When we think of the industrialization of America and the rise of electricity, we’re printed to think about people in cities and factories, where machines and assembly lines abound. We think of Charlie Chaplin tangled up in conveyor belts and cogs in the movie Modern Times. We think of electric motors, coal mining, steam engines. But electricity transformed another area almost as much as it transformed the city or the factory… and that area is the house. And because of that there’s one really key demographic that’s impacted by electricity perhaps more than any other: women.
Electrification prompted a redefinition of house work and those who did it, according to scholar Rachele Dini. She wrote a book called “All-Electric Narratives,” which focuses on how advertising and literature represent electricity and electric appliances in the home.
Rachele says that the change in expectations for women and housework can be charted through advertisements: for instance, General Electric sponsored “Gold Medallion” campaigns in women’s magazines that recognized homes with all-electric “automated” kitchens. These adverts always showed sparkling clean kitchens and promised less labor for the housewife… but, the truth is, in actuality, more women were doing more labor on average.
This is because there were fewer adults in each household to share responsibilities as nuclear families became the norm: husbands were now generally expected to go to work to support the household through their wages and women were generally expected to shop, cook, clean, and manage the household. What had once been the work of multiple adults, perhaps including extended family members or hired cooks or maids, now, in most middle- and working-class nuclear families, became the job of one woman: the so-called housewife.
In fact, a whole new discipline emerged during the period of industrialization: Home Economics. You’re probably most familiar with it as a middle school elective class where you learn how to care for an egg as a practice in parenting. But in the twentieth century, home economics was a serious science.
“No one really appreciates what a degree in home economics is, until you look at a college notebook,” says Hal Wallace. They did “laboratory experiments on how foods for example, caramelize, when they’re heated, or how the proteins might rearrange in an egg as it’s been heated…. There is a lot of science involved, real science involved with this.”
At that time, home economists were concerned not just with how to teach others to cook, clean, and care for a household, but also with how to teach them to be smart consumers of new electric technologies, like electric stoves, toasters, and coffee-makers.
The U.S. government actually hired home economists to promote the formation of rural electrification when they kicked off the “Rural Electric Circus.” They toured shows in rural communities across the South and Midwest where they taught audiences how to skillfully place lightbulbs, or launder shirts in a new dryer, or cook scrambled eggs on an electric stove. The shows were both educational and promotional: teaching new technologies and encouraging these residents to form electrical cooperatives in order to access them.
We thank the following individuals for help with this episode:
Katie King for fact-checking
Featured music includes “Lancashire,” by Confectionary (Blue Dot Studios).