Fascinating stuff over at artofmanliness.com.
Today’s business motivational posters — symbolized most prominently by “Sucessories” — are the butt of many a joke. But back in your grandpa’s day, they were an art form. Not only that, but motivational posters from the first few decades of the 20th century provide a window into America’s changing idea of manhood.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rapid industrialization in the West transformed all aspects of life, including our concept of manliness. As we discussed in our series on the Archetypes of American Manliness, for most of America’s early history, manhood was rooted in community and family ties, land ownership, and producerism. But as factories and industrial farming put small artisans and independent farmers out of business, men began leaving the family farm and shop in search for work in the burgeoning urban centers of America. Instead of the Genteel Patriarch or Heroic Artisan archetype defining manhood in America, a new archetype took center stage during this time of rapid change: the Self-Made Man.
The Self-Made Man archetype of manliness represented a profound change in how Americans saw manhood. This was when the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ideal really took root in the country. Young men who wanted to be a success could no longer hang around the family farm and wait to inherit a piece of land from their fathers or apprentice at the village tannery before opening their own shop. Opportunities were waiting in new businesses and in new places far from home. But to grasp these opportunities required a new set of skills — while their fathers had wrestled with external obstacles in struggling to tame the land, young men looked inward and sought to master themselves. “Harder” skills became less important than personal qualities like thrift, hard work, persistence, and reliability.
Men have always competed with each other for status, and the new way to the top was to climb the business ladder — to become a Titan of Industry and call your own shots.