Get Out of My Room! A History of Teen Bedrooms in America

Get Out of My Room! A History of Teen Bedrooms in America In 1982 I was fourteen years old, and the British synthpop duo Yazoo's Upstairs at Eric's (1982) was continually rotating on my record player. Buried deep on side 1 of the album was a quirky gem, “In My Room.” The lyrics spoke to the paradoxical status of my teenage bedroom, a site of both refuge and isolation: “And in the room locked up inside me / The cutout magazines remind me / I sit and wait alone in my room.” As it turns out, my relationship to my bedroom was like that of millions of other teenagers. And though it seemed both natural and inevitable, the centrality of the room of one's own to young people growing up during the Cold War was a comparatively new phenomenon, made possible by a congeries of forces: an affluent bourgeoisie, the combined voices of child-development experts and advice columnists, access to inexpensive and portable electronics, and the concretizing of teenage identity. After almost a century of debates over the appropriateness of separate sleeping quarters for adolescents, by the 1950s the teen bedroom was a permanent (and for parents and teens alike, regarded as necessary) feature of the American home. How the cultural consensus that teenagers deserved and needed a room to themselves developed from the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century is the focus of Jason Reid's enlightening, entertaining, and thought-provoking book. Reid traces the development of the teen bedroom with vigor and nuance. While in the mid-nineteenth century—a separate bedroom was available only to teen girls from affluent families and imagined primarily as a space of religious devotion and self-examination—and sibling togetherness in sleeping quarters was more often seen as a positive good, by the beginning of the twentieth century, adolescents laid claim to their own spaces. The preeminence of the teen bedroom emerged in fits and starts, though. As Reid shows, it is inextricable from technological advances—sleeping alone in a room set apart was possible and desirable only after most families had access to central heating and electric light—as well as social and cultural change. The teen bedroom was also subject to economic shifts, most notably during the Great Depression, when the number of family members who had their own rooms contracted considerably. After World War II the teen bedroom came into its own as a place for teen self-actualization. It reflected its occupant's sense of self, and was deliberately distinguished from the style and decor of childhood. Ironically, that sense was often defined by mass-produced items (Reid points to the ubiquitous Farrah Fawcett swimsuit poster of the 1970s) as much as a do-it-yourself aesthetic. Reid also analyzes the anxieties that the teen bedroom generated among adults, from the antimasturbation mania that lasted into the 1920s to fears of drug use, sexual activity, drinking, and “brainwashing” by dangerous music of one kind or another. He argues convincingly that these various panics revealed structural contradictions in the consensus around teenage needs for privacy: the war on drugs in particular challenged that conventional wisdom with claims that “too much” time alone in one's bedroom, an “excessive” desire for autonomy from the family, and a resistance to parental incursions were signs of drug use. While Reid does an excellent job of analyzing the gender and class implications of the teen bedroom, he pays inadequate attention to racial difference in the rise of the teen bedroom. People of color were systematically excluded from many of the social changes that made the teen bedroom available to their white counterparts. Nonetheless, Get Out of My Room! opens the door of teenagers' bedrooms to historians and shows what lies within. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The Journal of American History Oxford University Press

Get Out of My Room! A History of Teen Bedrooms in America

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0021-8723
eISSN
1945-2314
D.O.I.
10.1093/jahist/jax491
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

In 1982 I was fourteen years old, and the British synthpop duo Yazoo's Upstairs at Eric's (1982) was continually rotating on my record player. Buried deep on side 1 of the album was a quirky gem, “In My Room.” The lyrics spoke to the paradoxical status of my teenage bedroom, a site of both refuge and isolation: “And in the room locked up inside me / The cutout magazines remind me / I sit and wait alone in my room.” As it turns out, my relationship to my bedroom was like that of millions of other teenagers. And though it seemed both natural and inevitable, the centrality of the room of one's own to young people growing up during the Cold War was a comparatively new phenomenon, made possible by a congeries of forces: an affluent bourgeoisie, the combined voices of child-development experts and advice columnists, access to inexpensive and portable electronics, and the concretizing of teenage identity. After almost a century of debates over the appropriateness of separate sleeping quarters for adolescents, by the 1950s the teen bedroom was a permanent (and for parents and teens alike, regarded as necessary) feature of the American home. How the cultural consensus that teenagers deserved and needed a room to themselves developed from the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century is the focus of Jason Reid's enlightening, entertaining, and thought-provoking book. Reid traces the development of the teen bedroom with vigor and nuance. While in the mid-nineteenth century—a separate bedroom was available only to teen girls from affluent families and imagined primarily as a space of religious devotion and self-examination—and sibling togetherness in sleeping quarters was more often seen as a positive good, by the beginning of the twentieth century, adolescents laid claim to their own spaces. The preeminence of the teen bedroom emerged in fits and starts, though. As Reid shows, it is inextricable from technological advances—sleeping alone in a room set apart was possible and desirable only after most families had access to central heating and electric light—as well as social and cultural change. The teen bedroom was also subject to economic shifts, most notably during the Great Depression, when the number of family members who had their own rooms contracted considerably. After World War II the teen bedroom came into its own as a place for teen self-actualization. It reflected its occupant's sense of self, and was deliberately distinguished from the style and decor of childhood. Ironically, that sense was often defined by mass-produced items (Reid points to the ubiquitous Farrah Fawcett swimsuit poster of the 1970s) as much as a do-it-yourself aesthetic. Reid also analyzes the anxieties that the teen bedroom generated among adults, from the antimasturbation mania that lasted into the 1920s to fears of drug use, sexual activity, drinking, and “brainwashing” by dangerous music of one kind or another. He argues convincingly that these various panics revealed structural contradictions in the consensus around teenage needs for privacy: the war on drugs in particular challenged that conventional wisdom with claims that “too much” time alone in one's bedroom, an “excessive” desire for autonomy from the family, and a resistance to parental incursions were signs of drug use. While Reid does an excellent job of analyzing the gender and class implications of the teen bedroom, he pays inadequate attention to racial difference in the rise of the teen bedroom. People of color were systematically excluded from many of the social changes that made the teen bedroom available to their white counterparts. Nonetheless, Get Out of My Room! opens the door of teenagers' bedrooms to historians and shows what lies within. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

Journal

The Journal of American HistoryOxford University Press

Published: Mar 1, 2018

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