by Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite
In the fall of 1949, the editors of Esquire magazine published Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts, billed as the “all-time, all-knowing, all-inclusive, all-man reference book on ‘Eat, Drink, and Be Merry.’” The Handbook included recipes, drink ideas, games, decorating tips, and general etiquette for “every male, be he the lad in the fifteen-room penthouse, or the guy in the glorified piano crate below street level.” It was released at the outset of the Cold War; the baby boomer period of the late forties and fifties ushered in a new era of suburban development and a return to an idyllic family structure that the government promoted as socially and economically necessary for defeating communism. Women were encouraged to leave the jobs they had held throughout the war, and men were encouraged to take on the breadwinner role and aggressively retain the masculinity of wartime heroism.
One of the central issues of Esquire’s content during and after the war was that masculinity was constantly under threat, mostly from women and the increasingly stratified corporate work system. At the same time as domesticity was supposedly squeezing men into submission, so too was corporate work culture. Books like Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers (1942), David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), and William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956) lamented the end of traditional masculinity and the feminization of both work and home for the man who used to have total control over his life.
Wylie claimed that overprotective mothers made their sons soft (he called it “momism”), a problem that would ultimately result in a communist takeover of the United States. In The Lonely Crowd, Riesman said that work culture was transforming men from “inner-directed” people who were self-sufficient and of good moral character to “outer-directed” people who were obsessed with their appearance and a desire to fit in. The protagonist of Wilson’s novel, Tom Rath, returns from war and loses his sense of self in a monotonous job that pays for his wife’s dream home in the suburbs. Whyte claimed that bureaucracy had ruined the entrepreneurial spirit of American men. Ultimately, these cultural critics decided that if men couldn’t control their work or their home lives, they would become emasculated sissies and the nation would fall apart.
It was this loss of control that was so nerve-wracking for white men during the Cold War, and it was Esquire’s — and, starting in 1953, Playboy’s — job to help guide readers through the uncharted territory of second-wave feminism, civil rights, and communism. To do this, Esquire turned to a character that, historically, had total control over his own life: the bachelor. The magazine’s November 1949 editorial claimed that the book’s readers would become less dependent on “the little woman” (presumably Mrs. Esquire) who had been responsible for the household until this point. In this period of perceived crisis, how did Esquire convince their readers that it was acceptable (and necessary) for men to be bachelors, and for those bachelors to care about their appearance, their home décor, and their cooking skills?
The social connotations of being a single man in America have changed a lot over the past three centuries. According to John Gilbert McCurdy in Citizen Bachelors: Manhood and the Creation of the United States, the word “bachelor” was first enshrined into American law in 1703, as part of a New York City ordinance taxing unmarried men at the same rate as married men for a new city project. This ordinance was one in a series of laws that determined that single men were capable of financial contribution to the state, even if they did not own property. After the Revolutionary War, American leaders were intent on differentiating the new nation from their former British masters, and redefining manhood became part of that change. John Adams saw British bachelors as “effeminate,” yet touted American bachelors as virtuous and able to resist temptations of vice. McCurdy writes that once bachelors were seen as equal to married men under the law (a common regulation by 1800), the image of the bachelor became associated with masculine independence and autonomy, even as he remained a subject of suspicion when it came to morality; the common sentiment at the time, according to McCurdy, was that “a bachelor may make all the wrong decisions and devote himself to a life of luxury, but this was the bachelor’s prerogative, which few Americans felt any compunction to hinder.”
The bachelor remained a fixture of public life and popular culture throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of the most important developments in bachelor culture was the emergence of sporting-male societies in the early eighteen hundreds, which celebrated male friendship, exclusive clubs, and vigorous exercise. In American sporting-male culture, middle- and working-class men spent time together in gambling houses, brothels, and billiard clubs; their independence and autonomy were held up as markers of masculinity among their peers — having a wife and children was a trap to be avoided for any man who valued his freedom. Some sporting-male bachelors had left their families in other countries or in other parts of the country, resulting in less surveillance from relatives and communities. And even though many bachelors held down steady white-collar jobs and lived with family members, many who had blue-collar jobs lived alone in boarding or rooming houses (some of these houses were exclusively held for bachelors, and became clubhouses as well as lodging). One example of this celebration of homosocial (and sometimes homosexual) bachelor subculture is the -essay collection by writer Donald Mitchell, called Reveries of a Bachelor, published in 1850:
Can a man stake his bachelor respectability, his independence, and comfort, upon the die of absorbing, unchanging, relentless marriage, without trembling at the venture? Shall a man who has been free to chase his fancies over the wide-world, without let or hindrance, shut himself up to marriage-ship, within four walls called Home, that are to claim him, his time, his trouble, and his tears, thenceforward forever more, without doubts thick, and thick-coming as Smoke?
