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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.