December 17th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

A Slice of American History: The Bachelor Apartment

Bear with me while I (possibly) bore you with a longish bit of historical trivia. There's a reason for this. Remember in Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" where he says, in the middle, "That's not the story I came here to tell you. I told you that story so I could tell you this one"? This is that first story, a story I'm telling you so I can tell you another one without a long chunk of exposition in the middle. But you might be interested anyway. When I set out to find out what exactly I was seeing in these scenes in old movies, I was fascinated by what it said about us as people and as Americans. Maybe you will be, too. If not, bear with me.

Our biggest cities are, as Joel Garreau pointed out, primarily artifacts of a particular technology of a particular time: the time when passenger rail was the only affordable alternative to horse-drawn vehicles. The economics of passenger rail all but require crowded together high rise buildings to justify the expense of building a passenger rail station every quarter of a mile, and of trains that stop and start every quarter of a mile. But in the 1920s through the 1940s, you get an interesting situation economically where your average working class, middle class, or upper middle class family can afford to own one automobile. For your working class and middle class families, the wife drives the husband to work, then keeps the car all day so that she can use it to shop for the household and ferry the kids around. But an awful lot of your upper-middle-class and wealthy jobs are still in the big city: brokers, medical specialists, college professors, corporate sales reps, bankers, insurance salesmen, actuaries, architects, engineers, government technical specialists, and so on. Now, wealthy people can afford enough real estate in the city to make it comfortable and practical to raise a family there. But your upper middle class family mostly can't. They live in the suburbs, even though he works in the city. So a specific technological compromise is struck, and it's one that's oddly similar to the way the Athenians lived during the time of Pericles.

Your upper middle class wife drives her husband not to work, because that's too far and the traffic in the city is horrific, but to the nearest passenger rail station, one probably very near the end of the line, in the family's "station wagon." He works all day, takes the train home, and she picks him up. Except that that doesn't work, either, for a lot of men. They work in jobs that may require them to occasionally cover the second or third shift. Or they're on-call some evenings to be available to deal with business emergencies. Or they work in fields where the successful man is one who gets to work before the first train runs and works such a long day that he's still in the office after the last train has run. In theory, they could take a cab home, but cabs are inconvenient and expensive, and besides, even in New York City of the time, the cabs don't run all night. Hence: the bachelor apartment.

I need to clarify a linguistic point here, because the word "bachelor" no longer quite means what it used to mean. We now, in all contexts but one, use the term "bachelor" to mean "unmarried man." But if that's the case, why is the standard entry-level credential to the middle and upper middle class called a bachelor's degree? Even when it's earned by a woman, we don't call it a bachelorette's degree or a debutente's degree. The reason that degree is called a bachelor's degree is that before it meant "unmarried man," the word bachelor was a (now obsolete) term meaning "professional" or what we would now call "white collar worker." So even though the guy who long-term leases the space is almost certainly married, has a wife and two or more kids living out in the suburbs, his apartment in the city, within walking distance of the office, is still called his bachelor apartment.

If you watch old movies, you'll see this bachelor apartment set many times; each studio had one or two of them permanently built and reused them over and over again with only mildly changed decorations. And one of the fun parts of having learned what I learned from studying this cultural artifact is that if you understand the economics and social functions of the bachelor apartment, you can tell a lot about the character of a guy who owns one by how the set decorators decorated his bachelor apartment. You see, remember that the bachelor apartment exists only for one socially approved function: to provide him a place to store a couple of changes of clothes, to sleep in after work, to wash up in, and then to go back to work. It is only supposed to be used, when awake, for half an hour or an hour a day. There's a half bath, or if it's luxurious, 3/4 bath, in a tiny little space smaller than an average walk-in closet. There's a wardrobe big enough to hold a couple of suits and a spare overcoat, or a tiny closet. There is almost certainly not a kitchen, not even a kitchenette, because it's assumed that he eats at restaurants.

