Life

The Lost Art of Striking a Pose With Your TV Set

In midcentury America, the machine itself was a character.

Two blonde girls hold hands on top of a TV set.
Found photo. Collection of Lynn Spigel.

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Flipping through an old photo album, I came across a picture of myself as a little girl posing in front of my television set. Standing in my red, white, and blue party dress, attempting to curtsy, I was the subject of a snapshot that curiously depicted TV not as a mass-entertainment medium, but as a backdrop for a social performance in an intimate family scene. Struck by the snapshot, I wondered if there were others like it. Searching at thrift stores and online sites, I’ve collected roughly 5,000 snapshots of people posing with TV sets in the 1950s through the 1970s. The snapshots depict a broad range of families across racial, class, and ethnic backgrounds. Like today’s selfies, TV snapshots were a popular photographic practice through which people pictured themselves in an increasingly mediatized culture.

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Rather than watch TV, in TV snapshots, people use TV as a prop and backdrop for the presentation of self and family. Snapshots turn the home into a theater of everyday life where people use TV to showcase themselves as celebrities of their own making. In snapshots, the empty space around the television set essentially becomes a posing place in which people play roles and engage in acts of everyday pretend.

Kodak manuals and how-to books had traditionally recommended families pose in front of fireplaces, the one-time center of the family home. In snapshots, the television set often usurps the role of the fireplace and takes on the ritual functions previously performed at the hearth. Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Mothers’ Day, New Year’s Eve are all occasions for poses in front of or next to the TV. Ritual moments of the life cycle are celebrated in the TV setting. Posers blow out birthday candles or appear in ceremonial costumes like graduation regalia and wedding dresses. Like shop windows, TV sets are dressed for holiday celebrations with greeting cards, pumpkins, little Christmas trees, easter baskets, wedding cakes placed on top.

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Snapshots often literally picture people performing as entertainers in their homes. In these photos, the TV screen is a backdrop for family recitals and amateur shows. Snapshots portray people playing instruments or dancing (or pretending to do so) while posing in front of or next to the TV set. One photo features a man who sits on a chair that’s been moved in front of the living room TV. Smiling for the camera, he strums his guitar. The inscription on the back of the snapshot reads, “Mr. T.V. himself and that ‘Colgate smile.’”

A boy plays an accordion in front of a TV.
Found photo. Collection of Lynn Spigel.
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Given the midcentury’s focus on cultivating the talents of children, it’s not surprising that snapshots often feature kid acts. Boys (always boys) play accordions, guitars, and drums. Girls (always girls) sit at toy pianos that have been moved into the empty space around the TV. Other girls wear tutus, striking ballerina or tap dance poses. As is obvious, these snapshots are also a performance of gender, even if some posers seem to achieve the midcentury picture-ready gender ideal more than others.

A girl plays the piano in front of a TV.
Found photo. Collection of Lynn Spigel.
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The popularity of amateur talent shows on network and local television must have encouraged people to consider television as a space for quotidian performance. But rather than play piano or croon pop tunes for TV’s mass audience, in snapshots people perform in front of tv for an intimate group of family and friends. Some snapshots present family members and guests watching the performance.

One little boy, dressed in his Sunday best, poses for three snapshots. Taken in succession, the pictures show him enacting a violin recital performed for his mother. The triptych offers a glimpse into how these performance snapshots functioned as do-it-yourself domestic recreation, a means of family bonding. Presumably, the family would share these snapshots with others and in so doing “publicize” their little “stars.”

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In many photos, the empty space around the television effectively becomes a dance floor. One woman appears in front of a TV set performing the popular dance craze, “The Twist.” She looks at the camera, aware that her dance is also a pose. The wall decorations above the set (plaques of ballet dancers and stencils of dancing girls), as well as dancer figurines on top of the set, reinforce the centrality of dance in the home and mark the TV setting as a stage set for the woman’s performance. In another snapshot, a man (likely a father) dances in front of a TV with a little girl (likely his daughter). Other children circle around them as if watching and participating from the wings of a dance floor.

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A family group dances around the TV.
Found photo. Collection of Lynn Spigel.

These pictures of Black homes become more meaningful when considered in terms of television’s racist casting system. In the late 1940s through much of the 1960s, the television industry provided few lead roles for performers of color. While Black talent often appeared in network variety shows like The Ed Sullivan Show or on dance programs like American Bandstand, the casting system made clear distinctions: whites could command the stage as hosts, while Black Americans, as well as Latino or Asian performers, appeared almost exclusively as guest stars (subject to invites and callbacks from white producers).

