Appliances make our lives more convenient, and it's no surprise that people want to buy machines that take some of the work out of our daily routine. However, you may be surprised to learn that the politics of the early 20th century created big markets for new gas and electric appliances.
Around that time, the United States restricted immigration. Domestic labor became more expensive. At the same time, inventors found new ways to use gas and electricity to drive machines. Newly formed utility companies started wiring cities for power and piping gas into homes.
Companies such as General Electric and Electrolux found a growing market for gas- and electric-powered stoves, washers, refrigerators, irons and vacuum cleaners. But these so-called time-saving devices did not result in less time devoted to housework. Some wealthy women who had depended on servants now did the work themselves. The less well-to-do were expected to work harder to maintain a higher level of cleanliness.
Yet with the new appliances, solving the fundamental problems of day-to-day life -- darkness, dirt and biting cold -- became less backbreaking and troublesome.
Along the way, a slew of home appliances -- some iconic, some downright wacky -- were left on the scrap pile.
The Spinning Wheel
This fixture of colonial American homes has been in use for hundreds of years. People use spinning wheels to convert cotton, wool or flax into yarn. The yarn is threaded onto a loom to make cloth.
Early Americans spun their own yarn well after the introduction of commercial textiles because of the high cost of those textiles. But spinning was mechanized early, even before the Industrial Revolution. In the late 18th century, inventors developed water wheels to drive mechanical spinning machines. As manufacturing processes improved and more textiles were produced in America, the price of cloth came down. In time, the term "homespun" became an insult about the quality of a person's clothing.
The time-consuming task of spinning, along with the household fixture that accompanied it, became part of the past.
The Bed Warmer
If you've ever shivered under chilly sheets, this is a device you can appreciate.
To warm the bed at night, you placed hot ashes and coals into a closed copper skillet with a long handle, and you ran the hot pan over the sheets before sliding into bed. In wealthy families, this job might have been handled by a servant.
Families who couldn't afford a specific appliance for the task might have warmed a brick in the fire and placed it at their feet or held a hot water bottle. Unlike the modern electric blanket and mattress pads, these items lost their steam before morning. But they didn't come with stubborn cords to straighten out.
These wireless, portable warming devices have become coveted museum pieces.
The Flat Iron
Of all the accoutrements of modern American life, there's one that their great-grandmothers would have found laughable: the dumbbell.
In the last two centuries, 15-pound flatirons taxed the women who used them. The idea that women who didn't have to iron would purchase and pump a set of free weights would have baffled our ancestors.
Typically, women would dedicate one day each week to do the ironing, and they kept several flatirons hot on the stove or in the fire to keep the job moving. The job was so demanding that even less affluent households hired laundresses to do it. They called it the "sad iron."
In the history of the fire-warmed device, the only advancement was the wooden handle, which kept down the rate of burns. The first gas- and coal-powered irons, which relied on internal combustion for heat, sometimes caught on fire or exploded [source: Carter]. Nonetheless, these appliances were welcomed despite the danger.
Hot Water Reservoir
For cooking, cleaning, washing and bathing dirty toddlers, households need hot water. In the early days of the United States, that meant building a fire, grabbing a bucket, hiking to the well, carrying the water and waiting for it to warm.
During the late 19th century, in the highly competitive market for cast-iron stoves, manufacturers offered a new option: the hot water reservoir. The device, an iron box that was attached to the side of the stove, could allow a household to keep hot water on hand. Different versions allowed people to pump water directly from the well into the reservoir or to carry the water and fill it.
Urban households quickly embraced the new systems that allowed gas coils to heat water pipes, which gave way to modern water heaters. Rural American households depended on the stove reservoirs well into the 20th century.
The Cast-iron Stove
If there were ever an appliance that seemed irreplaceable, it was the cast-iron stove. Invented in the late 1700s, it replaced the open hearth as the center of washing, cooking and gathering in American households.
The stove started as a fire box, then evolved into a complicated appliance with different shelves for cooking, baking and warming. Though traditionalists decried the loss of the comforts of the open hearth, the stove improved control of heat. The variety of temperatures allowed the American diet to expand. Before the iron stove, only the very rich could eat cake. Only a kitchen with more than one hearth could produce the conditions in which a cake could be baked while the normal cooking of the day progressed.
That's not to say that the iron stove was a clean and easy convenience. While it used less fuel than the hearth, it still consumed an average of 50 pounds (22.7 kilograms) of wood per day [source: National Academy of Engineering]. Unlike the hearth, it had to be cleaned and polished. The heat was hard to control. Burns and accidents were common.
While wood-burning stoves are no longer the center of cooking, washing and cleaning, the much-loved appliances have not retreated behind the ropes of museum displays. Thousands of dealers sell them, antique and new, and real estate listings boast about the houses that have them.
The Slop Bucket
Long before anyone had heard of conservationists, American households made use of everything. Rags were woven into rugs. Straw was dried for bedding. And the meager leftovers of cooking and eating were meticulously carried into the porch or the yard and scraped into the slop bucket, to be fed to the pigs before bedtime.
The Emerson Electric Company's so-called pig pushed waste into a ring where it was ground and flushed down the drain.
Hand-cranked Wringer Washer
While cranking your own washer may not sound so convenient, it beat the old method of scrubbing a shirt over a washboard and pounding it with a rock.