By 1900, the image of the bachelor had become firmly intertwined with the image of the rugged American man — a Marlboro Man-type who embodied a frontier spirit of self-reliance and separation from workplace hierarchies, salaried jobs, and the demands of marriage and family life. Around this time, a growing parenting movement encouraged middle-class men to be more involved in their children’s lives, to a point; it was thought that fathers could provide necessary moral and career knowledge to their sons. So while more middle-class men engaged in childrearing activities that kept them closer to home, popular literature, film, and advertising celebrated the lone wolf persona of the bachelor in his many forms: hardboiled detective, rugged adventurer, artist, or writer. In all of these situations, it was the detachment of the man from his environment, along with his rejection of class structure that made him an appealing character to readers and viewers.
In the twenties and thirties, the bachelor rose to prominence in pop culture as a symbol of a hedonistic life that some men were leading, and others wished they could. Unmarried or married, George Chauncey writes in “Trade, Wolves, and the Boundaries of Normal Manhood,” the bachelor subcultures of nineteen-twenties New York, particularly for working-class immigrants, were home to men who “forged an alternative definition of manliness that was predicated on a rejection of family obligations.” This rejection was often based on immigration or migration circumstances, but in other cases, it was a choice to be a bachelor, or at least to pretend to be one to avoid responsibility or to meet other men.
This wishful thinking fuelled Esquire’s approach to the bachelor lifestyle. Esquire’s reign as the king of American men’s magazines began in 1933, when its founder and first editor, Arnold Gingrich, envisioned a magazine made for men who enjoyed luxury in all its forms. Before Esquire, magazines were either general interest publications like the Saturday Evening Post, which assumed a mostly male readership, or were aimed at women, like The Ladies’ Home Journal. According to Leslie Newton’s article, “Picturing Smartness: Cartoons in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Esquire in the Age of Cultural Celebrities,” Gingrich’s first editorial declared that Esquire was the magazine designed for “the cream of that great middle class between nobility and the peasantry. In a market sense . . . Esquire means simply Mister — the man of the middle class.” This ideal reader was sophisticated, rich, and interested in the finer things in life. He also did what he wanted — freedom from obligation was crucial to the Esquire brand, and that obligation extended to freedom from women. Instead of highlighting the realities of single life, Esquire‘s portrayal of bachelorhood was based on looking and acting the part of the swinging ladies’ man, even though most of the magazine’s readers were married. Esquire’s idealized postwar bachelor had no obligations outside of his own desire for women and luxury products (often considered one in the same). He bought his own clothes, drove his own car, and took solo vacations to exotic places. The bachelor became a symbol of postwar consumerism and hedonism, and as a result, became a symbol of freedom for white American men looking for a way to feel important again. Because Esquire relied on corporate advertising to continue existing, overthrowing corporate hierarchy and stratification didn’t factor into their discussions of masculine rejuvenation. In the Handbook, women were presented as an obstacle to men’s success at entertaining, which reinforced the theory that women were ultimately responsible for men’s inability to control their lives.
The ideal life of the bachelor may have been one of absolute freedom, but the instructional elements of the Handbook made it clear that there was a right way to live a bachelor life, and it involved buying the right clothes, décor, food, and drinks. By lumping bachelors and married men together, the book’s editors implied that one could be a bachelor in every way but semantics, if he could follow the rules. Esquire encouraged both groups to consider themselves part of a new revolution in bachelorhood that didn’t actually require a man to be single, but to act like he was one by purchasing the luxury clothes, food, and other items necessary to convey a hedonistic lifestyle. In the “Be Merry” section of the Handbook, the editors allude to this shift, writing: “All of the delicious shudders and social taboos have been eliminated from the once daring adventure of ‘visiting a bachelor in his rooms,’ at least so far as adults are concerned.”
