The Hearth and the Television

One of my favorite weeks when teaching US History since 1865 is when we get to discuss the 1950s and the American family. One of the exercises I have the students do is to analyze the Simpsons from the perspective that the eponymous family is a representation of the 1950s nuclear family. I ask the students leading questions in order to reach this point, dad (works), mom (stays home), two and a half kids, etc., etc., and one of the final issues we come to is what the show considers to be the central room of the house. There is often a bit of hesitation on this point until I ask how the credit sequence ends, to which there is an immediate chorus of “in front of the tv!”

This semester I gave a lecture on the topic of the ancient Greek family. Along with the delineation (and gendering) of space, one of the traditional talking points on this issue is that the household is defined by its hearth. This is borne out in myth with the representations of Hestia and the ideologically charged declarations in literature about the sacredness of the hearth. And yet the sources for burning in the archeological record vary and there is rarely unambiguous evidence for a stationary or permanent hearth. Similarly, lease agreements from Olynthus indicate that buildings were not disposed of as complete units, but individual rooms could be leased out for domestic use. I don’t find this revelation to be particularly surprising, but it is notable that some of the rooms allocated for domestic use show no evidence of a hearth. Thus the hearth that makes the home may be symbolic rather than actual.

I offer the television as the object that has this same ideological potency in the modern American household. One extreme example is illustrative. In the pilot of the AMC show Madmen, Don Draper taunts his mistress for having purchased a television despite her insistence that she didn’t need one, with the result that she throws the offending device out the window of her apartment in the Village. Draper is mollified by the exchange, but his return home at the end of the episode (as it is meant to) offers a striking contrast. Not only does he return to a house where there is a wife and kids, but they kids are watching TV and Draper settles in with them—-because a television is something that you have with your family, not with your mistress.

As an addendum, I still think even in our decentralized media environment there is something to the television holding symbolic weight as a place for family, whether that is an actual place in a household or something that can be alluded to in fiction. The range of portable devices on which one can watch the shows themselves signify something else, but the television as a place and object continue to carry this weight. In turn, the violation of this communal aesthetic, such as the image of a single person repeatedly watching shows heightens the sense of obsession, perversity, or trauma.

One thought on “The Hearth and the Television

  1. Nothing speaks to this more than the number of times I’ve seen someone mount a flat screen television above their fireplace mantle. (I’ll not go into what a bad idea this is on multiple levels…)

    Around the time the TV was starting to exert its dominant influence in the living room (And the radio preceded it in transforming family evenings, combined with Frank Lloyd Wright’s reimagining of the parlor into a family room and the open floor plan) houses often saw fireplaces disappear altogether. This wasn’t (just) the tv though, it was at least as much proving that you had the luxuries of insulation and modern heating systems, and no longer needed a fireplace for heating (or cooking, different evolution). Modern trends do include a fireplace, but now having more than one is a sign of capricious excess instead of the excess of having a habitation large enough to need more than one to adequately warm and comfort.

    I think your last paragraph points to the current development though. When everyone has their own device, why do you have a single media altar at all? Some don’t, especially more common in the college and post-college shared living arrangements – is it momentum? We’ve had the living room television for 50+ years. Or is it the idea of it being a shared experience, and that having value of its own?

    Like

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