Perpetual Parley Part II: The Municipal Plant and the Effects of Electrification

The advent of the electricity plant, either municipally or privately owned, was a major catalyst for progress in cities across the nation. It changed urban areas socially, politically, technologically, and in many other ways. The first and primary use of electricity service throughout the nation was street lighting. As late as 1890, the national publication Literary Digest argued that “dark city streets were associated with crime, ignorance, and sloth in city administration.”(1) Considered in this context, city dwellers were more than just pleased by the new lights; they had an honest sense of excitement, appreciation, and awe that historian David Nye says was typical of the way Americans first experienced electric lighting on streets and in stores. According to Nye, for urban residents accustomed to dark shadows and dim lamps, the first thrill of bright light at night was interpreted as an “exemplification of Christianity, science, and progress.”(2)

As cities across the nation grew along rail and streetcar lines, there was an increased demand to extend electricity service to more streets and businesses, and finally to residences.(3) Street lighting, or night lighting, had a profound impact on the way citizens of pedestrian-oriented cities lived, traveled, and worked. Artificial illumination enabled residents to work and shop early in the morning and late into the night, effectively standardizing the length of the workday across the seasons. “Work, whether at a factory, office, or store, could be better regulated, encouraging increased labor productivity and larger scales of operation,”(4) which were important considerations for a rapidly growing city.

Prior to the turn of the 20th century, electricity was often only provided in the evening and night to provide power to electric lights.(5) The advent of 24-hour service allowed for increased commercial and industrial use of electricity to drive machinery such as electric motors.  Increased service hours also allowed residential uses of electricity in appliances and heaters. Nationally, it was uncommon for homes to have electricity prior to the 1920’s. However, teachers, architects, and home builders had already begun educating city dwellers on the uses of gas and electric appliances by the turn of the century.(6) The list of appliances included power motors for sewing machines, exhaust fans to be used in kitchens to drive out smoke and fumes, cooking apparatus of all kinds, flat iron heaters, curling iron heaters, electric heaters for rooms, and more. The corporate publicists of these modern conveniences were “pleased to demonstrate the effectiveness and convenience of all the manifold appliances of the electric current to any and all consumers who may be interested along this line.”(7) The invention, promotion and dissemination of these new technologies, according to historians Christopher Armstrong and H. V. Nelles, were considered part of an educational construct they describe as “the theatre of science.”(8) 

Companies such as General Electric advertised electric household appliances that were now universally available to the public. An advertisement in the Austin Herald offered a GE “Electric Cookery” powered by electric heat that is “as clean as light. No flame. No smoke. No soot. No blackened pots and pans to scrub. Your kitchen will remain clean and attractive” (Figure 1). In the city, such appliances were available for purchase at the Herald Cooking School, but the advertisement instructed interested buyers to please contact the local Municipal Water & Light Plant for more information, presumably to ensure their home had adequate utility connections.(9) This was just the beginning of a massive sales campaign for educators and salespersons to promote the new household equipment, and the “same agents of diffusion could build on the increasingly popular idea that enhanced levels of cleanliness, comfort, and convenience could be achieved through mechanical means.”(10) With each passing decade, consumers were bombarded with another generation of technical innovations and new equipment. 

In today’s society, one does not often stop to think about the source of electricity. The convenience of “plugging in” is expected in both private and public places, including outlets and charging stations at the airport, in the mall, and in restaurants. One could hardly foresee that the advent of the first electricity plant would ignite such consumption and demand. 

Notes:

  1. Armstrong, “History of Public Works,” 342.
  2. David E. Nye, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 36.
  3. John A. Jakle, City Lights (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001): 3.
  4. Ibid, 3. 
  5. "The Day Service,” Austin Register, March 26, 1903.
  6. Rose, Cities of Light, 2. 
  7. “The Day Service,” A History of Austin Utilities (Transcribed newspaper articles 1887-1997), (26 March 1903): 123.  
  8. Rose, Cities of Light, 2. 
  9. “Electric Cookery” advertisement, Austin Daily Herald, 22 Feb. 1932, from Austin Utility Files.  
  10. Rose, Cities of Light, 8. 

Figure Source:

(Figure 1) Archival image from Austin Utilities Historic Files, retrieved in July 2013 (“Electric Cookery” advertisement, Austin Daily Herald, 22 Feb. 1932). 

PVN Staff