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Electrification, Household


ELECTRIFICATION, HOUSEHOLD. The electrification of the American household was a complicated social and technological phenomenon. The basic scientific knowledge dated to the early nineteenth century; but this knowledge could find no practical application until a number of economic, industrial, and social prerequisites

had been established. As early as 1832, an Englishman named William Sturgeon established the principle of converting electric energy into mechanical energy. But no commercial domestic-service motors were available until about 1895, when they first began to appear in fans and sewing machines. Similarly, the scientific principle of converting electricity into heat preceded its practical domestic implementation by more than a hundred years: not until the 1890s did electric irons, coffee makers, and toasters become available. Furthermore, many of the mechanical inventions of the twentieth century, including the washing machine, vacuum cleaner, dishwasher, and the electric range, were actually developed in the 1850s or 1860s.

Electricity became commercially available in America in the 1880s, as incandescent lighting began to brighten homes. The telephone followed, and together they set the stage for the development of electrified housework. However, certain barriers delayed the implementation of the developing technology until about 1920. Utility companies were not ready to make the substantial investments in infrastructure needed to meet the demand for industrial power and domestic lighting. Moreover, many utilities had complementary interests in supplying gas for home cooking and heating; the changeover to electrical heating seemed to threaten previous investments. Only gradually did it become clear to the utilities that the morning and evening power needs of households complemented perfectly the peak loads supplied to industry. The second major obstacle was the conservative attitude of American consumers. Electricity was initially considered "unnatural"; its proponents were obligated to alter the popular imagination through advertising and public relations campaigns. In addition, the first electrical appliances were prohibitively expensive to purchase and operate. For example, the first Frigidaire refrigerator cost $750 in 1920. Finally, the early appliances were unreliable and short-lived. Electric motors in the 1920s had one-tenth the life expectancy of their early twenty-first century counterparts.

The demand for electrical appliances and industrial sales soared after World War I. The remaining technological barriers to mass use gradually disappeared, but there were other factors, both ideological and economic. Middle-class aspirations emerged as a powerful factor in favor of electrical appliances. As far back as the mid-nineteenth century, social commentators like Catharine Esther Beecher and her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, championed the ideal of a self-reliant nuclear family structure among the middle and upper middle classes, one that made women the center of the bourgeois home's spiritual and emotional life. Resident domestic servants did not fit well into this scheme. Domestic handbooks counseled women to become more efficient homemakers and thus make domestic servants unnecessary through careful study and application of "domestic science." Household electrification seemed consistent with this emerging ideal of domestic efficiency. Electric doorbells emulated a feature associated with the largest mansions, even without a butler; electric Christmas-tree lights emerged as a safe alternative to candles. Meanwhile, feminists identified the potential of electrified washers and vacuums to free middle-class women from the oppressive drudgery of domestic work. Other critics of the industrial system hoped that household electrification would undermine the hegemony of the factory and return the American economy to an earlier era of home crafts and industries.

More directly than domestic ideals or anti-industrial ideology, the economic and political consequences of America's involvement in World War I accelerated the introduction of electrical appliances into households. Indeed, the War Industries Board recognized the importance of electricity by giving the appliance industry a high priority when it allocated labor and materials. During the war immigration was drastically reduced, and the chief source of cheap domestic labor—European immigrants—was cut off. Then, too, war allocations constrained consumer demand for durable goods; the release of this pent-up demand after the war greatly benefited the appliance industries. In particular housing starts, which increased at record rates after 1918, provided the occasion for modern electrical wiring and up-to-date electrical appliances to be included in mortgage packages. Many of these new houses were located in what historians describe as the "streetcar suburbs," residential subdivisions outside of cities made accessible by the growing network of interurban trains—powered, not coincidentally, by electricity. By World War I, also, the technology of the electric light, the telephone, the telegraph, and the streetcar had developed a large pool of skilled electrical workers in the United States. Thus, all of the factors necessary for the electrification of American households were in balance.

