A Tiny Orchestra in the Living Room

High-fidelity stereo and the postwar house.

Mad Men, “Signal 30” episode. [via Kritik]

In “Signal 30,” an episode of Mad Men set in 1966, several characters attend a dinner party at the suburban home of Pete Campbell, an account executive at a New York advertising agency, and his wife, Trudy. But for Don Draper, the agency’s Manhattan-dwelling creative director, the very prospect of an evening in Cos Cob, Connecticut, is dreary. “Saturday night in the suburbs?,” says Don to his wife, Megan. “That’s when you really want to blow your brains out.”

In the next scene, just before Don and Megan arrive, Pete is in his living room with another colleague, Ken Cosgrove, showing off his latest purchase: a new stereo system, encased within a wood-paneled cabinet. The gleaming console occupies the entire length of the room, in front of the picture window. The hinged lid is open, and Pete and Ken peer inside the cabinet while listening to a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Pete: Incredible, right? You expect to open the doors and see a tiny orchestra in there.
Ken: That would be amazing.
Pete: And it’s a beautiful piece of furniture. It’s seven feet long. Wilt Chamberlain could lie down in there.
Ken: Why would he want to do that?

Both pieces of dialogue — Don’s violent declaration of suburban antipathy, and Pete and Ken’s conversation about the console — reveal much about popular American sentiment in the postwar decades, when stereo systems first became readily available to consumers. In the characters’ statements, we can trace the implicit connection between, on the one hand, the seemingly banal decision to move away from the city, the traditional locus of worldliness and high culture, and, on the other, the introduction of a sophisticated technology — high-fidelity stereo — capable of transporting worldly high culture into the spaces of the mundane suburban home. Advertisements for in-home stereo systems emphasized the technology’s capacity to bring the symphonic experience into the heart of the domestic sphere, and Pete’s comment about the “tiny orchestra” could well have been echoed by new stereo owners across the country.

There is a large and growing literature examining the impact of technologies on the house, particularly television, radio, and our proliferating digital devices; yet there has been relatively little exploration of the socio-spatial significance of audio systems on ordinary houses in the second half of the 20th century. How did the introduction of high-fidelity sound components —including speakers — shape domestic life? How did stereo systems change the ways in which U. S. homeowners understood the relationship of the private interior to the urban and public worlds beyond? And how did stereo change the design of residential spaces? In short, what did it mean for Americans to have the capacity to queue up their own tiny orchestra — or band, choir, singer, etc. — inside their living rooms? 1

The mediated sound of home stereo changed domestic space in two important ways: physically, as residents reconfigured rooms and furnishings to create optimal listening environments; and socially, as occupants fashioned stereophilic spaces that reflected new aspirations for respectability and cultural status. Pete Campbell’s reference to the size of his stereo cabinet underscores how the new systems prompted a reconsideration of living rooms and family rooms. Manufacturers, retailers, audiophiles, and ordinary consumers all sought cabinets and arrangements that would allow for maximum sound fidelity and listening pleasure while still affording a decorous, status-conferring appearance that was crucially linked to emerging notions of what it meant to be white, to be middle-class, to be a homeowner. 2

Meanwhile, along with a range of postwar consumer technologies that connected the seemingly private, secure, and insulated domestic realm to outside events, high-fidelity stereos —like televisions and radios before them — were rendering the home permeable, admitting sonic transmissions into the domestic interior with an immediacy that could be startling, even alarming. Television beamed national and world news, images of foreign wars and urban crime, into the home with new frequency and vivid detail; at the same time, stereos offered access to symphony concerts, Broadway musicals, and popular performances that were otherwise not readily accessible to suburbanites who lived far from sophisticated cities with their concert halls and theaters, coffee houses and university campuses.

Advertisement for home stereo system, ca. 1960. [via retro vintage modern]

“Half a million new hobbyists”

There is no question that home stereos brought about major shifts in listening practices. 3 To be sure, radios and phonographs had been introduced decades earlier, but radio listeners had to rely on those producing the programs to select the music transported into their homes. Phonographs or “record players” permitted personal selection, but the sound quality of early monaural systems left much to be desired. 4 With the new home systems and the increasing commercial availability of stereo recordings, hi-fi owners could listen to all kinds of music, and the advancing technology made the experience more pleasurable. Home stereo likewise allowed — for the first time — the repeated experience of the same high-quality recording; rather than the unique specificity of live performance, the home listener enjoyed the ability to replay, again and again, a particular performance, a favorite track. 5 Classical music, jazz, theatrical soundtracks, children’s songs, folk songs, country music, gospel and hymns — all could be enjoyed anytime, according to personal taste and individual whim, and with a keen sense of pleasure derived from the perceived authenticity of the sound. Indeed, notions of authenticity were central to the appeal of high fidelity.

