Located at 56 Paternoster Road in London, England was the Boy’s Own Paper office, where issues of the Boy’s Own Paper were published weekly from 1879 to 1967. The paper was run by the Religious Tract Society, and its intended purpose was to provide young male readers with a positive moral influence. In particular, it was a response to the cheap and racy “penny dreadfuls” which were popular among boys at the time. Individual issues were compiled together yearly and released as the Boy’s Own Annual. Frontenac County Schools Museum is fortunate to have a copy of the Annual from the year 1892-1893. These annuals contained short stories, advice articles, crafts and prints of paintings, which highlight the way Victorian society viewed boyhood. They also included “correspondences” sections, which reveal the questions readers posed to the authors and the responses they received. The Boy’s Own Paper primarily targeted members of the working class, indicating that the standards set in these publications were not reserved for the wealthy minority. Due to their wide array of topics and various perspectives, these annuals are an invaluable primary source. Through them, we can examine the societal expectations placed upon boys and the way these boys perceived their own roles in society.
Perhaps what is most noticeable when opening up our copy of the Annual are its stereotypically masculine images and themes. The very first page is a print of the painting, Buffalo Hunters Surprised by Lions by J. Ward. It depicts a group of men with spears and dogs watching as ferocious lions feast upon a buffalo carcass. Not much further into the book, there is another image possessing great intensity; a drawing from David Ker’s Unseen Depths series depicting a man carrying a barrel of gunpowder as a fire rages behind him. The caption under the image reads “his clothes actually scorching from his back.” Most of the short stories in the Boy’s Own Annual are action-packed adventures with conflict, danger and almost entirely male leads. These striking images and intense stories reflect the stereotype that boys are hyperactive and aggressive, which is familiar to us in the 21st Century. Comic books, movies, toy and clothing commercials, TV shows and video games disproportionately market violent and action-packed media towards boys. To stop here though, and assume that Victorian masculinity was completely defined by violence and vigor would be a grave loss. The Boy’s Own Annual contains a considerably more expansive understanding of masculinity, much of which contradicts those stereotypes.
One example of this contradiction is the “Institutions for Boys” section of the paper, which introduces the reader to a chosen institution and explains the supports they provide for boys transitioning into young men. The Gordon Boys’ Home is one of the institutions they cover, and it was founded with the goal of helping struggling boys become men of good character. It is praised by the paper for the uniquely plain and militaristic lifestyle it imposes on its residents. They would rise at 6:00am, pray, make their beds and prepare for a day of work each morning. The school prided itself on helping boys transition from a “street specimen” to “a finished article, ready for a second start in life…” Order and cleanliness were some of the most important virtues at the Gordon Boys’ Home, but another characteristic of this institution was its industriousness. Residents were expected to make their own food, clothes, and furniture as well as specialize in a trade. Trades at the Home included tailoring, shoemaking, blacksmithing, carpentry, baking, music, gardening and cooking. The Home also expected its residents to attend church every Sunday and sing hymns. What we can gather from this information is that becoming a respectable man in Victorian society involved discipline, hard work, creativity, and religiosity. Similar to the expectations of grace, purity and virtue young girls were forced into, boys had their own standards to live up to if they wished to be considered ‘civilized.’
According to the book Modern Etiquette published by Frederick Warne & Co., “Education is a distinguishing mark of a gentleman” (36). The importance of education is evident in the Boy’s Own Annual as although much of it was written for entertainment, a substantial amount of its contents are also educational. It provides lessons on wrestling, chess, cricket, numismatics, music, gardening, bird identification, fishing, petkeeping, animal breeding, as well as the construction of model fire escapes, cardboard engines, microscopes and more. This form of education does not conform to the traditional curriculum seen in schools today, as it focuses more on developing talents and worldly knowledge. In Victorian times, it was expected that a man be both intelligent and cultured, so the Boy’s Own Paper provided working class boys with the opportunity to receive the cultural refinement needed to succeed in upper class spaces. An example of this is the section called “Some Notable Copper and Other Coins of the Present Century,” which shows images of coins from around the world. Learning about the currency from countries such as Japan, Venezuela, Haiti, Dutch East India and Bulgaria may not have had direct practical value for the average working class British boy, but it would help expose him to other cultures and expand his worldview. Having hobbies and cultivating talents were also integral to becoming a cultured man, which is why music, art and gardening are discussed in the Annual.
