Bathrooms, Houses, and Suburbs: Privacy and the Reorganization of Urban Space, 1900-1930

Martin Eiermann, University of California, Berkeley

Houses and bedrooms have long been understood as “private” spaces. But while the logic of privacy has been invoked by scholars to understand the division of domestic space in the 19th century, it remains remarkably absent from studies of American urban space in the 20th century. In this study, I show that social reformers of the Progressive Era relied heavily on the logic of privacy to comprehend and contest the social ills of America’s growing cities by linking it to salient discourses about health and morality, and that state and municipal legislation across the United States was directly informed by such concerns. Using a novel administrative dataset from New York City as an illustrative case study, I demonstrate two links between social norms and the organization of urban space. First, I show that the legal codification of privacy norms sparked a quick and significant reorganization of space within individual apartments and buildings in the 1910s. Second, I demonstrate that overcrowding in the inner city was regarded as a threat to privacy across entire neighborhoods but was largely left unaddressed by regulatory interventions. It was only alleviated in the 1920s and 1930s when public transportation made suburban life compatible with participation in inner-city labor markets. The results illustrate important mechanisms for the co-constitution of ideas and material life, but also suggest that such mechanisms are often context-specific, and not easily generalizable across different levels of the social order.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 87. Governing the Private Sphere