On the Significance of Man Cave Signs

Screen shot 2014-02-24 at 9.39.15 AMThe market for man cave paraphernalia is probably a small niche.  But, many people I’ve talked to spend an inordinate amount of money on an odd array of trinkets and tchotchkes that help them symbolically authenticate these spaces.  Most of the people I contact to ask about their man caves, man dens, or whatever they call them talk with me or write with me first about the sign outside of the room.  Literally hundreds of these signs are for sale.  Some can be customized with names, but most are not.  And some men produce their own signs or have signs produced for them by others.  Not every man cave has a sign.  In fact, the ones with signs often feel a lot less authentic than those without.  But, signs are a feature of a “type” of cave, to be sure.

berenstain-bears-No-Girls-AllowedThe signs remind me of images we culturally associate with boys’ bedroom doors.  The “Keep Out!” sign with a skull and cross bones.  Indeed, this is where the signs are placed.  They’re not in the man cave, they are a designation of the space that stands just outside.  They symbolically welcome some and exclude others—similar to the “no girls allowed” signs we think of as characteristic of boys’ clubhouses (or Calvin and Hobbes’ tree house).  When I started this man cave project, I wasn’t initially all that interested in what exactly was in the caves.  calvingrossI’m collecting photographs of some, documenting the objects and considering room setup, décor, and the placement of different kinds of objects within the rooms.  But, I was and am much more interested in the ways these spaces fit into the relationships of the people in whose homes the caves reside.  But, now that the project is underway, the stuff has captured my attention as well.  And these signs are just one very small piece.

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Architecturally Isolating “Feminine” Emotional Displays

I recently moved to upstate New York.  So, there’s a lot more Victorian-style architecture in my neighborhood.  I’ve posted on the interesting ways that Victorian architecture gender segregates activity within the domestic space before (here and here).  photo 1(1)One room I’ve been interested in lately is a room with a few different names and a history that’s not entirely known.  It’s sometimes referred to as a “roofwalk.”  But, it’s more commonly called either a “widow’s walk,” “widow’s perch,” or a “widow’s watch.”  When I first learned about it, it was written about as a widow’s watch.  And there’s a bit of cultural mythology that surrounds these rooms in homes.  Here are two houses in my neighborhood with the room (right and left).photo 2(1)

The story that I’ve always heard about this room is that it was designed for the wives of sailors to watch and wait for their husbands to return.  Women whose husbands died at sea–so I was told–would sit in these rooms, pining for their long-lost lovers.  As it happens, there’s not a great deal of evidence that this was, in fact, the original purpose of the room, nor that this is how these rooms were actually used.  They did initially appear during the period when the sailing industry produced international trade on a level previously unimaginable and during which naval warfare dominated (~1500’s through the mid 1800s).  But the rooms could have equally been intended for (and used by) mariners themselves (rather than their wives) to look out for ships due back in port.  Indeed, in some communities, these rooms are referred to as “captain’s walks.”

And it’s also true that a great deal of these rooms were initially built around the chimneys of homes to provide quick and easy access to the chimney both in case it needed repair, and for a quick way to put out chimney fires–a constant dilemma in early American architecture.  This was the reason people had their chimneys “swept” every so often.  victorian style chimney sweep, a child chimney sweep,  hulton piThe accumulated ash and soot, if not regularly removed, could ignite.  Sweeping chimneys was serious–and extremely dangerous–business.  Children were often used because of their size, but it was a job often given to orphaned children.  It’s also a powerful illustration of historical understandings of children and childhood.  Despite being illegal, it would be unthinkable to ask a child to do something this dangerous today.  Chimney fires were serious business.  So, having quick access to pour sand down might have saved your home.

Yet many of these rooms today are not around chimneys, and if they were intended for either men or women, they were a room gendered by design.  And if intended for women, then they continued a tradition within Victorian architecture of designing rooms specifically intended to segregate (and/or isolate) certain emotional displays of women, keeping them out of sight.

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Gendering Children and Children’s Spaces

Jiyeon and Her Pink Things_mJeungMee Yoon’s “The Pink and Blue Project” has garnered quite a bit of attention.  The photographs are visually jarring.  Cole and His Blue Things_mPositioning girls and boys in the midst of the sea of their own pink or blue objects is a powerful statement about gender, consumption, and globalization.  Yoon got interested in the project through her own struggles as a parent.

The Pink and Blue Projects were initiated by my five-year-old daughter, who loves the color pink so much that she wanted to wear only pink clothes and play with only pink toys and objects. I discovered that my daughter’s case was not unusual. In the United States, South Korea and elsewhere, most young girls love pink clothing, accessories and toys. This phenomenon is widespread among children of various ethnic groups regardless of their cultural backgrounds. Perhaps it is the influence of pervasive commercial advertisements aimed at little girls and their parents, such as the universally popular Barbie and Hello Kitty merchandise that has developed into a modern trend. (here)

CAMD-paperbackIndeed, these struggles are the same that led Peggy Orenstein to write Cinderella At My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.  As both Yoon and Orenstein show, pink and blue are about so much more than colors.  These colors structure children’s lives in intricate ways.  D’Lane Compton and I posted on similar issues with respect to children’s clothing and the gendering of parenting products (here).

