In the 19th century, the ways of creating a person’s identity differed greatly from the present ones. Specifically, the male identity of working-class individuals had some peculiarities related to occupation and social status. The aim of the paper is to analyze the ways of establishing a working-class male identity in New York in the antebellum period. The focus of the work’s core ideas relies on the article by Michael Kaplan, a scholar whose major areas of interest constitute political culture and violence in New York (Kaplan 591).
Kaplan analyzes the impact of tavern gatherings on the working-class men living in New York in the 1830s-1860s. The scholar pays particular attention to the social group called b’hoys, whose distinctive feature was the desire for independence and equality (Kaplan 616). When they realized they could not gain reach their goals, b’hoys started exercising power in the only way available to them: by using violence.
As Kaplan notes, some of the most popular locations of the 1830s-1860s men to spend their time and arrange social connections were taverns (592). What is more, violence flourishing in these establishments played a vital role in the crystallization of a new urban working-class culture. The main theme of Kaplan’s article is that tavern violence had an outstanding influence on the development of urban workers’ lives (592).
The paper aims at analyzing the scholarly source, tracing the establishment of working-class male identity in the 19th century, and singling out the most peculiar features of male Americans’ living during the stated period. The main effect of social gatherings on working men’s lives in the 1830s-1860s could be observed in taverns because those were places where male identity could evolve without constraints imposed by politicians.
Taverns as Centers of Social Life
One of the reasons why taverns gained popularity in the 1830s-1860s is that their number increased considerably over this period. The major accomplishment of taverns in the development of New York City was in the possibility for men to feel free there. Male New Yorkers of the 1830s and several following decades gathered in taverns after work to relax, have conversations with other working-class men, and generally, to exercise their right to masculinity (Kaplan 592).
It was, however, not always possible to manifest the latter through peaceful means. Quite often, tavern violence precedents occurred, with the help of which men promoted the creation of a new distinct identity class. Such fights allowed establishing an emphasis on independence and patriotism based on the notion of physical courage declaration (Kaplan 592). Antebellum New York consisted of various parts, so taverns became the locations where different communities of citizens could gather. Not only native-born New Yorkers but also numerous immigrant groups contributed to the development of the new identity. In fact, immigrants played a rather significant role in this process.
Kaplan’s Response to the Analysis of Violence in Other Historians’ Works
In his article, Kaplan pays tribute to historians’ research of violence in antebellum New York City. The scholar mentions that such historians as Stansell, Gorn, and Gilje were the pioneers of demonstrating how crucial working-class violence was for the establishment of New York City (Kaplan 592). Hodges characterizes one of the prominent works by Gilje, The Road to Mobocracy, as the successful attempt to explore the social history of the antebellum New York (“The Decline” 211).
One can trace similarities in Gilje’s and Kaplan’s analysis through the two author’s emphasis on the role of riots and violence in working-class men’s identity formation. Gilje, for instance, considered that the role of a common man was highly important in the revolutionary actions (Hodges, “The Decline” 212). Thus, Gilje made a considerable contribution to the investigation of working-class men’s significance in the revolutionary crisis of the 19th century.
At the same time, Kaplan notes that historians who worked in the second part of the 19th century and primarily focused on racial, gender, and political conflict did not pay sufficient attention to tavern violence (592). According to the author, these scholars attributed “a secondary role” to tavern violence due to considering tavern fights as separate from major social issues (Kaplan 592). Meanwhile, as Kaplan argues, the “explosive growth” in taverns’ number in the 1830s-1860s and their function as the centers of social and recreational life of working-class men was meaningful (592).
Moreover, the growing number of tavern disturbance occasions indicates that the main threads of social change and conflict of antebellum New York formed in taverns (Kaplan 592). Tavern violence, therefore, promoted the establishment of the “new, democratic, urban working-class culture” of the mid-1800s (Kaplan 592). The formation of society in the mentioned period depended on tavern violence to a great extent.
The scholar gives several reasons why tavern brawls promoted the formation of a distinct identity of working-class men. Most importantly, such feuds allowed males to assert their physical courage and independence (Kaplan 592). Apart from that, tavern fights made it possible to proclaim one’s independence and American patriotism. Furthermore, not only native-born men but also immigrant working-class males advanced the new identity.
