Gender, Religion, Culture

In 1905, Standard Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller donated $100,000 (about $2.5 million today) to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Rockefeller was the richest man in America, but also one of the most hated and mistrusted. Even admirers conceded that he achieved his wealth through often illegal and usually immoral business practices. Journalist Ida Tarbell had made waves by describing his company’s (Standard Oil) long-standing ruthlessness and predilections for political corruption. Clergymen, led by the reformer Washington Gladden, fiercely protested the donation. A decade earlier, Gladden had asked of such donations, “Is this clean money? Can any man, can any institution, knowing its origin, touch it without being defiled?”  Gladden said, “In the cool brutality with which properties are wrecked, securities destroyed, and people by the hundreds robbed of their little all to build up the fortunes of the multi-millionaires, we have an appalling revelation of the kind of monster that a human being may become.”

Despite widespread criticism, the American Board accepted Rockefeller’s donation. Board President Samuel Capen did not defend Rockefeller, arguing the gift was charitable and the Board could not assess the origin of every donation, but the dispute shook Capen. Was a corporate background incompatible with a religious organization? The “tainted money debate” reflected questions about the proper relationship between religion and capitalism. With rising income inequality, would religious groups be forced to support either the elite or the disempowered? What was moral in the new industrial United States? And what obligations did wealth bring? Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie wrote in an 1889 article, “The Gospel of Wealth,” that “the true antidote for the temporary unequal distribution of wealth” was the moral obligation of the rich to give to charity. Farmer and labor organizers, meanwhile, argued that God had blessed the weak and that new Gilded Age fortunes and corporate management were inherently immoral. As time passed, American churches increasingly adapted themselves to the new industrial order. Even Gladden came to accept Rockefeller’s donation and businessmen, such as the Baptist John D. Rockefeller, increasingly touted the morality of business. At the same time that many churches wondered about the compatibility of large fortunes with Christian values, others were concerned for the fate of traditional American masculinity.

The economic and social changes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—including increased urbanization, immigration, advancements in science and technology, patterns of consumption and the new availability of goods, and growing protestations against economic, gender, and racial inequalities—challenged traditional gender norms. At the same time urban spaces and shifting cultural and social values presented unprecedented opportunities to challenge traditional gender and sexual norms. Many women vied for equal rights. They became activists, and launched labor rights campaigns and a renewed suffrage movement.

Urbanization and immigration fueled anxieties that old social mores were being subverted and that old forms of social and moral policing were increasingly inadequate. The anonymity of urban spaces presented an opportunity in particular for female sexuality and for male sexual experimentation along a spectrum of sexual orientation and gendered identities. Anxiety over female sexuality reflected generational tensions and differences, in addition to racial and class ones. As young women pushed back against social mores through pre-marital sexual exploration and expression, social welfare experts and moral reformers even labeled these girls feeble-minded, believing that such unfeminine behavior was symptomatic of clinical insanity rather than free-willed expression. Generational differences exacerbated the social, and even familial, tensions provoked by shifting gender norms. Youths challenged the gender norms of their parents’ generations by dawning new fashions and engaging in the delights of the city. Women’s fashion loosed its physical constraints: corsets relaxed and hemlines rose. The newfound physical freedom enabled by looser dress was mimicked in the pursuit of other freedoms.

While many women worked to liberate themselves, many, sometimes simultaneously, worked to uplift others. Women’s work against alcohol propelled temperance into one of the foremost moral reforms of the period. Middle-class, typically Protestant women based their assault on alcohol on the basis of their feminine virtue, Christian sentiment, and their protective role in the family and home. Others, like Jane Addams and settlement house workers, sought to impart a middle-class education on immigrant and working class women through the establishment of settlement homes. Other reformers touted a “scientific motherhood” and the science of hygiene was deployed as a method of both social uplift and moralizing, particularly of working class and immigrant women.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Taken a few years after the publication of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” this portrait photograph shows activist Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminine poise and respectability even as she sought massive change for women’s place in society. An outspoken supporter of women’s rights, Gilman’s works challenged the supposedly “natural” inferiority of women. Her short stories, novels, and poetry have been an inspiration to feminists for over a century. Photograph, 1895. Wikimedia.

