Electricity Consumption: Culture, Gender and Power

Teaching Unit 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.

 

Advertisements for household electrical devices in magazines like Good Housekeeping in the 1920s promised women liberation and personal fulfillment.

How do these advertisements market vacuum cleaners? What ideas about gender, household labor, and household cleanliness are conveyed?

How might the relations between men and women be influenced by the new devices? What might the new devices mean for paid household labor?

Americans had to be taught to use the new electrical devices. In 1911, New York Edison published a recipe book to show how the electrical appliances could be used to cook both basic and complicated foods. The very first item: how to toast bread in an electric toaster.

In skimming the recipes, what do you notice about how New York Edison presents the new electric cooking? How many different single-use cooking appliances can you find in the recipe book?

By the early 1900s, electricity was being used widely in transportation, industry, urban areas, and in some homes. Yet it also had begun to assume an almost invisible and unappreciated character, according to Benjamin Lamme, an engineer at the Westinghouse Electric Company.

“Imagine,” Lamme asked in 1916, the world “suddenly without electricity.” How would its disappearance disrupt American life? 

What were Lamme’s main examples? How did these uses of electricity come to be normalized and overlooked as a form of daily energy consumption?

After World War I and during the 1920s, electrical applicances spread rapidly to American households and workplaces, particularly in urban areas. The 1919 Electrical Exposition in New York City displayed many of the new devices for putting electricity to work.

How did the proposed uses of electricity promise to reshape the workplace and home?

What consequences were anticipated for housewives, in particular, for whom “wash day” could now be “joy day.”

In the early 1920s, electrical devices increasingly penetrated the American home, with a particular impact on the women who managed the household. In this 1921 letter to Thomas Edison, Mrs. W. C. Lathrop, the wife of a prosperous Kansas surgeon, thanked Edison for changing her life, helping to make her “a wife not tired and dissatisfied but a woman waiting who has worked faithfully believing that work is beneficial and who is now rested and ready to serve the tired man and discuss affairs of the day.” To be sure, Lathrop’s use of electricity far exceeded that of the typical Kansas housewife in 1921. Not until after the Rural Electrification Act in the 1930s and other efforts to expand access would many rural residents benefit from electrical devices.

How did the new devices reinforce Lathrop’s feminine domesticity?

How did electricity help relieve some of her drudgery and increase access to broader cultural opportunities?

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.