The high level of antebellum immigration made the process more intense (Kaplan 592). New York broke down into separate parts, and communities became reformed by race, class, and ethnicity. In such circumstances, taverns became the “locus” of the newly-formed working-class communities (Kaplan 592). Tavern fights frequently exposed daily stressful situations that emerged in communities due to social disorder and urban growth.
While noting the lack of attention to tavern violence in historians’ analysis of violence in general, Kaplan also remarks that some scholars paid due attention to the analysis of New York males’ status and identity. Specifically, the author mentions Richard Scott’s research, in which the latter investigates the issue of status in antebellum New York (Kaplan 593). According to Scott, the effect of labor-related changes on men’s identity was significant (Kaplan 593).
Whereas native-born men lost their status when they started working in factories, immigrants, particularly Irish ones, rose their social position compared to the one they had in their native country (Kaplan 593). Hence, the analysis of tavern violence during the 1830s-1860s was as important, if not more crucial, than the study of violence in general.
B’hoys of New York: A Historical Description
In the period between the 1830s and 1860s, the most active participants of tavern fights received the name ‘b’hoys.’ According to a newspaper published in 1846, b’hoys were working-class single men known for their hooligan behavior, attention to their looks, and active participation in different social gatherings (“Natural History of the B’hoys”). People considered b’hoys as the smartest representatives of the community and the most exuberantly dressed ones.
At the initial stage of this social class’s formation, many New Yorkers tended to compare b’hoys to loafers. However, b’hoys rejected such a comparison, considering it offensive (“Natural History of the B’hoys”). While the motto, or a lifestyle, of a loafer could be described as “a masterly inactivity,” b’hoys preferred to receive “all or none” (“Natural History of the B’hoys”). Therefore, they refused to be called idle since they worked hard and spent their money the way they wanted.
Most typically, this social class members’ title was accompanied by the attribute ‘Bowery’ since the b’hoys used to wear Bowery hats. Thus, the Bowery b’hoys were the citizens most actively involved in different events, including tavern fights. Another indication of the b’hoys’ significance as a social group is that they had a caste division (“Natural History of the B’hoys”). Particularly, there were two levels in the hierarchy: “the upper crust” and “the under crust” (“Natural History of the B’hoys”). The upper caste representatives were referred to as the Tiles, and the lower class b’hoys were called Boots. B’hoys were frequently associated with bullying and rude behavior (Dowling 56). Hence, it is no wonder that these men became an inseparable part of tavern life in the 19th century.
The Social Context of B’hoys’ Lifestyle
The cultural and social center of b’hoys everyday life was in taverns. The conduct demonstrated by these men in pubs delineated an exclusive democratic culture in negligence of middle-class standards (Kaplan 593). What is more, b’hoys’ directed their activity against some population groups, such as females and African Americans. By allowing such behavior, taverns promoted President Jackson’s policies defending the primary position of white men in the country’s affairs and neglecting the interests of women and blacks. In this relation, many native-born New Yorkers experienced discouragement due to their status being considered unfairly low (Kaplan 593).
Meanwhile, some immigrant groups, such as Irish immigrants, obtained an elevated status due to their origin. Still, the situation was not the same for everyone, and many workers who came to New York in search of better wages became disappointed. As a result, violence among New York working-class men increased (Kaplan 594). B’hoys became the leading working-class community of the time because of their resemblance to a popular theatrical character, Mose, known for his risky behavior and popularity with women (Kaplan 594). Hence, b’hoys role in tavern violence could not be overestimated.
African Americans in Antebellum New York
An essential stage of the antebellum life in New York City referred to the cancellation of slavery and the attitude of society toward African Americans. As Hodges notes, the abolition did not mean immediate equality for African Americans (Root and Branch 227).
Instead, it presupposed a new level of fight for equality, which met numerous obstacles. Antebellum New York became a place where the prevailing extent of racism served as the “major force” in the aftermath of slavery (Hodges, Root and Branch 227). The cruelest expression of negrophobia occurred in 1834 during antiabolitionist riots. Although these violent actions did not take place in taverns, they evidently played a significant role in the identity formation.
