Electricity Consumption: Culture, Gender and Power

Module Elements

Patterns of energy consumption started to change significantly in the first decades of the twentieth century. As electrical service became increasingly available in urban areas, middle class households experimented with and adopted new electrical appliances. To boost demand, electric utility companies and appliance manufacturers sought to teach American consumers how to use electrical devices and promoted the electrified household as thekey to a better, more prosperous life. This teaching unit explores cultural aspects of electrical use in the home, including the intersection of electricity with changing conceptions of femininity and the gendered nature of household labor. How would the new electrical appliances change the burden of maintaining the home and how would they alter standards for home-making? The purchase of a new vacuum cleaner, for example, might shift responsibility for cleaning from men, who might previously have hauled rugs outdoors once or twice a year to “beat” the dirt out of them, to women, who now were expected to vacuum the rugs frequently to keep them clean. Advertisements for new electrical appliances in the 1920s, including refrigerators and other devices, relied heavily on imagery related to a woman’s role in creating an ideal setting for family life.

Note: This teaching unit is still in development.


Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York: Basic Books, 1983. 

Thomas Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

David Nye, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.