But how many postwar homeowners owned high-fidelity systems? In 1954 House & Home reported that “half a million new hobbyists joined ranks of Hi-Fi enthusiasts last year” 6; by 1955, one authority noted that “High Fidelity at low cost is available to everyone.” 7 (The rise of specialized publications catering to the new audiophiles is another indicator of the trend.) In fact, although stereo technology had been developed in the 1930s, it was not until February 1954 that RCA made the first commercial recording (a performance of The Damnation of Faust, by Berlioz, at Symphony Hall in Boston). Toward the end of the decade one observer would declare that “1958 will be remembered in America as the year when Stereo arrived.” 8 Emphatic commentary aside, consumer statistics indicate that by the fall of 1965, 3 percent of U.S. households were purchasing stereos, and 2.6 percent indicated an intention to do so. 9 It seems clear that while high-fidelity systems had remained a specialized commodity in the early postwar period, they were becoming increasingly popular by the mid-60s, with demand rising steadily for those could afford such high-end commodities. For the middle class they rapidly became prime objects of desire on the consumer wish list.


Advertisements for stereo components, ca. mid 20th century.

But consumers were purchasing more than components. The popular marketing and acquisition of stereos created a mass audience for music that had not previously existed — an audience in the home. By the second half of the ‘50s and more surely by the ‘60s, listening to music on hi-fi systems was not only central to music culture but also an accepted part of domestic culture — a complementary activity to almost anything else that could be done at home, from housework to recreation to eating to sex. As the cultural critic George Steiner wrote, in 1961, “The new middle class in the affluent society reads little, but listens to music with knowing delight. Where the library shelves once stood, there are proud, esoteric rows of record albums and high-fidelity components.” 10 Listening to music was fast becoming one of the most important shared experiences in the American home. 11

But if families saw this new, shared activity as a welcome addition to their domestic lives, musicians and cultural theorists were more skeptical. Many performers worried that the home stereo experience would lead to listener passivity and to mass audiences for whom musical performances were little more than ephemeral entertainment. They worried that when music could be listened to anywhere, at any time, the experience would seem less valuable. 12 This became an abiding concern for the Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno, who began writing on the topic in the late 1930s. Following from his longstanding interest in the impact of mass media on culture and society, his view was pessimistic; Adorno connected the proliferation of technologies that allowed easy access to recorded music — what he called “atomized listening” — with the encouragement of superficial engagements with culture, which in turn would produce an aesthetically insensitive audience that had retreated from the public sphere. 13 In a related critique, Adorno and his occasional collaborator Max Horkheimer also deplored the insubstantial housing being built on a massive scale on the urban edges in the immediate postwar years — and it was for precisely the same reasons that they derided the emerging audio technologies. Both trends, they argued, were linked to mass-produced monotony; the new houses were “flimsy structures” with a “built-in demand to be discarded after a short while like empty food cans.” 14

High-fidelity stereos created an entirely new mass audience for music — an audience in the home.

Adorno’s critiques were totalizing; he construed consumers in terms that were monolithic and stereotypical; and as decades of musicology and popular/cultural studies have argued, Adorno could be blind to the nuanced and diverse realities of a changing culture. The rapid proliferation of home stereos may have produced a tolerance for Muzak, but it also promoted a new desire for a wide variety of musical recordings on the part of family members of all ages and across geographic regions. It stimulated interest in music for stereo owners who could listen to whatever records they liked and on their own schedules. Just as it has become abundantly clear that so-called cookie-cutter houses did not produce cookie-cutter lives, so too hi-fi systems did not inevitably lead to a generation of consumers with homogenous taste and mass-marketed preferences. 15

Instead, as more homes had more stereos, aficionados of jazz, classical, blues, rock, and popular music all honed their tastes, sharing and sometimes quarreling with family, friends, and neighbors about new trends, new artists, and the latest audio technologies. What in-home stereo systems meant for most Americans was the ability to lie on the living room carpet while waving their arms in the air, conducting an imaginary symphony orchestra (that tiny one in the console). It meant dancing with friends to a newly released LP. It meant sitting in an easy chair with a drink while enjoying chamber music or jazz as it filled the room. It meant sitting on the sofa with small children while Burl Ives sang nursery rhymes, or listening to an educational recording of Peter and the Wolf that taught children to recognize the sounds of various instruments. It meant being able to play religious music on the holidays. Home stereo made it possible to learn all the words to the songs from the latest Broadway show through endlessly playing the soundtrack; and it encouraged the creation of teen identities when the latest rock and roll album was blasted at top volume. Stereos generated socio-cultural shifts in domestic life, even as they created spatial problems that demanded new solutions. The introduction of stereo transformed the contours of the house, creating spaces that were performative, both literally and symbolically. The proper and measured display of the components themselves shaped new identities — social status and cultural capital — and the embodied performances that stereo inspired, such as dancing and singing, transformed household spaces into sustained stages for other newly imagined identities.