The net effect is rather like a tiny hotel room, but with a few weird differences. The most important one is that traditionally there isn't even a bed. Instead there's a weird piece of furniture you see in antique stores, and occasionally as a faux-antique revival. It's a short couch with only one arm and half of a back, called a day bed. He can sit on the side with the arm and the half-back with his feet up like a recliner, or he can lie down on it with his feet and legs curled up on the end that doesn't have an arm, because in theory that's all he needs. There isn't even traditionally supposed to be a second chair in the room, although this gets excused on the grounds that he might need a place to meet quietly with a client or a co-worker. There's probably a radio, excused on the basis that he needs to hear the news while getting ready in the morning. If you look at those movie sets, there's almost always a coffee maker snuck in there. But there shouldn't be a record player, because that's theoretically only for entertaining guests; if there is one, he excuses it by claiming he sometimes needs to listen to music to calm down after work so he can get to sleep. There's probably a bottle of scotch or brandy in the wardrobe or closet for the same reason, but he has to make excuses to explain why there might be more than one glass.

Because remember that America was still a culture where less than 1% of the population, per the census, lived alone. And nearly all of them were childless widows and widowers. Not only did the economics of living alone not work, it simply wasn't done except by social deviants who were building dens of iniquity for themselves from which they could try to escape from social observation. To admit that you lived alone was to invite speculation that you were insane, a drug addict, a homosexual, a professional criminal, or worse. For many hundreds of years, people lived with their parents until they married, then moved out and started a home of their own together. And if they outlived a spouse, they normally moved in with their married children. So everything about the design of the bachelor apartment is done to reassure the public, especially the shocked and disgusted working class and middle class Americans who've heard about bachelor apartments, that these apartments are rented by men who only use them for absolutely essential business-related purposes. That on nights when they get off work while the trains are running, they take the train home to their loving families, and that at the very least they are spending three nights and two days a week living at their real home in the suburbs, from Friday evening through Monday morning. And that's why any but the most Spartan of bachelor apartments invites speculation that he's up to something, or at least trying to be. That's why the day bed is as tiny and uncomfortable as it is. No man would have the guts to put anything as decadent as a bed in his bachelor apartment. Even if nobody else knew, the furniture movers and probably the landlord would know, and the gossip would destroy him: if there was a bed in the place, there might be room for someone other than him to be lying in it with him. And even if he could manage to dismiss such speculation, there would be the question of why he needed such a comfortable bed in a space that he was supposed to only be using in an emergency?

Except that, of course, you have exactly the same situation that applied in Athens during the golden age of Pericles. Back then the men came into town from their family farms to do business, and couldn't make it home before dark. So they rented tiny little cubicle apartments in the city. This had the effect of gender segregating the society; a man inherited or bought a large and comfortable house outside the city, but when he was there, he felt like and was treated like a guest. He lives there at most a few days a week; the wife and the children and the servants if any live there full time. So, in 400s BCE Greece as in 1930s New York, his house has "his room," a den or a library where he and his male friends can feel comfortable, can feel as if they're not intruders invading his wife's home. (Socially, in early 20th century big cities this awkwardness is covered up by explaining that this is the only room in the house in which smoking is allowed.) But because when he goes home he feels uncomfortable, many a professional man in that time period makes excuses to live out of his bachelor apartment during the week even when he could, in theory, still catch a train home, and thus more and more decorations and luxuries sneak in.

By around 1954, the economics had changed. Your average middle class and upper middle class family could now afford what had, in the preceding decades, a luxury reserved only for the wealthy: one car per driver. So now, if he works late or early hours in the city, he drives in, and is fully expected to drive home. And by the late 1970s, the upper middle class jobs were following the upper middle class families out into the suburbs, anyway. So the bachelor apartment is only something that you see in old movies. Or hear about ... in one particularly odd Christmas song. And I told you this story so I can tell you that one tomorrow.