Appendix 19: The Impact of Electrification

(Appendix 19 is designed to supplement Chapter 4, 1921-1930).

A tumultuous decade for amateur woodworking, covering that chapter's history presents difficulties for the Internet because, in a single narrative, the story bulks up so large. By breaking the story down into smaller components than simply a large single webpage, reading -- it is thought -- will be easier. Other appendices associated with Chapter 4 are Appendix 21: History of the Fractional Horsepower Motor in Americaand Appendix 20: Motor-Driven Woodworking Tools Developed in the 1920s)

The 1920s “witnessed a rapid increase in the use of power appliances in the home, primarily by fractional horse-power electric motors”. For the most part, these motors powered washing machines, sewing machines, dish washers, vacuum cleaners. Estimates claim that, at the beginning to the 1920s decade, the number of people living in homes with electricity increased from about 35 million to around 85 million at the end, or “from 33 to 70 per cent of the total population.

Direct Impact of Electrification Upon Households

For evidence about the impact of electrification upon America -- she aptly entitles her piece, "The Industrial Revolution in the Home" -- the social historian, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, examined issues of the women’s magazine, the Ladies Home Journal. The evidence, Cowan claims, shows that an "industrial revolution” occurred. By examining issues of that magazine, she states that, empirically “statistical data bear out this impression.” Between 1918 and 1928, illustrations of homes lit by gaslight could be found in the Journal; by 1928 illustrations of home lit by gaslight had disappeared.

read more.

Dialogue from "our Town"

... And there's Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb come down to make breakfast, just as though it were an ordinary day. I don't have to point out to the women in my audience that those ladies they see before them, both of those ladies cooked three meals a day — one of 'em for twenty years, the other for forty — and no summer vacation. They brought up two children apiece, washed, cleaned the house, — and never a nervous breakdown....

Source: Thornton Wilder. "Our Town", Act II

This 1938 Pulitzer-award drama -- set in Grover's Corners, a "small" fictional New Hampshire town -- has scenes set in 1901, 1904, and 1913. The dialogue above is voiced by the "Stage Manager", a vital character in the play's development. Mrs. Gibbs is the wife of the town's physician and Mrs. Webb is the wife of the publisher of the newspaper, or what today we would call small-town middle-class.

This is a link to the wikipedia entry on "Our Town"

Ad for clothes washer in New York state newspaper, Middletown Daily Times-Press,1890

Impact of Electrification: Contemporary to the 1920s decade, papers in trade journals on electrification dramatically chronicle how significant, and rapid, the spread of electrical power was in the early decades of the 20thcentury.

Document 35: Anonymous, “Electric Service in the American Home,” Electrical World 75 May 15 1920, pp 1133-1137

Document 9: P H Adams, “Notes on Progress of the Use of Electricity in the Industrial and Domestic Field,” Journal of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers 40 1921,pages 118-119

Document 36: Anonymous. [in file under “electrical world”] “Cost of Electricity: Government Figures Show It to Be the One Important Commodity to Decrease in Price,” Electrical World 81, no 18, may 5, 1923, page 1052

Document 37: Robert M. Davis, “Looking Ahead Ten. Years,” Electrical World January 5, 1924, pages 17-24

Document 38: Anonymous, “Electricity in the American Home,” Commerce Monthly 6, no 10 February 1925, pages 3-10

Citing figures from two issues of Electrical World, in Document 39, author Harry Jerome writes in Mechanization In Industry [ NY: National Bureau Of Economic Research, 1934, pp 174-175], [better copy coming]

Document 35: Anonymous, Electric Service in the American Home, Electrical World 75 May 15 1920, pp 1133-1137.

An anonymous article in Electrical World in 1920 Study of Reports from More Than 5,000 Central Stations Indicates That 33,008,500 Americans, or 30.7 Per Cent of the People, Live in Electrically Lighted Homes—Houses Wired Number 6,291,160, Farm-Lighting Plants About 340,000.

Americans are now living in what may be termed the "electrical age," for the field of usefulness of electrical energy is being more rapidly developed in American homes than in the homes of any other people.

