In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Peter Laipson of Bard College at Simon’s Rock explains the shifting perception of bachelorhood in American history and culture.
Peter Laipson is a historian and Provost and Vice President of Bard College at Simon’s Rock. As a historian, Laipson’s research has focused on gender roles and relations in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.
Dr. Peter Laipson – Bachelorhood in American Culture
For American bachelors, the period after the Civil War was a golden age. New amenities like restaurants, bachelor lodgings, and steam laundries made it possible to live comfortably outside a family. And since most men spent much of their time in all-male environments anyway, a man could have a social life without having a wife.
But the early 20th century marked a major shift in attitudes toward bachelors. By World War I, male singleness was associated with a range of disorders, including mental illness. As a San Francisco Chronicle article put it in 1915, "you're not fully sane if you're a bachelor."
How do we explain this change? The answer lies in what historians call a heterosocial culture, the idea that men and women would socialize together and form their most intimate relationships with members of the opposite sex.
Such a culture emerged in the early 20th century due largely to the growth of commercial leisure sites that attracted both sexes, such as movie parlors and amusement parks. These sites encouraged socializing among men and women; they also provided opportunities for sexual experimentation between couples, especially as a way of testing for marital compatibility. The new heterosocial culture afforded men the pleasure of women’s company, but it also raised expectations that men would marry after a period spent finding their ideal life partner and stigmatized those who remained single.
In many ways, the status of bachelors today reflects both sides of the fundamental shift that occurred in the early 20th century. While the word has positive connotations of freedom and fun, we see it as a life stage, and expect men to move past it. After all, what we call a “bachelor party” is a celebration of the single state – but only as it is coming to an end.