Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America
Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America

Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America

by Lynn Spigel


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Between 1948 and 1955, nearly two-thirds of all American families bought a television set—and a revolution in social life and popular culture was launched.

In this fascinating book, Lynn Spigel chronicles the enormous impact of television in the formative years of the new medium: how, over the course of a single decade, television became an intimate part of everyday life. What did Americans expect from it? What effects did the new daily ritual of watching television have on children? Was television welcomed as an unprecedented "window on the world," or as a "one-eyed monster" that would disrupt households and corrupt children?

Drawing on an ambitious array of unconventional sources, from sitcom scripts to articles and advertisements in women's magazines, Spigel offers the fullest available account of the popular response to television in the postwar years. She chronicles the role of television as a focus for evolving debates on issues ranging from the ideal of the perfect family and changes in women's role within the household to new uses of domestic space. The arrival of television did more than turn the living room into a private theater: it offered a national stage on which to play out and resolve conflicts about the way Americans should live.

Spigel chronicles this lively and contentious debate as it took place in the popular media. Of particular interest is her treatment of the way in which the phenomenon of television itself was constantly deliberated—from how programs should be watched to where the set was placed to whether Mom, Dad, or kids should control the dial.

Make Room for TV combines a powerful analysis of the growth of electronic culture with a nuanced social history of family life in postwar America, offering a provocative glimpse of the way television became the mirror of so many of America's hopes and fears and dreams.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226769660
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/28/1992
Edition description: 1
Pages: 246
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

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Make Room for TV

Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America

By Lynn Spigel

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1992 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-76967-7


Domestic Ideals and Family Amusements: From the Victorians to the Broadcast Age

By the early decades of the twentieth century, the industrial revolution had found its way into the parlors of the American home. New machines, designed for domestic amusements, were marketed and sold to increasing numbers of middle-class families. Mechanized entertainment such as the phonograph and radio became part of a set of cultural ideals for domesticity, while also contributing to changes in the way family members spent their time at home.

Television's installation in the American home is framed by the history of family recreation. Broadcast historians have typically ignored the historical context of family life, favoring instead a model of invention that relies on economic and political causes to explain the arrival of the new medium. But such histories divorce television from its primary sphere of reception—the home—and thus cannot account for the social factors that helped to shape television's cultural form.

The rise of a distinctly bourgeois aesthetic of family life in Victorian America established a set of domestic ideals that had important implications for the ways in which leisure activities would be conceptualized in years to come. In particular, television's inclusion in the home was subject to preexisting models of gender and generational hierarchies among family members—hierarchies that had been operative since the Victorian period. Distinctions between man and woman, child and adult, organized the spatial environment of the home, and they also worked to justify the ideological divisions between public and private spheres. By the turn of the century, these domestic ideals were modified and sometimes even radically altered to suit the needs of an increasingly modern suburban consumer culture, but they often reemerged in representations of domestic technologies, and they worked to structure domestic spaces in ways that had important implications for television's arrival in the home.

This chapter shows how ideals of family life and domestic recreation supplied a framework of ideas and expectations about how television could best be incorporated into the home. It traces the development of domestic ideology in the Victorian era; the changes that took place within that ideology with the rise of suburbia and consumer-family lifestyles; and the corresponding innovation of domestic amusement machines. Finally, it details how the broadcast industry responded to the history of family ideals when introducing radio and television to the public.

The Cult of Domesticity and Ideals of Family Recreation

In the nineteenth century, the American family underwent a number of transformations. As the agrarian society of the 1700s gave way to a new industrial order, patterns of everyday life were significantly altered. While the eighteenth-century family was bound together primarily as an economic unit, working together on a farm, in the nineteenth century production shifted to the world outside the home, to an urban landscape of factories and office jobs. This shift had an important impact on the way family life was conceived and organized. No longer tied together by economic survival per se, the family took on a more overtly ideological function in relation to the marketplace outside the home. Beginning around 1820, America witnessed the development of a middle-class ideal that was predicated upon the division of public and private spheres. Middle-class Victorians represented the family as a site of comfort and rejuvenation while the public sphere contained the hardships of the workaday world. During the early Victorian period (about 1820 to 1860), architects, plan book writers, ministers, educators, physicians, and novelists advised on a new design for living based on the sharp separation of inside and outside worlds.

In this binary system, the home was organized as the antithesis of the urban centers, which were thought to be threatening and sinful. By the 1830s, American thinkers began to worry about the unpleasant effects of the factory system, effects that had already taken hold in Victorian England. Would the urban crime, poverty, pollution, and labor unrest of the English city be recreated on American soil? If so, in what way could the nation hope to maintain the pastoral ideals of the agrarian past? For many, the answer to this problem came in the form of a new Utopian social space located on the periphery of the city, at once rural and urban, a space that was prototypically suburban. As Margaret Marsh has argued, the ideal of a suburban retreat was mainly (although not exclusively) a male objective based on the Jeffersonian belief in agrarian landownership. In a world of industrial urbanization, the middle-class man could uphold the republic's agrarian values through owning a private home outside the city.