EW studied reports from more than 5,000 electrical generating com­panies submitted in connection with the compilation of the 1920 edition of the "McGraw Central Station Directory and Data Book." This study shows information on electric service in over 10,000 cities and towns and the surrounding rural areas. The results are shown graphically in the article's Figure 1, posted below:


The central stations of the country cover at the pres­ent time territory populated by 62,028,400 people, or about 57.8 per cent of the total population of the United States. Of this population within reach of central-station service, about 55.8 per cent live in electrically lighted houses. Of the total population of the country, however, only 88,008,500, or 80.7 per cent, are enjoying the benefits of electricity in their homes. There is a total of 6,291,160 houses wired for electricity, of which 48.0 per cent are in the Central States. California ranks first in number of houses wired per capita with 79 per cent, while Mississippi ranks lowest with only 8.4 per cent. The total number of stores wired was determined to be 1,459,169.

Other estimates of this nature have been made in the last few years. In 1915 it was estimated that not more than 10 per cent of the residences of the country, were connected with central stations. The same year the National Electric Light Association conducted a sur­vey in which returns from more than 100 cities of a population of 5,000 or less, taken at random from all ....

Document 9: In 1921, in the Journal of the American institute of Electrical Engineers, reprinted as

Document 9: "Notes on Progress of the Use of Electricity in the Industrial and Domestic Field" 1921, presents dramatic evidence about the astonishing rapidity of electrification and the equally astonishing impact of the development, production and distribution of the fractional horse-power inductive motor. Below are highlights, but the link above takes you to the article: The author, P H Adams (p. 119), notes in Document 9 that, in 1886, in the “industrial field,” about 5,000 small motors were in use. By 1921, in the “domestic field,

The advent of the efficient fractional horse power motor of today has caused the development of innumerable labor-saving devices for the modern home.

... The second decade of the twentieth century has brought marked improvement in all household appliances and many new ones.

A partial list of the appliances obtainable today follows:

Motor-Driven. Washing machines, ironing machines vacuum cleaners, grinders, polishing machines, pianos, ice cream freezers, sewing machines, refrigerating machines, talking machines, dish washers, ventilating devices, and many others.

Stationary Devices.
Ranges, heaters, toasters, fireless cookers, toilet devices, medical appliances, and others too numerous to mention.

The number of fractional horse power motors required for washing machines in 1920, by one large manufacturer, is over 500,000. This gives an idea of the extent to which the use of household devices has grown. ...

Document 36: In 1923, another anonymous article in Electrical World, “Cost of Electricity: Government Figures Show It to Be the One Important Commodity to Decrease in Price,” page 1052:

... The Bureau of Labor's last quar­terly statistics on the changes in the cost of living in the United States as compared with basic prices in 1918 carry an interesting footnote. Hitherto "fuel and light" have been lumped to­gether in the table and have shown a very large increase, comparable to that in other staple commodities. In the statistics just issued, which include the figures for March, 1923, this manifest injustice to the producers and dis­tributors of electrical energy is rem­edied by a line added after the total and showing an actual decrease In the price of energy as compared with December, 1914. "Fuel and light" com­bined show an increase in the last quarter of 86.2 per cent, compared with 42 per cent for food and 74.4 per cent for clothing, but electricity not only shows a decrease of 2.4 per cent but has shown an increase only once in the last six years—one of 1.2 in December. 1920.

The information contained in the Bureau of Labor's statistics, which are a summarization of the figures for thirty-two cities computed on a 1913 basis, is derived from actual prices which have been obtained from mer­chants and dealers for each of the periods named.

Document 37: In 1924, in the article where he is “Looking Ahead Ten. Years,” the statistical editor of the Electrical World, Robert M. Davis almost ecstatically, declares, pages 17-24,

American industry and the American family have adopted electrical energy as a source of light, heat and power with such enthusiasm that today the electric light and power industry stands out as one of the greatest economic factors of the nation.

But, Davis continues, the figures dwindle when we project use of electrical energy in the 1930s. Looking ahead, Davis claims that to meet future demand of electricity in 1933 for homes, farms, mines and factories, over hundred and twenty-five billion kilowatt-hours of electrical energy need to be generated. Further, Davis notes, between December, 1914 and September, 1928, the price of electricity decreased 5.1 per cent.

