Electricity and the Public Good: Private-Public Power Debates in the 1920s-30s

Teaching Unit Elements

Who should develop and control electric power resources? In the 1920s and 1930s, private electric companies struggled with state and federal governments over how the vital new infrastructure would be built and made accessible. Advocates of public power included Nebraska Senator George Norris, who called for federal development of the Muscle Shoals dam site in Alabama. Proponents of public initiative prevailed with the passage of the Tennessee Valley Act in 1933 and the subsequent development of the Bonneville Power Administration in the Pacific Northwest. The Rural Electrification Administration also gave the federal government responsibility for bringing electricity to rural areas across the country.  On the other side, critics attacked these government-led energy programs as socialistic, and warned that the government should not compete directly with private industry.

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With the passage of the Rural Electrification Act in 1936, the federal government sought to extend the reach of electrical systems into the countryside. The ability to run electrical appliances, including lighting, and to power rural industries had a profound impact on rural communities. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Rural Electrification Administration celebrated these transformations with  a series of promotional posters designed by the artist Lester Beall.

During World War II, hydroelectric dams operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority powered crucial war industries, including factories producing airplanes and bombs. TVA’s hydropower also served the secret nuclear complex at Oak Ridge, Tennessee as part of the Manhattan Project. 

How did these World War II-era posters lay the groundwork for the popular celebration of TVA and government planning and development in the post-war period?

Muscle Shoals is a site on the Tennessee River in Alabama where President Woodrow Wilson authorized a hydroelectric dam during World War I to produce nitrates for munitions. The war ended before the dam was finished and during the 1920s a dispute erupted over the future use of the site and the dam.

Should the dam be transferred to private developers, such as Henry Ford, who proposed to use the dam to produce fertilizer and electricity? Or should the dam remain in public hands, owned and managed by a government agency?

In 1933, as a part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda, Congress chartered the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the first large federal regional planning project. The TVA provided electrical power, flood control, and economic development to Tennessee and other deep south states hit hardest by the Depression. In this April 1933 address, Roosevelt calls on Congress to approve of the TVA; Congress did so a month later, and it remains in operation to the present day.

Published a year after the agency’s founding, this brochure offers an overview of how the TVA promoted electricity consumption in rural areas. The brochure puts a spotlight on the Electric Home and Farm Authority, a division of the TVA that provided financing plans to purchasers of electrical and gas appliances for use at home and work.

What does the brochure tell us about the relationship between the federal government and private electricity consumption? How might a program like the Electric Home and Farm Authority have helped families through the Great Depression? What does the document tell us about gender norms and their relationship to consumption and labor during the 1930s?

In his 1935 Congressional testimony, John D. Battle, Executive Secretary of the National Coal Association, criticized the Tennessee Valley Authority’s plans to produce and distribute hydroelectric power. The federal government should not compete directly with private energy producers and utility companies, Battle argued. 

How did Battle distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate functions of the federal government? How did the problem of unemployment in the coal industry justify his opposition to government-led energy production?

The New Deal-era Works Progress Administration funded the Federal Theater Project between 1935-1939 as a way to support cultural artistic production and provide employment for workers in the theater business. Many of the theater projects embraced an explicitly political perspective. In “Power,” playwright Arthur Arent made the case for government-sponsored energy production, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, and rural electrical cooperatives as alternatives to inadequate and costly service offered by utility companies.