The Mediapolis Q&A: Elizabeth Patton’s Easy Living

Loft layout for a family in New York City, 1990s. Source: Loft Living. NY: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 1999.
Television and media scholar Elana Levine interviews Elizabeth Patton on her recent book Easy Living: The Rise of the Home Office.

In this installment of our Q&A series, Television & Media Scholar Elana Levine interviews Elizabeth Patton on her recent book Easy Living: The Rise of the Home Office (Rutgers University Press, 2020). Dr. Patton is an assistant professor of Media and Communications Studies and the co-editor of Mediapolis.

Elana Levine: Easy Living is such an ambitious and timely book! Tracing the history of the home office and “work-life balance” in a range of geographic spaces is especially significant amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and the many ways in which home and “work” lives—work for employers, but also domestic work and schooling—have spatially blurred and changed domestic life. I’d like to talk about the ways your work informs our understanding of the present moment, but also—and in the spirit of the book’s long historical lens—get the full picture of the project’s origins and approach. To start, then, what do you see as the central claim or takeaway from this book? What key ideas do you want readers to come away with?

Elizabeth Patton: My book examines how middle-class professionals were encouraged to believe that working at home can achieve the “good life” – in other words, work-life balance. I want readers to take away from my book that the current discourse on work-life balance, the gendered evolution of the home, and the ever-present status of work in the home has a long history and we are still grappling with the repercussions today. Due to the pandemic and the prevalence of virtual meetings in which I had the opportunity to peer into the private spaces of my colleagues and strangers, watching cable news talking heads during the pandemic, as well as following conversations about work-life balance on social media, many people continue to struggle with the problem of where to work within the home and they struggle to balance work and their personal lives. I want readers to realize that our conceptions of work-life balance and the meaning of home are based on a myth because the institutions that shape and support our professional and personal lives have not changed for the better.

EL: Tell us about the origins of this project, then. What questions motivated it and how did it develop over time?

EP: The origins of this project started in graduate school. Like many grad students, I was overwhelmed trying to pass my composition exams and I was teaching a class and also working part-time. I was also trying to find a balance between my work and personal life. I came across a cartoon that was circulating on the internet that seemed to reflect my experience.

Work-life balance cartoon. Source: Internet circa 2008.

I remember thinking how funny it was and how it seemed like my laptop and cell phone were with me day and night, and it felt like I couldn’t untether myself from some form of communication technology. I began to question if there ever was a historical moment in modern history when the home was used only as a space for reproduction and leisure.

I came across this quote from Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life as part of my required reading for my graduate studies:

“As a general rule, in this private space one rarely works, except at that indispensable work of nourishment, of cleaning, and of conviviality that gives a human form to the succession of days and to the presence of others. [. . .] Here one invites one’s family and neighbors and avoids one’s enemies or boss, as long as the society’s power respects the fragile symbolic barrier between public and private.”1Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life. Vol. 2, trans. Timothy J. Tomasik (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).

Two things jumped out at me. First, his acknowledgment that the type of work that goes into maintaining a home is labor, that is the “indispensable work of nourishment, of cleaning and of conviviality.” And also the use of the words boss and symbolic, recognizing that work is always a threat to the spatial barrier between the public and private spheres. I wanted to explore this concept to understand why the barrier is fragile and symbolic even though the concept of the public and private dichotomy is persistent.

I was also watching a lot of HGTV to decompress because for whatever reason, I found it comforting watching people view houses in various cities, towns, and suburbs. I noticed a pattern since the early 2000s. There were numerous references to home offices and people asking for extra bedrooms on shows like House Hunters and other renovation shows on the network. Typically, it was the man in a heterosexual relationship that mentioned a home office. However, if the show featured a dual-career couple (mostly heterosexual but occasionally you would see a gay or lesbian couple) they would both demand a home office or at least an extra bedroom that they could use as a home office/guest room. From there, I started thinking about where else we see this dynamic. I remembered the shows that I watched in the 1980s and 1990s growing up, especially sitcoms where you would see a study or home office but typically it was a masculine space for the father.