Left: Advertisement showing Regency amplifier, ca. 1954. [via Shorpy]. Right: Living room stereo, ca. mid 20th century. [via Wanken]

“Marching bands came crashing through the walls”

The spatial impact of stereos occurred at multiple scales. One of the signal effects of early stereo was that it seemed to bring the great wide world into the domestic interior: “Railroad trains and jet planes roared through living rooms across the nation; marching bands came crashing through the walls of studio apartments … this new music had a depth and spaciousness that was surpassed only in the concert hall itself.” With stereo, the living room suddenly took on new depth, new spaciousness — the small rooms of an ordinary house were made metaphorically larger through the implementation of stereophonic engineering. 16 And the feeling of spaciousness was a defining feature of the aesthetically and socially “modern” home. 17

The perceptual dissolution of boundaries between spaces, and particularly between the private home and the outside world, is one of the key impacts of stereo technologies; stereos created what was in effect a gateway between public sphere and domestic space. One of the keenest theorizations of this new collapsing of domestic boundaries was formulated in the early ‘70s by Raymond Williams, whose concept of “mobile privatization” captured the particular appeal of the new technologies, especially television, in the suburbs. Mobile privatization, he wrote, “served an at-once mobile and home-centered way of living.”

The new homes might appear private and “self-sufficient” but could be maintained only by regular funding and supply from external sources, and these, over a range from employment and prices to depression and wars, had a decisive and often a disrupting influence on what was nevertheless seen as a separable “family” project. This relationship created both the need and the form of a new kind of “communication”: news from “outside,” from otherwise inaccessible sources. 18

Or as the media theorist Lynn Spigel has argued, in a more recent analysis, television “merge(d) private with public spaces.” I would extend these analyses and argue that stereo, too, brought aspects of public culture into the home. And just as Spigel asserts that television allowed Americans to engage in public and community life at a distance, so too stereo’s auditory realism and sense of “being there” fostered an imagined participation in music created and performed in distant locations.

Rather than intensifying any sense of suburban distance — of being far from the urban concert hall — stereos instead worked to decrease the feeling of isolation; as media historian Michael Bull has put it, “through the power of sound, the world becomes intimate, known, possessed.” Connecting the living room to the outside world, stereophonic sound blurred the boundaries between in here and out there. “Sound colonizes the listener but is also used to actively re-create and reconfigure the spaces of experience,” writes Bull. “Sound enables users to manage and orchestrate their spaces of habitation in a manner that conforms to their desires.” 20 It’s hardly surprising that period advertisements touted hi-fi systems as being able to “transport the listener and his favorite arm chair into the concert hall or opera house of his choice.” 21

“A good ear”

To eager owners of home high-fidelity systems, it soon became clear that the new technology demanded new attention to the spatial requirements that would enable true, stereophonic sound reception. Even those who had never paid much attention to the aesthetics, materials, or dimensions of rooms now had to scrutinize such things if their listening pleasure was to be optimized. In most cases, the acquisition of hi-fi components and speakers required the rearrangement of furnishings to accommodate the new equipment, and, ideally, to maximize aural authenticity. At the same time, the stereophile was sharpening his or her ability to listen and to cultivate certain cultural attitudes; the reshaping of the house was linked with a reshaping of personal identity vis-à-vis the use of consumer technology. In these ways one might cultivate what communications historian Jonathan Sterne has called “a good ear” that “becomes a mark of distinction in modern life,” processes that corresponded “with the emergence of middle class as a salient cultural category” and that were likewise linked to the emergence of a “new sonic age.” 22

Residents in this new sonic age eagerly produced new sonic spaces. Living rooms became “sonic environments”; not only were they places to gather as a family, to share a sofa with friends, to read or watch television; with the addition of stereo systems, they also served as newly and literally attuned spaces suited for specific kinds of perception and reception. 23 In-home stereos created new cultures of listening and new ways of occupying residential space. The living room could morph into a dance floor, a singing space, a private listening laboratory (especially for men with headphones), and a stage for the display of technological prowess (again, especially for men through the careful acquisition of bespoke components and mastery of their functions).

