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Twentieth Century Society 100 Shops
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New Lives New Landscapes Revisited: Rural Modernity in Britain
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East London primary sources

Histories of privacy

The history of privacy generally falls into two approaches:

1. the intrusion of the state into controlling personal information about the individual

2. changing family/domestic arrangements in the home.

Definitions of privacy generally revolve around ‘the right to be left alone’, and therefore also feed into histories of loneliness and social relations, as well as legal histories of information security.

Number 1 tends to be influenced by a Benthamite/Foucauldian emphasis on communications and bureaucracies of the state transmitting power through inspections, and the emergence of a surveillance state.

Number 2 is the history of the family & women’s roles, more recently, emotions.

There is some engagement with Habermas’s model of the public sphere, and therefore some reference to public space in the context of state spies or the separate spheres in gender debate. But otherwise references to the built environment of open spaces is limited.

The chronology of the historiography is generally of the rise of the desire for privacy in the 19th century, which was enabled by rising affluence and technology in the early 20th century, then eroded by new state policies and technologies in the later 20th century.

Both James Vernon and Miles Ogborn define privacy as a key characteristic of ‘modernity’.

Interestingly, the main overviews of the history of privacy don’t go into depth into the history of privacy in gay or queer spaces, which has its own extensive historiography (detailed below) – which nevertheless can be categorised under histories of surveillance and intrusion by the state, and a growing body of work on gay domesticity and the home.

Bibliography (mainly from David Vincent, Privacy: a short history)

  • David Vincent, Privacy: a Short History
  • David Vincent, I Hope I don’t Intrude: Privacy and Its Dilemmas in Nineteenth-Century Britain (OUP 2015)
  • David Vincent, ‘Secrecy and the City, 1870-1939’, Urban History, 22: 3 (1995)
  • Brian Harrison, ‘The Public and the Private in Modern Britain’, in Peter Burke, Ed., Civil Histories (OUP 2006)
  • Natalia da Silva Perez, ‘Privacy and Social Spaces’, TSEG-The Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History 18 (3) (2021), 5-16
  • See also the Centre for Privacy Studies:
  • Claire Langhamer, ‘The Meanings of Home in Postwar Britain’, Jnl of Contemporary History, 40: 2 (2005)
  • James Michael, Privacy and Human Rights: an International and Comparative Study (UNESCO, 1994)
  • Dianna Webb, Privacy and Solitude in the Middle Ages (Continuum, 2007)
  • Lena Cowen Orlin, Locating Privacy in Tudor London (OUP 2007)
  • Patricia Meyer Spacks, Privacy: Concealing the 18th Century Self (Chicago, 2003)
  • Miles Ogborn, Spaces of Modernity: London’s Geographies, 1680-1780 (New York,m 1998)
  • Robert Shoemaker, ‘The Decline of Public Insult in London, 1660-1800’, Past & Present, 169 (2000)
  • Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man
  • Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere
  • John Brewer, ‘This that and the other: public, social and private in the 17th and 18th centuries’, in Shifting the Boundaries: Transformation of the Languages of Public and Private in the 18th century, eds, Dario Castiglione and Lesley Sharpe (Univ of Exeter Press, 1995)
  • Deborah Cohen, Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day (2013)
  • Michael McKean, The Secret History of Domesticity: Public, Private and the Division of Knowledge (2005)
  • Elizabeth Roberts, A Woman’s Place: an Oral History of Working-Class Women, 1890-1940 (Oxford, 1984)
  • Amanda Vickery, ‘An Englishman’s House is His Castle? Privacies, Boundaries and Thresholds in the Eighteenth-Century London House’, Past and Present, 199 (2008), pp. 147-7311
  • Lucy Faire and Denise McHugh, ‘The Everyday Usage of City-Centre Streets: Urban Behaviour in Provincial Britain c. 1930-1970’Urban History Review, 42:2 (2014), 18-28.
  • Lucy Faire, ‘The Transformation of Home?’ in Richard Rodger and Rebecca Madgin eds, Leicester: A Modern History (Lancaster: Carnegie, 2016).
  • James Vernon, Distant Strangers: How Britain Became Modern (2014)
  • Edward Higgs, the Information State in England: the Central Collection of Information Since 1500 (2004)
  • James B Rule, Private Lives and Public Surveillance (1973)
  • John Barrell, the Spirit of Despotism: Invasions of Privacy in the 1790s (Oxford, 2006)
  • Lawrence Klein, ‘Gender and the Public/Private Distinction in the 18th century: some questions about evidence and analytical procedure’ , 18th Century Studies, 29: 1 (1995)

Privacy and sexuality histories:

  • Stephen Robertson , Shane White , Stephen Garton , Graham White, ‘Disorderly Houses: Residences, Privacy, and the Surveillance of Sexuality in 1920s Harlem’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 21: 3 (2012), 443-;
  • Peter Baldwin, ‘Public Privacy: Restrooms in American Cities, 1869–1932’, Journal of Social History, 48: 2 (2014), 264–288;
  • Matt Houlbrook, ‘The Private World of Public Urinals: London, 1918–57’, The London Journal, 25:1 (2000), 52-70.
  • Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: perils and pleasures in the sexual metropolis, 1918-1957 (University of Chicago Press, 2005)
  • George Chancey, ‘Privacy Could Only Be Had in Public’: Gay Uses of the Streets’, in Stud: Architectures of Masculinity, ed., Joel Sanders (Routledge, 1997);
  • Paul Bleakley, ‘Fish in a Barrel: Police Targeting of Brisbane’s Ephemeral Gay Spaces in the Pre-Decriminalization Era’, Journal of Homosexuality, 68: 6 (2021), 1037-58
  •  Bryant Simon, ‘NEW YORK AVENUE The Life and Death of Gay Spaces in Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1920-1990’, Journal of Urban History, 28: 3 (2002), 300-327.
  • Chris Ashford, ‘Sexuality, Public Space and the Criminal Law: The Cottaging Phenomenon’, Journal of Criminal Law, 71: 6 (2007), 507.

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