsewhere.

Bachelor Hangouts

Like the 17th century bachelors at Harvard who founded “The Friday Association of Bachelors,” bachelors in post-Civil War America began forming groups to cater specifically to their unique needs. Enterprising businessmen also saw an opportunity to make a buck off this growing demographic and so created businesses to accommodate the burgeoning bachelor population.

As mentioned above, middle-class bachelors were more likely than their working class peers to break away from the constraints of family life and try to live on their own. But in the absence of mom, dad, and six siblings, these men still craved company and companionship, and middle class urban bachelors would often recreate family life with other single men in private men’s clubs. Most major cities at the turn of the 20th century had one of these clubs,  places where a young bachelor could share the expenses of rent, meals, and a housekeeper. The clubs were somewhat like working class boarding houses, only a whole lot nicer.

Private men’s clubs were often built in elite parts of towns and were decorated with dark wood walls and banisters, red carpets, and masculine art. The clubs usually had a study or sitting room where a young bachelor could sit, read, and take part in stimulating conversation over cigars and drinks. A billiards table was a common piece of furniture. Married men would even join a private men’s club just so they could have a place to retreat to when they wanted to get away from the family. Some of these clubs included the Olympic Club in San Francisco, Boston’s Somerest Club, and New York’s Knickerbocker Club.

Private men’s clubs weren’t without their critics. Many saw them as a direct threat to the future of the American family. Why would a young man want to get married when he had all the benefits of family in his club? New York journalist Junius Henri Browne said this of the clubs: “Every club is a blow against marriage… offering as it does, the surrounding of a home without women or the ties of a family.”

In addition to private clubs, other bachelor hangouts included fraternal lodges like Freemasons and the Odd Fellows. From 1870 to 1920, growth in fraternal organizations boomed. According to Understanding Manhood in America, by 1920 thirty million men were members of a fraternal organization. The lodge often served as a second home for men, both single and married. This mixture of married men and bachelors allowed for some symbiotic relationships. The older, married men often provided mentoring and advice to the younger, single men on transitioning into manhood, while the bachelors provided an atmosphere where married men could loosen their collars and enjoy some freewheeling and virile camaraderie.

The golden age of the bachelor was also the golden age of the saloon. By 1895, American cities had, on average, one saloon for every 317 residents and the primary customer was single men (women, who were not prostitutes, were typically banned outright). For many bachelors living in cities, the saloon wasn’t just a place where they could grab a pint of beer and play cards with friends after work. Saloons also provided other services that bachelors needed, including banking services (like check cashing and credit extension) and mail services.

The most important service saloons offered bachelors was providing food. Back in the late 19th century, many cities required bars and saloons to provide free food to patrons. For just the cost of a pint of beer, a young and hungry bachelor could fill himself with some hearty victuals. For many urban bachelors, saloon food was their only source of sustenance. Immigrant Oscar Ameringer described the kind of free food you could get in an 1880s Cincinnati bar: ”By investing five cents in a schooner of beer and holding on to the evidence of purchase, one could eat one’s fill of such delicacies as rye bread, cheese, hams, sausage, pickled and smoked herring, sardines, onions, radishes, and pumpernickel.”

Billiard halls sprung up like weeds in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well, and bachelors were their primary clientele. Popularly referred to as a “young man’s game,” pool was a way for bachelors to blow off some steam after work and maybe even make a little money gambling. The pool hall became a place that ushered working class boys into the world of adult male society. Legendary pool champion Wimpy Lassiter looked back nostalgically at his youth in the early 20th century and said this about pool halls:

“A long time ago I used to stand there and peek over the lattice work into that cool-looking darkness of the City Billiards in Elizabeth, North Carolina… And it seemed as though the place had a special sort of smell to it that you could breathe. Like old green felt tables and brass spittoons and those dark polished woods. Then a bluish haze of smoke and sweet pool chalk, and strongest of all, a kind of manliness.”

Last, but not least,  the barbershop was another important hangout for bachelors between 1860 and 1920. In Chicago, the number of barbershops shot up from 308 in 1880 to nearly 2,000 by 1896.

