Saturday, April 16, 2016

They could get by without electricity

 Snoqualmie Falls Hydroelectric Plant, built in 1899.

Some time ago I posted this item:
I've been breaking it down since, although my speed in doing that has been arrested a bit by the number of posts I've been putting up on the Punitive Expedition of 1916.  Even there, however, some daily living items have crept into the posts
Lex Anteinternet: 9 Reasons Your Great-Great-Grandpar...: An interesting item from 9 Reasons Your Great-Great-Grandparents Were More Awesome Than You As 21st-century adults, it...
Here's another one of the interesting items.
3. They could get by without electricity.
Very true.  And a topic I haven't directly covered.  I'll have to add this one to the hopper.
So here we'll cover it, maybe.  And indeed, we'll combine it a bit with a second thread I was riffing off of, from a recent George F. Will column.  Zapping two birds with one birds with one bolt, so to speak.  I've been obliviously fascinated by the following quote from a recent George F. Will column:
It turns out that this topic, however, is something that's surprisingly hard to get good information on.

I thought it would be relatively easy to discover when houses were first commonly wired for electricity.  My suspicion was the 1920s, and indeed the 1920s might be right but it might have actually been a bit earlier, particularly depending upon a person's location. There's some suggestions to that effect out on the web, but unfortunately none of them are backed up by anything.  Be that as it may, it's clear that electrical generating was going on as a business proposition earlier than that.  Indeed, states that electrical lighting came to Casper on June 12, 1900, with electricity coming from a power plant near one of the refineries.  Indeed, the Natrona County Tribune reported the event on its June 14 front page, without really ever explaining where the electric lights were going to be.  Presumably that electricity was used for industrial and street lighting purposes, and not for average homes but, based upon what I read, I honestly can't say who had the first electric lights around here.  Clearly on June 12, 1900, there was probably not a single house in Casper that had electricity, and that would be true for almost every house in the United States.  But it wouldn't be that way long and even then it wasn't true everywhere.

Absolutely frightening electric toaster from 1908.

Starting around 1900 the amount of electrical power generated in the US expanded enormously.  The original power plants were small affairs, by modern standards, and were often petroleum fired generator affairs.  That sort of power generation still exists, of course, but not for domestic and large scale industrial use.  But soon more substantial generation facilities came into existance.  Electrical output from utility companies in the US went from 5.9 million kWh in 1907 to 75.4 million kWh in 1927 while the price of electricity declined 55%.  Not just lighting, but other electrical appliances began to appear in homes.  In 1903 the electric iron ws introduced, shwoing tghat there was indeed domestic power use at that time, and apparently electricity was trusted enough to be used in that fashion.  The electric toaster was introduced in 1909, followed by the popup toaster ten years later.  The electric vacuum was introduced in 1907.  The electric refrigerator was introduced in 1913.  The washing machine came on in 1930 and the dryer in 1935.

 Electric iron, 1908.  Note the outlet is a lamp.

Indeed, while we tend to think, for some reason, of electric lighting when we first think of electricity, we probably ought to think of the plethora of electrical appliances that came on after 1900.  Earlier in this blog, in our post Women in the Workplace: It was Maytag that took Rosie the Riveter out of the domestic arena, not World War Two, I've argued that it was domestic machinery, not the Second World War, that created the social change that altered the role of women in society, and I probably ought to expand on that to suggest that it was electricity that powered that social change.

Photograph from our earlier post about domestic machinery.  Woman in Montana vacuuming in her home, about 1940.  Of note, the book case on the right is a barristers case, something normally associated with lawyers.  She's vacuuming a large rug on a wooden floor.  What she isn't doing is packing that rug outside, probably with assistance, to beat it with a broom, which was in fact the time honored method of cleaning them.