The homes themselves were vernacular in style, recalling a preindustrial America. In his widely read book of 1850, The Architecture of Country Houses, Andrew Jackson Downing, the most famous of the plan book writers, extolled the virtues of the rural cottage. Predicated upon the notion of private havens, each house stood as an entity unto itself, usually set in a pastoral landscape that suggested repose and moral sanctity. Often decorated with Gothic adornments, the cottages took on a godly mission. Ministers such as Henry Ward Beecher and Horace Bushnell wanted to make Americans aware of the influence of the domestic setting, and they preached about the family's role in building the American character. In this way, the early nineteenth-century dwelling was intimately linked to rejuvenation of a religious order. Here, the tired worker could retreat to a world of higher spirituality and heavenly splendor. The home served a divine purpose in raising the consciousness of its residents above the everyday world of physical toil in the city.

The evangelical ethic also supported the division of gender and the separation of spheres. The "Cult of True Womanhood" ensured that middle-class women remained at home while the man of the house traversed the two spheres of work and family on a daily basis. According to codes of middle-class domesticity, women had a divine purpose in the home; they served as moral guardians who were ordained by God to instill the family with Christian values. Popular manuals and early magazines such as Godey's Lady's Book suggested that women be God-fearing, innocent, obedient to their husbands, and committed to a life based on their activities at home. The woman's place within the home was part of an overall division of social roles at the core of domestic ideology. While the Victorian family was supposed to be tied together by love and affection, there was also a clear hierarchy of dominion and subordination. The family was organized as a microcosm of the American Republic, with power dynamics based on principles of governance.

Most explicit in this regard was Catharine Beecher's influential home manual of 1841, A Treatise on Domestic Economy. In this book, Beecher suggested that women's ability to make the family adhere to Christian doctrine would serve as an example for American society. She wrote, "The principles of democracy ... are identical with the principles of Christianity." In this regard, Beecher thought that the tenets of True Womanhood could provide a model for civic life, and she suggested that traits like feminine submissiveness would serve a higher cause. "It is needful," she claimed, "that certain relations be sustained, that involve the duties of subordination. There must be a magistrate and the subject.... There must be relations of husband and wife, parent and child.... The superior in certain particulars is to direct, and the inferior is to yield obedience." For Beecher, this hierarchy of social life was not at odds with democratic notions of equality and free will. As she suggested, in the case of parents and children, relations of subordination were "decided by the Creator," while in the case of husband and wife, "No woman is forced to obey her husband but the one she chooses for herself; nor is she obliged to take a husband, if she prefers to remain single" (emphasis added). As numerous feminist historians have argued, Beecher's book and the more general domestic ideology of the time were intended to elevate women by making them the moral authority in the home. The ideology of domesticity, in this regard, had a different meaning and function for women than did the more general family ideal supported by men like Downing. While the family ideal presented domestic life as a respite for the weary man, the domestic ideology provided women with a way to glean power in a world that systematically marginalized their input in civic matters. At home, the woman could invert the patriarchal rules of governance, staking claim to the family as her privileged domain. As Beecher wrote, "In matters of education of children, in the selection and support of a clergyman, in all benevolent enterprises, and in all questions relating to morals or manners, they [women] have superior influence." Moreover, domestic ideology had an emancipatory function in a class-based social system: "Universally, in this Country, through every class of society, precedence is given to woman, in all the comforts, conveniences, and courtesies of life." The "True Woman" of any class could thus expect privileged treatment in the public sphere.