It’s no coincidence that the golden age of the barbershop occurred simultaneously with the golden age of the bachelor. Before men moved from the farm to work in factories and offices in the cities, they usually got their hair cut by another family member. Living alone in the city, a bachelor needed somebody else to do it for him. Also, because single men typically lived in a room that lacked the basin and hot water needed for a comfortable shave, they would often head to the barber once a week to get their scruff removed.

Barbers also provided other essential services for bachelors, specifically medical and dental care. Old barbering books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries often provided recipes for creams and tonics to cure ringworm and other skin diseases. There were even recipes for barber-made cough drops.

Cover of National Police Gazette Magazine

Barbershops also served as news centers and civic forums for men. Men would frequently drop by the barbershop just to see what was going on and chew the fat with other men.  Barbers kept their shops well-stocked with magazines and newspapers for their clients to read while they waited for a shave. The most popular magazine among single men in the late 19th century was The National Police Gazette, a weekly periodical where a man could get the latest updates about boxing matches and read tawdry crime stories. Due to the popularity of The National Police Gazette among barbers, the magazine had a weekly feature called “Tonsorial Artist of the Week” where they highlighted the work of a singular barber. The National Police Gazette laid the foundation for the versatile men’s lifestyle magazines we enjoy today (including, the Art of Manliness!).

Like private men’s clubs, bachelor hangouts were criticized by moralists and newspaper editors. Saloons and pool halls received the brunt of the criticism. The Georgia Anti-Poolroom League (yes, there were organizations that quaintly fought poolrooms) argued that poolrooms “diverted man power” and encouraged “idleness…dissipation…intoxicants…profanity…lascivious stories…and the love of chance.” In New York City, moralists denounced the Henry Hill saloon as the “most dangerous and demoralizing place in New York.”

Not only did saloons and pool halls encourage the obvious vices like drunkenness and gambling, critics argued, they distracted young men from taking on the responsibilities of adult life as well. Echoing Benjamin Franklin’s criticisms of bachelors in Revolutionary America, 19th and early 20th century critics believed that the illicit activities engaged in in these establishments sapped young men of their vim and vigor. Bachelor hangouts were a threat to American manhood and America herself.

The Sporting Male

First American Football Game. Rutgers v. Princeton. Painting by Arnold Friberg

Many young men living at the turn of the century had a bit of anxiety about their masculinity in comparison with their ancestors. With no more frontier to settle or wars to fight, how would they prove their mettle? Would their virility ebb away as they sat at desks or worked in factories instead of tilling the land or hammering at a forge?

The sports arena became a substitute “frontier” and “battlefield” where young men could display their masculine strength and competitive drive. It was during the late 19th century that many of the popular sports we enjoy today got their start. Bachelors had a major influence on the rapid rise of sports in American culture.  Many of the first organized baseball, basketball, and football teams were formed among bachelors attending college. Christian churches embraced the country’s new love of sports in the hopes of making church more attractive to men, particularly young, single men during the Muscular Christianity movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Of all athletics, boxing was seen as the most virile sport a man could take part in. Even if a man didn’t actually step in the ring to fight, he’d spend his weekends watching two other fighters duke it out in matches that lasted hours and sometimes days. During the golden age of the bachelor, boxing was the most popular spectator sport.

John L. Sullivan. Hero to Bachelors.

Boxing also gave birth to America’s first national sport’s hero, John L. Sullivan. In many ways, Sullivan was the paragon of this period’s ideal of virile bachelorhood. Though he was married, John L. lived the life of a bachelor for most of his life: drinking, fighting, and carousing with other women. He spent more time at the saloon with other bachelors than he did with his family.

In addition to athletics and competition, men, especially working class bachelors, began to define their manliness by their patronage of “illicit” pastimes and vices like drinking, pool games, horse racing, pugilism, card games, cigar smoking, and cock/dog fighting. This “sporting male” identity is still with us today in many ways from the benign weekly poker nights to the more depraved binge drinking rituals in college fraternities.

Thus the golden age of the bachelor was a time where young, single men, free from the responsibilities of family life and laws that targeted their demographic, enjoyed an unprecedented amount of freedom and male camaraderie. And yet this kind of freedom still created a tension in society–what if men enjoyed bachelorhood so much that they never wanted to settle down? This tension between the enjoyment of bachelor culture by some, and the worry that it was too enjoyable by others, continued into the 20th century. And to that time period we will turn in our next and final installment on the history of the bachelor in America.

