Taverns, the Wealthy, and a Widow: Innovative Adopters of Du Mont Televisions
Histories of media innovations often focus on the inventors who shape the new technologies. But what about the adopters of these innovations? Who are the individuals who adopt media technologies when they first become public?
Historians, like Craig (2004), have extrapolated some information about these early adopters through census data and sales figures. But what if we could go further? What if we knew who actually owned some of the earliest media devices?
Buried in the Allen B. Du Mont Collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History Archives Center is a list that does just that. An interoffice memo entitled “Television Sets in the Field” provides the names and addresses of dealers, businesses, and individuals who were in possession of Du Mont television sets in September 1942 (Brace 1942). Given that Du Mont was the first company to build and sell commercial television sets, beginning in 1939, this list provides a unique glimpse into some of the earliest adopters of television (DuMont 1948).
So who were the early adopters of Du Mont televisions? This paper explorers this question, using city directories and the 1940 census, to learn more about the businesses and individuals who were some of the earliest adopters television.
Of the 456 Du Mont televisions in the field, nearly a third were owned by restaurants and bars, a result of Du Mont’s early promotional efforts to target these businesses. More than of a quarter of the sets were located at dealerships, eighteen sets were at a Du Mont plant or in maintenance, two dozen were owned by companies in the radio or television industry, fourteen were out on loan, and another two dozen were owned by various business including hotels, a church, and an auto shop.
Individuals owned approximately one hundred television sets. While not all of the individuals could be identified in census records, detailed information about 68 of the early adopters was obtained. The demographic information revealed some expected findings. All of the owners were white. The vast majority were males who lived in the greater New York, New Jersey, Connecticut area within antenna range of the Du Mont transmitter located at 51 Madison Ave in Manhattan. Most were married and identified as the head of the household. Many made at least $5,000 a year, the equivalent of approximately $86,000 today. There were some famous industry names like Adolph Zukor and William Morris. But there were also some surprises: a 60 year-old widowed housewife; a 41 year-old divorced secretary; a married 42 year-old weaver making just $900 ($15,000 today) a year.
Through a detailed examination of the possessors of the first 456 televisions manufactured and sold by Du Mont, this paper helps round out our understanding of who were the earliest adopters of television in the United States.
Media & The American Home
Today’s home is filled with media and communication technologies. A glance around the house reveals multiple televisions, radios, computers, mobile devices, gaming systems, audio systems, and even the occasional landline phone gathering dust. Yet a house at the start of the 20th century was very different. At best, a home might have contained a single telephone and a phonograph player. Over the course of the 20th century a wealth of new media and communication technologies - everything from the radio, to the television, to the home computer - were introduced. How did these new technologies change the design and use of the home? This project explores this question through an examination of the impact of media and communication technologies on residential interior design and architecture.
The design of the family home has evolved over the centuries as the needs of the family have changed. The Romans built their homes around a central courtyard or atrium that provided access to a formal parlor, dining room, and smaller rooms dedicated to cooking and bathing. In Great Britain, the earliest homes were simple, one-room, round “beehive” like homes. During the Middle Ages houses featured one or two rooms that served dual purposes, with living spaces doubling as barns for animals or as a shop or workspace.
Colonial dwellings in America were influenced by settlers who brought their architectural styles with them to the new world. Most settlers built basic single room, or hall, houses. In warmer climates porches were added. As settlements in North America became more established, homes slowly began to expand. Additions to the basic one-room “hall” plan included a formal parlor, lean-tos featuring smaller rooms, and second floors with sleeping accommodations. By the turn of the 19th century, many of the wealthy had constructed Federalists mansions that featured not only a dining room, a kitchen, and bedrooms, but also specialized rooms like a drawing room, a salon, a music room, a butler’s pantry, a ballroom, and a banqueting room. By the Victorian Era larger homes were accessible to the masses as mass production made building materials more affordable. A Victorian home often featured a large dining room that doubled as a family room, a formal parlor reserved for entertaining guests, bedrooms, and a kitchen.