People do feel compelled to work from home and outside of traditional work hours. Where does this expectation come from? Sociologist Dalton Conley, in Elsewhere, USA, helped me start to answer this question. He discusses the breakdown of the boundaries between work and leisure – what he refers to as “weisure” – in everyday life beginning in the 1980s for the professional class. Also, I started thinking about competing discourses about work-life balance, especially for professional women after reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All“. I realized that today’s advocates frame a decision to work at home as a holistic decision to achieve work-life balance or more accurately in a system of capitalism, “work-life integration,” which demands longer working hours and increased productivity from everyone. However, there’s also mounting public discourse about the negative effects of increasingly working at home and outside of work hours because of technology. I discuss this topic with my students to demonstrate that with every new communication technology there are always conversations about how that technology will break down long-standing social and family ties. I am also interested in the ambivalence within public discourse about the role of technology and the role of work in the private sphere. Consider the increasing use of new communication technologies at home, such as cell phones, laptops, and now people want smart homes. There is a desire to use these technologies because they offer flexibility and productivity but at the same time, there is talk of long-term consequences for society.

EL: One impressive aspect of this project is that it covers an especially long timeframe, basically all of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Why did you take on this broad time span? What challenges did you face as a result?

EP: In the early part of my research, I realized that to examine the history of work in the home, I needed to trace the etymology of the term “home office.”  Therefore, I needed to track when the term actually appeared in the English language. The term home office replaced the British term “study” for the place that work is conducted in the home. Further research determined that the study is related to the chamber or the chamber room from the early seventeenth century in Europe and the eighteenth century in the United States. The chamber room was a kind of hybrid work, living, and sleeping room within household economies, especially for families or men that worked in the home such as a blacksmith, farmer, or doctor. Consequently, I had to discuss the early architectural history of the home. My book also examines how the idea of working within the home was constructed in mass media and popular culture as I also wanted to look at the adoption of communication technologies in the home, which covers a long timeframe, from the early introduction of telephones and typewriters to computers.

I took this approach because rhetorical distinctions between what is private and public space persist even though a historical examination of different forms of labor in the home and technologies associated with work and the public sphere reveals how cultural ideas of what counts as work have changed.

Some of the challenges I faced because of the encyclopedia-like nature of my topic were determining the boundaries of my research, spatial and temporal, and defining labor in the home. At the beginning of my research, I realized that it is difficult to even define what it means to work at home or to define home-based work. What counts as work at home? Compensated work only? What about uncompensated household labor or chores done by children in the home? Also, because of the interdisciplinary nature of my topic, it was necessary for me to recognize clear thematic threads and arguments across a long period of time and engage with multiple areas of scholarship without going off on tangents.

EL: Let’s talk about your sources and archive. First let’s talk about your engagement with various realms of scholarship. What scholarly conversations do you see your work as engaging? This is a highly interdisciplinary work. What connections do you see between the various fields you are connecting?

EP: Yes, my book is highly interdisciplinary but this was out of necessity. The nature of the topic intersects with many different disciplines especially because I’m looking at communication technologies in the home that historically were associated with work, floor plans that reflect the architectural history of the home, as well as popular representations of the study and home office. Because of the gendered nature of the home and technology and the concept of the domestic sphere, I also engage with feminist theory and the history of gender and technology. The home is understood as part of domestic space or part of the private sphere. Therefore, this book is also about the boundaries and interactions between the public and the private sphere so I had to think about space within the context of the city-suburb dichotomy and so this is very much about theories about the relationship between space and media. I was especially influenced by Nick Couldry and Anna McCarthy’s edited volume MediaSpace2Nick Couldry and Anna McCarthy (eds.), MediaSpace: Place, Scale and Culture in a Media Age (London: Routledge, 2004)., Lynn Spigel’s work on television and the suburbs3See, for example, Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Lynn Spigel, Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001)., and Pamela Wojcik’s book, The Apartment Plot.4Pamela R. Wojcik, The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

I also examined representations of the home office in mass media, such as advertisements, newspapers and magazines but also in fictional accounts on television and film and therefore in order to examine how the idea of working at home was constructed by different actors it was necessary for me to engage with scholarship across many fields such as film and TV history, architectural history, and the history of technology, as well as human geography and gender studies. So yes, it does cover a lot but hopefully, readers will make these connections too and understand how these various disciplines inform my examination of the rise of the home office.