Women vocalized new discontents through literature. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” attacked the “naturalness” of feminine domesticity and critiqued Victorian psychological remedies administered to women, such as the “rest cure.” Kate Chopin’s The Great Awakening, set in the American South, likewise criticized the domestic and familial role ascribed to women by society, and gave expression to feelings of malaise, desperation, and desire. Such literature directly challenged the status quo of the Victorian era’s constructions of femininity and feminine virtue, as well as established feminine roles.

While many men worried about female activism, they worried too about their own masculinity. To anxious observers, industrial capitalism was withering American manhood. Rather than working on farms and in factories, where young men formed physical muscle and spiritual grit, new generations of workers labored behind desks, wore white collars, and, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, appeared “black-coated, stiff-jointed, soft-muscled, [and] paste-complexioned.” Neurologist George Beard even coined a medical term, “neurasthenia,” for a new emasculated condition that marked by depression, indigestion, hypochondria, and extreme nervousness. The philosopher William James called it “Americanitis.” Academics increasingly warned that America had become a nation of emasculated men.

Churches too worried about feminization. Women had always comprised a clear majority of church memberships in the United States, but now the theologian Washington Gladden said, “A preponderance of female influence in the Church or anywhere else in society is unnatural and injurious.” Many feared that the feminized church had feminized Christ Himself. Rather than a rough-hewn carpenter, the Christ had been turned into someone “mushy” and “sweetly effeminate,” in the words of Walter Rauschenbusch. Advocates of a so-called “muscular Christianity” sought to stiffen young mens’ backbones by putting them back in touch with their primal manliness. Pulling from then-scientific developmental theory, they believed that young men ought to progress through stages similar that mirrored the evolution of civilizations, from primitive nature-dwellers to industrial enlightenment. To facilitate “primitive” encounters with nature, muscular Christians founded summer camps and outdoor boys clubs like the Woodcraft Indians, the Sons of Daniel Boone, and the Boy Brigades—all precursors of the Boy Scouts. Other champions of muscular Christianity, such as the newly formed Young Men’s Christian Association, built gymnasiums, often attached to churches, where youths could strengthen their bodies as well as their spirits. It was a YMCA leader that coined the term “body-building,” and others that invented the sports of basketball and volleyball. Muscular Christianity, though, was about even more than building strong bodies and minds. Many advocates also ardently championed Western imperialism, cheering on attempts to civilize non-Western peoples.

Gilded Age men were encouraged to embrace a particular vision of masculinity connected intimately with the rising tides of nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. Contemporary ideals of American masculinity at the turn of the century developed in concert with the United States’ imperial and militaristic endeavors in the West and abroad. During the Spanish American War in 1898, Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders would embody the idealized image of the tall, strong, virile, and fit American man that simultaneously epitomized the ideals of power that informed the United States’ imperial agenda. Roosevelt and others like him believed a reinvigorated masculinity would preserve the American race’s superiority against foreign foes and the effeminizing effects of over-civilization.

But while many fretted over traditional American life, others lost themselves in new forms of mass culture. Vaudeville signaled new cultural worlds. A unique variety of popular entertainments, these travelling circuit shows first appeared during the Civil War but peaked between 1880 and 1920. Vaudeville shows featured comedians, musicians, actors, jugglers and other talents that could captivate an audience. Unlike earlier rowdy acts meant for a male audience that included alcohol, vaudeville was considered family friendly, “polite” entertainment, though the acts involved offensive ethnic and racial caricatures of African Americans and recent immigrants. Vaudeville performances were often small and quirky, though venues such the renowned Palace Theatre in New York City signaled true stardom for many performers. Silent film actor Charlie Chaplin, comedian Bob Hope, and illusionist Harry Houdini all made a name for themselves early on in vaudeville circuits. But if live entertainment still captivated audiences, others looked to new technologies.

