The purpose of this “Interiors” series is to see what we can learn about history from a picture of an interior room. Sometimes the rooms themselves are historical, like the one aboard the Titanic, or sometimes they belong to famous people. This is neither. This is an ordinary bedroom of a typical American teenager, somewhere in the United States, taken in July 2008. It’s probably in the suburbs somewhere in what looks like a middle class home. There are school medals on the wall, toys on shelves, a few books, and a sports trophy. The bed is unmade. I don’t see a computer or any electronics in the shot, but chances are good that whoever slept in this room probably owned or had access to a laptop, a cell phone and a video game console. This should all look very ordinary. Perhaps there’s a room like this in your own house. (I don’t have kids, but I’m certainly old enough to have teenaged children).

Although teenagers have obviously existed as long as the human species has been around, the “teenager” as a cultural, political and economic identity is very recent, emerging for the most part after World War II. Especially in the 1950s in the U.S. and other Western democracies, companies and purveyors of mass media began to identify children in their teens as an important demographic to whom they could sell records, movies and a host of other items directed exclusively or partially at them. Teenagers responded well to this new cultural construction. Almost alone they elevated to the level of cultural icons people like Elvis and James Dean in the 1950s, the Beatles in the 1960s, Pink Floyd and John Travolta in the 1970s, Michael Jackson and Cyndi Lauper in the 1980s, Kurt Cobain in the 1990s, and so on. But more than just a consumer demographic, the emergence of the “modern” teenager brought a lot of parenting and family-related issues, and many more, into public, where for most of human history they’ve been private. Teenagers have rebelled against parental authority in every generation since the Stone Age, but only since World War II have people had public discussions about things like child-rearing, peer pressure, drugs, sexuality and sex education, the effect of media messages and other things that never before made it into the public sphere. These are debates that spring both from society’s relative affluence since the 1940s, and also uncertainties about the future and how social mores change.

I find the toys in this shot particularly interesting. I have no idea how old the boy is who lived here, but the toys, including what looks like an aircraft carrier (sadly, not the G.I. Joe aircraft carrier), are still out but look like they haven’t been used in a while–a sign of a child whose interests are beginning to change. Also note the gender dynamic. You can tell instantly that this is the bedroom of a boy, not a girl. Parents construct their children’s gender identities from literally the moment they’re born. We are just now beginning to understand how that works.

A lot to think about in this “ordinary” picture!

This photo was taken by James Cambridge, who released it into the public domain.