The first hand-cranked models appeared around the turn of the century, although Maytag placed a small electric motor on a model as early as 1911 [source: Maytag Collectors Club]. The company produced some models before 1920 that had two options for power: electrical power, or batteries for homes without electricity. Many early models had an attached hand-cranked wringer to cut down the time spent on the clothesline. From the 1920s through the 1940s, households could choose between electrical and gas-powered engines to agitate the laundry.
Of course, despite the rows of shiny, space age front-loaded laundry appliances on display in the home stores, the hand-cranked washer is making a small comeback. A few new models are being marketed as a money-saving, socially conscious way to manage the laundry.
Hand-Powered Vacuum Cleaner
You'd be hard-pressed to find a gadget that went through more wacky prototypes than the vacuum cleaner. Historians credit the development of this appliance directly to the reduced availability of servants to do the carpet beating and the sweeping in the early 20th century.
But the evidence shows that these early vacuum cleaners didn't do much to make the job easier.
The first patent for a carpet-cleaning machine was filed in 1860, and it employed a bellows to create suction [source: Kautzman]. Later innovations involved a hand pump that required two people to operate -- one to pump and one to steer.
The plunger model appeared after 1900. It used a simple principle: Pull up the pump and suck up the dirt. It only worked on thin carpets. Wheel-operated models worked better. Though many of the wheel-driven models required two people to operate, they pulled in dirt so well that they remained in service well into the 20th century, when electric models reached the market.
The Kerosene Lamp
These lanterns may seem like old technology, but compared with candles and fat-burning lamps, they're a relatively recent innovation. The fuel, based upon petroleum, was not developed until after 1850.
After the technology to refine kerosene was patented, the fuel was marketed as abundant, cheap and not prone to exploding like the oil used in standard lamps.
Kerosene largely won the battle of warring safety claims, in a marketing environment where companies often exaggerated the hazards of their competitors' products.
The lanterns were practical and pervasive, even in urban homes with piped-in gas. Though gaslights came into use in the late 1800s, you couldn't carry them around. Ultimately, it took the Rural Electrification Administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to turn the kerosene lamp into a collector's item.
The Ice Box
Refrigeration is nothing new. Ice has been used to keep food and drink cold for centuries. Even modern refrigeration methods have been around for more than a century. For example, from 1870, breweries aggressively employed large-scale refrigeration technologies, such as absorption machines, to keep their products cold [source: Krasner-Khait].
Home refrigeration, on the other hand, came a little later. The icebox was a handy home appliance. You simply placed a block of ice over a sealed compartment, and your perishables would keep for about two days.
The first mechanical refrigerator went on display at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, and the first household unit was marketed 10 years later [source: National Academy of Engineering]. These devices slowly won out over the ice box for a simple reason: They could preserve perishables for a week.
Before the mechanical refrigerator caught on, the need to feed the ice box was one of many social tasks associated with keeping house. Households would hang out a sign that said, "Ice Today," and the ice wagon would stop. In the course of the day, you would meet the ice man, the milk man, the grocer and the butcher. But with the wide adoption of electric refrigerators, the ice men went out of business, and the job of keeping house became a little more isolated.
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More Great Links
- Carter, Constance. "The History of Household Technology." Library of Congress. July 12, 2010. (Oct. 25, 2011) http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/journey/household-transcript.html
- Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. "Less Work for Mother?" American Heritage Magazine. Vol. 38, Issue 6. pp. 68-76. September/October 1987.
- Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. "More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Techology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave." New York:Basic Books. 1993.
- Eastern North Carolina Digital Library, East Carolina University. "Bed Warmer." 2006. (Oct. 27, 2011) http://digital.lib.ecu.edu/historyfiction/artifact.aspx?id=hbc
- Eastern North Carolina Digital Library, East Carolina University. "Spinning Wheel." Copyright 2006. (Oct. 27, 2011) http://digital.lib.ecu.edu/historyfiction/artifact.aspx?id=han
- Krasner-Khait, Barbara. "The Impact of Refrigeration." History Magazine. February/March 2000. (Oct. 24, 2011) http://www.history-magazine.com/refrig.html
- Kautzman, Robert. "VacHunter-History." Vacuum Cleaner Museum. 2004. (Oct. 24, 2011) http://vachunter.com/index.html
- Malan, Allan , and Deanna Malan. "Bee Boxes to pie pullers: wash on Monday * iron on Tuesday * mend on Wednesday * churn on Thursday * clean on Friday * bake on Saturday * rest on Sunday. (women's daily work in Michigan)." Michigan History Magazine. Vol. 82, no. 2. p. 12. March-April 1998.
- Maytag Collectors Club. "Evolution of the Maytag Wringer Washer." 1997-2010. (Oct. 24, 2011) http://www.maytagclub.com/
- National Academy of Engineering. "Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Timeline." 2011. (Oct. 27, 2011) http://www.greatachievements.org/?id=3854
- National Academy of Engineering. "Household Appliances History Part 1 - Cooking." 2011. (Oct. 26, 2011) http://www.greatachievements.org/?id=3771
- National Academy of Engineering. "Household Appliances Timeline." 2011. (Oct. 26, 2011) http://www.greatachievements.org/?id=3768
- Thuro, Catherine M.V. "Oil Lamps 3: Victorian kerosene lighting, 1860-1900." Toronto: Collector Books. 2001.