Document 38: Anonymous, “Electricity in the American Home,” Commerce Monthly 6, no 10 February 1925, pages 3-10.[better copy coming]

Note Rapid Development of Household Appliance Industry in the United States, where, between 1914 and November, 1924, in contrast to conspicuous increases in food, clothing and fuel, the price of electricity decreased 9 per cent.

Document 39: Citing figures from two issue of Electrical World [73 Electrical World, January 7, 1928, p. 32; January 4, 1930, p. 10.], author Harry Jerome writes, [In Mechanization In Industry [ NY: National Bureau Of Economic Research, 1934, pp 174-175],

... the 1920s “witnessed a rapid increase in the use of power appliances in the home, primarily by fractional horse-power electric motors. For the most part, these motors powered washing machines, sewing machines, dish washers, vacuum cleaners. Estimates claim that, at the beginning to the 1920s decade, the number of people living in homes with electricity increased from about 35 million to around 85 million at the end, or “from 33 to 70 per cent of the total population.

If the six sources above -- five from the 1920s and one from the 1930s -- give us insight into the contemporary scene of the 1920s decade, where electrification was revolutionizing lifestyles, today, in retrospect, Jesse H. Ausubel and Cesare Marchetti, and Davis Nye, explain the enormous impact electrification had upon the nation. In retrospective era of 1996, for example, Ausubel and Marchetti, insightfully, add some caveats about the spread of electricity that are worth considering. Because “electricity is a spatial technology,”—for both industry and homes to utilize electrical power, hydro-electric dams, steam- and coal-generating systems, sub-stations, a grid of many miles of power poles and wires, for hook-ups must be put in place -- its spread did not occur immediately. Instead, necessarily, electrifying homes, cities, rural areas, extended gradually over fifty years, ending around mid-century.

Graph Below Gives Dramatic Depiction of Rapidity of Electrification of American Homes, Urban and Rural

Source: esse H. Ausubel and Cesare Marchetti "Elektron: Electrical Systems in Retrospect and Prospect" (also Daedalus 125 (3) Summer 1996, pp. 139-169).

This article, itself, is 23 pages long. The graph, below, shows rates of electrification of homes in America. In cities, it shows, 45% of urban homes electrified by 1920. Overall, the graph provides us with data that demonstrates how rapidly electrification, especially electrification in urban areas, occurred.

More on history of electrification in cities and rural areas in the article by Dieter Schott.Below is a fragment from Schott's article:


Although slowed by the Great Depression, non-rural hookups reached 90 percent of the market by 1940. Rural areas joined the grid about one generation later than cities, reaching a midpoint of the process in 1943 versus 1920 for the townsfolk. This interval measures the clout of rural politicians, who secured subsidies for the costly extension of power lines to areas of low population density, as we ll as the conservatism of the countryside.

Source: Dieter Schott, "City and Electricity"



According to Ausubel, "The data further confirm that electricity's first century has encompassed two eras."


During the developmental spread of the system until about 1940, most electricity went for industry and light, substituting for other energy carriers in already existing market niches.

In the second era, electricity powered new devices, many of which could not have performed without it, such as televisions and computers. Most of the new demand came in the residential and commercial sectors.



David Nye [discussing the 1920s] but Nye is important for later decades too –see cause of the depression from david nye, consuming power, p 196: Whereas the steamboat and the train had been used to create central arteries, nodes of intersection, and dense zones of public interaction (such as railroad stations and theater districts), Americans combined automobiles and electrification to invent privatized spaces: suburban tracts, shopping malls, gated communities, pastoral corporate estates, and "edge cities" beyond the urban core.

This post-urban society was based on a historically anomalous situation: multiple sources of energy were all in oversupply. After 1920, three new sources rapidly replaced coal: (1) electricity, (2) oil, and (3) natural gas.47 [Steam power was the predominant form of energy only from the late 1870s until approximately the end of World War I. Direct drive from steam engines in factories began to give way to electricity after 1895, and by the 1920s industry had scrapped many steam power systems or converted them to electric drive. [See Richard B. DuBoff, Electric Power in American Manufacturing, 1889–1958 (Arno, 1979), pp. 146–147; see also chapter 3 in david nye, in net library ]

In part these new forms emerged specific

Direct Impact of Electrification Upon Households

For evidence about the impact of electrification upon America -- she aptly entitles her piece, "The Industrial Revolution in the Home" -- the social historian, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, examined issues of the women’s magazine, the Ladies Home Journal. The evidence, Cowan claims, shows that an "industrial revolution” occurred. By examining issues of that magazine, she states that, empirically “statistical data bear out this impression.” Between 1918 and 1928, illustrations of homes lit by gaslight could be found in the Journal; by 1928 illustrations of home lit by gaslight had disappeared.