A portrait of a white man on the left, and a portrait of a white man in blackface on the right.

These posters for Wm. H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee advertised a vaudeville show of comedy and acrobatics performed by white actors in blackface. Minstrelsy had been a popular form of entertainment for white audiences since the 1840s, but blackface took on a new life in the early twentieth century as racism intensified in both the North and South. Embodying characteristics that by that time had become associated with blackness, including joyful ignorance, laziness, and over-pronounced facial features, blackface minstrelsy circulated racist images and attitudes around the world. The Strobridge Lithographing Company, “Wm. H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee,” 1900. Wikimedia.

By the turn of the century, two technologies pioneered by Edison—the phonograph and motion pictures—would revolutionize leisure and help to create the mass entertainment culture of the twentieth century. The phonograph was the first reliable device to record and reproduce sound. But it was more than that. The phonograph could create multiple copies of recordings, and soon led to a great expansion of the market for popular music. Although the phonograph was a technical success, Edison at first had trouble developing commercial applications for it. This was partly due to the unique origin of the phonograph. The phonograph had neither an existing market nor an incumbent technology that it could replace—it was a device that did entirely new things. At the time, he suggested possible future uses of the phonograph, like audio letters, preserving speeches and dying words of great men, talking clocks, teaching elocution, and so forth. He did not anticipate that its greatest use would be in the field of mass entertainment.

Edison continued his work refining and marketing the phonograph during 1878, but by the end of that year he began to devote nearly all his attention to electric power and lighting. He largely abandoned the phonograph until the mid-1880s, leaving it to others (especially Alexander Graham Bell) to improve it. He returned to it fully in 1887 and developed a dictating machine that met with limited commercial success. Soon Edison’s agents reported that many phonographs found use as entertainment devices, especially in so-called phonograph parlors where customers paid a nickel to hear a piece of music. By the turn of the century, Americans began to buy phonographs for home use, and entertainment had become the phonograph’s major market.

Inspired by the success of the phonograph as an entertainment device, Edison decided in 1888 to develop “an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear.” After taking out a patent in 1888 on the overall concept of motion pictures, Edison set out to make it a reality. He made a conceptual breakthrough in 1889, when he decided to shift to a design that used rolled film. By early 1891 he had a motion-picture camera, which he called a kinetograph, and a viewing device, which he called a kinetoscope, ready for public demonstration. In 1893 the kinetoscope was ready for commercial development. By 1894 the Edison Company had produced about 75 films suitable for sale and viewing.

In these early years, viewers watched films through a small eyepiece in an arcade or parlor. These films were short, typically about three minutes long. Many can strike modern audiences as trite or dull, but for Americans in the 1890s much of their appeal lay in their novelty. Many of the early films depicted athletic competitions like boxing matches. One 1894 title, for example, was a six-round boxing match that Edison’s company sold to arcades for $22.50 per round. The catalog description gives a sense of the appeal it had for male viewers: “Full of hard fighting, clever hits, punches, leads, dodges, body blows and some slugging.” Other early kinetoscope subjects included Indian dances, nature and outdoor scenes, recreations of historical events, and humorous skits.

In 1896 Edison and two rivals pooled their projection patents and marketed a projection system that they called the “Edison Vitascope.” After the development of a reliable projection system, film audiences began to shift away from kinetoscope arcades to theaters seating many people. At the same time, Edison’s film catalog grew in sophistication. He sent filmmakers to distant and exotic locales like Japan and China. Meanwhile, the shift to longer fictional films would soon have an important cultural consequence: it created a demand for film actors. The first “movie stars,” such as the glamorous Mary Pickford, swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks, and acrobatic comedian Buster Keaton, appeared around 1910. These stars had enormous appeal to audiences of the day. Alongside professional boxing and baseball, the film industry helped to create the modern culture of celebrity that would characterize mass entertainment in the twentieth century.