Caucasian citizens expressed a highly atrocious attitude toward African Americans. During riots, when whites destroyed churches and homes of blacks, the city’s administration did not do much to intervene (Hodges, Root and Branch 228). As Hodges remarks, city officials only interfered when there appeared a threat to the “respectable” city areas (Root and Branch 228). The scholar also mentions that rioters directed their enmity not so much on individuals as on houses and institutions. According to Stewart, the emergence of modern American society took place in the 1830s due to racial segregation (qtd. in Hodges, Root and Branch 228).
Meanwhile, Hodges stresses that poor and middle-class blacks made “remarkable efforts” to gain justice in antebellum New York (Root and Branch 228). Without their active participation, it would not have become possible to fight the “twin evils” of southern slavery and northern racism (Hodges, Root and Branch 229). With the persistence of antiabolitionist actions, the lives of African Americans in New York were under constant threat. White racism in the city intensified in the 1830s, with the expression of opposition to blacks in the streets, transport, housing, trade, schools, and churches.
The events related to segregation led to crucial changes in society. Specifically, as Hodges notes, the black middle class started to flourish under such circumstances (Root and Branch 229). While preparing the path to freedom, African American intellectuals published magazines, revived newspapers, and worked incessantly to stop the local blockade of their rights. Furthermore, activists developed a political force to promote the national tolerance of slavery.
The poor economy and low employment rates prevented black population from demographic development (Hodges, Root and Branch 229). The situation with work was rather unfavorable since native-born citizens and immigrants occupied most of the well-paid jobs. Concerning social life, it is worthwhile noticing that blacks could enter some taverns. For instance, Cato’s Tavern in New York welcomed both white and black visitors (Hodges, Root and Branch 232). Although there are no indications of fights in this tavern, it is viable to conclude that the institution played an important role in social life, in general. Since both races could meet under one roof and spend some time together, the tavern was a place promoting social ties between the opposing camps.
Violence Patterns in the 1830s
While African Americans suffered from native-born New Yorkers’ antagonism during the 1830s, the immigrants’ situation was not much more favorable. Specifically, 1834 was called a “riot year” due to numerous disturbances that happened in the city (Prince 1). The year was marked not only for race riots but also for immigrant uprisings. New Yorkers demonstrated anti-Irish hostility both at the “anti-foreign” crowd actions and the Charlestown Convent Riot (Prince 1).
Along with these, there were economic-related riots, antiabolitionist ones, and election uprisings. There are only some of the manifestations of community violence demonstrated by working-class New Yorkers in the 1830s (Prince 2). Civil disorder and violence, which prevailed in the city, were unpleasant indicators of the nation’s failure to promote its values of civility, tolerance, openness to change, and opportunity. Economic and social difficulties made New Yorkers hostile and forced them to forget about the principles of humanism.
The author singles out several reasons for 1834 to have become the most traumatic year in the antebellum era. The first one was the increasing urbanization all over the country, including New York (Prince 5). Due to this process, social and economic relationships altered, and the community affairs changed. What is more, urbanization improved the potential for intimidating conflicts among those who lived in the city. The second reason involved the constitution of New York’s population. Growing numbers of freed slaves and immigrants aggravated the complexity of the situation (Prince 5). Thirdly, there was a considerable break in the revival of industry, which had started a decade before (Prince 5).
The development of the factory system and alterations in work processes started to transform the demographic landscape and put social class relationships under threat. A considerable gap between the perception of the American dream and its real manifestation existed in 1834 (Prince 6). As a result, this year contributed to the general picture of violence pervading New York in the antebellum period.
Difficulties Faced by Working-Class People in the 1840s-1850s
While b’hoys’ identity established on a social basis, the premise for its development involved the economic dimension to a great extent. Gorn notes that many people had to leave land due to impoverishment and moved to “burgeoning” cities in search of a job (393). By the mid-1800s, New York became America’s largest center of manufacturing, having numerous small shops and large factories. However, along with the development of the industrial economy, people’s living standards declined (Gorn 393).
The majority of New York working-class families lost much of their incomes in the 1840s. The 1850s were not much better since this decade comprised high unemployment rates and several inflation periods. The New York Times determined a minimum annual budget for a four-member family at $600, whereas the average worker’s salary hardly amounted to that figure (Gorn 393). Even the artisans who used to be well-off at the beginning of the century could not make ends meet in the mid-century’s economic conditions.