In Playboys in Paradise: Masculinity, Youth, and Leisure-style in Modern America, Bill Osgerby highlights the importance of the home in asserting new bachelorhood, even if the men who participated were actually married. The “bachelor pad” was a touchstone of fifties and sixties popular culture, from blueprint designs of “Playboy’s Penthouse” to the lavish bachelor pads in movies like Some Like it Hot and Pillow Talk. (Osgerby points out that Rock Hudson was held up as a symbol of sixties male hedonism in part due to his film roles as a “swinging” bachelor.) The Handbook hints at this development a decade earlier with a note for bachelors hoping to entertain:
Granting that you are a bachelor and not a hermit, that you are going to entertain pretty regularly in the apartment and not spend all of their time prowling after a pair of nylon legs, here are a few simple suggestions on what to wear when the friends come around for a few drinks.
The most important theme in the book is the emphasis on men’s choices: Choosing to entertain was a way to retain control over an area of life that was dominated by women. In its opening section, “Eat,” the Handbook editors laid out rules for making meals that were complex and exotic, as a way to show off skills in the kitchen rather than to feed a family. This approach helped to distinguish between what women did in the kitchen and what men could do (if they followed Esquire’s guidelines).
A bride takes up cooking because she must, whether she’s an eat-to-live gal or just medium-bored with the whole idea. But a man takes to the stove because he is interested in cooking, therefore he has long been interested in eating and therefore he starts six lengths in front of the average female.
The section notes the presence of women in the kitchen, which made the content accessible to married readers who made up the majority of Esquire’s readership, while also making it clear that they should aspire to be more like the bachelor who could cook both gourmet meals and food from a can with the same sense of ease and sense of adventure.
After suffering steam-table tastelessness or misplaced housewifely economy, any palate will perk up at the taste of fresh fish, properly prepared — by a man. (Women don’t seem to understand fish — and, we suppose, vice versa.)
In the Handbook, home décor is also essential to the reader’s self-presentation:
Modern design — modern china and linens were made for men: simple and striking, they are utterly devoid of pink rosebuds and fancy volutes. Your tablecloth or runners will probably be in sold colour linen — wine, gray, bright blue or rust being the most popular… Your china will be plain white or gray, with block initials or a modern striped border, and your silverware will be decidedly streamlined.
The Handbook shows over and over again that women have no choice but to cook bland food and throw boring parties, but a man can choose to do those things better than women, which allows him some semblance of control over his life. It also reinforced the Esquire man’s superiority over women, precisely because he could choose to take over her domain, and with the right training, he could do it in a way that would garner respect from both women and men in his life.
As Playboy overtook Esquire at the top of the men’s magazine market in the nineteen sixties, the importance of consumerism had fully replaced the importance of moral character and societal contributions in forming a true masculine identity. Playboy was more overt in its appeal to single men, who were often younger than Esquire’s target demographic, and who were more comfortable with conspicuous consumption of food, clothes, and home décor. But as second-wave feminism pushed back against the sexism of magazines like Esquire and Playboy in the late sixties and early seventies, and as new models of male parenting and partnership emphasized sensitivity and affection instead of disciplinarian behaviour, hedonism became less fashionable for middle-class men. The rich sixties also gave way to the recession-era seventies, and it was harder to afford (and to justify) the luxury products that came with the swinging bachelor lifestyle. The wealthy bachelor began to look antiquated and passé, as the womanizing behaviour of Esquire men was associated more and more with the newer and brasher magazines like Penthouse and Hustler, which pushed the envelope even further when it came to sexual content.
By the nineties, Esquire had rebranded as a classy fashion magazine as newer publications like GQ and Details gained in popularity among readers. In 1995, Advertising Age reported on an Esquire reader survey that highlighted the profile of the typical reader in the nineties:
The typical Esquire reader, as defined by the six types of men defined in the survey, is an ‘ambitious contender’ or ‘comfortable leader,’ according to [Esquire publisher] Mr. Burstein. An ambitious contender represents 14% of the U.S. population, is 31, educated (84% college graduates), and affluent ($58,000 average household income). Almost half, or 49%, are married and 43% have children. An ambitious contender also prioritizes marriage but is not focused on child-rearing, has positive views on women’s roles, is among the most technology-savvy of his peers, banks his cash, and is confident.