EL: Now let’s talk about your primary sources. You draw from such a wide array of sites: home design and architectural discourses, popular magazine discourses about homes and the work within them, corporate marketing and manufacturing records, census data, advertisements, TV series, films, magazines, celebrity coverage. How did you select the kinds of sources you would analyze? How are all of these sites connected?

EP: I do draw evidence from a wide array of sources. Much of my research on the book was archival and I watched a lot of television and films looking for anything that I could find that referenced the home office or study. I visited archives such as AT&T, Apple, and Remington Rand (typewriters) to find marketing and advertising materials that directly mentioned working at home. I also spent a lot of time at the Library of Congress working with their research staff to find home economics textbooks, home design books, and the Playboy magazine collection. I chose this approach to demonstrate that discourse on the public sphere reflected changing concepts over time about what it means to work in a home, which I argue corresponds to larger social, political-economic, and technological forces. I found it difficult to figure out how to organize the book with such a wide range of sources. Should it be thematic and organized around different historical iterations of the home office, by the type of communication technology, or chronological? Ultimately, I organized the book chronologically but also into four parts that represent the technological, economic, and social forces that I argue shaped conversations in mass media and representations of the home office and working at home during the twentieth century. These forces influenced the emergence of the private-public dichotomy and also corresponding changes to domestic architecture and the practice of work within the home. They include the second industrial revolution and the rise of industrial capitalism, unprecedented urbanization and subsequent suburbanization, second-wave feminism and the sexual revolution, the invention of communication technologies such as the telephone, typewriter, and personal computer, and neoliberalism, gentrification, and the emergence of the knowledge/creative class.

EL: Related to the above are some questions about how we might understand the impact of discourses about home and work as presented in fictional texts or in ads. How do these shape our cultural practices and understandings? Why might we look to such sites to help us understand how boundaries between home and work, private and public, have changed over time?

EP: Representations of domestic workspaces for fathers in fictional texts are examples of how the boundaries between home and work have changed over time. Social commentators, newspaper and magazine editors, some politicians, and medical professionals promoted pro-family ideologies as the key to personal happiness and the foundation for a strong and prosperous America. Some of the discourse focused on reintegrating men into society after the war. Men were confronted with a contradiction: they were supposed to provide for the family and simultaneously were expected to establish a noticeable presence in the home as role models for their children by embracing the 1950s ideology of togetherness. In The Organization Man, William Whyte describes the work life of junior executives with corporate careers as very demanding, requiring long days on top of long commutes between their homes in the suburbs and the city. Remember, this is also a period when the suburbs were growing rapidly and white heterosexual couples were encouraged to move out of the cities to the suburbs.

The importance of men having a workspace at home in addition to their office in the city emerged in typewriter ads, films, and sitcoms beginning in the postwar period. The changing boundaries between work and home can be seen in movies, such as Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, and shows like Leave it to Beaver, in which Ward Cleaver had a study, and Mike Brady’s workspace on The Brady Bunch, which ran from the late 1960s to the 1970s. These fictional accounts of family life also shaped our cultural understanding of the home as a gendered space.

Ward Cleaver in his study. Leave It to Beaver (CBS/ABC).

For example, Ward Cleaver occasionally uses his study for work, but mostly, this is a masculine space that reflects the ideology of togetherness. Ward is always home for dinner and on weekends and primarily uses the study as a place to read his newspaper, which is depicted as a form of leisure, and to lecture the boys. When June occupies the space, she does so as a visitor who occasionally participates in disciplining the boys or to tell her husband that dinner is ready.