In 1917 only one-quarter of the dwellings in urban America had been electrified, but by 1920 this figure had doubled for rural nonfarm and urban dwellings, and by 1930 it had risen to four-fifths. If electrification had meant simply the change from gas or oil lamps to electric lights, the changes in the housewife's routines might not have been very great; but changes in lighting were the least of the changes that electrification meant. After the electric lights, first, small electric appliances followed quickly on the heels of the electric light

Source: Ruth Schwarz Cowan, "The Industrial Revolution in the Home",The Social Shaping of Technology, Donald Mackenzie and Judy Wajcman, eds., 2d ed., Buckingham, England: Open University Press, 1999, pages 283-284.

Electric irons, for example, were quicly adopted: a 1929 survey of 100 Ford employees revealed that ninety-eight of them owned an iron. Traditionally ironing was considerd one of the most dreadful household chores, especially in warm weather. Ironing required that the kitchen stove be kept hot for the better part of the day. Irons themselves were heavy and had to be returned to the stove frequently to be reheated. At least part of this burden was eased by electric irons. Relatively inexpensive, they quickly replaced their un-electric predecessors. Her survey showed that magazine advertisements for electric irons first appeared after the war -- and by the end of the decade -- the old flatiron had disappeared.

Data on the diffusion of electric washing machines are somewhat harder to come by; but it is clear from the advertisements in the magazines, particularly advertisements for laundry soap, that by the middle of the 1920s those machines could be found in a significant number of homes. The washing machine is depicted just about as frequently as the laundry tub by the middle of the 1920s; in 1929, forty-nine out of those 100 Ford workers had the machines in their homes. The washing machines did not drastically reduce the time that had to be spent on household laundry, as they did not go through their cycles automatically and did not spin dry; the housewife had to stand guard, stopping and starting the machine at appro­priate times, adding soap, sometimes attaching the drain pipes, and putting the clothes through the wringer manually. The machines did, however, reduce a good part of the drudgery that once had been associated with washday, and this was a matter of no small consequence.

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Soap powders appeared on the market in the early 1920s, thus eliminating the need to scrape and boil bars of laundry soap.11. By the end of the 1920s Blue Monday must have been considerably less blue for some housewives — and probably considerably less `Monday,' for with an electric iron, a washing machine, and a hot water heater, there was no reason to limit the washing to just one day of the week. Like the routines of washing the laundry, the routines of personal hy­giene must have been transformed for many households during the 1920s-the years of the bathroom mania.12 More and more bathrooms were built in older homes, and new homes began to include them as a matter of course. Before the war most bathroom fixtures (tubs, sinks, and toilets) were made out of porcelain by hand; each bathroom was custom-made for the house in which it was installed. After the war industrialization descended upon the bathroom industry; cast iron enamelware went into mass production and fittings were standardized. In 1921 the dollar value of the production of enameled sanitary fixtures was $2.4 million, the same as it had been in 1915. By 1923, just two years later, that figure had doubled to $4.8 million; it rose again, to $5.1 million, in 1925.13 The first recessed, double-shell cast iron enameled bathtub was put on the market in the early 1920s. A decade later the standard American bathroom had achieved its standard American form: the recessed tub, plus tiled floors and walls, brass plumbing, a single-unit toilet, an enameled sink, and a medicine chest, all set into a small room.

While hard data on the diffusion of electric washing machines is scarce, advertisements in the magazines make clear -- especially advertisements for laundry soap -- that by the middle of the 1920s, electric clothes washing machines were used in a significant number of homes.

"The washing machine is depicted just about as frequently as the laundry tub by the middle of the 1920s; in 1929, forty-nine out of those 100 Ford workers had the machines in their homes."