History of the American Bachelor Series:
Colonial and Revolutionary America
Post-Civil War America
The 20th and 21st Century
____________________

Sources:

Citizen Bachelor by John Gilbert McCurdy

The Age of the Bachelor by Howard P. Chudacoff

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jon April 12, 2012 at 8:20 pm

“the idea that living at home past age 18 is an unprecedented modern problem and represents a failure on the part of contemporary young people is a myth based on comparisons to the unique circumstances in post-WWII America…but we’ll save that discussion for another day”

Does this mean you are seriously planning on doing a post on this? Because I never heard that before, but am interested.

2 James April 12, 2012 at 8:29 pm

I’m very much enjoying this series. This latest installment creates a larger interest in my mind of attempting to scrape together a modern day version of the “Friday Association of Bachelors”.

This latest “chapter” dealt with a lot of the camaraderie of men, which I feel is vastly missing from my generation. Sure, groups of “guys” still often “hang out”, but I find it increasingly hard to find those in my age bracket who are interested in more than the stereotypical binge drinking/degradation of women “frat-party” image that has been shoved at us by the media for so long. While a few drinks and female attention are of course always appreciated, the idea of mentoring, sharing common knowledge and experience, sharing news (not gossip) and the like are becoming harder to find, or at least, in my area they have.

Even my local barbershop has a sign proudly proclaiming that they serve women and children, so it’s not uncommon to see kids running around in circles or women on their cellphones while older gentlemen are getting shaved (and trust me, they are not to fond of this!).

In essence, I believe a modern version of these “bachelor institutions” could be much like this website, a way for men of all ages to come together to better themselves and each other.

3 JeffC April 12, 2012 at 9:16 pm

Great installment, guys: can’t wait for the next.

4 Luke April 12, 2012 at 10:23 pm

James, you make a great point. A few drinks is plenty, but there are other things important to life. I have a friend just like you, and it’s always great to just kick back and talk with him about things that matter. He’s not the typical modern guy that rages about the newest Call of Duty or the next house party to degrade yet another woman.

5 Glori April 12, 2012 at 10:42 pm

I see I’m the first girl to comment…
I love reading about history. I just started reading this series and its really interesting, you know, the “evolution” of it all.
I guess men before were more independent though were they? The “difference” from men of today is vast. Brotherhood, “being a gentleman,” and maybe the maturity are well… a little lacking in today’s men?
*hides*
Great series!

6 frank logan April 13, 2012 at 1:15 am

the main point of this article (IMO) is that men can still be men even in this female driven society and ladies will appreciate it. How many real men do you know that can treat women like a ladies and still hold down an office job. NOT MANY.

7 Jonathan April 13, 2012 at 6:43 am

I second Jon’s comment about the post-WWII concepts of bachelorhood. I’ve heard a great many news stories lately about “delayed adulthood” and the idea that young adults are less mature because they stay at home longer (I think people my age are less mature but for an entirely different set of reasons). It would also be nice to have some ammunition for obnoxious relatives asking me why I haven’t “settled down with a nice girl yet.”

@Glori: don’t hide.This whole site is dedicated to the idea that modern males lack certain “old-school” virtues and we just need to be reminded on how to improve them.

8 Knutrik April 13, 2012 at 8:42 am

I love this website and article; imagine an entire “bachelor culture” without any references to homosexuality or gayness: just men doing manly activities and enjoying the company of other men (imagine that!). Of course this was before the invasion of the Feminazis and their purposeful destruction of all male spaces.

9 James April 13, 2012 at 8:50 am

@Luke; Thank you. I agree!

Everyone else has hit the nail on the head as well. This maybe one of the most important series of articles yet Brett!

10 Steve C April 13, 2012 at 9:17 am

Excellent post, Brett & Kate! Your point about single young men living at home in the 19th century was something new to me. It certainly puts all this modern hand wringing about 20-somethings still living at home in perspective. (The more you learn about history, the more you realize nothing really changes.)