Advertisement for University speakers, 1963. [via Preservation Sound]

Moreover, newly affordable high-quality speakers and amplifiers meant that new volume levels could be achieved while still maintaining high sound qualities. In small homes, music could fill the house, accompanying the daily chores of wives and entertaining children and husbands during the evenings and weekends. 24 Clearly men were the primary purchasers of high-fidelity systems. But women usually spent far more time in the house, and there is no doubt that women enjoyed listening to music and also appreciated that stereo systems kept children and teens happily occupied. 25

But the new “sonic age” posed new challenges for house builders. Throughout the 20th century, the development of new acoustical designs, technologies, and materials enabled the ever more precise manipulation and control of sound, especially in such major public spaces as symphony halls and movie theaters. 26 But stereophonic acoustics did not much factor into the construction of middle- and working-class suburban houses — dwellings built quickly and with relatively inexpensive materials, for buyers who might not be able to afford hi-fi components. When aural concerns began to surface in the housing industry, the usual focus was on mitigating noise transmission between rooms; open-plan houses especially were criticized (more on this later). 27 It became a sign of distinction in high-end, architect-designed homes for hi-fi systems to be incorporated directly into the house plans: Dedicated wiring could be installed during construction, hidden or camouflaged speakers could be mounted into walls, and customized cabinetry could be crafted to house the components. In speculative housing, in contrast, space for wiring, speakers, and components had to be claimed from existing and often overcrowded spaces.

Built-in stereo cabinet, ca. mid 20th century. [via retro vintage modern]

“Built in, packaged prettily, a wall to itself, or build around it”

The placement of hi-fi components and speakers was carefully considered by postwar homeowners and builders alike. A stereo system was an exciting acquisition; it stimulated an eagerness to refashion and refurnish domestic spaces for the properly designed and measured display of components — activities that not only maximized sound quality and listening pleasure but also validated personal and social aspirations.

Those in possession of the new equipment had to evaluate at least four spatial concerns. First there was the question of space: typical developer houses included less than 1,500 square feet of living space — most of the houses in Levittown, Long Island, were just 1,000 square feet. A family of four could easily fill every inch of every room. Where, then, to put the shiny new equipment? Another key question was acoustical isolation; family members naturally required varying degrees of privacy and quiet. Yet another consideration was maximum acoustical authenticity; what audiophiles call “stereo imaging” necessitated specific speaker arrangements. Finally there was the sensitive matter of social aspiration; homeowners took pains to display stereo components in ways that would reinforce an aura of class respectability.

Buyers of stereo equipment faced two options: They could purchase components and speakers separately — the preference of true audiophiles, who could reinforce their superior expertise by customizing and assembling their own system. This à la carte approach was, not surprisingly, the more expensive option. Alternatively, consumers could purchase a console with preselected, preassembled components housed in a cabinet designed to blend into the home decor. But in both cases there was general agreement — from architects, shelter magazines, interior decorators, stereo manufacturers and retailers — that the components should remain for the most part concealed, their display carefully configured and controlled. The very presence of a stereo cabinet enhanced the cultural capital of the household, and lifting its lid or swinging open its doors to reveal the expensive components would elicit the oohs and aahs of impressed guests. The more surprising or elegant the design of the cabinet, the greater the status it conveyed.

From The New Fisher Handbook, 1964. [via No Pattern Required]

To maximize the effectiveness of hi-fi, speakers had to be placed according to precise specifications. After all, the big idea of high-fidelity sound was that it added a third dimension — space — to music; binaural recording on twin tracks was directed out to the listener through dual speakers located in different parts of a room. The goal was to achieve the sensation of space from sound: in other words, three-dimensional sound. To this end, stereo guides reproduced detailed diagrams to assist homeowners in the creation of “sonic balance.” Readers were advised about not only the requisite distances for separating speakers but also the impact of sound vibrations on furnishings including sofas, coffee tables, end tables, and chairs. Danish Modern designs were recommended since their minimalist lines would not deaden sound effects as might heavier, overstuffed styles. Thick draperies were advised against since they too could deaden sound. 28 Although such calculations remained beyond the abilities of most stereo owners, the publications clarified that sonic balance could only be attained if domestic spaces were newly calibrated and carefully arranged. A living room with speakers would need to become, in essence, the setting for stereophonically ideal performances — invisible but powerful — transmitted via sound waves.

