While perusing The Art of Manliness’ website, I came across this article.  Which in turn, led me to this article from askmen.com.  While both sides make good arguments, they agreed on one thing: the commodification of masculinity through product as being detrimental to manliness.  With respect to both writers, I would would like to provide evidence that masculinity has been commodified for far longer than our present day drugstore shelves suggest taking from evidence as early as the 1600’s to a present day campaign.

The New World: Interpretations of Manliness

Ideals of Native American warrior culture as the ultimate in masculinity became prominant throughout the minds and written works of men during the age of exploration.  Seeing indigenous peoples as an untouched culture, living in the ‘Garden of Eden’ before the Fall of Man as perfect and ideal led colonizers to re-evaluate how they saw themselves.1 Subesquently, these men and women were taken back to Europe and paraded as the ideal and exotic, and many people including Martin Frobisher the arctic explorer profited off of this commercialization of masculinity.

img src - karenswhimsy.com

Tattooing is popular today, however the roots of modern tattooing lay in the exploration of the New World as well, specifically the South Pacific.  Sailors who were deemed brave (or stupid) enough to take these voyages over the years that they lasted often came back to England tattooed in the fashion of those they had encountered overseas.  They saw tattooing as a rite of passage for the ethnographic explorations undertaken during this time and the choices to undergo this minor surgury were spurred by admiration of the men of the South Seas and for the “Elegance and Justness of the [tattoo] figures.”2 Even today getting a tattoo is seen as a masculine rite of passage to many, so much so that tattooing is a multi-million dollar industry that spurs bad television shows on TLC.

Victorian male: Teaching manliness through published works

Modern manliness has had its instruction manuals, beginning in the mid 18th century with the publication of moral pamphlets and books.  The popularization of American and British Muscular Christianity ideals through writers such as J.R. Miller and Samuel Smiles, helped to confirm the socially accepted ideals of manliness.  Smiles, born a poor Scotsman, published his book in 1859 entitled Self Help celebrating the prestige and social correctness of a self made, hardworking and ethical man who had developed so far in his manliness that he had surpassed the majesty of the New World peoples.  By 1900 Self Help had sold a quarter of a million copies.  By our standards today this number may not seem like much, but put in the context of the time, Self Help was one of the Victorian Era’s most popular books.3 Through the writer’s pen, manliness was distributed by means of published and purchased works, and the beginning of focused advertising of men’s ideals, and thus products, began.

Arrow collar man: A response to the rise of the Gibson Girl

A man’s appearance has always dictated his social class, and comportment.  Proper grooming and hygiene was vastly praised by the emerging middle class, and by the established upper classes as a way to differentiate and propel ones self through the ranks of the social ladder.  The moral groundwork being already laid by writers such as Smiles and Stratemeyer, manliness needed an image to go along with it.  Partnering with the Arrow Collar company, J.C. Leyendecker created his Arrow Collar Man whose physical and social attributes can be read on the Gent’s About page.

The Arrow collar man established and sold manliness through newly developed image based advertising that emphasized a universal social class of manliness.  He sold a new classless-class that cast aside the ideals of Muscular Christianity to those who were able to sustain the lifestyle, and to those who simply wanted to emulate it, though could not afford to.  The detachable collar sold rather affordably, along with this image and allowed men to appear more distinguished, desirable and competent to the era’s Gibson Girls regardless of their social class.  This blurring of class lines is distinct and important to the development of modern manliness where we see manliness as an inherit attribute of all men.

img src - vintage-spirit.blogspot.com Leyendecker's Arrow Collar Man and Gibson Girl

The Arrow Collar man was crafted not just to sell the manly image, but as a sort of last ditch effort to re-ball – and yes, I mean testicles – the Western male.  The Arrow Collar Man did things like play contact sports to reignite the pre-wired physical nature of the male sex, and have him appear less soft and pampered by the emerging female consumer and political power.  Women consumers from 1890 through 1910 had their established image in Charles Gibson’s caricature of “The Gibson Girl” who went about her day asserting her independence and playing hard to get with the men.  The attribution of the Gibson Girl to many of the early 20th century’s advertizing and the failed attempts of advertising beauty or image enhancing products to men was also a catalyst for the Arrow Collar Man’s creation wherein he sold not just the product, but first and foremost an image of manliness with the product as an afterthought.4

Masculintiy and Product Today

Contrary to feminine products which sell the product in order to be feminine, a masculine product is sold on the basis of an agreed upon and established social archetype which was invented long before.


1  Beth Fowkes Tobin. “Wampum Belts and Tomahawks on an Irish Estate: Constructing an Imperial Identity in the Late Eighteenth Century.” Biography 33.4 (2010): 695
2 Philip D. Morgan “Encounters Between British and ‘indigenous peoples, c. 1500-c.1800” Empire and Others: Encounters with Indigenous Peoples 1600-1850. ed. Daunton and Halpern.  University of Pennsylvania Press (Philidelphia: 1999): 61
3 Clayton Roberts, David Roberts and Douglas R. Bisson “Chapter 24: Victorianism” A History of England Volume II: 1688 Past to Present Fourth Edidtion. (Prentice Hall: 2002): 638
4 Carole Turbin, “Fashioning the American Man: The Arrow Collar Man 1907-1931” Gender and History 14.3 (2003): 470-479