The page titled “The Boy’s Own Alpine Garden” is particularly notable because it seems to defy some of today’s gender roles. The article provides instructions for readers to plant a variety of flowers, and the second page contains an image which is strikingly beautiful. Pinks, reds, baby blues and pastel yellows cover the entire paper like a garden from out of a fairytale. Many today would consider a garden such as this to be unmanly. It is important to acknowledge how these ideas have changed since the 1890s because cross-cultural comparisons demonstrate the fluidity of gender roles over time. For the boys reading these weekly papers, the garden’s beauty was not a threat to their masculinity but rather an opportunity to showcase their talents and capabilities.
This of course does not mean that there was nothing restrictive or damaging about Victorian male gender roles. The article Cycling for Health and Pleasure by Gordon Stables on pages 10-11 is a testament to the importance of health in Victorian society, but also the harmful beauty standards that were set out for boys and young men. Despite health being the major focus of the article, Stables spends significant time emphasizing the importance of muscles and their appearance. He recommends not cycling excessively because it will leave your calves with “little more shape than a crow’s,” whereas the calves of someone who cycles moderately will be “most presentable for knickerboxers.” He recommends oatmeal, bacon, milk and cheese solely for their muscle-making power, and even goes so far as to say that the feeling of a boy’s biceps is a reflection of “what sort of heart he carries.” This emphasis on a boy’s outward appearance is a reminder that Victorian beauty standards were not limited to women. By analyzing the “correspondences” sections of the Annual, we can delve further into the topic of boys’ self esteem. Here, readers could write questions to the authors of the paper and receive a response in about a month’s time. Although the questions are not shown, the titles and responses from the authors are. Many of these titles are evidence of self-esteem issues among the male readers. Titles such as “Not Satisfied with the Shape of His Nose,” “A Few Physical Defects,” “Stopping Growth (Long Shanks),” “Voice Imperfect,” “Stopping Growth of Hair” and “Ears too Large” reveal specific insecurities. The responses are hardly ever compassionate, although there is an exception where a glimpse of body positivity shines through. That exception is the response to the soldier who felt that his ears were too large. The author writes: “We say to you, Soldier, and to all boys who may not be pleased with their looks: cultivate the mind, learn to be unselfish, to live for others in a measure, to be winning, gentle, and sincere, and nobody will think once about your nose or your ear or the mole on your cheek.”
The contradiction between Gordon Stables’ attitude towards physical appearance and that of the author responding to the soldier reflects the fact that Victorians were not a monolith. But between Stables and the correspondence author exists one major commonality: that a man’s masculinity is inseparable from his moral character. The Boy’s Own Annual was produced by the Religious Tract Society who had the specific agenda of directing young boys onto a ‘proper’ Christian path, but even outside of this biased source we can see that Christian morals permeated the wider cultural views on masculinity. On page 36 of Modern Etiquette, speaking modesty regarding one’s own education is described as an absolute must for a gentleman. To be pretentious about being well educated is described as obnoxious and unseemly. This notion agrees with the writings of Gordon Stables, as in Boys Own Annual, he advised his readers to not “wear uniform merely because you think it pretty” (11.) While education and appearance are separate topics, they are both facets of humility. By avoiding boasting and superficiality, a boy becomes more respectful of others and pure in his intentions. Keeping true to this concept of the respectful gentleman, Modern Etiquette states that “…coarse, self-asserting, unsympathetic men, without generosity of heart or refinement of feeling, will never be more than barely tolerated in society” (35). By comparing these sources, it is clear that emotional and social intelligence were considered integral for a successful transition from boyhood into manhood. A third source, Safe Counsel by Prof. B. G. Jefferis and J. L. Nichols, printed in 1912 but originally developed in 1894, also attests to the moral expectations regarding Victorian masculinity. It describes itself as a “Guide to Purity and Physical Manhood,” and explains that the ideal man is not impulsive, but rather self-restrained and self-balanced. It also claims that a man’s strength is not determined by his ability to conquer the world but rather his ability to conquer himself, or in other words, “a strong man ruleth his own spirit” (14). Modern Etiquette and Safe Counsel, separate from the Boy’s Own Paper and the Religious Tract Society, attest to the universality of morality-based gender roles – at least among the upper class. This code of morality, marked by strict self-restraint, led to temperance and sobriety becoming necessary virtues in the late 19th century. Gordon Stables writes in his article Cycling for Pleasure and Health that “there is nothing more likely to dispel all the good pleasant open-air outing has done him than sitting at night talking, singing, smoking, and drinking vile beer…” (11). Similarly, Safe Counsel warns that even the smallest drinking habit can become a terrible danger to a man’s wellbeing, and asserts that “a young man in this age who forms the habit of drinking, or puts himself in danger of forming the habit, is usually so weak that he does not realize the consequences” (16). Drinking and smoking were associated with weakness, degradation of character, poor health and a lack of self-control. These expectations of sobriety however, often pushed for by religious groups, feminists and wealthy intellectuals, were not a reflection of common practice. Plenty of working class social circles would have normalized drinking as a part of everyday life, and many upper class members of society did not practice what they and their associates preached. Despite this, young boys in the 1890s were still influenced by the temperance movement and general notions about the ideal man. It is useful to understand these standards when looking at the goals of early Canadian education because they reveal to us how boys were intended to be socialized – whether or not these moral lessons actually stuck with them.