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The Black press alerted readers to discriminatory Jim Crow hiring practices while also singling out several local shows with Black hosts and praising network firsts like Nat King Cole. The press also responded to the networks’ racist star system by publishing TV schedules that were edited to feature Black guest star performers, telling viewers, for example, which Black musicians were on TV variety shows at what time, a strategy that suggests the excitement of seeing Black performers on the new medium and a relative disinterest in white headliners.

When seen in the context of television’s racist star system, the performance snapshots take on new dimensions. Even if television cameras displayed Black performers as guest stars on a white man’s stage, with a snapshot camera, Black Americans could host their own performances in their own homes. Although perhaps not intentional or conscious acts of resistance to TV racism, the snapshot camera gave Black Americans agency and control over images that the white-dominated television industry historically denied.

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A woman poses inside her TV set.
Found photo. Collection of Lynn Spigel.
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While not always charged with these political meanings, all the performance snapshots invert the normative relations between TV performers and tv watchers. In snapshots, people used TV figuratively to “broadcast” themselves and to steal the show away from the programs on screen.

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Some people even pasted pictures of themselves on the TV screen or emptied out the chassis of their TV set and climbed inside. One woman climbs into her television cabinet, and mimics a TV commercial, holding up a bottle as if demonstrating a product. (The pose appears to be an imitation of the classic 1952 “Vitameatavegamin” episode of I Love Lucy in which Lucy crawls into her TV set.) In another spoof on tv commercials, one camera operator places their cat alongside a can of dog food inside a hollowed-out Motorola TV set.

A cat inside a TV set.
Found photo. Collection of Lynn Spigel.
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While usually humorous, the trick shots evoked television’s uncanny presence in the home by blurring distinctions between the homebodies who pose in domestic spaces and the bodies that dwell in the ethereal spaces of TV Land.  Some snapshots suggest the uncanny possibility of TV ghosts. Like the famous scene of the haunted TV in Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist, children and pets seem to seem to walk into the screen and be swallowed up in TV’s abyss.

Television’s status as a performance medium made it the perfect theatrical backdrop for fashion shows in the home. Dressed in everything from prom gowns and cocktail dresses to capri pants and miniskirts, women staged glamorous portraits of themselves in front of and next to their TV sets. As with the pictures of violin players and little ballerinas, the women in the dress-up snapshots steal the spotlight from the tv screen as they direct attention onto their own sartorial splendor.

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Inscriptions on the back of photos typically remark on the outfits, not on the television set. Posing in a pinkish-white party dress, a young woman stands in front of her TV set. Cursive writing on the back of the photo expresses her pride in the dress: “Flawless Formal.” With a similar focus on fashion, a woman remarks on her dresses in two separate TV snapshots taken four years apart. In the first photo, she poses before her television set in a black empire-waist sheath with a bodice of contrasting black and white stripes. On the back of the photo, she writes: “May 1952. Me. On Williamson Ave. Black and white dress.” In the second photo, she returns to her TV set and poses in another black empire sheath, The back of the photo reads: “May. 1956. Me standing [in] our front room on Wilson Ave. Black and white dress.” The time lapse between the photos suggests the TV space had become a habitual setting for this woman’s home-mode fashion shoots, a routine practice of her everyday life. Another woman uses her tv setting for a full-color fashion shoot, with one photo depicting elegant daywear and the other glamorous evening attire.

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The practice continued across the decades, indicating the ritual nature of the TV setting as a space for the presentation of fashionable selves. Some women even went to the extra expense of developing dress-up snapshots in 8-by-10 pinup size, suggesting that these tv dress-up poses were among their most prized self-portraits.

The dress-up snapshots resonated with larger trends in the fashion industry. Television’s arrival in the American home opened a new market for “made-for-TV” outfits. In 1951, Life magazine ran a two-page photo spread titled “Clothes for TV Watching.” Warning women of the potential fashion disasters TV might cause, the magazine stated, “A lot of women who used to dress formally to entertain at home have found themselves and their guests sitting on the floor after dinner to look at television. This position is not graceful in a short tight cocktail dress or practical in an elaborate evening gown.” Ready-to-wear TV clothes solved the dilemma. “Adding elegance to comfort,” the new TV clothes, “are worn with dressy shoes, plenty of jewelry and usually have necklines low enough to compete with almost anything on the TV screen.”

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Visual competition between women and TV was a constant refrain in 1950s popular culture. Women’s magazines warned of TV-fixated husbands who ignored their wives as they ogled glamour girls on screen. The problem extended past the literal depiction of glamour girls to a broad range of TV attractions—especially wrestling matches and baseball games—that occupied men’s undivided attention. Whether literally or figuratively, TV was the “other woman”—a powerful force to be reckoned with in the home.

