Decoding the Myths of Asa Packer, 1805?-1879

Asa Packer the "Self-made Man" and Victorian Masculinity

"Upper Mauch Chunk, Lower Mauch Chunk, and East Mauch Chunk, echo the name of the poor boy who…has by his own energy and genius made himself a millionaire; contributed to the wealth of his neighborhood thousand of millions by creating these industries.”

The portrayal of Asa Packer as a self-made man of industry is heavily influenced by Victorian ideals of masculinity.  According to Victorian preferences,  Asa Packer was the ideal man. He had a profession that secured recognition which made him fabulously wealthy,  he was a devout Christian,  and he was considered honorable and humble. Wealthy men who were not born rich were also respected. Although models of the ideal man shift slightly during the nineteenth century, several characteristics remain constant: physical ableness, education, and the ability to act as a provider for his family.

In several accounts, Packer is described as a man of formidable height and build:

"Packer's convictions were few, simple, and deeply felt... In his youth he had loved physical activity. He was tall, strong, and agile, possessing a great capacity for endurance" (Yates).

Physical formidability was an important aspect of Victorian masculinity. This focus on the physical aspect of manliness grew in popularity with the growing field of biology, the term first appearing in publications in 1800. During the following decades, Victorians formed a growing interest in physical health, as it became a sign of wealth and capability. In The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture, Haley argues that " topic more occupied the Victorian mind than Health-not religion, or politics, or Improvement, or Darwinsim." The human body became a marvel in light of biological studies, and maintaining health became of upmost importance to middle and upper class Victorians.

In the United States, the Civil War incited much anxiety and interest in maintaining health and fitness. Sports were no longer seen as an impediment to a young boy's development, but instead it was praised as training in patriotism, physical prowess, and mental fortitude. Competitive sports embraced the idea of self-sacrifice and character which are indispensable traits in a soldier. According to his bibliography, Packer enjoyed sports, and was athletic with a sturdy build. This description of his physical abilities contribute to his Victorian depiction.

“Not content with conquering Nature, [Asa Packer] now begins to conquer a greater obstacle in the way of progress-ignorance…Judge Packer has founded the “Lehigh University” with an endowment of $500,000…Tuition is free."

Practical education was an important Victorian ideal as well. Although Packer himself was never formally educated, his strong belief in the importance of education was consistent with the values of his time. In the nineteenth century, education played a key role in constructing masculinity. For the upper class, public schools offered the benefits of both educational and masculine development. During this time, the Cult of Domesticity feminized the home, so Victorian fathers increasingly resorted to public schooling as a way to separate young boys from the feminine comfort of their mothers in their homes. Public schools put young men in a competitive homosocial environment that worked to make gender more distinctive.

Packer's views of education are assumed through the founding of Lehigh University. Through this venture he shows a dedication to higher learning for young men, which seems to make up for the lack of education he himself pursued.

"Upper Mauch Chunk, Lower Mauch Chunk, and East Mauch Chunk, echo the name of the poor boy who…has by his own energy and genius made himself a millionaire”

“Here is a character and career for youth and manhood to study. Here is a lesson to the one to move on in the path of improvement, and a stimulant to others never to despair in the darkest hour and misfortune. We pick out Asa Packer as the miner picks out a piece of coal to show the value of the precious deposit from which it is taken; we pick him out to show what could be won by personal honesty, industry, and kindness to men; by courage in the midst of gloomy prophecy; by modesty in prosperity; and by princely generosity when fortune come with both hands full to realize a just ambition.”

Victorians praised the idea of the "Self Made Man" who escaped poverty and achieved respectability. A man's ability to provide for his family was an essential part of Victorian masculinity. Therefore, Asa Packer's success and commercial wealth contributed to his perceived manliness. However, Packer's wealth is viewed as even more noble because of his humble beginnings. Because of this, Asa Packer’s story works to perpetuate the idea of the self-made man, which also asserts that respectability is possible for everyone. Unfortunately, this was often used to ignore the social causes of poverty, and places blame on impoverished people, who have not been granted equal opportunities (such as education and financial resources). This idea has persisted throughout time, and is still used to ignore the larger societal issues that contribute to wealth gaps.


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