Origins of the “Man-Cave”?

24 01 2011

My wife, dog and I in my office in November 2002 (4 months before my daughter was born)

At the beginning of the 20th century, the spheres of work were very separate along male and female lines. Men spent most of their waking hours away from the home, without contact to their wives, children and the home itself, which became increasingly a feminine domain. Not that it was great for women, either, as it more or less left them domestic prisoners, but men felt the impact of the societal shift as well. That’s where it started, anyway, in contrast to the 19th century where the pre-industrial man’s role did not alienate him from the domestic sphere (in which he ruled the roost as well).

The problem with all of this, as we see, is that men were completely excluded from the home by this point and thereby also excluded from the nurturing and regenerative aspects of family life and from the love and comfort that their homes were supposed to provide. Men left the home to work, earn a living, be a “good father.” They were the “breadwinner,” which encompassed the roles of worker, earner and father into one. But that happened outside. That was where they proved themselves and their masculinity. When they came back home, they came back to a predominantly feminine space that was not really theirs and they couldn’t really participate in without feeling like a “wimp.”

The solution for many, then “was to colonize the home, to find a small corner that could be unmistakably ‘his,’ like the den or the study in the nineteenth century or the basement, the workshop, the garage, or even the backyard barbecue pit today.” (Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History, 158)

When we first moved to Pennsylvania, back when I began graduate school, I had a room in our apartment that was, for all intents and purposes, just mine. It had my computer in it, my books, a futon, a radio, no TV and there was where I did all of my work. I don’t really think of it much as a man-cave, though, as it was legitimately the place where I spent my time mostly working and studying. It was there because I needed a place to do all of those things and the living room would have made that either very inconvenient for my wife or for me.

So, it struck me then some months ago when I was reading Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son, when he mentioned that it seemed to him that in any home where there’s a spare space, that invariably the man gets it. In his home, it’s his office, and he remarked that his wife had to make due with the rest of the house and all of the life within it. I suppose if there are two extra rooms or spaces, then everyone gets one, but that really does seem to be the way it is.

We’re, of course, a long way from the start of the 20th century, though. So it makes me wonder why we still do feel, as men, that urge to colonize parts of the home.

By the way, I lost my “colony,” my “cave,” when my daughter was born. The walls between zones broke down and I couldn’t retreat and then when we moved to a larger place when my son was born, I lost the space entirely, taking up just one corner of the downstairs where everyone was. Even now, I’m off in an under-used part of the house, but it’s not closed off like a spare bedroom or basement or attic would be. It does make a real difference and I sincerely miss my old cave back that I had 10 years ago. I can still smell it in my memory, this mix of cedar and lingering cigarette smoke (because I was a heavy smoker at the time, but I would only smoke in my office, nowhere else in the house).

The same office in February 2003. All that remains of the former office are the books and the futon.

I sometimes also dream now of having another cave, a study upstairs or somewhere else in the home that serves as a retreat and a place to work and think. A way to be part of the home but also have a part of the home be mine as well. It’s such a strange urge when you step back and consider it, but are our homes somehow alien to the men within them?

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