It’s just past 10 a.m. and my partner, on his third virtual meeting today, is working nonstop in our home office. Since late August, my son has taken over the family room to attend distance learning classes, play video games, and socialize with friends online. I am teaching online this fall and do not have daily access to my campus office, which closed in March.
For these reasons, each morning, I find myself carrying my laptop and tea around my house, trying to find a quiet place to work. Before the pandemic, unlike my spouse who already telecommuted one to two days a week, I never needed a dedicated space at home.
And as I explain in my recent book on the social history of the home office, historically, it’s been women who have been the ones left searching for dedicated space.
To better understand the makeshift nature of home work spaces — and why the spaces are often gendered — it’s important to look at how the home office emerged as a distinct space.
In the 18th century, three separate spheres of domestic activity started to appear in middle-class and wealthy single-family homes: a social area for hosting guests, such as dining and living rooms; a service zone, including the kitchen, cellar and laundry area; and a sleeping area, the most private part of the house.
What we now call the home office emerged from “chamber” rooms used by both men and women before the 19th century. The majority of the chamber rooms were later simply labeled “bedrooms” on builders' floor plans. However, beginning in the 19th century, some of these spaces were interchangeably referred to as the library, den or study.
By the late 19th century, the study became primarily a space reserved for male professionals to conduct business at home, indulge in scholarly pursuits, and entertain friends. For example, clergy, merchants and doctors who needed a study or “interview room.”
Then, in the early 20th century, the study largely disappeared from standard, middle-class homes, which were getting smaller.
Even though the study was a male space for leisure and occasional work, the home was largely seen — and championed — as a place that fostered family life.
Yet companies that sold office supplies saw the home as an untapped market. Through advertisements, these companies encouraged Americans to create distinct spaces for work that needed to be properly outfitted with office equipment.
For example, in 1921, Remington Rand began marketing portable typewriters, with advertisements that tried to sell consumers on the idea of flexibility and the ability to work in the comfort of home. And in the 1950s, Bell Telephone teamed up with the builders of middle-class homes to market additional telephone lines as a way to combine work and leisure under one roof.
When PCs replaced typewriters, computer companies such as Apple and IBM geared their ads toward professionals, depicting their products as tools that would allow them to telecommute, run a business out of the home, or make it easier for their kids to complete homework.
During the postwar period, typewriter and telephone companies sought to entice middle-class women into using their products to better manage such tasks as corresponding with schools, insurance brokers and doctors, as well as keeping family records and paying bills. However, unlike for men, women’s work spaces in advertisements, newspapers and on television were often depicted as a planning desk in the kitchen or a little desk in the main bedroom. Rarely, if ever, did they have their own space.
Where to put office equipment was an issue. Placing it in the main bedroom interfered with the perceived functions of intimacy and relaxation. A PC in the living room competed with the television, while office equipment in the kitchen or dining room impeded the ability to work uninterrupted by other family members. For these reasons, advertisements and computing magazines in the 1980s began to recommend new spaces dedicated exclusively to PCs, such as the home office or a “hobby room.”
The home office works well as a quiet room to concentrate and work, but in homes that have one, the space often defaults to the man.
But we’re still stuck with the same issues of too much work and not enough space to do it — with women often getting the short end of the stick.