Technological developments brought household appliances within the reach of most middle-class Americans. Two crucial advances came with the invention of a low-cost, nondegradable electrical resistance and the perfection of a high-speed, fractional-horsepower electric motor.

Electric heat had interested scientists for many years before it became commercially practical. Its status began to change from that of a philosophical toy to that of possible practicality during the 1890s, when it became conspicuous at expositions and international trade fairs. Perhaps the first public exhibit of electrical cooking was at the International Exposition in Vienna in 1883, when a spiral of platinum was used to boil water. But probably the most spectacular display was that of an all-electric kitchen—including electric frying pan, coffee percolator, toaster, and dishwasher—at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

Platinum resistance was the earliest used in electrical heating appliances. Its high melting point and resistance to chemical degradation from oxidation made platinum ideal for long-term performances; but its price made it impractical for general use. About 1892, nickel-steel alloys began to be used widely. These could endure temperatures greater than a thousand degrees Fahrenheit, but the enamel used to prevent oxidation was fragile and prone to shattering. In 1904 the Simplex Electric Heating Company introduced a patented method of embedding and sealing the heating element into the appliance itself.

Two years later A. L. Marsh patented the Nichrome wire resistor, and this discovery became the foundation of all subsequent electrical heating apparatuses. Marsh's nickel-chromium alloy had a high electrical resistance, a very high melting point, and little susceptibility to oxidation; furthermore, it was economical to produce. George Hughes built the first electric range using the Marsh resistance and demonstrated it at the National Electric Light Association exhibit in Saint Louis in 1910. Hughes made his first sale the following year. By 1914, at least seven major firms were manufacturing cooking and heating appliances under the Marsh patent.

Throughout the 1920s, the Hotpoint Division of General Electric continued to innovate in electric range development. In 1922 it pioneered a process for reducing stress in the metal chassis of electric ranges so that a durable porcelain finish could be applied. In 1926 Hotpoint introduced the Calrod element, which further protected the resistance from chemical degradation and gave it a greater mechanical support. In the late 1920s manufacturers introduced the third wire connection, allowing a more even balance of household loads of voltage and began to increase the wattage of electric ranges to reduce warm-up time.

The second major technological advance was the creation of a practical, high-speed, fractional-horsepower electric motor. Westing house built the earliest fractional-horsepower alternating-current motors in the 1890s, based on the engineering designs of Nikola Tesla; but most of these units were dedicated to industrial purposes and lacked sufficient speed. In 1909 C. H. Hamilton designed and began to produce a reliable fractional-horsepower motor that produced eight thousand to ten thousand revolutions per minute, a significant advance. In 1913 General Electric widened the field with a motor especially designed to power washing machines.

In the 1910s and 1920s the dolly agitator emerged as the preferred design for mass-produced electric washing machines. Early dolly agitators consisted of a wooden, stationary tub and an agitator resembling a three-legged stool that thrashed about its axis and moved up and down. In the early 1920s the Maytag Company made a significant advance by giving its agitator a propeller shape. This propeller concept was soon widely imitated within the

industry. James B. Kirby, of Cleveland, Ohio, experimented with a centrifugal dryer innovation that quickly displaced the wringer as a permanent fixture of the home laundry. The tub evolved from a basic wooden construction, through galvanized iron, copper, and dark blue cobalt enamels that had a high chemical affinity for the iron tubs, to colored enamels and acrylic finishes by the 1970s. Rex Bassett and John W. Chamberlain invented the automatic washer in 1932. The first Bendix automatic washer appeared five years later; it washed, soaked, rinsed, and spun dry the clothes with only one setting of the controls.

The earliest domestic refrigerator was patented in 1908 by Marcel Audiffron and Henry Stengrum. General Electric bought the patent in 1911, but its development was delayed for six years by technical problems. Fred D. Wolf made an independent start on the design of a smaller, practical domestic refrigerator, and in 1914 sold his first model. The condensation of the ammonia coolant required very high pressure; breaks in the coils were frequent and extremely irritating. Wolf's patents changed hands several times, until they were bought in 1920 by Frigidaire, a subsidiary of General Motors.