To help homeowners achieve such effects, component retailers sold systems that would fit either into built-in installations or into fine cabinetry manufactured by designers who worked for Herman Miller, Dunbar, and Baker. 29 Some independent retailers collaborated with local craftsmen who produced speakers and consoles for their clients, or ready-mades for their showroom floors. 30 To be sure, custom installations that hid components in artfully designed cabinetry were expensive, and usually appeared only in houses designed by architects for wealthy clients. But the idea that sound could emerge “subtly from a tasteful installation which almost defies the listener to locate the music or its producer” was promoted by magazines like High Fidelity as an ideal — an “audio hobbyists dream.” 31

Trade journal and shelter magazines also recommended that stereo storage or cabinetry be designed to blend harmoniously with the surroundings — to become invisible, though conspicuously so. If residents and guests were not supposed to gaze directly at exposed components, they were intended to infer their presence through the clever design of the installation or cabinetry. The 1961 edition of Stereo included numerous illustrations of new furnishings that could house the components in “four modes”: “built in, packaged prettily, a wall to itself, or build around it.” Pretty packaging meant a console or some sort of free-standing cabinet. An “entertainment wall” had “the special virtue of reducing clutter at the least sacrifice of living space.” But the most highly recommended option was a built-in construction that could accommodate the amplifier, turntable, tape recorder, LP and tape storage, and, if possible, speakers; this would allow the room itself to remain “undisturbed by the inclusion of a component high-fidelity system.” 32 Whatever the mode, home stereo owners were counseled to conceal what one publication called the “nests of wires” that could cause unsightly tangles. Exposed wiring — all too reminiscent of tenements — was thus considered unacceptable for the houses — the identities — of the aspirational suburbanite. Properly designed cabinets and entertainment walls would conceal the inner workings, disguising the conduits that made possible the sound required by “high-fidelitarians” who wished to transform their living rooms into concert halls. 33

In small houses, beautiful sound at high volumes could feel invasive as well as pleasurable.

Reducing clutter and maximizing space was especially important — for practical and symbolic reasons — in the small houses of the early postwar years. Built-in furnishings and storage systems helped homeowners attain the middle-class ideals of tidiness and spaciousness prescribed by tastemakers. 34 So it is unsurprising that trade journals advocated the same solutions for accommodating the new entertainment technology. In that same 1961 edition, Stereo suggested that a storage wall with folding doors would “[enable] the owner to restore the formal balance of the living room” — as if the new technology had caused some sort of disturbance. The article advised that doors and lift-up panels could “completely close the system off from view if desired.” 35 Such entertainment walls often included the television as well, and the trade publications further advised that the front panels be made of wood in order to avoid the “cold” or “mechanical” appearance of technology located behind glass; stereophiles could then enjoy “an automatic concert without distraction from shining dials or spinning turntables.” 36 In addition to enhancing the tidy, respectable appearance of home interiors, cabinets that concealed stereos and televisions allowed homeowners to control the visual access to precious possessions while also hinting at their presence. Which is to say they could avoid the crass display of those shining dials and spinning turntables and instead achieve the appearance of personal refinement so crucial to solid respectability. Just as hiding the visible signs of labor enhanced the ideal of the 19th-century pastoral, so too rendering technology invisible afforded a fuller sense of its mid-century and suburban counterpart. 37

But some industry insiders advocated hiding stereo components for different, though equally powerful, psychological reasons. Noting that to encase equipment within walls would require walls at least sixteen inches thick — a requirement seldom met in typical houses — author Richard Roberts suggested that speakers could be covered by tapestries, or that “wall safes” with swinging panels could be constructed to house the components. Speakers, he felt, should be heard and not seen.

Behind the false front lurks a hi-fi system … the maximum psychological effect of stereo reproduction can be achieved only when the source of sound is invisible. … When the source is obviously a mechanical-electrical contrivance, the psychological result of looking at it is a degradation of realism. … Why flaunt the artificiality of the reproduced music? Why not, rather, play down that aspect of it? … If the installation of speakers radically alters the decor of your home, the installation is wrong. Again, this is psychological in its implications. Upsetting the decor of your home, upsetting it to the point where you realize, every time you look at a room, that speakers are hidden somewhere and that those hidden speakers are the cause of the upset, can only serve to lessen your enjoyment of music. You must feel perfectly at home in your listening room; you must not be aware that it is a listening room. 38

Psychological manipulation — creating the sensation of sound that appeared as if by magic and with minimal spatial intrusion or evidence of its sources — was thought to contribute to the experience of true aural fidelity — and of course to higher levels of social standing. But achieving this ideal was rarely easy.

