"What We Want Is Good, Sober Men:" Masculinity, Respectability, and Temperance in the Railroad Brotherhoods, C. 1870-1910

By Taillon, Paul Michel | Journal of Social History, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

"What We Want Is Good, Sober Men:" Masculinity, Respectability, and Temperance in the Railroad Brotherhoods, C. 1870-1910


Taillon, Paul Michel, Journal of Social History


On the morning of 13 December 1907, locomotive engineer J. A. Yarbrough reported for duty switching freight cars in the Atlanta yards of the Central of Georgia Railroad. However, the yardmaster discovered that Yarbrough had spent some time in a nearby tavern and was drunk, and dismissed him from the service. The incident came to the attention of the union that represented Yarbrough, Division 210 of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. The Division appointed an investigating committee that interviewed Yarbrough's supervisors and co-workers and discovered that, in fact, Yarbrough had a history of drinking. As the yardmasrer testified, "Yarbough has been drinking for some time, and I made every effort to get him to straighten up and be a man...." In the trial that followed, Division 210 concurred in the yardmaster's judgment and expelled Yarbrough from the union. (1)

A year and a half later, Division 210 confronted another alcohol-related situation. "We have a brother of whom I think we will do well to investigate the way he is living," reported C. F. Barker at the lodge's meeting of 30 July 1909. "If all reports is [sic] true, he is spending the most of his time & money with a woman who was divorced from her husband on his account. He very often stays away from home two or three days at a time & his wife don't know where he is, then when he comes home he very often comes under the influence of whiskey & makes things as miserable for his wife as he can." When the investigating committee sustained the charges against the offending member, the lodge tried and expelled him. (2)

As these stories hint, workingmen's drinking practices, and the efforts to curb them, occurred on a terrain defined not only by class but also gender. They were practices that affected not just the workplace but also the household, they involved issues of workplace discipline, morality, and sexual misconduct, and they elicited the concern of managers, union leaders, union members, and their wives. While scholars have documented workers' drinking practices in the age of industrialization--largely in connection with "pre-industrial" or "rough" working-class cultures--and middle- and working-class temperance movements--especially with regard to women's involvement--they have paid less attention to the interrelationships among drinking, temperance, and the construction of working-class manhood. (3) Similarly, labor historians have not always appreciated the extent to which the domestic sphere has influenced male trade unionists or the extent to which matters of domesticity influenced workers' discourse of manhood . (4)

This essay examines masculinity in connection with working men's drinking as well as the uses of manhood in working-class efforts to stamp our that practice. It focuses on the engineers, conductors, firemen, and brakemen who operated the trains and the unions that represented them, the "Big Four" railroad brotherhoods, in the last decades of the nineteenth century. (5) It was during this period that occupational drinking on the railroads became an issue of concern, the brotherhoods first came to power, and the Post-Civil War temperance wave swept the nation. On the railroads and in other workplaces drinking figured as part of a "rough" style of masculinity that emphasized "manly" confrontation with the rigors and dangers of the job, defiance of management, and consumption of alcohol. The railroad brotherhoods and their women's auxiliaries, however, deployed a "respectable" style of manhood in their efforts to win train workers over to a temperate lifestyle. (6)

The tensions that inevitably arose between the "rough," intemperate masculinity of the railroad workplace and the "respectable" manhood articulated by the railroad brotherhoods revealed a gender construction that, to paraphrase Gregory Kaster, was complex and problematical yet central to the activism and collective subjectivity of organized white workingmen in the last third of the nineteenth century. …

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