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Going out — or home?

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | February 17, 2011

One of the many speculations about whither the Internet is taking us is that the Internet is taking us home. We are increasingly able to see movies without going to the movies, indeed without going to the video store, or even to our doorsteps. College students can go to class while still lying in bed in their pajamas. Of course, many of us shop without going to a shop. More and more Americans can “telecommute” to work from their kitchen tables. Are we all going to be staying home?

boy with TV, 1940s or '50s

gbaku via flickr

Such projections are often fanciful. Futurists have been telling us for decades that most of us would be telecommuting by now. Indeed, the prediction was made as far back as 1893 that by 1993 we’d all be scattered around the countryside, working electronically. No rush hour! Still, some important changes have happened. Notably, after World War II, a great many Americans left the buzzing city streets and headed indoors.

So, if the Internet’s a threat is to keep us at home, we’re already home . . . watching TV.

Stepping in

A striking feature of American life in the early twentieth century was the vibrancy of urban street life. It was the heyday of the grand department store crowded with (mainly) women both shopping and enjoying the free entertainment the stores provided. Theaters and vaudeville stages and amusement parks and baseball stadiums and dance halls and nightclubs boomed, in part because women increasingly felt safe to go out in public (see this earlier post). Trolley and subway lines brought people in from the outskirts to join the city crowds.

And then came the moving pictures. American families first thronged to crude, storefront movie shows and then to the fancy movie palaces. One-fourth of all New Yorkers, by one estimate, saw a movie in a single week in 1910. By 1918, about three-quarters of urban white families went to the movies; they more than doubled their weekly visits by 1930. In rural areas, small-town cinemas attracted farm families, first weekly by horse wagon and later even more often by car. Films were so popular that movie attendance dwarfed that of virtually all the competitors— even saloons lost customers.

People not only out went of the house but also out of the neighborhood. Americans mixed with people like themselves and, more importantly, with people unlike themselves — in public, in a “world of strangers.”

Stepping back

The economic sizzle of the 1950s and ‘60s had many consequences. One was the burst of home-building in American suburbs. Pent-up demand for housing carried over from the Depression of the ‘30s and the War in ‘40s, multiplied by the early marriages and baby boom of the ‘50s, and aided by all sorts of government subsidies, allowed many Americans to move from crowded housing into new, spacious homes. In 1920, about one-third of American homes had electric service and one-fifth had toilets; by 1970, virtually all homes had both. Air conditioning become increasingly common. Home was a lot more comfortable place to spend time.

movie theater marquee, Ohio, 1938

Ohio, 1938 - LC-8a17572

But probably the single most important change was television. In 1950, only one in ten American households owned a television, and few Americans watched. Nonetheless, newspapers already reported major erosions in public activities, at least in the larger cities. In April, 1950, San Francisco’s minor league baseball team, the Seals, complained that fans were staying home to watch their games on television. In July, 1950, a USC sociologist announced a study showing that television was keeping families at home. He saw a positive byproduct: “the family is home together, rather than at the theater with strangers.”

In 1958, a UCLA study concluded that the movie industry was in substantial and permanent decline. The studios could anticipate a short-term boost in the ’60s from baby boomers becoming teenagers, but “the huge theater audience is gone.” By 1960, nearly nine in ten households had a television set and almost everyone watched every day. By 1990, the average household owned more than two sets and Americans spent more time watching television than doing anything else besides working and sleeping.

Because they watched television, Americans slept less and read less. And because they enjoyed television and the other comforts of home (and, also, because they feared the city crime that had surged in the 1970s and ‘80s), Americans spent less time in public spaces, such as attending movies or night clubs, playing sports, or going to meetings. Movie attendance, as the 1958 UCLA report predicted, dropped by about 80 percent and never recovered; major league baseball kept its attendance up by roughly doubling the number of teams, while minor league baseball collapsed. Television helped keep America home.