The washing machines did not significantly reduce the time a person spent doing the household laundry. For operation, a person still had to watch attentively, stopping and starting the machine at appropriate times, adding soap -- soap powders appeared in the early 1920s -- rinsing out the soap, draining the water, and -- to remove most of the water from the wet clothes -- feeding them through the wringer manually.

The machines did, however, reduce a good part of the drudgery that once had been associated with washday, and this was a matter of no small consequence.

"By the end of the 1920s Blue Monday must have been considerably less blue for some housewives — and probably considerably less `Monday,' for with an electric iron, a washing machine, and a hot water heater, there was no reason to limit the washing to just one day of the week."

These events were also mirrored by the evolution of the household bathroom. New homes began to included bathrooms; more and more, bathrooms were installed in older homes.

In the 1890s, Muncie -- a small Midwestern city -- was idyllic, “a simple and inclusive town where Americans led spontaneous, natural, and unalienated lives.” In the 1890s, work – which “rested on the close connection between the exercise of skill and the manufacture of useful products” -- was central to Muncie’s worldview and “provided genuine fellowship”. In the 1890s, based on folk traditions, leisure involved active participation in informal neighborhood and community groups. Along with the tasks associated with making a living – which gave most little time for leisure activities -- in the 1890s, Muncie's were visualized as “active and informed citizens.

By the late 1920s, though, a remarkable transition had occurred. If life in the 1890s was idyllic, by the 1920s, the Lynds found that intrusions on this tranquility came from noticeable outside influences that widened the "gap between the things the people do to get a living and the actual needs of living.” The forces that were part and parcel of mass society and mass production introduced “alienation” as a more dominant characteristic of the social life of the town: production-line manufacturing, which lead to a decreased the sense of craftsmanship; the credit system -- installment buying served "as a repressive agent tending to standardize widening sectors of the habits of the business class" --, through advertising, automobiles. And pop culture, like the movies and the radio, made leisure increasingly “passive, commercialized, and nonparticipatory

The title a chapter in Middletown rhetorically asked, "Why Do They Work So Hard?" The Lynds’ answer: In the 1890s, Americans appeared "to have lived on a series of plateaus as regards standard of living." By the 1920s, in contrast, "the edges of the plateaus have been shaved off, and every one lives on a slope from any point of which desirable things belonging to people all the way to the top are in view."

The innovation of the Middletown study is its use of “household budgets and concepts of income adequacy….” When they explored implications of new patterns of consumption for American life, the Lynds injected “the budget study tradition” into the mainstream of American social thought. Middletown -- central to a concern by social historians, sociologists, political scientists, and other scholars who study culture – redirected scholars’ focus “from the profligacy of workers to an entire society becoming a consumer culture”. Although the book’s focus is Muncie, Indiana, inevitably it was visualized as representative of conditions prevailing across America.

Source: Lynds, Middletown, pp. 12, 17, 39, 71, 80, 226, 245, and 471; CHARLES MCGOVERN, "Consumption and Citizenship in the United States, 1900—1940" in Getting And Spending: European And American Consumer Societies In the 20th Century, ed by Susan Strasser, et al, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998 pages [on opd.]

On the theme of consumption and citizenship, or, perhaps, “consumption as citizenship,” see Charles McGovern on radio:

Consumption and Citizenship in the United States, 1900—1940”: According to McGovern, in America, the arrival of a consumer society -- in the decades preceding the Depression -- laid the foundations for associating consumption and citizenship. By 1930, over 12 million homes owned radios; and by 1940, the number was 40 million, with average listening times about four hours daily. And with radio, came advertising, and the suggestion that consumption supported American social well-being.

Source: Charles McGovern, “Consumption and Citizenship in the United States, 1900—1940” n. 9:

Because of women’s centrality to home economics, in the 1920s and 1930, women were the primary targets of advertising. Why? Women wanted those products designed to lighten the load of housekeeping: washing machines, irons, refrigerators, all the result of the impact of electrification, thus justifying that claim that, use Cowan’s terms, “an industrial revolution” was taking place in America’s homes. (Though McGovern documents the supremacy of women as targets by advertisers, he also notes increasing appeals by advertisers to men and children.)

