• Thursday , 23 November 2017

Man of the House – a study of masculinity in the mid-20th century home

‘The living room in a family house looking through into the dining room’ by Frank Austin and Neville Ward for the 1949 Ideal Home Exhibition, Design Council Archive, University of Brighton.

‘The living room in a family house looking through into the dining room’ by Frank Austin and Neville Ward for the 1949 Ideal Home Exhibition, Design Council Archive, University of Brighton.

I study housing in the middle decades of twentieth century Britain with an interest in the effects of masculinities on men’s domestic practices. My research focuses on two major influences: the effects of planners’ masculine identities on the housing designs produced; and the types of masculinities encouraged through these designs.

After the environmental devastation of German bombing campaigns, a wave of technical, paternalist and omniscient planners took control of Britain’s postwar urban reconstruction. At the same time, as the war ended, planners worried that men would struggle to readjust to domestic life and face relationship difficulties with wives and children. As a result, the interior activities of the nation’s homes became symptomatic of the country’s recovery, and model housing estates, most notably Lansbury in East London, understood as templates for the country’s future. Using easy-to-read publications and housing exhibitions as platforms to disseminate their ideas, planners encouraged new expressions of family-orientated masculinities for both working and middle class men.

CB Purdom, How Should We Rebuild London? (London: JM Dent and Sons, 1945).

CB Purdom, How Should We Rebuild London? (London: JM Dent and Sons, 1945).

Men, like women, performed gender in the home. This meant that everyday spatial environments had the potential to discipline what men could and could not do. My research argues that men used living rooms, dining spaces, bedrooms, gardens and sheds in well-planned homes to perform new identities as fathers and husbands. For instance, men’s willingness to help with housework in private homes, use of back gardens to play with children and improved marital intimacy in sound-proofed bedrooms. Although not every man who moved home changed his masculine identity, men’s movement into well-planned homes gave some inhabitants the space and privacy required to perform these identities.

Planners framed their interventions as technocratic and rational, with the desire to recast planning as something that differed from traditional bourgeois associations of expert knowledge. Yet the paternalist traditions of previous generations continued and planners found ways to function in an expanded bubble of technocratic, middle-class expertise.

This approach goes beyond the study of British housing. A brief survey of Dublin’s architectural history equally reveals planners’ masculinities and the practices they hoped to encourage. From the imperialist grandeur of Georgian apartments to the affluent exhibitionism of dockland penthouses, we find distinct expressions of masculine planning identities. Likewise, mid-twentieth century neighbourhoods like Crumlin, Ballyfermot and Marino promoted interior layouts that imagined men’s domestic actions in a particular way. Although these houses were less than ideal, and often too small for large families, well-planned domestic space gave men a greater sense of privacy and shaped how they performed the gendered roles of father and husband in the home.

Image of ‘the planner’ from The Youngest County: A Description of London as a County and Its Public Services (London: London County Council, 1951).

Image of ‘the planner’ from The Youngest County: A Description of London as a County and Its Public Services (London: London County Council, 1951).

Neither are these arguments only found in the past. Think about your own home and how the spatial arrangement of rooms and furniture facilitates and forbids the performance of certain actions and behaviours. Does your house have a specific chair for Dad and what happens if someone else sits in it? Where do you eat your meals and how do the physical features of your home shape this daily event? How do children interact with each other, and would this differ if they shared a bedroom? Planning the home continues to change living patterns that help or hinder men’s interactions with other family members.

Housing cannot fully explain men’s actions and behaviours within the home. However, studies of masculinities and homes can underline the role of space in some men’s performance of family-orientated masculinities. Analysis of masculinities and the home does more than simply locate men in the past – it also examines the wider intellectual context and offers an explanation for men’s performances of particular actions and behaviours. The well-planned home served as more than a backdrop for family events; it presents historians with an entry-point to examine the gendered effects of the built environment on men’s performance of new ideas about fatherhood, marriage and domesticity.

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