The objects we fill our children’s rooms with tell us a great deal about our culture and they structure the ways children experience the world around them.  While “princess culture” gets a lot of attention, it’s probably fair to say that the ways boy’s objects and identities are similarly gendered with all variety of “blue” is less discussed.

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On the Social Construction of Childhood: Making Space for Babies

The planning of modern homes takes babies, children, and safety into consideration a bit more (mildly put) than did earlier architectural design. Baby TenderIn some early colonial homes, small items (pictured to the right) have been found, often located somewhere on the floor of the main room. Initially it was thought to be something to house firewood, though it didn’t seem capable of holding much, and the slat that sits perpendicular to the box on the inside wall made little sense. It took observers a while to realize that this contraption was a device for holding children—a “baby tender.”

Baby tenders existed for two reasons: to give parents time without the infant and to ensure the baby’s safety whilst the parents were away. Open HearthThe most dangerous part of a colonial home was the open hearth. Necessary for both warmth and the “one-pot meals” that characterized early American family eating, the open hearth was an essential, yet simultaneously lethal, aspect of early American homes. Children were routinely injured, and sometimes died as a result of burns.

But the reason that we didn’t initially guess that the crate above was for babies had nothing to do with the dimensions of the crate or a misunderstanding of the dangers of fire. Rather, it had to do with a fundamentally different understanding of children. Today, we simply “see” children differently than they did in colonial America. If you’re anything like me, feeling as though anyone could look at an infant and feel anything other than love, affection, and a strange desire to nuzzle those chubby little cheeks seems almost impossible. Yet, these feelings and desires are actually part of a larger ideological shift in cultural conceptualizations of childhood. And this shift had architectural implications–ones that were slower to come about.

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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.   Continue reading

Goodnight Moon – The Story of a Lost Room

I’ve read Goodnight Moon to my son over 300 times now. So, I feel I can speak with renewed confidence when telling students about the benefits, joys, and new frustrations than come from re-reading a text.

Goodnight Moon is a simple enough story. My son isn’t yet old enough to begin to play the game that parents have recognized at least since Margaret Wise Brown wrote this book. The game is “delaying bedtime,” and it’s a classic! If the clocks depicted in the images are correct, the bunny in the story is able to successfully delay bedtime from 7:00 to about 8:10 (though the moon’s descent into the night sky provides a shorter time table). That’s not bad, particularly considering he’s being “hushed” by an “old lady” the whole time.

There are a number of oddities throughout the book that the repeat reader will find difficult to ignore. More thorough analyses of the text have explored these in greater detail. Beyond the depiction of a different colored set of curtains on the cover (red and green) than appear throughout the book (yellow and green), however, the room itself is a bit strange by modern standards. For starters, the room is enormous! If you consider the number of objects it holds, combined with the amount of space between them, the room must be gigantic. This is part of what makes this story magical.

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Material Feminists – Challenging the Shape of and Relations between Domestic Spaces

screen-shot-2012-10-22-at-10-19-47-am  Cross-posted at Femme-O-Nomics

Vernacular house forms are economic diagrams of the reproduction of the human race; they are also aesthetic essays on the meaning of life within a particular culture, its joys and rituals, its superstitions and stigmas.  House forms cannot be separated from their physical and social contexts. (Hayden 1984:  98)

The history of American home architectural design and the design of suburban space were never foregone conclusions.  From about 1870 through 1930, American home architecture was the topic of heated debate.  The homes that we live in today, their spatial arrangements, barriers, rituals, and traditions, and the shapes, uses, and meanings of our neighborhoods were fiercely debated topics.  And the debates that emerged out of the late 19th century still structure our lives today.

What kind (of kinds) of home(s) Americans needed has always been a question without a simple answer—with many competing perspectives.  The designs of our home not only allocates our belongings throughout the house, it structures the ways in which we interact with one another and the communities in which we live.

Dolores Hayden suggests that building programs competed to define American homes.  Overly simplified, a “building program” is a statement concerning the spatial and architectural requirements of some built space, typically defining the type of building along with a list of the sorts of activities that the building is intended to shelter (sleeping, eating, cooking, playing, lounging, entertaining, etc.).  At a general level, building programs communicate the requirements (economic, technical, social) of a building, including an explanation of how the built space accommodates the activities it is intended to house.  But buildings do more than accommodate social interactions.  They also structure our interactions, preclude or present the possibility of interactional flexibility, and make symbolic boundaries physical.

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