The severity of social and economic difficulties led to the need for New York authorities to increase expenditures on the almshouse department. In the middle of the 1850s, the spending on such charitable housing grew by 240%, thus making it the fastest-growing branch in the municipal budget (Gorn 393). At the time when a few New Yorkers lived in wealth and did not have a need for anything, thousands of people suffered from poverty. As a result, more and more workers went on strike during the 1850s. Climate conditions also played a negative role in the lives of working-class New Yorkers (Gorn 393). In the circumstances of cold temperatures, ports froze, which inevitably caused a slowdown in construction and sometimes even a closedown of businesses.
While native-born New Yorkers suffered during this period, the impoverishment of immigrants was even harder. In the 1850s, Irish immigrants commonly worked as domestic workers, and this kind of labor was rather poorly-paid. Whereas the Irish made up 30% of New York’s population in the 1840s-1850s, they constituted 50% of all arrests, 60% of the almshouse population, and 70% of charity beneficiaries (Gorn 394).
Poverty and disease, class and ethnic conflict, the lack of work, and insufficient payment were just some of the numerous hardships working-class men faced in the middle of the 19th century. Taking into consideration these circumstances, one can understand the motives of b’hoys’ identity establishment better. Meeting in taverns and exercising their authority through violence became the only accessible means of showing masculinity for working-class males.
Violence Against Women in the Antebellum Era
The development of tavern violence inevitably led to the emergence of other kinds of brutal actions in antebellum New York. The most severe of those was violence against women, which frequently took the shape of rape. The rates of assault, rape, and murder against women in New York in the 1980s were much higher than the previous generation had faced (Moore 890). Moore associates the growth in crime with the increase in commercial activities and population (891). The number of crimes against women, especially against wives, was rather high in the 1830s.
Gender discrimination, thus, had the same importance as racial inequality in the establishment of working-class New Yorkers’ culture. As Kaplan mentions, taverns played a significant role in such relations, as well, performing the function of “a locus of violent gender confrontation” (609). According to Stansell and other scholars analyzing females’ history, antebellum America was the place with a “shocking level” of sexism (qtd. in Kaplan 609).
Quite often, men maligned women for being economically dependent on them. As a result, females became unable to exercise political rights relished by men. Such a disparity existed not only for women but also for children and servants. Thus, due to the unfair treatment of the female class, men deprived them of their basic rights and freedoms (Kaplan 609). What is more, antebellum New York witnessed the rise of prostitution subculture along with the weakening of working-class men’s authority.
The shift “from workshop production to the industrial wage economy” subverted males’ dignity (Kaplan 610). The only way to maintain men’s pretensions to authority in the 19th-century economy, as Fox-Genovese argues, was for females to agree to be dependent and inferior (qtd. in Kaplan 610). With the disintegration of the economic premise of gender, working-class males started to engage in wife-beating and raping with the aim of obtaining the respect they thought they deserved (Kaplan 610). The 1840s-1850s were the years of elevated danger along with opportunities for females.
The reason for such a change was the newly established work and leisure youth culture. It was the first time when young women could gather and walk in the streets looking for work or entertainment (Kaplan 610). Although it was a minute demonstration of freedom as compared to what men had, some of the b’hoys viewed such behavior of ‘g’hals’ as threatening “the democratic brotherhood and masculine prerogatives” (Kaplan 610). Hence, even innocent activities in which girls engaged could lead to drastic outcomes for them.
There were several types of conditions causing an increase in violence in antebellum New York. Schur has singled out four such factors: depersonalization prompting sexual disinterest, reduction of females to sex objects, commonplace socioeconomic inequality, and culturally generated adaptation to violence (qtd. in Kaplan 611). Kaplan notes that it is important to differentiate between individual and gang rape when analyzing the behavior of b’hoys (611).
An individual rapist merely “asserted” his power over a female (Kaplan 611). Meanwhile, each of the gang rape participants also aimed at demonstrating his “masculine prowess” to his “colleagues” (Kaplan 611). However dreadful it may sound, the participation in a gang rape allowed b’hoys to cement their ties and find respect in each other’s eye (Kaplan 611). This crime was common with tavern fights in regard to declaring males’ domination and fraternity spirit.
