PRIOR TO THE introduction of electricity and electrical appliances, a woman's life was consumed by household tasks: carrying water to be heated on the stove; hauling wood for the cookstove and fireplace; sewing, washing, rinsing, wringing, drying and ironing clothes; beating rugs; scrubbing, sweeping and polishing floors; shopping for, preparing and cooking food; washing dishes – and more! On a ranch or farm, that list could grow to include churning butter, milking cows, raising chicks, etc. All by hand, by sunlight or lamplight or in the dark, each and every day of the week.
Electricity may have been a boon to business and industry, but it could not have impacted commerce more than it impacted the lives of the typical American housewife. As Better Homes & Gardens stated in 1929, changes were more than overdue:
In the world of Business men have banished the dragon of Drudgery. But what of our world? Are you still hampered by heavy household tasks that take your time and sap your strength? Does the weekly washday take its heavy toll of hours that you could spend so joyously, so profitably in other ways? Are you passing up enjoyable, stimulating, youth-bringing pleasures and pastimes because of this heavy burden? It is no wonder then that washday steals more of Youth and Beauty than the other six days can restore!
For thousands – if not millions – of American women, liberation from the worst of these household tasks came with the advent of electricity and the appliances powered by it.
EXPANDING HORIZONS BEYOND THE WASHBOARD
In the 1920s and '30s, advertisers were determined to get their products into every American home. To do so, some questioned the homemaker’s devotion to her husband and her willingness (or unwillingness) to be part of his world rather than a slave to housework. Consider these 1929 ads:
The implication was clear: if a woman didn't adapt to new technologies, her husband would go out in search of someone who would! Magazines worked with advertisers to convince women that it was okay to lighten their burden, to make time for their men and themselves. Home economist Mabel Stegner, writing in Better Homes & Gardens, stated, "There is virtue in purchasing equipment that will make work easier and more pleasant and will release time and energy for reading, for music, social contacts, companionship with husband and children, and outdoor recreation."
THE UP-TO-THE-MINUTE HOSTESS
One of the pursuits that could be enjoyed with all this extra time was entertaining. Prior to the introduction of time and labor-saving appliances, women didn't have the energy for anything but housework - at least according to advertisers. The Syracuse Washing Machine Corporation, for example, published the following in 1928:
She washed for five in the morning, yet served for seven that night. How does she do it, envious neighbors ask? How can she tend to her home, her children, do a huge wash and still feel able to entertain? There’s no magic about it. She does nothing that you can’t do. The only difference is that she owns one of the marvelous new Easy Washers. ... With all this marvelous help, with so much time and trouble saved, is it any wonder that Easy owners no longer dread washday? Is it any wonder that they feel fresh, able to entertain of an evening, where once they would have gone to bed?
As technology advanced, so did our ways of entertaining. In the late 1910s, small counter-top electrical appliances began finding their way into the American home. By the mid-1920s, there were dozens to choose from. Many were designed for use at the dinner table. One of the most popular was the electric waffle maker:
Have you ever poured at a waffle supper? If you have missed this experience, you will be surprised how joyful these informal meals can be. And, of course, when one has no help in the kitchen, the hostess has the pleasure of being with her guests, or the member of the family who is delegated to bake the waffles can enjoy them with the rest of the family.
To enjoy these waffle makers and other appliances – percolators, toasters, sandwich makers and chafing dishes – the modern hostess had to ensure that her dining room was wired correctly. The General Electric Company encouraged:
Not till you’ve enjoyed the thrill of making an admirable waffle right at the table, a ravishing chafing-dish mystery, golden brown toast, delicious coffee, will you realize the luxury and convenience of proper wiring. Your guests, your family, you yourself, will revel in it. Don’t waste time scurrying to and fro preparing food. See that your dining room is well wired and then you can be an up-to-the-minute hostess.
THE CHARM OF WELL-DRESSED HAIR
For centuries a woman's head of hair was said to be her "crowning glory." Countless products were sold to make hair grow, keep it shiny and healthy, and increase its beauty. Most women never cut their hair; instead they braided it, wound it around their heads, and didn't wash it for weeks at a time. In the early 1900s, the representative Goddess of Hair was the Gibson Girl. Drawn by Charles Dana Gibson, the Gibson Girl always features long flowing hair, intricately coiffed.
Following the end of World War One, it became quite fashionable for women to "bob" their hair. At first, only actresses and young ladies of society adopted the new style. Soon, middle class women came to realize the simplicity of short, cropped hair. In 1924, it was estimated that some 2,000 women a day were getting their locks sheared – in New York City alone! Society as a whole was horrified. Men divorced their wives; employers fired their employees; preachers raged from the pulpit – all because of bobbed hair. Manufacturers and businessmen, on the other hand, soon realized the market for salons and appliances that would assist women in making their new, short hair look as good as possible. An ad in Needlecraft Magazine in 1924 noted, "The charm of well-dressed hair is now within the reach of all who have electricity available. It is very easy to have beautiful wavy hair with an electric curling-iron in your boudoir."
Interestingly, as household incomes went up, the use of home styling appliances went down. According to Ronald Tobey, author of Technology as Freedom: The New Deal and the Electrical Modernization of American Homes, Americans used their increased income to purchase services rather than labor-saving appliances:
Women went out to beauty parlors, rather than curl their hair at home with electric curling irons. Once bobbed hair became a popular women's hairstyle in the mid-twenties, the sale of electric curling irons declined, since the style required the gas iron available at parlors.
When it came to the electrification of the home curling iron, it was not always the iron that was electrified, but the heating unit into which it was set. Though curling irons that plugged directly into a lamp socket were not unheard of, the curling iron as we know it today was not patented until 1980.
As for the personal hair dryer, it was the first domestic electric appliance to utilize Bakelite, an early plastic that could be molded in a variety of colors. It was this modification that made the dryer not only functional, but a fashion accessory as well: "Keep hair beautiful," extolled one advertisement. "Dry hair in few minutes. After washing give hair a treatment of energizing warm air, then a breeze of fresh cool air – very exhilarating. Sets water waves quickly. A chic ivory toilet article."
Perhaps the scariest home electrical device ever invented – at least for women – was the permanent wave machine. One 1924 unit, manufactured by Nestle-Lanoil, promised "quick, permanent and lovely results" through the magic of electricity and chemistry:
Dainty Home Outfit safely transforms straightest hair into charming permanent waves, curls and ringlets. A single application gives you naturally curly hair. This process has made permanent waving so simple, safe and comfortable that you can realize the dream of your lifetime even in your own home. Are you going to go on struggling forever with your straight hair?
The rage for bobbed hair brought about the creation of the modern beauty salon. Until the mid-1920s, beauticians did not cut hair – they styled it. Barbers were the ones who did the cutting, and their clientele were almost exclusively men. After women abandoned their familiar salons in favor of barber shops, beauticians concluded that they would have to learn to cut hair or lose their livelihood! Thus the full-service salon was born – complete with gas-heated curling irons, electric permanent wave machines and hair dryers.
According to her diaries, Rosa-Maye Kendrick went to the salon on a regular basis to have her naturally wavy hair waved even more – sometimes with unsatisfactory results.
Perhaps she should have considered the Nestle-Lanoil Dainty Home Outfit!
Better Homes & Gardens, 1929 (Georgen Collection, TESHS)
Detail from drawing of custom-made foyer chandelier, 1911 (Trail End Collection)
A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
March 2007 - December 2007
State Historic Site