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Working-Class Male Identity of the 1830-60s Essay

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Updated: Jun 8th, 2021


In the 19th century, the ways of creating one’s identity differed greatly from the present ones. Specifically, the male identity of working-class individuals had some peculiarities. As Kaplan notes, some of the most popular locations of the 1830s-1860s men to spend their time and arrange social connections were taverns (592). What is more, violence flourishing in these establishments played a vital role in the crystallization of a new urban working-class culture. The main theme of Kaplan’s article is that tavern violence had an outstanding influence on the development of urban workers’ lives (592). The paper aims at analyzing the scholarly source, tracing the establishment of working-class male identity in the 19th century, and singling out the most peculiar features of male Americans’ living during the stated period. The main effect on working men’s lives in the 1830s-1860s was made by social gatherings in taverns because those were places where male identity could evolve without any constraints.

Taverns as Centers of Social Life

One of the reasons why taverns gained popularity in the 1830s-1860s is that their number increased considerably over this period. The major accomplishment of taverns in the development of New York City was in the possibility for men to feel free there. Male New Yorkers of the 1830s and several following decades gathered in taverns after work to relax, have conversations with other working-class men, and generally, to exercise their right to masculinity (Kaplan 592). The latter, however, was not always manifested through peaceful means. Quite often, tavern violence precedents occurred, with the help of which men promoted the creation of a new distinct identity class. Such fights allowed establishing an emphasis on independence and patriotism based on the notion of physical courage declaration (Kaplan 592). Antebellum New York was divided into various parts, so taverns became the locations where different communities of citizens could gather. Not only native-born New Yorkers but also numerous immigrant groups contributed to the development of the new identity. In fact, immigrants played a rather significant role in this process.

B’hoys of New York: A Historical Description

In the period between the 1830s and 1860s, the most active participants of tavern fights received the name ‘b’hoys.’ According to a newspaper published in 1846, b’hoys were working-class single men known for their hooligan behavior, attention to their looks, and active participation in different social gatherings (“Natural History of the B’hoys”). B’hoys were considered as the smartest representatives of the community and the most exuberantly dressed ones. At the initial stage of this social class’s formation, many New Yorkers tended to compare b’hoys to loafers. However, b’hoys rejected such a comparison, considering it offensive (“Natural History of the B’hoys”). While the motto, or a lifestyle, of a loafer could be described as “a masterly inactivity,” b’hoys preferred to receive “all or none” (“Natural History of the B’hoys”). Therefore, they refused to be called idle since they worked hard and spent their money the way they wanted.

Most typically, this social class members’ title was accompanied by the attribute ‘Bowery’ since the b’hoys used to wear Bowery hats. Thus, the Bowery b’hoys were the citizens most actively involved in different events, including tavern fights. Another indication of the b’hoys’ significance as a social group is that they had a caste division (“Natural History of the B’hoys”). Particularly, there were two levels in the hierarchy: “the upper crust” and “the under crust” (“Natural History of the B’hoys”). The upper caste representatives were referred to as the Tiles, and the lower class b’hoys were called Boots. B’hoys were frequently associated with bullying and rude behavior (Dowling 56). Hence, it is no wonder that these men became an inseparable part of tavern life in the 19th century.

The Social Context of B’hoys’ Lifestyle

The cultural and social center of b’hoys everyday life was in taverns. The conduct demonstrated by these men in pubs delineated an exclusive democratic culture in negligence of middle-class standards (Kaplan 593). What is more, b’hoys’ activity was directed aimed against some population groups, such as females and African Americans. By allowing such behavior, taverns promoted President Jackson’s policies defending the primary position of white men in the country’s affairs and neglecting the interests of women and Blacks. In this relation, many native-born New Yorkers experienced discouragement due to their status being considered unfairly low (Kaplan 593). Meanwhile, some immigrant groups, such as Irish immigrants, obtained an elevated status due to their origin. Still, the situation was not the same for everyone, and many workers who came to New York in search of better wages became disappointed. As a result, violence among New York workingmen increased (Kaplan 594). B’hoys became the leading working-class community of the time because of their resemblance to a popular theatrical character, Mose, known for his risky behavior and popularity with women (Kaplan 594). Hence, b’hoys role in tavern violence could not be overestimated.

The Evolution of Catholic Irish Masculinity in the Antebellum Era

As it has been noted, Irish immigrants played a crucial role in the establishment of New York’s male masculine identity in the antebellum period. However, to be able to see the complete picture of their contribution, it is necessary to analyze their own development of masculinity. In the 1840s-1850s, class divisions started to develop in New York due to the differences in ancestries that immigrants had (Kelleher 7). The rising working class was immersed in Americans’ expectations and goals, but at the same time, it bore many symbols of native customs and traditions. Catholic Irishmen were especially prominent in demonstrating such native imprints. Gender occupied a prominent place in these relations, masculine privilege being an asset for immigrants. Although they did not relish the same cultural and class positions as Americans, Irish immigrants still had more political freedoms and other advantages than men had in comparison with women and non-white men (Keller 7). The working class was not the only one rapidly developing during the antebellum era, a middle class being another entity on its way to being established.