The Evolution of Catholic Irish Masculinity in the Antebellum Era
As it has been noted, Irish immigrants played a crucial role in the establishment of New York male masculine identity in the antebellum period. However, to be able to see the complete picture of their contribution, it is necessary to analyze their own development of masculinity. In the 1840s-1850s, class divisions started to develop in New York due to the differences in ancestries that immigrants had (Kelleher 7).
The arising working class was immersed in Americans’ expectations and goals, but at the same time, it bore many symbols of native customs and traditions. Catholic Irishmen were especially prominent in demonstrating such native imprints. Gender occupied a prominent place in these relations, masculine privilege being an asset for immigrants. Although they did not relish the same cultural and class positions as Americans, Irish immigrants still had more political freedoms and other advantages that men had in comparison with women and non-white men (Kelleher 7). The working class was not the only one rapidly developing during the antebellum era, a middle class being another entity on its way to establishment.
Belonging to different cultural groups in the pre-Civil war period was closely related to particular social statuses. Some male citizens constructed social networks to promote their economic relationships. At the same time, others focused on their occupational status and cultural identity to bolster their capacity as a social group (Kelleher 9). As a result, such males had the same goals and perspective of development.
In general, New York men had a variety of social networks that gave life to different economic and cultural organizations. The culture of the Irish, in particular, was criticized, so they lived unprivileged lives. Americans were not likely to consider Irish men as possible rivals. However, in taverns, which served as places of social gatherings, the Irish did not feel as a disadvantaged group. As a result of frequent meetings with Americans and other nations’ representatives in informal places, Irishmen were able to adjust to the American societal norms and alter their social position.
The Role of Taverns in Socializing of the 1830s’ Canadians
While the development of tavern life and violence played a crucial role in New York males’ establishment of masculine identity, they were not the only ones whose lives were impacted by such social changes. The analysis of the 1830s Canada allows tracing how the division of tavern space between various clients contributed to the formation of connections in society. As well as American taverns, Canadian pubs allowed much prejudice and violence (Roberts 1).
The emphasis of Canadian tavern life is made on the ethnic differences between clients. For instance, Roberts notes that not only whites and blacks but also Indians went to taverns, which allowed them to become places for establishing interpersonal relations (1). Hence, it is viable to assume that the role of taverns in Canada was not less important than in New York for the evolution of male identity in the antebellum era.
In Canada, as well as in the USA, the majority of tavern visitors were working-class males. Still, the owners of taverns relished the opportunity to have diverse customers whose social positions were diverse (Roberts 3). Hence, not only workers came to taverns, but also merchants, gentlemen, and even government contractors did. What is more, unlike New York taverns, Canadian ones frequently hosted women (Roberts 3). Still, it is necessary to note that the level of violence was similar in the two compared countries. The visitors of Canadian taverns often engaged in personal disputes that did not always involve a rational approach to resolving them.
Therefore, the way of communicating among tavern clients was sometimes highly irrational (Roberts 4). Similarly to the American pubs, Canadian taverns did not gladly welcome blacks, justifying their position by the public opinion. These people were generally considered as inhumane, irrational, and violent (Roberts 12). They were treated as “a degraded set of beings” not able to form civilized relationships with “truly public men” (Roberts 12). Therefore, it is possible to conclude that the relationships established in Canadian taverns resembled those prevailing in the USA.
The Beginning of the Urban Social Order of the 1840s
The discussion of working-class men’s identity formation would be incomplete without mentioning another essential class in the country’s social development. The second of two most prominently represented classed of the antebellum era New York was the middle class. As Mahoney argues, these two social categories formed the USA in the 1830s-1860s (619). In the process of class establishment, a major role belonged to the interrelation between the regional and national social progress. Hence, social evolution in the USA became possible due to the behaviors and actions of the people “on the ground,” locals, immigrants, and other citizens inhabiting rural and urban areas (Mahoney 620).
From this viewpoint, the country’s history is a sequence of individual and collective stories in which people communicate and, thus, make considerable contributions to social progress. The reason why the urban social order changed rapidly in the140s was that different participants of the social sphere added something to make it evolve (Mahoney 620). Therefore, it would be wrong to view the increasing number of taverns as the outcome of only one of the social groups’ impact.
