A Brief History of the Masculinization of the Garage

In the U.S., garages did not really become a part of the “typical” American home (if we can say such a thing) until the start of the 20th century.  Certainly garages existed; but they weren’t seen as a necessity.  Two things you’d probably guess drove garage production initially: the increasing presence of cars owned by individual families and suburbanization.  But,garage-mtneerman-2006 suburbanization was also accompanied by a renewed interest in a sort of “do-it-yourself” lifestyle, and garages played a role in this history.  There’s some disagreement concerning whether a “do-it-yourself” zeitgeist prompted suburban retreat or the other way around.  But, the important bit is that they are related.

Industrialization and suburbanization brought about fantastic transformations in family life and gender relations.  Men and women began to rely upon one another in new and unprecedented ways.  Divisions between work and leisure became more pronounced for men and this same boundary was probably blurred more than ever before for women.  The same forces that led Lasch to call the family “a haven in a heartless world” were inequitably distributed between family members.  This fact is reverberated in our design and use of home architecture.

If you have a home built in the early 20th century that hasn’t been remodeled, it’s likely that you have a fairly closed-off, small kitchen and probably only one centrally-located bathroom.  These are just two examples but they’re a powerful illustration of an important issue to do with gender and space.  Small kitchens, structurally isolated in homes are a remnant of a particular set of gender relations in families.  When architects were designing homes for my grandparent’s generation, kitchens were small and segregated because few people were thought to have reason to inhabit them.  Multiple bathrooms seemed a waste of space until the hustle and bustle of dual-earning couples’ morning routines became a national norm.

Garages, basements, and more, have historically served as spaces to which men retreat to work on projects around the house, hobbies, to read, watch television, or “to tinker” as my grandmother-in-law says of her husband.  As Albert Roland put it,

[M]illions have taken to heart Thoreau’s example, withdrawing to their basement and garage workshops to find there a temporary Walden. (here)

ford_its_a_two_ford_garage_1950The homes of the late 1800s and early 1900s lacked garages, sheds and basements.  Thus, if you wanted to “do” anything to your home, you’d be doing it in your home.  Gradually spaces were erected providing a place for homeowners to do-it-themselves.  As this labor was culturally masculinized, these spaces became masculinized as well.  So, it’s not uncommon today to have seen car grills, posters of automobiles or scantily clad (if clad at all) women, engine parts, and tools hung on walls like animal heads.

The cultural mystique of the garage as a masculine space, solitary by design still occupies the U.S. cultural imaginary.  Car advertisements depicting cars and trucks in home garages often play on this imagery.  The garage, like the man cave, and sometimes the basement—as spaces in the cultural imaginary—serve as architectural sites for the recuperation of blue-collar masculinities that have been replaced in the post-industrial economy (and where they remain, they have become forever altered).

Hamilton Carroll argues that we glorify these forms of working-class manual labor—forms for which the garage is often a cultural stand-in—at the same moment when this type of labor has all but disappeared in the U.S. (here and here).  Similarly, Peter Tragos argues that shows like “American Chopper” are indicative of the cultural apotheosis of working-class masculinities of old.  9-11_2Carroll presents a similar analysis of the post-9/11 lionization of emergency service workers, fire fighters in particular.  Commenting on comic book responses to 9/11, Carroll focusses on some of the comic book special issues dedicated to the tragedy.  One issue cover shows Superman with his dog in awe in front of a mural of emergency workers (fire fighters, police officers, doctors, nurses, construction workers, and more).  The image is actually recreated from an old cover that depicted a boy and his dog staring up at a mural of superheroes with the same expression—“Wow.”

Car commercials use this cultural image of masculinity as the only one that can save American families and culture.  Chrysler’s Super Bowl commercial featuring Clint Eastwood is probably a case in point here.  Chrysler-EastwoodThe focus on the preservation of Detroit’s auto industry is actually a key issue that has helped Barack Obama retain masculine credibility.  The commercial discusses the economic hard times of the “man-cession,” and invigorates the audience by playing to fears of national demise.  Eastwood states,

This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again, and when we do the world’s gonna’ hear the roar of our engines.

But the audience here is hearing more than just about cars.  We’re hearing a story about a masculinity that becomes exalted as it becomes less common and less necessary.

When I talk with people about my man cave project, both men and women have been eager to tell me why men need these spaces.  Most have things to say about the home having been so culturally feminized that men need these spaces to stake a “last stand” of sorts.  Garages are not often used in this way.  In fact, from what we know, most American garages are far too full of stuff to hold cars, let alone holding cars as well as serving as a domestic “hangout” for men.  This fact, however, doesn’t seem to have disrupted the image of the garage in the cultural imaginary where it serves as a space where men work on their homes and cars not because they have to, but because they want to.

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