Even though almost half of the readers surveyed were married, the bachelor was still present in the magazine’s content and in pop culture more widely. The June 1993 Esquire cover featured Mark Wahlberg tied to a tree, alongside a quote from Lynn Darling’s short story “Sex and the Single Guy”: It’s not easy being the scion of a dying Wasp culture when women have more confidence, gay men have more style, and everyone seems to have the right to be angry with you.” Darling’s protagonist, John Talbot, is a New York City editor who is stuck between old and new expectations of manhood:
Talbot’s generation is defined by the expectations of women, some of them angry, some understanding, all of them players in an edgy, anxious game. He is too young to be the old traditional male, confident, cosmopolitan, able to wield a martini glass and a fly-casting rod with equal precision. And he’s seen what has happened to the New Male, sensitive, caring, and so tedious that women turn from him like revolted gourmets from a tofuburger.
As the story continues, Talbot meets a cool girl named Johanna, who doesn’t want kids and understands that Talbot needs space and time to be himself. Talbot lies in bed at the end of the story, thinking: “To be in bed with your girlfriend, actually sleeping with your girlfriend, that was the most fun. Not having to prove yourself, just regular naked sex.” This combination of sixties womanizing and nineties New Male sensitivity is paralleled in other pop culture products from the era. From the sensitive yet cutthroat venture capitalist Richard Gere in Pretty Woman to Steve Gutenberg’s millionaire with a heart of gold in It Takes Two, the combination of sensitivity and power was an important part of how Esquire treated its readers (and their readers’ wives and girlfriends) into the twenty-first century as the swinging bachelor fell out of fashion entirely.
For the most part, the single man is still presented in Esquire as the one who has the most control over his life, and as a result, is the most masculine one can aspire to be. The magazine’s “Sexiest Woman Alive” is still a yearly event, and Esquire’s April 2015 print issue is devoted to “Women & Men: An Issue On Our Current Difficulties,” as if to suggest that there might be a power struggle at play. Like the “Sex and the Single Guy” feature of 1993, “Current Difficulties” focuses on how men’s lives have changed since women have gained more power at home and at work, implying that men may have made compromises that have negatively affected their freedom. And as in the sixties swinging bachelor era, corporate work culture is still not to blame (neither is patriarchy).
Today’s Esquire appears to be more casual in their approach to “doing” masculinity. There are no sexist cartoons or “scientific” articles about the ineptitudes of women. The magazine started 2015 by inviting the editors of ELLE to critique the issue, as well as removing the “Eat Like a Man” tag from their food section in the March 2015 issue. The new iteration of the Esquire bachelor doesn’t exclusively socialize with men like in sporting culture, nor does he explicitly co-opt women’s roles at home like in the Handbook.
But even as he makes himself comfortable in domestic and public settings, there is still a narrative of conquest and control that has carried through since the Handbook was released: Take the section “Man at His Best,” which features articles on cooking, cleaning, home furnishing, and technology. In August 2013’s tech piece, “Man at His Best” (now shortened to MAHB) explains how to do laundry without using the word “housework.” In a December 2013 article on how to build your own fire pit, the writer claims that the pit will show off building skills and make your backyard look more impressive. There are also numerous fashion spreads and instructional pieces on how to dress your way to success in business and in social life. Maybe most telling of Esquire’s connection to its past is the release of the 2014 book How to be a Man: A Handbook of Advice, Inspiration, and Occasional Drinking, by the editors of the Esquire. Much like the original Handbook, How to be a Man covers a range of essential knowledge for the modern Esquire reader, including “kitchen tools” (pots and pans) and how to carve a turkey as if it were surgery. As with the Handbook, entertaining is not something a man has to do, but is something he wants to do — a way to exercise his freedom in a seemingly constricted world.
Even though the word has been mostly replaced by other descriptors of unmarried men in the city, the symbol of the bachelor is still crucial to Esquire’s sense of itself and its readership. Men are still being introduced to activities like consumerism and duties like housekeeping in a way that emphasizes their freedom to choose these tasks and to conquer them as they might have conquered the frontier two hundred years ago. Magazines like Esquire are vehicles to help guide this thinking, and to assure readers that they’re doing the right thing for themselves and for society as a whole. That assurance relies on traditional figures like a lone wolf bachelor who never compromises for a woman, even if he’s compromised a lot more to fit in with other men. For every crisis of masculinity, there is a bachelor ready to face the threat of a woman by beating her at her own game: domesticity.
Corrections: This piece originally incorrectly dated Donald Mitchell’s book — and he was American, not British. Sorry for the errors!!!