Given the associations between domesticity, the tenets of Christian doctrine, and the preservation of the Republic, it is not surprising that Victorian ideals of family amusement were organized around these values. According to Foster Rhea Dulles, whose history of recreation remains the most comprehensive, the early 1800s witnessed a "renewed emphasis upon the importance of work," harking back to a puritanical "moral sanction for the disapproval of recreation." Even while commercial amusements such as variety houses, minstrel shows, legitimate theaters, dime museums, circuses, and dance halls became increasingly popular over the course of the century, Victorian "experts" warned against overindulgence, sanctioning forms of play that would instill moral and physical traits beneficial for the increased productivity of the nation. Such warnings were intended especially for women and children; the growing sphere of cheap commercial pastimes was, until the later decades of the century, a specifically male domain into which only "lowly" and "fallen" women would venture. While Dulles and other historians of recreation have primarily concentrated on public amusements, similar puritanical attitudes underscored Victorian views of family leisure. In A Treatise on Domestic Economy, Catharine Beecher found the subject important enough to include a chapter entitled "Domestic Amusements," but her text warned readers to remember that the purpose of leisure activities was to "prepare the mind and body for the proper discharge of duty," and that anything which interfered with that "must be sinful." In particular, the family had to avoid stimulation, especially when excitement was connected to temptations of a "pernicious" nature. While gathering flowers and shells from the world of nature was healthful, dancing would lead not only to spiritual decline but also to physical ailments such as bad digestion. While reading narrative prose might be morally uplifting (the Scriptures were an early example), it was imperative to regulate the kinds of novels that children read. While piano playing and telling jokes (in moderation) promoted happiness at home, horseriding, cardplaying, and going to the theater were not permissible because they might result in evil deeds.

At the heart of this advice was a clear distinction between domestic and public amusements. Dancing, for example, was an activity that would have been associated with dance halls and brothels (places where only men and fallen women could go), while the novel often spoke too graphically of the sinful activities in the outside world. Beecher herself made this clear when she advised that "even if parents, who train their children to dance, can keep them from public balls (which is seldom the case), dancing in private parlors is subject to nearly all the same mischievous influences." Thus, rather than incorporating the bawdy "masculine" amusements of the urban streets, the home was supposed to encourage genteel, "feminine" forms of play. Among the most important activities in the Christian home was piano playing, which was associated with the spiritual talents of the True Woman who played hymns in the family parlor. More generally, the sanctions against sinful, public forms of recreation particularly constrained women's sphere of amusements to the polite and spiritual activities of Bible reading and arts and crafts in the home.

By midcentury, plan book writers were suggesting similar ideals for more elaborate middle-class dwellings based on styles of Italianate, Gothic, and Georgian design. Plan book writers were deeply concerned that the house remain a self-contained entity for a cohesive family unit, but they also stressed the social division of spaces within it. The back parlor and dining room allowed for family gatherings; however, recreation was divided according to highly formalized spatial laws. Women might read books or do needlework in their upstairs bedrooms, while men might read in their own libraries located near the back of the house, away from the commotion of everyday affairs. While children often shared space with women, they were also given special rooms, and youngsters of different sexes would ideally have separate bedrooms. Even in homes that did not include rooms devoted to separate family members, portions of rooms were allocated to specific individuals (e.g., the window seat provided a reading area for the mother). Not only family activities, but social occasions were also carefully laid out according to spatial hierarchies. Here, the relationship between public and private areas took on special importance. While family life was relegated to the back parlor, guests were entertained in the more formally decorated front parlor and greeted in large hallways that allowed for elaborate visitation rituals. These formal distinctions between rooms allowed Victorians to experience private, familial, and social life within conventionalized settings so that residents and guests would often know what kind of social situation to expect by the household space they occupied at any particular moment. In this way domestic space and recreational pursuits within the home were sharply differentiated from the chaotic urban environment where industrialization presented both spatial and social confusion.

In 1869, when Catharine Beecher published her revised home manual, The American Woman's Home, she still adhered to the principles of domestic recreation suggested in the earlier edition. The book, which she wrote with her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, depicted piano playing and Bible reading as particularly appropriate forms of domestic amusement. Their floor plan included a space for the piano, displaying that instrument as a permanent fixture in the family home, while the book's frontispiece depicted a grandfather reading a book (most likely the Bible) to his family. The religious metaphor was further suggested as a kerosene lamp, hung over the grandfather's head, illuminated him with rays of light. However, even if The American Woman's Home took a Christian view of family leisure which adhered to that of the early Victorian period, it appeared at a moment of transition. Over the next three decades, domestic ideology would be revised, and ideals of recreation would also be transformed. While the change was never complete (indeed, some Victorian concepts of proper amusements still inform contemporary ideals), the home began to reflect the burgeoning consumer culture of the outside world.

Changing ideals of family leisure were integral to the middle-class suburbs that flourished after the Civil War. By the 1880s, cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and Boston experienced population booms that were offset by the growth of surrounding communities. Improvements in transportation helped provide easy access to the cities so that by the 1890s people could commute to work on electric trollies, street cars, and elevated railroads. In addition to these economic, demographic, and technological changes, there was an increased ideological emphasis upon the suburbs as an ideal cultural and social space for the middle-class family.


Excerpted from Make Room for TV by Lynn Spigel. Copyright © 1992 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

1. Domestic Ideals and Family Amusements: From the Victorians to the Broadcast Age
2. Television in the Family Circle
3. Women's Work
4. The Home Theater
5. The People in the Theater Next Door

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