The Evolution of the TV in the Home (& Why We’re Obsessed With Hiding It)

published Jan 29, 2018
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(Image credit: H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images)

The biggest fight I ever had with my husband in a public setting was over a TV. We’d decided to put a television in our living room after a few years of hiding the object in our bedroom and were at Target to pick one out. Facing off in the electronics department, we had an epic showdown over whether we’d buy a big, black box, smart TV or the super cute retro-style little Crosley number that would fit in scale and style with the room it was bound for. Normally one to keep the peace, he’d never argued so adamantly but I was a stone wall, refusing to budge on putting an ugly plastic box in our charming little bungalow living room.

(Image credit: Dana McMahan)

Total gender stereotypes here notwithstanding, this ruckus reflects the ambivalence we’ve had about our television sets since they made their first foray into our living rooms (and daily routines) early last century. While our popular collective memory may serve up images of happy families gathered around console televisions (courtesy every vintage television ad ever), the truth is much less straightforward, I learned from Lynn Spigel, PhD, who teaches and writes about the cultural history of film, television, and digital media.

“We always think it was this conspicuous consumption idea,” she says, “and you had that, but it was also the opposite; should you hide it, should you put it in a cabinet?”

It turns out that’s basically been our question around TV since the beginning. First invented in 1927 by Philo Taylor Farnsworth, it was considered a “rich man’s toy” in the early 1930s and ’40s, “though many wealthy modernists thought it déclassé to have a TV or to watch it,” Dr. Spigel says. “By the end of the ’40s [when two percent of American families owned one] they were already all about hiding it.”

The big marketing push after World War 2, though, when the radio networks made the move to TV, led to the ubiquitous living room console we know from those old pictures.

(Image credit: Vintage Ad Browser)

With a few notable exceptions (like the TV stove!) the big idea was that they’d go in the living room, Dr. Spigel says, and so they came in different styles, even looking like furniture, to mesh with the design of the time (and to appease the anxiety that marketers thought women had about machines in the house!) she says. But don’t think people were waiting with open arms. Women’s magazines of the day were all abuzz with what the TV would do to the aesthetics of the living room and how to fit it in. And I’m not just talking Better Homes & Gardens. The higher end architectural journals, “they were all worried, ‘what will television do to decor?’ Interiors had a whole issue devoted to the television that warned ‘beware the eye,'” she says.

(Image credit: George Nelson Foundation)

This need to disguise or conceal the TV led to fancy solutions like the George Nelson Storagewall where machines of everyday life were tucked away. “That concept became important in the higher-end mid-century modern idea of how you deal with media—by hiding it or camouflaging it,” she says, adding that the fear of the TV taking over the room led to middle-class women hiding it as well, usually behind bookshelves and paintings. Some even put them inside fireplaces—the former focal point of the room. And to think, this was pre-Pinterest! It just goes to show there is nothing new under the sun.

By 1960, 90 percent of American homes had a TV and people were spending five hours a day watching them. That’s faster than any previous technology adoption, Dr. Spigel notes. In that same decade and the next, marketing for the small screen made a huge shift: The television was no longer just the object of admiration for happy, wholesome, together families. In the swingin’ ’60s and groovy ’70s, the television became a way to get away from the family, with portable TVs popping up. Considered personal devices, ads showed liberated women or men holding sets as they ran off into the woods, or people scuba diving with their TVs, Dr. Spigel says. Prices were dropping (a set in 1948 would have cost nearly five grand in today’s dollars) and the proliferation of the bedroom TV became a thing.

The ’80s and ’90s saw TVs become part of the high-tech “black box” aesthetic, Dr. Spigel says. “Before this time, we were trying to hide it and suddenly it’s the techno black box.” TVs were popping up in kitchens and even bathrooms. You were nobody if you weren’t watching Julia Child whip up an omelette au fromage step-by-step right by your actual stove. But then came all these objects you attach to televisions—the VCRs and game consoles…and the mess of wires that follow. Back in the cabinet you go, television. The bulky sets of the MTV era retreated behind “entertainment centers” or TV armoire doors, that is, until the flat screen came along in 1997.

(Image credit: Jessica Isaac)

That completed the attempt to make the television part of the aesthetic of invisible design, says Dr. Spigel. If you had the big, hulking TV, “you were obviously antiquated and out of style.” Sleek new (and ever bigger) flat screens were more part of the digital aesthetic, she says. You don’t even have to see the infrastructure when you float a TV on the wall…how modern and posh!

Plasmas were a sign of wealth (considering they cost around $10,000 when they first came out). Hiding one would be a crime to your social status, surely, but at the same time, the late 20th century was still fraught with people wanting to admit (keyword admit) to watching television at all.

“Twenty years ago, if I asked my students about it, they said, ‘no we don’t watch TV,'” Dr. Spigel says, “but three weeks in everybody had obviously watched everything, based on their conversations and interests.” For the TV apologists, the screens went back in hiding.

Now, of course, we’re in the new “golden age” of television, Dr. Spigel says. Not only do most of us freely fess up to watching the amazing shows available, we outbinge one another. I personally don’t know what I’d have done without the bedroom TV and Netflix when sick in bed on Christmas Day at a relative’s; I watched an entire series.

While bingeing culture is de rigueur today, it’s still interesting to see that people are still up to their old tricks. One glance at a luxury interior design magazine, and you’ll quickly notice the black box missing from living rooms, hidden behind art or cleverly concealed with some high-tech feature inside a wall or something.

Which seems to leave us with the same quandary as our ’40s and ’50s counterparts: Does the TV take center stage? Or do we camouflage it? An extremely unscientific poll among my Facebook friends showed that for every one “Hang It Proud For All To See” viewer there are two who prefer to tuck it out of site. Likewise, Google turns up nearly twice as many results for “how to hide TV” than “how to display TV.” But how much longer will it matter when we take phones/tablets/laptops and whatever’s next into account? Real TVs may still be the method of choice for adults overall, Nielsen says, but for younger adults, smart phone use edged out actual television watching. Really, what even is “TV” anymore? While it’s much more ubiquitous as a concept now, Dr. Spigel says, it’s definitely less tangible as an object.

(Image credit: Dana McMahan)

As for my husband and I, we recently said goodbye to the little Crosley in the living room of our current Victorian house since we have the space to dedicate a room specifically to TV watching, where the “dreaded” big black box sits against a nearly black wall (the better to camouflage it, of course), on top of—what else?—a fireplace.