For American men in the 21st Century, entire swathes of the range of physical contact humans can enjoy are off limits thanks to social norms. Men just don't touch each other very much. Shaking hands is pro forma, hugging is borderline (its acceptability being largely dependent on one's generation), and for two straight men to hold hands β€” in almost all contexts β€” would be viewed as highly unusual. But it wasn't always this way.

Bloggers at the Art of Manliness have shared a cache of late 19th Century and early 20th Century portraits of men and their best friends that show (by contemporary American standards) an unusual degree of physical intimacy for straight men. These guys are sitting on each other's laps, they're holding hands, they have their arms around each other. Many of the images come from the book Picturing Men: A Century of Male Relationships in Everyday American Photography. The bloggers explain:

From the Civil War through the 1920β€²s, it was very common for male friends to visit a photographer's studio together to have a portrait done as a memento of their love and loyalty. Photographers would offer various backgrounds and props the men could choose from to use in the picture. Sometimes the men would act out scenes; sometimes they'd simply sit side-by-side; sometimes they'd sit on each other's laps or hold hands. The men's very comfortable and familiar poses and body language might make the men look like gay lovers to the modern eye β€” and they could very well have been β€” but that was not the message they were sending at the time. The photographer's studio would have been at the center of town, well-known by everyone, and one's neighbors would having been sitting in the waiting room just a few feet away. Because homosexuality, even if thought of as a practice rather than an identity, was not something publicly expressed, these men were not knowingly outing themselves in these shots; their poses were common, and simply reflected the intimacy and intensity of male friendships at the time β€” none of these photos would have caused their contemporaries to bat an eye.


To a modern viewer, the images carry a certain homoerotic charge.

The poses, facial expressions, and body language of the men below will strike the modern viewer as very gay indeed. But it is crucial to understand that you cannot view these photographs through the prism of our modern culture and current conception of homosexuality. The term "homosexuality" was in fact not coined until 1869, and before that time, the strict dichotomy between "gay" and "straight" did not yet exist. Attraction to, and sexual activity with other men was thought of as something you did, not something you were. It was a behavior β€” accepted by some cultures and considered sinful by others.

This idea about how social norms for male interaction and expression changed as our understanding of homosexuality went from a "behavior" to an "identity" is really interesting. The theory goes like this: as "gay" became a way of being β€” and a group that courted real dangers as its visibility increased, including violence and discrimination at the hands of mainstream society β€” it became taboo for men to express their friendship through touch and any physical contact that might be mistaken for "gay." Before there was a "gay" to be, men didn't have that fear. This could partly explain, note the authors, why in some cultures where homosexuality itself is still taboo, it is common for straight men to do things like hold hands in public. (When I lived in Morocco as a kid, I definitely noticed that men related to one another very differently than did the men in my native New Zealand, who seemed only to touch each other in highly codified contexts, like while playing sports. In Morocco, it wasn't unusual to see men walking through town arm-in-arm or hold hands in a cafΓ©. Some of those men may have been gay, but in that culture at that time, their behavior did not read as gay to a Moroccan observer.)


I wondered, when looking at these photos, where the analogous pictures of women are, and what they depict. In the U.S. today, it's considered fairly normal for straight women to touch each other in ways that straight men typically do not: to hug, to hold hands, to throw an arm around your friend or rest your head on her shoulder. Surely, our understanding of homosexuality among women also shifted from it being a "behavior" to it being an "identity." And lesbians also have suffered (and still do suffer) violence and discrimination. If straight men stopped expressing affection and friendship through physical touch out of homophobia and the fear of being mistaken for gay, why didn't a similar taboo arise around physical contact between straight female friends?

Whether or not an evolution in our cultural understanding of homosexuality explains these photos, and why the average American straight man no longer holds hands with his closest guy friend, these images certainly go to show that this idea of men as unsentimental, out of touch with their emotions, non-demonstrative, etc, is a very recent invention. And a culturally specific one. We used to allow men a much broader range of physical expression than we do today.

Even being photographed as friends is something American men are less likely to do now than they were in the 19th Century. "When the author of Picturing Men, John Ibson, conducted a survey of modern day portrait studios to ask if they had ever had two men come in to have their photo taken," write the bloggers, "he found that the event was so rare that many of the photographers he spoke to had never seen it happen during their career."


You can see more of the photos β€” including casual snapshots, and modern photographs of male friends that show markedly less physical contact β€” here.


Bosom Buddies: A History of Male Affection [Art of Manliness]