I have never studied this formally, either from the perspective of a sociologist or historian, but I often find myself thinking about how quickly we (generic Americans and Europeans) have come to believe that our concept of “personal space” and housing are absolute, when in fact the way we live has changed in the past, say, 100 years.
I first really started to think about this in the context of historical reenacment, specifically creating historic costuming. It is very easy to say that all working women must have worn front-lacing dresses (16th c.) because it’s hard to lace yourself into something that’s on your back! Besides the fact that spiral lacing makes this much easier, the simple fact is that (most) working women would not have been getting dressed alone. They would have lived all their lives with other people around them – parents, siblings, spouses, children. There would have been someone to help them with the fiddly bits of getting in and out of clothing which laces and pins together. Realizing that was an Aha! moment for me, but as I continue to research and build historical clothing (when you get it right, it’s clothes, not costumes), I see that a lot of people do not realize how very different the day-to-day life was in the period they are recreating.
The lack of private residence in history was also prominent in my mind this time last year, when I had just started my job and was looking for housing. I have never in my life lived all on my own. I lived with my parents, my sister, with people in a dorm, or with housemates; last year I thought that this was somehow a failing on my part. Moving out on your own is a sort of rite of passage for middle-class American kids, proof that we have achieved some form of adulthood. And yet, I realized, that’s a fairly new concept. Not moving out of your parent’s house, but the idea that it has to be somewhere that you are the only person eating, sleeping, and paying rent.
These thoughts are still bulding in my mind. I still make front-lacing dresses (there are some pictoral examples), and I think it might be nice to have a place which is just mine (but in a rowhouse or apartment building). Somehow, however, in this world where people increasingly text faraway friends instead of talking to the friends nearby, where people seem to be getting more connected and more isolated, I think it is helpful to remind them (us) that we used to live a lot closer together. If nothing else, it might explain why we sometimes get lonely in our shiny one-person apartments.