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TV History: The Goldbergs

by Christine Becker

This clip was uploaded for an assignment in Christine Becker's FTT 30461: History of Television class at the University of Notre Dame in Spring 2019. Check the commentary dropdown menu for a student's analysis of the clip.

"The Goldbergs" and the move to the suburbs

by Ryan Israel

“The Goldbergs” was a popular domestic sitcom which ran from 1949 to 1951 on CBS. The show was originally created by Gertrude Berg as a network radio comedy-drama in 1930. Berg, who also starred as Molly Goldberg, the mother of the family around which the show centered, also took the concept to the theater for the 1948 play “Me and Molly.” By 1949, Berg was ready to embrace the new television technology and created a television version for CBS. After its 1949 to 1951 run on CBS, “The Goldbergs” was picked up by NBC in 1952 and later by the struggling DuMont network in 1954. The show’s run on CBS was undoubtedly its most influential, as it was the third most popular program on the air for its first season (Ingram). Due to its popular status, the cultural impact of “The Goldbergs” cannot be understated. Through its specific, urban setting and narratives, “The Goldbergs” reflects and reveals the struggles of inner-city, ethnic families in late ‘40s America and provided audiences with a justification for the transition to a suburban lifestyle.

“The Goldbergs” is primarily set in the family’s fictional house, which is located on the fourth floor of an apartment building at 1038 E. Tremont Avenue in the Bronx, a densely populated borough of New York City. The setting of “The Goldbergs” plays an incredibly important role in the show and in the 1949 episode from which these clips were taken. These three clips capture the main narrative from the episode: Molly Goldberg and her husband must deal with the poor quality of the family’s living situation — there’s a broken elevator, lack of hot water and peeling wallpaper — and negotiate with a new landlord to have these problems fixed. Their struggles are specific to urban living, and other elements of urban living are also prominent in the clips. For example, in one instance Molly can be seen putting her head out the window to talk with her co-tenants and direct them to all meet in her apartment.

Early television was dominant in urban areas such as New York, and the programming reflected this. The struggles that the Goldbergs faced due to their living situation paralleled the experiences of millions of urban, working-class television viewers who were making ends meet in crowded cities. However, during World War II, tax rates for most workers jumped from 4% to 25%, making the deduction for home ownership far more desirable. This desire for home ownership led to the suburban housing boom, as it “stimulated construction of 30 million housing units in just twenty years, bringing the the percentage of home owning Americans from below 40% in 1940 to more than 60% by 1960” (Lipsitz 43). As other living options became available and home ownership became more practical, many working-class families seized the opportunity to avoid the struggles of living in the city like the ones depicted in “The Goldbergs.”

By emphasizing the inconveniences of inner-city living, shows like “The Goldbergs” helped American families justify the move to the suburbs. Television historian George Lipsitz contends that “millions of postwar TV viewers used these urban ethnic working-class situation comedies [such as “The Goldbergs”] as a way of easing their own transition into a more middle-class suburban lifestyle” (Edgerton 130). In a later season of “The Goldbergs,” the family makes this exact transition themselves, as they leave their apartment at 1038 E. Tremont Avenue for a brand new house in the suburbs (Lipsitz 44).

There was also a close connection between suburban growth and consumer spending, giving early television advertisers even more reason to push the idea of moving to the suburbs. The mortgage policies associated with suburban homes, which encouraged long-term debt and low down payments, freed capital for other consumer purchases. For example, consumer spending on private cars sat at only $7.5 billion per year in the 1930s and 40s, but with the suburbs calling for a longer commute and new government highway building policies in place, spending on private cars rose to $22 billion per year in 1950 and almost $30 billion by 1955 (Lipsitz 43). With the suburban lifestyle’s close connection to consumerism, it is no surprise that advertisers and networks included narratives about the struggles of city living and the move to the suburbs in early television shows such as “The Goldbergs.”

By emphasizing the annoying, troublesome aspects of urban living, as is seen in these clips, one can see how “The Goldbergs” provided a justification and an impetus for the move to the suburbs that was taking place across America. Additionally, with the suburban mode of life going hand-in-hand with consumerism, the move to the suburbs emphasized in shows like “The Goldbergs” was closely tied to a growing, consumer-centered economy.

Works Cited: Edgerton, Gary R. The Columbia History of American Television. Columbia University Press, 2009. Ingram, Billy. “The Goldbergs: Gertrude Berg.” TVParty!, Lipsitz, George. “The Meaning of Memory.” Gender, Race, and Class in Media: a Critical Reader, by Gail Dines et al., SAGE Publications, Inc., 2003, pp. 40–47.

The Goldbergs Excerpts

Three excerpts from a 1949 episode of THE GOLDBERGS

from The Goldbergs - September 5, 1949 (1949)
Creator: Gertrude Berg
Distributor: YouTube (User: A Room With A Past)
Posted by Christine Becker