Gendered representations of domestic space extend into the 1970s. Mike Brady is an architect who uses the den as a workspace. The space is equipped with a drafting table, desk lamp, bookshelves, and a phone extension. The home also has a small bedroom and laundry room behind the kitchen for their domestic worker, Alice, to live and work, as well as a desk in the master bedroom, presumably for Carol Brady to manage the home. The children have a family room in the back of the house to play and complete their homework. The show is about a blended family in which Mike’s three boys have to share a bedroom as does Carol’s three girls. When the show aired, there was commentary about why an architect couldn’t design a larger house with additional bedrooms to accommodate six kids. At some point, even the writers realized that it was necessary to address the need for privacy with teenagers. Therefore, Mike gives up his workspace to allow his oldest son, Greg, to have some privacy by converting the den into a teen bedroom/studio space. That arrangement didn’t last long and Greg ended up moving to the attic, which allowed his father to regain his workspace. I thought this spatial arrangement of workspaces in the home was interesting in that it matched typical arrangements for an upper-middle class home in newspapers, magazines, and home design books. The study or den was a masculine space and women’s workspaces were the feminine spaces in the home, such as the kitchen or bedroom.

Mike Brady and son, Greg, in the den/home office. The Brady Bunch (ABC).

EL: Your study engages with questions of difference in terms of who has had the power to shape ideas and to make choices about home and work. Gender is a primary axis of difference that you cover, but class, race, region, and age also play parts in your analysis. How does your study account for these various differences in the construction and experience of the discourses you analyze? Where does power lie in this history? Where might there be the potential for resistance?

Exhibition Poster for the National Child Labor Committee, circa 1913 Source: Hine, Lewis Wickes (1874-1940) Photographic Collection: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC.

EP: While I was researching and writing my book, I was also thinking about who’s missing or left out of the discourse on the home office and work-life balance even though the book focuses mostly on how working from home was promoted to white, heterosexual middle- and upper-class professionals. This is really a history of privilege. People of color for the most part and the working class were not the imagined consumer for architects or real estate, telephone, and typewriter companies because they did not have access to the American Dream. Yet, I was always looking for research on different forms of family life and domesticity to see if companies attempted to market their products to people of color, same-sex households, or the working class or how these groups were represented in mass media in relation to working at home.

In the history of working from home, there were moments of resistance. For example, during the turn of the century in large cities, manufacturing industries had colonized working-class homes as spaces of work. These companies exploited working-class families, especially children because of child labor practices. However, Lewis Hines, the famed sociologist and photographer, used images to expose the unsafe living conditions and work practices in New York City tenement buildings to the public. Working-class women and women of color participated in home manufacturing as a form of survival. That is not to say that manufacturing companies did not exploit their labor and landlords didn’t act as slumlords, but I would argue that these women were actually very enterprising in that they figured out a way of earning income and being able to supervise their children even though working at home was discouraged by middle-class social reformers.

Mrs. Guadina, living in a rear house at 231 Mulberry St. NY, circa 1913 Source: Hine, Lewis Wickes (1874-1940) Photographic Collection: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC.

EL: I was surprised to see how central Playboy magazine and Hugh Hefner were to the changing conceptions of the home as a space of work and leisure, particularly when it comes to the ways these developments have played out in the digital age. This really seemed to me to be a key turning point in your history. What role do you see the magazine and the conceptions of work and leisure it supported as having in this historical trajectory?

EP: After examining working at home in the suburbs during the post-war period, I started looking at the evolution of home design within the city. This period corresponded with changing norms regarding the relationship between sexuality, leisure, and work within the context of urban lifestyles. I was curious about what social, economic, and political forces brought about the emergence of the knowledge-creative professional that replaced the cultural dominance of the managerial class, that is William Whyte’s organization man. Until the 1950s, most references to professional men in magazines, newspaper, advertising and television featured the business executive or manager as the ideal professional. However, I noticed that by the 1960s, this figure was replaced with the writer, architect, lawyer, and other creative or knowledge professionals. For example, as I discussed earlier, Ward Cleaver was a generic executive or manager for a big company on Leave it to Beaver. However, by the late 1960s, Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch was an architect. Hugh Hefner and Playboy magazine were influential in driving this shift and changing conceptions of work and leisure, which is promoted as the good life, especially for professional, single men.

Playboy’s Penthouse Apartment Source: Playboy. “Playboy’s Penthouse Apartment I”; September 1956.