Although you mention private men’s clubs, you could also have mentioned the YMCA as a major part of this golden age of bachelors. As far as I know, YMCAs were built for all these single young (and not so young) men to have a place to stay in the crowded cities where they could also engage in healthy physical, mental and spiritual activities. YMCAs played a major role in in forming this bachelor culture.

@Jonathan (#7). You are quite right, the delayed adulthood of young men today has little to do with where they live and much more to do with the active destruction of unique and purposeful roles for men in modern society.

@Knutrick: I couldn’t agree more. Militant feminism and the mainstreaming of the gay lifestyle have decimated what I like to call “wild masculine habitat”–places where men can gather together to be themselves unmolested by the outside world. This is a major factor as to why modern men in America are so demoralized today. Men need the companionship of other men, both young and old. A life without opportunities to drink and talk or skinny dip with your buddies is a no life at all. Masculinity is meant to be shared.

11 Lalo April 13, 2012 at 10:22 am

Interesting information about the golden age…I remember being a bachelor myself, those were good times. Times that will always cause me to think back and laugh outloud, good times. Thank God I was able to grow out of it though and move on to be a family man. The bachelor life is nothing in comparision to nurturing and fathering a good moral family. I know that one day my two boys will enter the stage of being bachelors, I can only hope and pray that God grants me the wisdom and reminds me of the experience to help my boys enjoy those years, but also help them to move on when it is time to settle down.

12 Native Son April 13, 2012 at 10:23 am

Nicearticle, but rather skewed towards the urban bachelor. The rural fellows usually worked too darned hard (12+ hour days) to have much time for frat house behavior.

Fraternal organizations were important not only for mentoring, but they were important political places, as well as being the only places that men could socialize without getting preached to, having to buy drinks, or “watch their p’s and q’s” in mixed company.

13 Chase Christy April 13, 2012 at 10:55 am

This series is truly fascinating.

It is time History, Humanities, and Anthropology departments begin offering Men’s Study courses and degrees.

14 Tank April 13, 2012 at 11:28 am

I agree with what some have already said, there are few establishments where men can go and shoot the bull without women and children around. In today’s society where women are equal to men, as they should be, it’s almost impossible to have a place that restricts women as it would be discrimination.

15 Ian April 13, 2012 at 1:01 pm

I think you should title the final installment:

“Bros: Where Bachelors went terribly, horribly wrong”

16 Jules April 13, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Wow. This is good stuff. I read AOM frequently, but was never bothered to comment. This piece was just THAT good.

The question is…

Where can a guy in his mid-20′s, living in the suburbs, find a place like this?

17 Hunter April 13, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Good article, the only addition I would make is to point out that fraternal organizations were also the safety net of the time providing assistance in hard times with health and in some cases unemployment insurance.

18 Chris April 13, 2012 at 1:41 pm

“Feminazis”? Gay culture means you can’t skinny dip anymore? Seriously? Man up boys. Gay men and feminists are boldly defining their sexuality in a culture that is hostile to them. How about you grow a pair and define your own? Isn’t that what this website is all about?

19 Brucifer April 13, 2012 at 1:51 pm

These days, “bachelor” comes out of women’s mouths as a pejorative, smacking of both musty old quaintness and implied male helplessness. Meanwhile, women who would otherwise rail against their husbands calling them by the diminutive “the little woman” have no such problem calling their husbands by the diminutive, “hubby” and banishing him to his quaint little “man-cave” when he can imagine himself still master of his domain and swill beer-like substances while watch some fellows in tights or whatnot, chase after silly balls. In older times, the bachelor living at home was still presumed to have some dignity. Now, they are stereotyped as perpetually unkempt louts eating pizza three times a day and playing endless video games in their mom’s basement. … and so, many have devolved into that very thing.

20 mike April 13, 2012 at 1:53 pm

Dude, AWESOME. These old photographs make me feel so good. I can’t describe why, but life just looked awesome back then for a young single male.