Belonging to different cultural groups in the pre-Civil war period was closely related to particular social statuses. Some male citizens constructed social networks to promote their economic relationships. At the same time, others focused on their occupational status and cultural identity to bolster their capacity as a social group (Kelleher 9). As a result, such males had the same goals and perspective of development. In general, New York men had a variety of social networks that gave life to different economic and cultural organizations. The culture of the Irish, in particular, was criticized, so they lived unprivileged lives. Americans were not likely to consider Irish men as possible rivals. However, in taverns, which served as places of social gatherings, the Irish did not feel like a disadvantaged group. As a result of frequent meetings with Americans and other nations’ representatives in informal places, Irishmen were able to adjust to the American societal norms and alter their social position.

The Role of Taverns in Socializing of the 1830s’ Canadians

While the development of tavern life and violence played a crucial role in New York males’ establishment of masculine identity, they were not the only ones whose lives were impacted by such social changes. The analysis of the 1830s Canada allows tracing how the division of tavern space between various clients contributed to the formation of connections in society. As well as American taverns, Canadian pubs allowed much prejudice and violence (Roberts 1). The emphasis of Canadian tavern life is made on the ethnic differences between clients. For instance, Roberts notes that not only Whites and Blacks but also Indians went to taverns, which allowed them to become places for establishing interpersonal relations (1). Hence, it is viable to assume that the role of taverns in Canada was not less important than in New York for the evolution of male identity in the antebellum era.

In Canada, as well as in the USA, the majority of tavern visitors were working-class males. Still, the owners of taverns relished the opportunity to have diverse customers whose social positions were diverse (Roberts 3). Hence, not only workers came to taverns but also merchants, gentlemen, and even government contractors did. What is more, unlike New York taverns, Canadian ones frequently hosted women (Roberts 3). Still, it is necessary to note that the level of violence was similar in the two compared countries. The visitors of Canadian taverns often engaged in personal disputes that did not always involve a rational approach to resolving them. Therefore, the way of communicating among tavern clients was sometimes highly irrational (Roberts 4). Similar to the American pubs, Canadian taverns did not gladly welcome Blacks, justifying their position by the public opinion. These people were generally considered inhumane, irrational, and violent (Roberts 12). They were treated as “a degraded set of beings” not able to form civilized relationships with “truly public men” (Roberts 12). Therefore, it is possible to conclude that the relationships established in Canadian taverns resembled those prevailing in the USA.

The Beginning of the Urban Social Order of the 1840s

The discussion of working-class men’s identity formation would be incomplete without mentioning another important class in the country’s social development. The second of two most prominently represented classed of the antebellum era New York was the middle class. As Mahoney argues, these two social categories formed the USA in the 1830s-1860s (619). In the process of class establishment, a major role belonged to the interrelation between regional and national social progress. Hence, social evolution in the USA became possible due to the behaviors and actions of the people “on the ground,” locals, immigrants, and other citizens inhabiting rural and urban areas (Mahoney 620). From this viewpoint, the country’s history is a sequence of individual and collective stories in which people communicate and, thus, make considerable contributions to social progress. The reason why the urban social order changed rapidly in the the140s was that different participants of the social sphere added something to make it evolve (Mahoney 620). Therefore, it would be wrong to view the increasing number of taverns as the outcome of only one of the social groups’ impact.

Still, it is relevant to speak of men’s self-identity during the 19th century in relation to the differences between classes. Since working-class men had fewer opportunities to engage in the activities favored by the middle-class males, the former had nothing to do but spend most of their free time in taverns. Middle-class representatives propagated aristocracy to emphasize the distinction between them and working-class men (Mahoney 621). Under the judgmental politics of the middle class, the working class had few options as to where and how to relax and socialize. Opposite to taverns, middle-class men had clubs, committees, parties, and associations at their disposal (Mahoney 636). Thus, working-class men’s efforts to establish their male identity were bolstered by the oppression of the middle class. Realizing that their position in society was inferior, b’hoys and other representatives of the working class engaged in violent behavior to demonstrate their masculinity.


The analysis of the 1830s-1860s period in American society allows concluding that working men’s social life was mostly impacted by tavern gatherings. The most prominent representatives of the class during the identified period, b’hoys, were known for rebellious behavior and courageous, though frequently thoughtless, acts of demonstrating power. Not only Americans but also some immigrant groups were able to enter the social life of New York and other cities. The populations excluded from tavern life were mostly women and African Americans. Although admittance policies were different in other countries, it is viable to say that tavern life was still the major contributor to social stratification in the antebellum USA.

Works Cited

Dowling, Robert M. Slumming in New York: From the Waterfront to Mythic Harlem. University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Kaplan, Michael. “New York City Tavern Violence and the Creation of a Working-Class Male Identity.” Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 15, no. 4, 1995, pp. 591–617.

Kelleher, Patricia. “Class and Catholic Irish Masculinity in Antebellum America: Young Men on the Make in Chicago.” Journal of American Ethnic History, vol. 28, no. 4, 2009, pp. 7–42.

Mahoney, Timothy R. ““A Common Band of Brotherhood”: Male Subcultures, the Booster Ethos, and the Origins of Urban Social Order in the Midwest of the 1840s.” Journal of Urban History, vol. 25, no. 5, 1999, pp. 619–646.

Alexandria Gazette. 1846, Web.

Roberts, Julia. ““A Mixed Assemblage of Persons”: Race and Tavern Space in Upper Canada.” Canadian Historical Review, vol. 83, no. 1, 2005, pp. 1–28.

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