THANKS TO THE efforts of Thomas Alva Edison, electricity first entered a select number of American homes in 1882 (Britain beat us by a few months, introducing electrical power to a small town in Surrey in late 1881). By 1913, just over sixteen percent of America's urban homes had electric service. By the early 1930s, that number had risen to over 85 percent. During those twenty years, nearly everyone – homeowners, housekeepers, children – came to realize the benefits of electricity. At the touch of a button, the flick of a switch, anyone could heat a room, cook a meal or turn on a light.
Electrical conveniences appeared in stores, ready for the home consumer. It didn't take long for manufacturers to realize that novelty items could sell just as readily as truly important appliances such as refrigerators and cookstoves. Better Homes & Gardens noted in 1928:
It seems that the electrical industry has the entire family impartially in mind, for it provides comforts and conveniences for each and every member. From the baby up to the grandmother, there is the just-right electrical Christmas gift. Frequently the uses overlap, and Baby must share the immersion heater given him in order that he might have warm milk on demand, with Dad, who needs hot water for shaving early in the morning. But such "loanership" is not all one-sided, by any means, because Mother’s percolator will serve nicely as a bottle warmer in case Baby must pass his around among the other members of the family.
Electricity powered a myriad of labor-savers: lawn mowers, washing machines and floor polishers, just to name a few. It was thought that the money spent on appliances could be saved in other areas of life. Writer Robert Whitman pointed this out in 1929:
Today ... we are no longer willing to use muscle for work that can be done by machinery, and wherever we may live we want all of the labor-savers and the comforts that science can offer. We have progressed far enough to realize that nervous effort and physical energy are too precious to be wasted, and find greater economy in spending money on apparatus than on doctor’s bills and the wastage of shortened lives.
The coming of manufactured power also did something even more important – it changed America's conception of time itself. The differences between night and day – even the changing of the seasons – lost their importance when we no longer had to struggle to see, to keep warm, to eat, to live comfortably in our homes. Said Lurelle Van Arsdale Guild, writing for Better Homes & Gardens in 1930, "We have grown to be a nation of sun worshippers and light seekers, and we recreate in our evenings the daylight by means of our lights. With care and thought we can indeed make our lamps the suns of our homes."
Of course, not every household wanted - or was able - to take advantage of electricity and it associated appliances. While urban homes were wired relatively early, many rural towns and country homes did not get electricity or gas until the 1950s. Still others refused to spend the money on wiring for something that might be a passing fad. But for those who were able to participate, the growth of the electrical age in America was a wonderful time full of light, music and convenience:
To the homemaker, the great advantage ... is in the services and conveniences that relieve her of effort and forethought in her household tasks: light, heat and power at the turn of a switch, the cleanliness and speed of gas for cooking, the comforts of modern plumbing, and the simplified disposal of garbage and other wastes. Without these there is the heavy work of tending a coal or a wood range, the cleaning and filling of oil lamps and the fire risk that follows their use, the carrying of buckets of water, and the exposure to all weather when the needs of the household cannot be met indoors.
A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
March 2007 - December 2007
State Historic Site
(SCHS & Trail End collections, TESHS)
Detail from drawing of custom-made foyer chandelier, 1911 (Trail End Collection)