Right: Promotional images, ca. 1960s. [via Preservation Sound and Wanken]

“At once interesting, relaxing, artistic and utilitarian”

Perhaps as a result of such difficulties, the publishers of Stereo began, in the early ‘60s, to promote a new “audio way of life” — the creation of domestic settings that were “at once interesting, relaxing, artistic and utilitarian.” Although still recommending cabinetry that could contain or disguise equipment, they now also touted the aesthetic quality of the components, the “beauty and function (of) a handsome turntable that spins silently atop a marble or richly grained wood surface; or the control of an amplifier or tuner, gleaming like an abstract sculpture under lamplight and suggesting the wondrous world of musical sound they control.” They continued:

The materials and colors that are available today can change a room from simply a place surrounded by four walls to a setting that is not only acoustically and visually satisfying — but that expresses and exposes an interesting “you” to the world. 39

Stereo storage might fulfill practical requirements, but they could also satisfy a mid-century aesthetic of high technological wonder, of industrial awe. As their contents glowed and spun, and gleamed like abstract art, hi-fi cabinets could transform a quotidian living room into a fantastical, futuristic space.

As homeowners struggled to spatially accommodate the new systems, some comical contrivances emerged. An article from the mid ‘50s advocated housing components in kitchen cabinets. “Concertos for the cook. Why not put something else in your kitchen cabinets besides pots and pans? Tuner, amplifier, control panel, player and speaker brighten up the daily chores with something slightly more esthetic than soap serials.” 40 One High Fidelity reader found his own creative solution: after consulting his wife, he decided to place the stereo system inside their oven: “It opened in two directions, it would hold all our equipment without bulging, when closed it resembled something else completely. The perfect answer to our problem.” 41 Similarly, a Popular Mechanics article from 1955 featured a space-saving design for an intercom and hi-fi installation system adapted from a clothes-drying rack. 42

But high-fidelity sound systems posed not only spatial dilemmas; the new technology also disturbed the norms of residential privacy. Even while offering new opportunities for social interaction with family, friends, and neighbors, stereos also generated concerns about the ability to isolate sound. For the inhabitants of small houses, the production of beautiful sound at high volumes could feel invasive as well as pleasurable. Noise control was a common problem, especially in houses with open plans or hard surfaces. Watching television and listening to music in one room could make it impossible to read or study in another. As the residents of an open-plan house in Berkeley, California, put it:

The house makes for great intimacy in living. In fact, no real privacy is possible. When we entertain on any scale, we park our son elsewhere for the night. Since one of us detests the accordion, it is safe for the other to practice only when he is alone in the house. Our son cannot very well have his friends in at the same time we have ours. 43

Stereos exacerbated these problems; by the late ‘50s popular magazines like Life were running stories about “Little Houses, Rasping Nerves.” 44 In that Mad Men episode, the scene around the stereo console ends with Pete’s wife admonishing him to turn the music down to avoid waking their sleeping infant.

For some the solution to this new problem, which had been created by technology, was more technology. One author recommended that “every stereophile have a headset around, if for no other reason than to be able to listen in privacy.” 45 Another advocated the use of a remote control that enabled tuning from adjacent spaces. Other recommendations for the attainment of “sonic privacy” were spatial, and ranged from the simple fix of positioning speakers to face both the living room and the outdoor patio to the more extreme idea of putting the television on a platter that revolved between two rooms, so that music could be played in one space while television was viewed in another. 46 Alas, these solutions usually failed; the powers of stereo amplification all too easily overwhelmed the spaces of small houses. Little wonder that not only stereo ownership but also acoustical privacy functioned as an important register of class status and social achievement. For the many postwar suburbanites who keenly recalled the smells and noises of Depression-era domesticity, a home in which intrusive sounds were appropriately contained was a respectable residence, unlike the noisy apartments and blaring streets of poor, overcrowded city neighborhoods. 47

Whether concealed within a custom-designed cabinet, displayed on the shelves of a purpose-built entertainment center, or housed within a console large enough to accommodate a basketball player, the high-fidelity system quickly became a familiar feature of postwar American life — so familiar that it is easy to overlook the extent to which stereo technology reshaped domestic environments and recalibrated the socio-cultural balance between city and suburb. Sophisticated New Yorkers like Don Draper might have dreaded a dinner party in Connecticut, but Pete Campbell was happy to show off the seven-foot console in his living room in Cos Cob. Stereophonic sound systems allowed countless suburbanites like Pete to cultivate and exhibit genuine cultural knowledge — the possession of that “good ear” — and to do so within the privacy of their own homes, as they enjoyed their very own “tiny orchestra.”

Author's Note

My thanks to Josh Kun, Gabriel Solis and Matthew Thibeault for conversations that advanced the substance of this essay. Thanks also to Madeleine Hamlin for her editorial assistance.

Editors' Note

“A Tiny Stereo in the Living Room” is adapted from a chapter in Making Suburbia: New Histories of Everyday America, edited by John Archer, Paul J. P. Sandul, and Katherine Solomonson, and published this month by University of Minnesota Press. It appears here with the permission of the press, the editors, and the author.