The 20th century saw a number of changes to the family home. As the Progressive Era swept the country, home design was simplified. The ideal Progressive house featured three multipurpose rooms on the first floor: a living room used for entertaining guests and for general family activities; a dining room that also doubled as a room for the piano and as a general work space; and a kitchen. The second floor featured small bedrooms reserved for sleeping. Advancements in building technology also enabled open-space house plans that allowed residents to decide how space would be portioned off for differing family needs. The introduction of the ranch style home, popular after World War II, saw the division of the house into three different zones: a housework zone featuring the kitchen and laundry; a living zone featuring a living room for adults and a family room for children; and a private zone featuring bedrooms and bathrooms.
The introduction of new technologies throughout the 19th and 20th centuries also impacted the home. The creation of public water service moved the bathroom into the house. The adoption of central heating eliminated the need for rooms to be designed around a large central fireplace or shared chimneys. The introduction of mechanical devices, like the refrigerator, washing machine, and electric or gas stovetop made large spaces for doing laundry and storing food and fuel unnecessary. As automobiles grew in popularity garages were added to the home.
Changes in mass media and communication technologies also dictated changes to the home. But too what extent? For example, what impact did the introduction of the television have on the American living room? According to Malnar and Vodvarka, “the impact of television can scarcely be calculated in terms of its influence as a medium; perhaps of equal significance is its role in shaping interior space. The furniture grouping that had reflected spatial relationships based on conversation now turned to the television set for their focus; and interpersonal eye contact become secondary to television sight lines, even when the set was nonfunctioning.”
Surprisingly, little research has examined how media and communication technologies have changed the design and use of the family home. Lynn Spigel has studied related areas, looking at how media representations of television during its first decade encouraged “the theatricalization and specularization of domestic space.” In particular Spigel looked at the relationship between public and private spaces and how the television brought the world into the home. Susan Zavotka examined the changes in the decision processes used by interior designers trying to incorporate media technologies into the home. Conducting a content analysis of pictures appearing in House & Garden between 1918 and 1987, Zavotka found that designers shifted from an approach emphasizing design principles over function (the inorganic design system) to an approach focused on the functional uses of the technology (the organic design system). While Barnett studied how phonograph players gained acceptance in the home because companies marketed the device as furniture that could easily be blended into the home.
This project builds upon this previous research by providing a more in-depth examination into how media and communication technologies have changed the interior design and architecture of the American home. The story starts with the introductions of the telephone and the phonograph at the end of the 19th century and continues as the radio, television, personal computer, Internet, and other related media and communication technologies take their place in the American home. This project traces each technology as it finds its way into the home and as its place in the home evolves over time. Along the way, this project examines how the technology changed the home, both from an interior design perspective and from an architectural perspective.
For instance, this project will look at how the telephone entered the home through the hallway and then slowly moved to other rooms, becoming a permeant fixture in almost every room in the home before cell phones replaced the need for landlines and wired phone jacks. As the phone’s place in the home changed, how did it change the home? When the only place to talk on the telephone was a receiver placed in hallway, a common location for its first few decades, how did the design of the hallway change? As the desire for phone receivers in several locations in the home grew, what modifications had to be made to the structure of the home to allow for the eventual wiring of the entire house? Was the telephone quietly incorporated into the home, or did it have the disruptive power of the television, which required significant modifications to the furniture arrangement of any room it entered? Nearly a century after it was first introduced, how did the phone make room for, and even dictate how the Internet entered the home? As consumers replaced their landlines with cell phones, how, if any, has the home changed? These are just some of the questions this project will explore as it examines what impact the telephone and other media and communication technologies had on the design and use of the American home.
The goal of this project is to produce a book that will contribute to our understanding of the changing relationship between media and communication technologies and the American home. The book will inform national and international scholars in a number of disciplines, including communication, architecture, interior design, and history.
Simmons, Charlene (2016), "A Marriage of Friends or Foes: Radio, Newspapers, and the Facsimile in the 1930s," Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 60.3, 1-15.
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Simmons, Charlene (2007), "Protecting Children While Silencing Them: The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and Children's Free Speech Rights," Communication Law and Policy 12.2, 119-142.