21 Mark April 13, 2012 at 6:59 pm

@ Knutrik: I guess I’ve found what your looking for. I’m a gay male living in Australia and once a month my work mates[ about 30 of us at present] all get together to play football or cricket etc, and usually head off to the pub afterwards to play pool All guys hanging out together. number 1 Rule; any man is welcome as long as there is mutual respect for our differences as after all we are all men . So we have a mix of guys, gay straight, christian, muslim, jewish ,hindu, marrried ,single, asian descent, african descent etc.We also at the pub have a few beers and discuss dating women, dating men bringing up kids, being single, N.U.T.S etc as well as helping each other with our knowledge or sharing our skills- Pretty much everything and I believe as we all do it’s making us better men= the basic concept of this website.

22 Brad Alexander April 13, 2012 at 10:16 pm

I third Jon and Jonathan. I would love to read a post about social factors in history why men do or don’t move out.

I’m of the opinion that a man should move out from his parent’s home at the earliest opportunity, but open to hearing some other thoughts.

23 James April 16, 2012 at 10:53 am

I love the article and the comments with just one or two exceptions. I find the attitude toward College Fraternities very unenlightened. It seems like many of those who have commented have had no experience with Fraternities outside of what they have seen in movies.
I like to drink I admit, it doesn’t harm anyone else and I don’t see that anyone else has a right to moralize it. And as far as the “degradation of women”, where did that come from? I have never gone to a social gathering or a party and thought “I’m going to degrade a woman tonight, yeah that’d be fun.” I don’t even know someone who has done that.

If the Fraternity culture or bar/drinking culture are things that you have little personal experience with then please don’t use what mainstream media has to say as a basis for your opinions. The media is heavily biased in these cases, I believe.

24 Derek April 16, 2012 at 1:40 pm

This is an amazing series that I have shared with a bunch of my friends from college and my fraternity. Great work!

@James I completely agree, I was extremely involved with my fraternity and I think the fraternal experience is very different from place to place. I believe the fraternity I was a part of and some of the others I know of are some of the only places where these ideas of mentoring and camaraderie still exist in our modern culture.

25 Andrewson April 17, 2012 at 2:02 am

great.

26 P.M.Lawrence April 17, 2012 at 4:13 am

Readers will probably get a lot of the sense of this ambience from Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat”. It was his swan song as a bachelor – he based it on his honeymoon, with his wife changed to male friends; his later “Three Men on the Bummel” was much less fun, apart from a few patches.

27 Chris McLain April 17, 2012 at 12:36 pm

Love the blog and enjoy this series, but I was surprised to see that the discussion of bachelor life was limited to urban areas during this period.

My great great grandfather was a Civil War veteran and bachelor who did just about every manly thing you could do in rural post-Civil War America. He worked on a plantation in Alabama, went on cattle drives from Texas northward (during which he witnessed attacks by Native Americans that prompted him to fight with, then colonel, George Armstrong Custer for a time), panned for gold, and all manner of things before settling down and having a family.

I get the point that about the anxiety of urban bachelors, but I can’t help but think he would disagree that there was “no more frontier to settle or wars to fight.”

28 Matthew April 17, 2012 at 2:12 pm

Not surprised that there were anti-Poolroom leagues. After all we know that they are

“Trouble with a capital ‘T’
And that rhymes with ‘P’
and that stands for pool!”

29 Steve April 17, 2012 at 6:17 pm

This is genuinely one of the most enjoyable and interesting series you guys have run on this blog. Give yourselves a big pat on the back for this one!

Really looking forward to more articles in this series.

30 Jones April 18, 2012 at 1:53 pm

Interesting stuff. I hope you guys comment on the recent stories about frats and hazing – I would love to hear your thoughts on that.

31 Tom Anderson April 20, 2012 at 12:50 am

Brett, really enjoying this series.

Even as someone who is not from the US, the historical aspect of bachelorhood is really interesting to me.

Really appreciate the time you’ve taken to research and put this together.

Cheers!

Tom

32 Jaime April 21, 2012 at 3:36 am

W.A.S.P’s

33 SquirrelFarts McAwesome April 25, 2012 at 12:14 pm

By the way, there’s a small typo in the article. Boston is home to the Somerset Club, not Somerest. The club still exists today, though, not being a member, I couldn’t tell you what goes on in there.

I had no idea that bachelorhood had such an intriguing history. Wonderfully written.

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