  1. Matthew Thibeault’s research on the recordings of John Philip Sousa from the 1920s indicates that consumers in that era were encouraged to see themselves as having Sousa’s band at their command. My thanks to Matthew Thibeault for this information.
  2. On the relationship of ordinary postwar houses to the construction of white, middle-class identities, see Dianne Harris, Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
  3. Timothy Day, A Century of Recorded Music: Listening to Musical History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), 128.
  4. The sound quality of many monaural recordings was quite good, even in the early 1900s, and some early stereo recordings were quite poor. Still, certain types of music were particularly hard to capture until the advent of stereo recording. Again, I thank Matthew Thibeault for this observation.
  5. Timothy Day, 40, 55.
  6. House & Home, May 1954, 134.
  7. “What is Hi Fi?” in High Fidelity Home Music Systems, Trend Book 24 (Los Angeles: Pacific Press Inc, 1955), 11, 12. An article in High Fidelity in January 1955 noted that the magazine had acquired 20,000 new readers in the past year. Although such statistics lack reliability, they suggest the growing popular interest in hi-fi and stereo systems. See Roy F. Allison, “Read Well Before Shopping,” High Fidelity, January 1955, 42.
  8. G.A. Briggs, Stereo Handbook (Idle, Bradford and Yorkshire: Wharfdale Wireless Works Limited, 1959), 20.
  9. United States, Bureau of the Census. Current Population Reports. Series P-65, Consumer Buying Indicators (Washington: U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1964–77, #15, August 25, 1966), 6, 10. The Historical Statistics of the United States indicates that more than a half million radio-phonograph combinations were shipped to retailers in 1955, and that number more than tripled by 1965. See Historical Statistics of the United States (Washington: U.S. Dept. of Commerce Bureau of the Census, 1975), 695–696. The Statistical Abstract of the United States from 1962 indicates that in 1955, close to 400,000 radio-combination units were sold, with double that number selling by 1960. See Statistical Abstract of the United States (Washington: U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1962), 815. Still, these statistics do not serve as precise indications of stereo/hi-fi system sales. Other surveys of manufacturing and industrial reports exist, but they provide production numbers rather than consumption statistics. My thanks to Mary Mallory, Coordinator, Government Information Services, University of Illinois Library.
  10. George Steiner, “The Retreat From The Word,” [1961], Language and Silence (London, 1967), 48–49.
  11. Timothy Day, 58, 59.
  12. Timothy Day, 55.
  13. See Theodor Adorno, Essays on Music, introduction by Richard Leppert (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 27, 28. Theodor Adorno, “Analytical Study of the NBC Music Appreciation Hour,” The Musical Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 2 (Summer 1994), 355–6.
  14. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, translated by John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1972), 120. Considered as part of their larger, Marxist critique of the culture industry, we can today see Horkheimer and Adorno’s assessment of both mass suburban housing and proliferating in-home listening technologies as part of an intellectual framework derived from their situated, postwar fears about mass culture generally. See also Frederic Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Social Text 1, 1979, 132; and Richard Leppert, “Introduction,” Essays on Music, 47.
  15. For examples of scholarship that reveal the highly varied and rich texture of suburban lives, see Dianne Harris, ed., Second Suburb: Levittown, Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010).
  16. Walter G. Salm, Stereo in Your Home (Princeton, New York: Vertex, 1971), ix, 4.
  17. See Sandy Isenstadt, The Modern American House: Spaciousness and Middle Class Identity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
  18. Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London and New York: Routledge, 2003, 1974), 19, 20, 21, 23.
  19. Lynn Spigel, Welcome to the Dream House: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs (Duke University Press, 2001), 33, 45, 48.
  20. Michael Bull, “Thinking About Sound, Proximity, and Distance in Western Experience: The Case of Odysseus’s Walkman,” in Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening, and Modernity, edited by Veit Erlmann (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2004), 181, 184.
  21. Advertisement for Gateway to Music, Arts + Architecture, August 1953, 9.
  22. Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003) 94, 95. 335.
  23. For more on the creation of soundscapes and their relationship to 20th-century public architecture, see Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900–1933 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002).