Not that lighting is a minor matter.  And this taps into something I was going to make into a separate thread, but which is so close to the topic here I'll instead address it here, the thread I started as a draft first. I've quoted it above, and one of the things that Will stated was "No household was wired for electricity.  He also stated that "Flickering light came from candles and whale oil"  Perhaps, to set it in context, we should look at the quote again.
I don't dispute the details that Will recites here, but I do doubt the "more medieval than modern assertion.  Indeed, some of these things argue, I think, the other way around.  Still, it taps into what we're discussing here.  This is just the sort of thing that this blog exists to explore, particularly given that the time frame that Will is discussing, 1870 to 1970, fits right in with the time frame, sort of, that this blog is looking at, as earlier noted. 

Whale oil chandelier, photo from the Library of Congress.  Up until the Will entry, I'd never even considered there being such a thing as a whale oil chandelier.

What Will noted was quite true, but was this Medieval in character?  I'd assert not.  I don't really know, however.  Whaling has taken place to some extent since ancient times, but the widespread use of whale oil, I suspect, didn't come about until well after the Medieval period.  Indeed, it doesn't seem to have been done in an appreciably large manner until maybe the 17th Century, although whaling itself does go back much further than that.  Whale oil, once it became a common commodity, did see use in lamps in candles in an appreciable manner.   Starting in the 19th Century, however, kerosene began to come in.  Whale oil reached its peak in 1845 and then began to fairly rapidly decline thereafter as kerosene became more common, although whale oil would continue to see some use up until electrical generation replaced it in the early 20th Century, a fairly remarkable fact.

As a total aside, just as it is surprising, whale fat was also used for whale margarine, a truly odd thought now.

Electrical generation came first to towns and cities, and obviously first to one that had the means of generating electricity.  Coal, oil and hydroelectric generation all started to some in, in force, in the early 20th Century and even in the late 19th Century.  So, even though we haven't been able to really pin down a year for which most Americans in towns would have been using electricity domestically,  it does seem safe to say that it was no later than the 1920s, and maybe even a decade prior.  In the countryside, however, it took the Great Depression to bring electricity to the rural homes, farms and ranches.

Indeed, electricity is so common now that it probably doesn't seem as big of deal to us as it really was.  But it was a big deal to the nation.  Electricity hadn't been marketable enough to cause lines to be run to farms and ranches prior to the Depression, but by the Depression it was obvious to the administration that this was one of the areas where it seemed to be the case that rural Americans were falling behind urban ones in the standard of living.  How that would relate to a depression isn't instantly obvious, but you can make the case that extending electricity to rural homes would have a collateral economic impact.

Not all rural homes, it should be noted, lacked electricity.  Lots of rural homes, farms and ranches across the US had put in electricity on an "off the grid" basis by using wind power.  Now, electrical generation in that fashion always has some quirks, to be sure, and this would have been all the more the case at the time. Generators used for this purpose tended to be adapted from some other use and a lot of the on the spot electrification at the time would have been scary from our current prospective.  Added to that, wind isn't really reliable unless you have a lot of it, and a way to store the electricity that it generates. So, rural Americans using it were using it on a spotty basis. That was probably quasi adequate for their needs at the time but by the early 1930s it was becoming obviously less so. Still, it can't help but be noted that this is an aspect of the past that sort of oddly foreshadowed the future, as "off the grid" electricity is in vogue again.

The answer was a couple of government programs, including the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Rural Electric Administration, which brought power to the hinterlands.  REA was a big deal.

So, basically, going into World War Two, as the film Oh Brother Where Art Thou? would have it, "Everything's gonna be put on electricity and run on a payin' basis.", which is what occurred. The REA and other Federal agencies worked towards providing the rural areas of the nation with electricity and the entire country, pretty much, has been electrified ever since.  So much so that we are running something on electricity nearly all the time.

And that's the point really.  If we go back far enough, let's say 1896, we'd be in a recognizable time with recognizable people, but a tremendous amount of what we take for granted would not be, given the absence of electricity.  Even if we go only as far back to 1916, the year we've been focusing on a lot here, that would be true.  For average people in much of the United States what light you'd have at night would come from a lamp burning a fossil fuel.  And all that stuff we plug in for entertainment or convenience, just wouldn't be.

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