E. J. Copeland and A. H. Goss pioneered domestic refrigerator technology. They formed the Electro-Automatic Refrigerator Company in 1914 and built their first model that same year. Two years later, the company reorganized to sell its first sulfur-dioxide refrigerated machine under the name of Kelvinator. For many years Kelvinator specialized in converting iceboxes into electrically refrigerated units by building compressors, condensers, and evaporators into the iceboxes. But sulfur dioxide is extremely irritating to the nose and throat when it is inhaled. This was a serious drawback, since it was impossible to make the pressure-proof connections airtight, especially in the compressor shaft seal, with the rather crude machine tools of the day. In 1935 Kelvinator introduced a hermetically sealed compressor. In 1936, Thomas Midgley, Jr., discovered a new synthetic refrigerant with an almost ideal set of physical properties: Freon was odorless, not toxic, and a very good refrigerant. It soon replaced sulfur dioxide as a coolant.

David D. Kenney patented a vacuum cleaner to clean railroad cars in 1902. All subsequent vacuum cleaners were manufactured under his patent. Kenney's proprietary claim would have been voided if the U.S. Patent Office had researched the 1859 McCarthy patent, which covered all aspects of the modern vacuum cleaner except the electric power source. But it was the great marketing success of W. H. Hoover, beginning in 1907, that made vacuum cleaning widely accepted. Murray Spander designed the rolling vacuum cleaner with its broom handle and dust bag. In 1910 Skinner and Chapman in San Fransisco had added a semiportable tank cleaner, based on the commercial design of a wagon-mounted house-to-house cleaning facility.

The structure of the home appliance industry has altered radically since its beginnings in the 1910s, when many small manufacturers specializing in a specific type of appliance predominated in the industry. During the first half of the 1930s, electric appliance sales were badly depressed. Sales did not climb back to their 1929 level until 1935, when the New Deal's vast electrification projects expanded the market for electrical appliances into rural America. This prolonged depressed market forced many small manufacturers who could not diversify into other product lines out of business. Perhaps even more important in altering the structure of the industry were mass marketing techniques, which were first successfully applied after World War II.

During the 1940s and 1950s, a new industry structure emerged. Consolidations and mergers concentrated industry production in the hands of major full-appliance line manufacturers, such as General Electric, Westing house, Philco, RCA, and Frigidaire. Independent distributors became less important as these large producers integrated vertically as well as horizontally. Building contractors became a stronger link in the distribution chains; by the 1950s, they replaced salesmen as the most important distributors. In the late 1950s a swing away from exclusive brand-name retail distribution developed with the proliferation of discount houses, variety stores, and supermarket sales. With a saturation of the market in the 1960s—when electric mixers, toasters, coffeemakers, can openers, knives, and other appliances were common in many households—and the threat of an energy shortage and the rise of the price of electricity in the 1970s, many large manufacturers began to abandon the appliance industry. By the late twentieth century, refrigerators and washing machines no longer inspired utopian visions of social progress, and the fully automated home of science fiction lore had failed to materialize. The focus had shifted from domestic hygiene to the more private frontiers of entertainment, information, and communication. The Internet, in particular, had emerged as the newest expression of a corporate vision of domestic order and efficiency.


Barrett, John Patrick. Electricity at the Columbian Exposition. Chicago: R.R. Donnelley and Sons, 1894.

Giedion, Siegfried. Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1948.

Nye, David E. Elecrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880–1940. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990.

Tobey, Ronald C. Technology as Freedom: The New Deal and the Electrical Modernization of the American Home. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Ronald J.Kopicki/a. r.

See alsoFamily ; Lighting ; Railways, Urban, and Rapid Transit ; Refrigeration ; andvol. 9:Power .

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