  24. The connection between men and hi-fi has received far more attention than the technology’s impact on the daily lives of women. For a gender analysis of the impact of high fidelity systems on residential space, see Keir Keightley, “Turn it down! She shrieked: Gender, Domestic Space, and High Fidelity, 1948–59,” in Popular Music, vol. 15/2, (1996), 149–177. Keightley’s analysis indicates that the world of high fidelity and stereo was a male dominated. For another article to this point, see Marc Perman, “Golden Ears and Meter Readers: The Contest for Epistemic Authority in Audiophilia,” in Social Studies of Science, 34/5, (October, 2004), 783–807.
  25. Louis Carlat points out that the “hi-tech” aspects of radio and stereo initially made them male objects, equipment that only men could tinker with and understand. But to integrate these technologies into the home on a mass-market scale, they had to be packaged to appeal to women: Carlat describes this as “recasting radio hardware as a feminine object and listening as a feminine activity.” See Louis Carlat, “A Cleanser for the Mind: Marketing Radio Receivers for the American Home, 1922–1932,” in Roger Horowitz and Arwen Mohun, eds., His and Hers: Gender, Consumption and Technology (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998), 116. Technology is widely understood to help construct gender identities and power dynamics. Men have historically been the creators and designers of technology; women have been stereotyped as technologically incompetent. As such, home technologies have been seen as instruments of patriarchy. See Cynthia Cockburn, “The Circuit of Technology: Gender, Identity, and Power,” in Roger Silverstone and Eric Hirsch, eds., Consuming Technologies: Media and Information in Domestic Spaces (London: Routledge, 1992), 32, 40, 41, 42. On the importance of stereo for women, see also Sonia Livingstone, “The Meaning of Domestic Technologies: A personal construct analysis of familial gender relations,” in Silverstone and Hirsch, Consuming Technologies, 118, 123. Timothy Day has also aimed to balance the narrative about stereo being just for men. See Day, 63.
  26. Emily Thompson, 2.
  27. See for example, Betty Jane Johnston, Equipment for Modern Living (New York: MacMillan, 1965), 251; Thomas Creighton and Katherine M. Ford, Contemporary Houses Evaluated by Their Owners (New York: Reinhold, 1961), 61.
  28. See Walter G. Salm, Stereo In Your Home, 63, 151.
  29. See, for example, the advertisement for “Gateway to Music,” Arts + Architecture, March 1950, 18.
  30. Weingarten Electronics, for example, which was located on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, sold high-end stereo components and speakers in the postwar years. Rudolf Weingarten, the proprietor, was my grandfather, and this information is based on personal observation of his work in the 1960s.
  31. Author unknown, “Custom Installations,” High Fidelity, June 1954, 36, 37.
  32. Author unknown, “Stereo Décor in Four Modes,” Stereo, 1961, 56–57, 70, 71.
  33. Author unknown, “Sound Arrangements,” Stereo, 1962, 39.
  34. Dianne Harris, Little White Houses.
  35. Author unknown, “Stereo Blends with the Modern Touch,” Stereo, 1961, 49.
  36. Author unknown, “Home Music Installations: Like the music itself, a Hi Fi installation can be a thing of beauty … a part of your homes décor. Here are some of the best,” High Fidelity Home Music Systems, Trend Book 124 (Los Angeles: Trend Incorporated, 1955), 33.
  37. For more on the connections between built-ins, concealed technologies, and the construction of white middle-class identities, see Dianne Harris, Little White Houses, 223–225.
  38. Richard Roberts, Hi Fi and Stereo: A Self-Instruction Guide to Assembly, Installation, and Maintenance in the Home (New York: Collier Books, 1965), 148, 153, 154.
  39. Phoebe Eisenberg, “Stereo Spells Décor: Attractive Settings for 3-D Sound,” Stereo, 1963, 37, 43, 44. See also Richard Roberts, Hi Fi and Stereo: A Self-Instruction Guide to Assembly, Installation, and Maintenance in the Home (New York: Collier Books, 1965), 136.
  40. Author unknown, High Fidelity Home Music Systems, Trend Book 124, 31.
  41. John Goldston, “Letters,” High Fidelity, June 1954, 13, 15.
  42. Author unknown, “Sound in the Home,” Popular Mechanics, v. 103, March 1955, 164.
  43. Quoted in Thomas H. Creighton and Katherine M. Ford, Contemporary Houses Evaluated by Their Owners, 61.
  44. See “Little Houses, Rasping Nerves,” Life, September 15, 1958, 60–63.
  45. Richard Roberts, 93.
  46. Jack Lester, “Designing the High-Fidelity Music Room,” Arts + Architecture, May 1953, 36, 37; and advertisement for “Gateway to Music” in that same issue, 7; Author unknown, “Radio, TV, Hi-Fi, Electronics Are Built-in Too!,” Popular Mechanics, v. 114, October 1960, 238.
  47. See Harris, Little White Houses, 114, 134, 142,
Dianne Harris, “A Tiny Orchestra in the Living Room,” Places Journal, April 2015. Accessed 02 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/150413

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