State Historic Site

Trail End

Independent of the Sun

Light, Energy & the American Home, 1913-1933

A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
​March 2007 - December 2007

​An Appliance Revolution


THE KITCHEN AND laundry were not the only rooms to receive the benefits of electrical appliances. Bedrooms, bathrooms, workshops and family rooms were targeted as well. Some appliances, like the sewing machine, were primarily labor-saving devices. Others were purchased for sheer enjoyment, as pointed out by Better Homes & Gardens in 1929:

Today, homes are equipped with electric irons, washers, ironers, vacuum cleaners, curling irons, lamps ... woodworking machinery, toy trains, motion picture machines, radios, cooking-ranges, refrigerators, soldering irons, and many other devices – all operated by electricity.


SEWING MACHINES

Shortly before World War One, the reliable treadle sewing machine – used by countless thousands of American women – was finally electrified. Unfortunately, until the late 1920s, not enough homes were wired to make the electric sewing machine a common household appliance. Plus, these early machines could be a little scary – as writer Mary Brooks Picken noted in 1929: "At first women were frightened or annoyed with electric machines because of the vibration. One had a feeling of anxiety that the machine might fly to pieces."

By the late 1920s, however, the electric sewing machine had been greatly improved and contained many excellent features that homemakers found attractive:

Find what a modern Singer will do. It is so smooth, so quiet, so easy to operate, so swift in the completion of each task that sewing itself becomes a delightful pastime. ... The electric machine speeds over the seams like the magic of Aladdin. There are no aching knees from treadling, not a crick in the back, nor a sign of tired eyes, because the new machine allows you to ... sit with ease and comfort at the machine. The convenient light at the back throws the light ray on the presser foot, just where it is needed, and so you sew on gloomy days, in dark corners, at night, or in the daytime, with perfect comfort. ... Many physicians of reputation have prescribed sewing the modern way as a relaxation.


APPLIANCES FOR MEN

Most advertising for electrical household appliances was directed toward the female homemaker. It was assumed that, although the entire family would benefit from an electrified kitchen and laundry room, it was the woman who would actually use the appliances. Even in such male-oriented magazines as The Country Gentleman, most of the advertisements for electrical devices - milkers, mowers, separators and incubators - showed them being operated by women.
 
The power tool was one of the few modern electrical devices marketed almost exclusively to the adult male. While the woman was expected to clean the family home, it was the man who had the responsibility for keeping it in good repair. It was also expected that the man of the house would, when time allowed, build cupboards, furnishings and other items for the home. As author Frank Solar noted in 1928, electricity was as great a time-saver in the home workshop as it was in the rest of the house:


Since the automobile has taken the place of the horse, the vacuum cleaner substituted for the broom, and the electric refrigerator is cooling our ice boxes, changes have come in our home workshop. ... Today the home worker screws a plug in the light socket, turns the switch, and a little machine on his bench does his sawing, planing and turning.

As mentioned, most electrical appliances were designed almost exclusively for use by women. Some items, however, were targeted toward those who gave gifts to men:

  • For Xmas, give him a complete set of home working tools. Red Jacket electrically driven tools turn out work like magic. Small and compact enough for portable use and so inexpensive that any man or boy may have one. Electrically driven tools designed for the private use of men who appreciate handy tools at home.


  • Dad could probably use a cigar or cigarette lighter, an electric razor, or a good reading lamp, or perhaps, if he had the chance, a small cleaner for the upholstery of the car.


  • Dad’s comfort often depends on the ease, quickness and convenience of obtaining water of the right temperature for his shave. No device combines these three essentials to such a high degree of completeness as a GE Electric Shaving Mug. Attach it to any ordinary electric lamp socket – and Dad can have water of the right temperature in less than a minute.


Lenore Gaskill Rowe, writing about electricity and home lighting in 1927, believed that Dad, Brother or Son could be happy with just a simple light in the bathroom: "Good bathroom lighting," she noted, "is good-humor insurance. It helps the man of the house to finish speedily his daily grind of shaving and start the day right."



RADIO & TELEVISION

Although Marconi and Tesla did wonderful work pioneering the use of radio in the 1890s, it wasn't until the 1920s and '30s that it became a staple in the American home. During World War One, civilian radio activities were suspended when the government took over the industry. Afterwards, AT&T, General Electric, RCA and Westinghouse all got into the broadcasting business. By the end of 1922, there were over 500 broadcast stations scattered across the country. Most played only to local audiences – including adolescent and teenage boys fascinated by the technology. As Tom Morgan noted in The Country Gentleman in 1922,

Radio receiving stations are springing up everywhere. ... Any schoolboy possessed of a medium amount of mechanical skill can construct one that will work with uncanny precision. ... Up garret in the farmhouse, out in the barn loft, on the roofs of buildings tall and short, almost everywhere, eager lads, by means of dinky little mechanisms wholly or in part made by themselves, are listening in on concerts, lectures, orations, and so forth, originating hundreds of miles away.

Some of these teens may have been inspired by Joe and Bob, the heroes of the Radio Boys book series introduced in 1922. Authored by John W. Duffield, the books followed the radio-related adventures of the two lads, from winning a prize for their first wireless receiver to helping fight a forest fire through the use of radio communications.

Manville Kendrick had a 1921 Kennedy 281 Short Wave Receiver – one of the many battery-powered units available during radio’s early days. Because it did not have a built-in speaker, the Kennedy required the use of headphones. Later models, such as the 1929 Atwater-Kent All-Electric Set, contained speakers and could be plugged into a regular outlet, bringing the magic of radio to an entire room:

Atwater Kent gives you the thrill of radio at its best. What a world – this new, ever-changing world of radio entertainment. And how easily the door swings back and lets you in. Snap a tiny switch, touch the Full-Vision Dial – there you are. No batteries to think of. More than you expect of radio at less than you expect to pay.

During its early years, most famous musicians refused to perform on commercial radio. They believed that listeners were not sophisticated enough to appreciate truly fine music. That might be true, said musicologist Sigmund Spaeth in 1929, but it didn’t really matter:

An American audience of almost any kind today demands first-class music and gets it. No longer does the sacred name of the Metropolitan Opera Company guarantee a success with average listeners. They know nothing about music, but they know what they like. This is even more true of the radio. The faithful fans are almost sure to tune in when one of the big stars is announced.

In 1930, one of America's greatest cultural icons, composer John Philip Sousa, summed up the future of radio in ten little words: "Radio is a good thing and has come to stay." By that time, over forty-five percent of American homes had a radio – making it America's first true "mass media."

While it didn't really catch on until the 1950s, a new means of entertainment and information - television - made its debut in the 1920s. In 1926, Scottish inventor John Baird gave the world's first public demonstration of a mechanical television apparatus. The next year, Bell Labs gave a similar demonstration in New York, featuring Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover speaking from Washington, D.C. These early "scanning disk" televisions were a far cry from the Plasma and HDTVs of the 21st Century, but they were an eye-opening experience for those lucky enough to have observed them. As the Troy (New York) Record observed:

At the present, the seeming miracle of seeing by wire and wave length was not at a stage where it could be put to such general use as the telephone. ... but the feat of television itself has been accomplished and indications are that it is likely to have a real place in the world's work of distant communication.

Saturday Evening Post, 1926 (SCHS Collection, TESHS)

Detail from drawing of custom-made foyer chandelier, 1911 (Trail End Collection)