Overall, male gender roles of the 1890s appear to have come with both positives and negatives. On one hand, generosity, respect, modesty, emotional intelligence, education, cleanliness and healthy living were all considered to be traits of the ideal man. These lessons and virtues were taught to boys across the British Empire, often through poetry and short stories, but also through etiquette books and advice articles as they matured. Boys were encouraged to engage in crafts, care for pets, take up hobbies and develop their talents. Disciplines such as drawing, music, gardening and baking were not considered to be solely feminine, and were not explicitly distinguished from carpentry, blacksmithing, science and sports. A well-rounded, worldly education was preferred to one of limited perspective, and receiving such education could elevate a working class boy towards ‘high society.’ Many of these characteristics of Victorian masculinity would be useful in current times, especially in regards to dispelling toxic masculinity and encouraging healthy masculinity. There are however severe downsides to standards of masculinity reflected in the Boy’s Own Annual. Equating a boy’s masculinity with his muscle development is a road that leads to self-esteem issues, because the ease with which a person can achieve a muscular figure varies between people. Even with good health and exercise, not all male body types are capable of meeting the beauty standard. In addition, the article on the Gordon Boys’ Home praises it as a sterile and militaristic place with almost no room for individual expression. They were taught trades and prepared to become soldiers, all while surrounded by a bare, monotonous backdrop. This is evidence that productivity, rather than individuality, was their chief asset to the greater, capitalist society. Victorians were also quite intolerant towards oppressed groups, such as people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, women and disabled people. Racism and ableism in particular are present in some of the sources discussed earlier. In the Boy’s Own Annual, an article titled “Common Sense About Stammering” by Gordon Stables provides an insight into the outlook for someone with a speech impediment in the 1890s. He writes “an impediment in the speech, as it is usually called, is a very great drawback in the career of any young man, more especially if it had been intended that he should enter one or other of the professions. He simply can’t, unless he is lucky enough to get cured” (186). While he continues on to say that hope and a loving family work wonders for improving a speech impediment, his focus is entirely on fixing – not accepting or accommodating – the disability. In Modern Etiquette, their section on the hygiene of a gentleman provides some advice with racist undertones: “There is no indication of a gentleman truer than a pure white hand – white in the sense of being clean – and perfectly kept nails” (38). This statement equates whiteness with cleanliness, and therefore echoes the false perception that the hand of a person with dark skin is less clean. This is just one of the obstacles people of colour have faced while fighting to be accepted in professional spaces. These quotes serve as reminder that meeting the Victorian expectations for masculinity were much more challenging for men who did not fit the white, heterosexual, cisgender and abled ideal.
In conclusion, coming of age as a boy in the 1890s was a complex process which cannot be held as an equivalent to our modern understanding of traditional manhood. It is important to remember though that history is not black and white. These are trends seen in a few books from our collection but they cannot capture every aspect of the topic. The Boy’s Own Paper and Boy’s Own Annual were intended for the working class, but they were written from the perspective of upper class men. Expectations of morality and temperance were also not followed as strictly as these rules on paper would have us believe. The gentlemanly ideal was defied by both working class and upper class men alike, which is one of the prime reasons why these etiquette books and gendered annuals were produced. Finally, a major blow to the myth of the Victorian cultural monolith is the fact that the Boy’s Own Annual had a good number of female readers. In the correspondences section, a girl asks for advice from an author and he responds, “Yes, we have many girl readers, and are always glad to help them” (35). Despite the stereotype of stark gender divisions, it was regarded as normal for girls to read this paper for boys in the 1890s. This observation helps us to recognize that our preconceived notions about the Victorian era can only take us so far.
Sources Consulted from Museum Collection:
Modern Etiquette, (999.8.1)
Safe Counsel by Prof. B .G. Jefferis and J. L. Nichols (2020.1.103)
The Boy’s Own Annual 1892-1893, (013.108.2)