In the 1950s, one woman told House Beautiful magazine that “television and air-conditioning are bringing families together again.” Whether that was true in the long run is unclear, but they certainly helped bring Americans out of the public world of strangers and back into the private world of the home. The Internet may be only a late-comer to the house party.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “Going out — or home?

  1. Thanks you; I really enjoy the longer, historical look that this post provides.

    The spate of recent articles decrying–and warning against–increased usage of computers and the net seem, to me, often very naive. Many commentators speak as if it’s only just been in the last decade or so that Americans started spending a good deal of time staring into screens.


    I’m in my fifties, suburban born and bred. But, I have few, if any, recollections of the high levels of social interaction that those times supposedly possessed. Indeed, I think that my present neighborhood (also suburban and very close to where I grew up) is actually livelier, and more sociable than the one I grew up in.

    It’s interesting to read about the entertainment and social outlets available to people in the early years of the last century. Clearly, the impressions I have formed from reading this, and other, info about these times is that ‘street life’, especially in the evenings, was markedly livelier, and across nearly all economic strata.

    But, I can’t help but wonder if life during the day was for most women markedly quieter. After all, most women did not work outside the home, and housework–cleaning, cooking, baking, sewing, etc.–were time consuming tasks done alone, at home. Other than time spent shopping and (some time spent) socializing, I imagine that women spent many long, very quiet hours alone. I can well understand the push and need, to get out, if just to walk and stroll, in the evenings.

    Regarding the pull back to the home that TV exerted, starting in the early 50’s, I think it’s also interesting to note the opposing pull that the car, and increased car ownership, exerted in the opposite direction. One can see how–between homes becoming more comfortable, clean, and entertaining places, and car ownership providing men and women with the exciting means to travel easily, quickly, and cheaply to destinations near and far–that communities would change dramatically.

    Getting back to the topic of computers, I think it is much too early to reach the dire conclusions that so many seem to be arriving at as to computer usage eroding intellectual or social skills. As someone who enjoys blogging, email, and a number of social sites, I can state without hesitation that I am in communication with a greater number of friends and relatives than ever before.

    I socialize with, work with, telephone, email, blog, text, ‘facebook’ and, yes, even occasionally Skype with many others right now. Indeed, for me, as for a number of my peers, one issue I am struggling with is learning to limit my time spent ‘contacting’ others!

    But, it is true that working at a computer in my home as I do (I’m a writer) is without doubt isolating. I am not sure, however, that it is anymore isolating that assembling widgets in a factory line, working in an office cubicle, or sitting a lecture hall of 200 students. When it gets to feel too much I have the luxury of taking ‘my office’ with me to a library, a coffee house, or even a friend’s home.

    Only time will tell what computers will bring to us, and the rest of the globe, and how and to what degree we will adapt to their challenges.

  2. Another great blog Professor Fischer.

    However, the greatest tragedy of the Internet today is that while it has given us awesome forums for worldwide information and communications between people and groups, like Berkeley Blog, but hasn’t done a thing to help us implement solutions to the fact that global warming is overwhelming our civilization.

    For example, the L.A. Times had an interview by Patt Morrison on Feb. 12 with “Paul R. Ehrlich: Saving Earth” where he made the astounding global warning:
    “I’m very pessimistic about where we’re going, and I’m optimistic about what we could do, but I don’t expect it to happen. It’s a real problem talking to kids. How do you strike the balance? What I usually say is look, there’s a 15% chance of preventing the collapse of civilization, if we work at it really hard.”

    But nobody seems to have cared about this warning from one of humanity’s preeminent spokespersons.

    However, that is most sadly to be expected since our own CALIFORNIA magazine’s September/October 2006 “Global Warning” Special Issue included a lot of California specific articles about ongoing and increasing climate change calamities in California and around earth, especially including the most disturbing “Can We Adapt in Time” article:

    And nobody really cared enough to implement solutions since then either.

    So the Internet continues to provide us with wonderful opportunities to make the world a better place, like the Berkeley Blog that has also provided us with many warnings by preeminent professors, but those who warn continue to be marginalized, placing the human race at increasing peril anyway.

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