The bachelor pad was a space that embodied this type of domesticity and what was referred to as the good life in the city in opposition to family life in the suburbs. I wanted to historicize the growing importance of class status in relation to lifestyle and work, and this includes specific types of occupations. Hefner himself embodied the life-work lifestyle that he often featured in Playboy editorials. Playboy published several series of lifestyle essays that featured urban living, specifically bachelor pads of creative professionals such as magazine editors, writers and photographers, as well as knowledge professionals such as lawyers and professors. The bachelor pad was the ideal home for men that wanted to practice work and leisure in the home. Hefner’s influence could be seen in magazines beyond Playboy, such as its feminine counterpart, Cosmopolitan, and on popular TV shows such as Bachelor Father (1957-1959) and romantic comedies such as Pillow Talk (1959).

The bedroom within the ideal bachelor pad was conceived as a continuous space with the study. In the floor plan all that separates the two spaces is a temporary screen or curtain that you could just draw across if you wanted some separation from the workspace. During the 1950s and 1960s, Hefner kept making the argument that the ideal lifestyle was to combine work and play or leisure and that both could co-exist in the same domestic space. It’s no accident that he was often photographed wearing a bathrobe while working. I believe that Playboy’s contribution was to romanticize creative or knowledge-based work, to provide the foundation for our contemporary beliefs about work-life balance, and to promote the concept of “do what you love” as an occupational goal, which is the reigning mantra today.

EL: Communication technologies play a large role in the history you construct. But the internet and digital technologies are a relatively small part of that narrative, given how much of your analysis is oriented around the pre-internet age. To what extent have the internet and digital technologies extended or changed the integration of home and work that you analyze? In other words, how much of our contemporary experience of blurred lines between home and work might be attributed to the internet and how much is rooted in earlier communication technologies?

EP: I do believe that our contemporary experience regarding issues with work-life balance can be partially attributed to the personal computer and the internet. In the 1980s and 1990s, computer and software companies, especially Apple, aggressively marketed personal computers and software to professional families to work at home and manage the household. Many of the ads blurred the boundaries between work and home by referring to the home as a space of work and leisure. Now, with high-speed internet and smart devices, it is much easier and faster to go between work and our personal lives within the home.

Marketing booklet, circa 1985. Source: Apple Computer, Inc. Records, Dept. of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

However, I wrote this book to argue that there is a long history of blurring the lines between home and work. Consequently, I would argue that much of our contemporary experience is rooted in not just earlier communication technologies, but also changing attitudes about the meaning of home, the increasing central importance of work and consumerism within a system of capitalism, and the architectural history of housing.

EL: As I have already noted, this book was published in the midst of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, during which many more people began to work from home, whether in terms of conventional employment or in terms of schooling. Of course, this project was underway long before this time, but I would like to hear your thoughts about the ways the history you map points toward these developments, and/or what about your history is instructive for understanding our contemporary moment. How does Easy Living help us to understand the conditions within which many currently live and work?

EP: During the first wave of the pandemic, many people found themselves working full-time at home, especially professionals and white-collar workers. For people that didn’t have a designated home office, this meant finding a place to work in a bedroom, kitchen, or basement. Through social media, editorials, and survey data, women were more likely to report that they struggled to find a place to work compared to men and even children. This experience can be explained by the gendered history of home design and the valuation of certain forms of work that I trace in the book.

I also think that the pandemic shattered the myth of work-life balance. The ability to stay at home and work during lockdown was only possible because of the widespread presence of communication technologies in the home and also because of people that delivered groceries, prescriptions and other necessities. Before the pandemic, the professional, cultural, or knowledge class—which I am and most of the journal’s readers are included in—was very dependent on essential workers providing services such as childcare to continue working even though, as I discuss in the book, women have been told that working at home could resolve their childcare issues. The pandemic revealed that for many, working at home has not provided the promise of “easy living” from working at home as they have to juggle working full-time at home while also homeschooling children or providing care to the elderly or sick. We have to keep in mind that we may love our jobs and recognize the privilege of staying home but we also can’t forget that we’re workers too within a system of capitalism that—because of its dialectical nature—is unable to maintain the boundaries between work and home even though as a society we aspire to.

 

 

Notes[+]

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