The connection between men’s self-identity during the 19th century and class differences is a significant issue to discuss. Since working-class men had fewer opportunities to engage in the activities favored by the middle-class males, the former had nothing to do but spend most of their free time in taverns. Middle-class representatives propagated aristocracy to emphasize the distinction between them and working-class men (Mahoney 621).
Under the judgmental politics of the middle class, the working class had few options as to where and how to relax and socialize. Opposite to taverns, middle-class men had clubs, committees, parties, and associations at their disposal (Mahoney 636). Thus, working-class men’s efforts to establish their male identity were bolstered by the oppression of the middle class. Realizing that their position in society was inferior, b’hoys and other representatives of the working class engaged in violent behavior to demonstrate their masculinity.
Evangelical Reformers’ Mobilization Against Rough Masculinity
In the conditions of growing violence and antagonism in New York, the antebellum church made attempts to oppose the so-called rough masculinity by offering an alternative model of behavior for men. Characteristics of working-class males, as defined by the evangelistic church, included abusive drinking, gambling, and brawling as the means of expressing manhood (Glenn 145). The rough masculinity culture largely pertained to b’hoys, sailors, and other working-class men. In the 1820s, the middle class, together with evangelical reformers, suggested a new “model of manhood” (Glenn 146).
In their opinion, one’s manliness should incorporate such features as self-discipline, sobriety, and piety. The reformers endeavored to change the settled notion of masculinity and make working-class men refuse from their violent habits. As Dorsey and Parsons noted, this process became known as “a battle over the nature of manhood in antebellum America” (Glenn 146). The major goal of the reformers was to put an end to males’ drinking habits.
The reason why evangelical activists wanted to reduce the men’s inclination to drinking was that they found it a means of enslaving men’s bodies. According to reformers, liquor deprived males of “autonomy over their bodies” (Glenn 146). Consequently, they thought that the refusal from going to taverns would liberate working-class men. Evangelical reformers emphasized how destructive drinking was for society’s development by ruining morality and leading to poverty, crime, and disease (Glenn 146). Although all of these arguments were logical, the reformers failed to implement the desired change, and working-class males continued to frequent taverns and initiate brutal fights.
B’hoys: Disappointment that Led to Violence
The ultimate cause of b’hoys violence was not their nature but the circumstances in which they found themselves. Collective social action, including violence, commonly emerges from the need either to communicate some symbolic codes or to control material resources (Kaplan 613). The cases of tavern violence in antebellum New York commonly shared “a quality of carnival or saturnalia” (Kaplan 614). Tavern brawls, gang rapes, and racial attacks constituted rituals employed by young men to establish their identities as b’hoys. Such behavior proclaimed their intention to reject the middle-class ideas of self-control and accept a more “animalistic” concept of manhood (Kaplan 614).
The physical danger was an integral component of young males’ lives in the mid-1800s. Thus, they had no choice but exercise their power in such a violent way. As Kaplan concludes, group violence was the result of complicated living conditions combined with specific cultural characteristics and society’s structure (614). In the situation in which b’hoys appeared, the easiest way for them to satisfy their physical and psychological needs was mistreating marginal groups.
Working-class men had different motives to engage in tavern fights. They fought between themselves to show the level of their democracy to each other. To show women where their place was, b’hoys treated them with brutality and applied physical force.
To demonstrate their superiority to black men, Bowery b’hoys destroyed their houses and community buildings (Kaplan 614). However, the core reason for such behavior was the bitter disappointment in the political system, which made big promises but did not keep them. As a result, as Kaplan mentions, the world of b’hoys was one of “tragedy and loss” (617). For these young men, the expectations of social equality and material independence remained nothing more than illusions. Hence, it would be wrong to blame them solely for all their wrongdoings.
The analysis of the 1830s-1860s period in American society allows concluding that tavern gatherings had the most crucial effect on working men’s social life. The most prominent representatives of the class during the identified period, b’hoys, were known for rebellious behavior and courageous, though frequently thoughtless, acts of demonstrating power. Not only Americans but also some immigrant groups were able to enter the social life of New York and other cities. The populations excluded from tavern life were mostly women and African Americans. Although admittance policies were different in other countries, it is viable to say that tavern life still was the major contributor to social stratification in the antebellum USA.
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