Teaching Sports History: Masculinity and the Gilded Age

 In History, Teaching

While reading Wilma J. Pesavento and Lisa C. Raymond’s article “Men Must Play; Men Will Play:’ Occupations of Pullman Athletes, 1880 to 1900” I was subsequently was also preparing lectures for my “American History 1865 to the Present” class. As themes in Pesavento and Raymond’s article centered on a Gilded Age company town, a topic I was also covering that week, I decided to integrate aspects of their article and other late nineteenth century sports into my lecture. I’m posting here about these experiences as I believe the actions of researching and teaching are symbiotic, a fact I was reminded of just last week by my former thesis advisor.

This would be a first for me, having never centered a lecture around sports. Certainly, athletes had featured in some of my previous lectures, a bit about celebrity in the 1920s or protest in the 1960s added social complexity to lectures about these periods. I had hoped to lecture on FIFA and the World Cup for my World Civilizations II class a few semesters ago as I spoke on globalization, but due to time constraints, it was limited to only a sentence or two.

Having my first chance to focus a lecture on sports and culture, I felt like a blog post might be a useful exercise in reflecting on the experience.

The Lecture

The lecture itself centered around masculinity in Gilded Age sports, focusing on the notion that as populations moved from rural to urban spaces to engage more directly with industrialization, sports full-filled a need for performative masculinity. I’m not sure how heavily I prescribe to this theory, and as I taught it the first time, I found myself wanting to research this idea more. I have until presented with this theory, been more inclined to believe sports was a way to prevent delinquent behaviors and stave off labor union activity. At the same time, I am open to both theories being simultaneously true.

The discussion in the classroom working up to this lecture focused on the changes in society that came through the processes of immigration, urbanization, and industrialization. I lectured on the challenges that diverse religious beliefs mixing into a traditionally Protestant social fabric while transversely looking at how Protestant foreign missionaries began in earnest to spread their gospel globally. Our discussion also encountered new ideas of public consumer spaces. While places like saloons had long attracted men, new spaces like department stores, tea rooms, and the appeal of store credit plans attracted women and families to urban centers.

From there my lecture launched into a discussion of how, traditionally, American men defined success through their own economic independence. Urbanization and industrialization shifted many men to work that was seen as more mental than physical. The fear was these jobs would make men weak and effeminate.

Combining the earlier discussion of religion and how free time was spent, the lecture addressed the founding of the Young Men’s Christian Association or YMCA and the idea of “Muscular Christianity” while at the same time looking at the Pullman Athletic Club which provided community athletics to workmen. It was my goal here to describe a spectrum of experiences across classes.

Our classroom discussion then moved through analysis of soccer in production centers with large immigrant populations like Chicago, St. Louis, New York, and New Jersey. We talked about lacrosse as the only sport native to North America while cricket was a long popular sport among European immigrants. As sports became a fundamental part of American manhood, thee games evolved into baseball and American football.

I devoted a bit of our discussion to how baseball in its earliest years became a site of integration before African-American players were eventually barred from the league and began playing in their own black professional leagues.

Understanding the popularity of the NFL, I ended our discussion on the development of the first professional football teams in Western Pennsylvania’s steel towns after the defeat of the steelworker’s union. Adding that teams eventually were added in places like Green Bay where the Indian-Acme Packing company sponsored a team while the future Chicago Bears were first the Decatur Staleys, reflecting their sponsorship by the manufacturer of a laundry starch.

Finally, we ended our lecture on the evolution of how American men eventually began watching professional sports as an expression of their own masculinity.

Why Teach Sports History?

Anytime you add something to a survey course, it has to be important. There just isn’t enough time to cover every topic and you have to prioritize a host of important topics.

I attempted to construct this lecture to focus on both masculinity and how athletics developed in the Gilded Age in unison with urbanization and industrialization. I lecture at length on gender, but that term can often be a single-faceted semester look at the development of women’s rights through the end of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There’s room in that conversation for a discussion on masculinity as well.

Considering the social challenges (in my opinion) that modern masculinity creates, understanding how sports and an evolved idea of urban masculinity have developed is a critical knowledge for students. As the semester moves through the 1920s and the rise of celebrity, the 1960s where sports become an important space for civil rights, and into the 1980s when consumerism begins to dominate on the field and court, beginning the semester with this discussion opens opportunities for further discussions about intersections about sports and society.


I can’t speak for my students and their feelings about this lecture. This lecture will be part of an upcoming exam so I’ll be able to assess how much they retained about our discussion once I see how they respond to an essay question on the subject. In the class, we did have a lively discussion based on questions from both myself and the class.

I enjoyed the lecture, but believe I can continue to improve it. The first version of every lecture always feels like a prototype. Additionally, in retrospect, an active learning activity could have gone a long way in helping better understand the evolution of sports, teams, or athletes. That’s on the to-do list for next semester.

To that end, I have an idea about having students create their own sports clubs by researching different industrial regions, the people who lived in those areas, and culturally important aspects that might create an interesting moniker. This idea is still a work in progress though.

Moving forward, it will be important to make connections during other eras and make sports and masculinity one of a host of themes for the class.

This is the first time I’ve ever taught sports history and unfortunately was never able to take a class on the topic. As I am still new to the classroom, as with all of my lectures, this one will be a work in progress. If you have ever taught sports history as part of a survey course, let me know how it went or what suggestions you have to add.


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