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The dress-up snapshots redirect attention away from television programs and toward the female bodies in the room. Admittedly, the very idea that women had to look good while watching TV is itself a consequence of the constraints of a gendered fashion system that promotes women’s view of themselves as objects to be looked at by others. But TV snapshots are not just about attracting a male gaze. Instead, they stage glamour as a form of domestic amusement that drew women together through shared female competencies and knowledge about, fashion, style, and taste. Many of the snapshots show women posing together in friendship scenarios. The snapshots suggest the fun women had by turning TV into a backdrop for self-presentation.

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Many of these snapshots are part of a repertoire of going out, pictures taken before leaving or after returning home. In such cases, television serves as a portal object, a thing that indicates the passage between the domestic interior and public places. Outerwear like fur stoles, shawls, coats, hats, gloves, capes, muffs, and purses indicate leave-taking behavior.

Side-by-side images of a woman dressed up to go out.
Found photos. Collection of Lynn Spigel.
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The portal nature of the TV pose is sometimes inscribed on the back of the snapshot. Posing in a satin brocade gown, a young woman stands in front of her TV console. The inscription on back of the snapshot explains: “Ready for Spring Concert at school. To be worn with hoop but due to lack of seating space—no hoop!” In other cases, the journey scenario is integrated with the televised image on screen. A set of two photos taken in sequence shows a woman in a brown sheath cocktail dress and matching heels. In one of the snapshots, the screen displays what appears to be a newscast. A second snapshot of the same woman shows her modeling a fur stole draped over the dress, but this time a weatherman is on TV. The attire indicates a special excursion, and the weathercast reinforces the going-out theme.

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These going-out snapshots contradict dominant assumptions about television’s negative effects on the postwar housewife, particularly regarding concerns about women’s isolation in the home. During the 1950s and 1960s, sociological studies described women’s perceived loneliness, which, at least according to the sociologists, TV helped foster. Women’s magazines told tales of housewives trapped by their TV sets. One year after the publication of her bestselling book The Feminine Mystique (1963), Betty Friedan published a two-part essay in TV Guide, “Television and the Feminine Mystique,” in which she lashed out at TV’s image of woman as a “household drudge who spends her … boring days dreaming of love—and plotting revenge fantasies against her husband.” Conversely, TV snapshots stage, document, and memorialize the romance of social occasions outside the home.

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Glamour snapshots were not just images but also activities that couples did together, activities that potentially engaged them in modes of visual and sexual pleasure, if only the pleasure of looking sexy for a pose. TV snapshots even present women in various stages of undress. Women pose in bathing suits, lingerie, and sometimes entirely nude. No wonder that Fredericks of Hollywood—famous for its risqué nighties—sold its own version of TV clothes—sexy TV pajamas, which it advertised in “girlie magazines” like Bachelor and Modern Man.  In March 1956, Playboy began its short-lived cycle of “TV Playmates.” The centerfold shows model Marian Stafford posing (in a partially open sheer robe) in front of a TV set. Snapshots offer a homemade version of the popular pinup trend, featuring housewives as opposed to professional models.

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In the 1950s and 1960s, when the networks tried to attract large national audiences, images of family life on TV were subject to censorship and industry standards of “decency.” (Think of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo not making love in their twin beds.) But the pinup snapshots defy our common understanding of early television as a medium used exclusively for good clean family fun.  In snapshots, the TV set is often an erotic zone in home.  Even if sex was censored on TV, in snapshots sex takes place around it.

To be sure, most snapshots conform to the prevailing sexual politics of middle-class nuclear family life and gendered glamour. But some photos go against the grain. One snapshot features a man dressed in typical male attire (a white shirt, black tie, dark pants) who holds hands with and gazes at his same-sex partner, who is dressed in a silky negligee with a matching sheer coverup and carries a large black purse. Black socks adorn very hairy legs, the telltale signs of makeshift drag. Other TV snapshots show women in men’s suits or striking mock glamour poses in overalls or while dangling cigars. While it’s hard to know the intentions of the posers, the drag snapshots point to the performative nature of gender in the all the snapshots. The television set offered a unique backdrop from which to stage this performance of gender and from which, occasionally, to poke fun at the rigid gender roles of midcentury culture.

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As an archive of found images, the snapshots in my collection are leftovers of a time once lived. With their tidy white borders, snapshots frame the past in selective ways. The stories they tell are always partial. TV snapshots are fragments from the past that offer clues into the range of things people did with TV other than watch it.  They show us what happened on the other side of the TV screen, where people staged images of themselves and made themselves the focus of attention. Selfies, Instagram, Tik Tok, Pinterest, and reality shows like American Idol are the contemporary version of this curious midcentury photographic practice that turned everyday people into TV stars.

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Adapted from TV Snapshots: An Archive of Everyday Life. Copyright © 2022 Lynn Spigel. Reprinted with permission from Duke University Press.

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