Taken together, claim the Lynd’s The impact was a noticeable "decrease in the psychological satisfactions formerly derived from the sense of craftsmanship and in group solidarity" of the working class. Divisions among people had hardened. Although so many aspects of life were more organized, "con­tacts" among people seemed "more casual," leaving "the individual some what more isolated from the close friends of earlier days."

Source: Charles Lynd Middletown, pp. 225, 312, and 479, as cited by Horowitz, note 39]. 39

In today's world, to us, given that the world of 1890s is even more alien to us than to the Middeltowners of the 1920s, such laments barely make sense. And, in part, at least, the remarkable growth in amateur woodworking, parallel with corresponding growth in many other similar leisure time pursuits, simply attest to a reaction to this alienated feeling: let’s not stew about life’s limits; let’s do something therapeutic, creative, productive!

Here’s my concern: in the interval between 1920 and 1950, numerous developments occurred in the creation of woodworking tools significant to amateur woodworking, e.g., late ‘20s, tilting arbor table saws, late ‘40s, Shopsmith and Dewalt radial arm saws, etc etc. (With its ¾ or maybe 1 hp motor, the shopsmith might be an exception) However, my hunch is that these tools could not be easily used in homes, well first, because many couldn’t afford them, but second and perhaps more important, homes weren’t wired at a high enough amperage to operate them.

My hunch is based on the following: initially, up to 1950, homes did not have a wide availability of electrical outlets, instead, for appliances, home owners depended upon “socket-driven” hook ups. For smaller tools, like tilting table 8” saws, bench top “anything”, lathes, the circuits could handle the amperage drain, but anything bigger started blowing fuses. Not until wiring was upgraded, via the greater demands in the pivotal post ww II era, and the huge bulge in home construction, did it become possible to operate the larger woodworking tools in home settings.

One clue to demonstrate this claim: Anonymous, “Electric Service in the American Home,” Electrical World 75 May 15 1920, pp 1133-1137p 1138: [relate this to “socket driven”: 1138

The value of electric service for the home is now well recognized, and it is estimated by capable authori­ties that about 98 per cent of the houses being built in cities and towns are wired for electricity. It is most important, therefore, that the architect and contractor should consider carefully the proper location and proper number of outlets for lighting fixtures, sufficient appli­ance outlets for the numerous labor-saving devices now used for heating, cooking and power, as well as the proper location of the switch control. To obtain the maximum use of small household apparatus every in­ducement to their operation should be given, and slip-shod building plans which do not consider the con­veniences of the occupants should be discouraged. In anticipation of a large consumption of electrical energy by electrically operated household appliances, a separate wiring system for these devices should be installed in new houses which will permit them to be connected to a separate meter. This enables the central station to adjust rate schedules when the demand merits a lower rate and to encourage the use of electrical appliances on an attractive basis.

Source: Jesse H. Ausubel, Elektron: Electrical Systems in Retrospect and Prospect Daedalus 125(3):139-169 (Summer 1996) URL: http://phe.rockefeller.edu/Daedalus/Elektron/

Average residential consumption has increased by a factor of ten since 1940 and appears in our analyses to saturate in the 1990s at about 10,000 kilowatt hours per year. One might say that the customer is the home, not the human. Home appliances have increased by the tens and hundreds of millions: refrigerators, video-cassette recorders, vacuum cleaners, toasters and ovens, clothes washers and dryers, dishwashers, air conditioners, space heaters, and, more recently, personal computers, printers, and fax machines.

We emphasize the residential because it is becoming the number-one consumer. Residential consumption grew faster than other major sectors over the past decades and, in 1993, overtook industrial consumption in the United States. The number of housing units has grown sevenfold in the United States since 1900, while the number of people has tripled, as residents per unit have declined and second homes increased.

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As the second wave of electrification reaches its culmination, the residential share appears destined to plateau at about 35 percent of the total use of electricity, more than twice its share of the first wave. In a third wave of electricity, residential consumption may grow only at the same rate as overall con sumption, or, if life-styles continue to include more home space and reduced working time, at an even faster rate.

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Californians already spend more than 60 percent of all their time at home indoors.14

So do New Yorkers and Indians.

See also account of reduction in cost of electrical power to consumers, 1910-1925 and this graph

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