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Energy and consumers

As much as electric power has played a crucial role in global economic development, the supply of electricity can also be seen as a consumer service involving consumer technology. With a few exceptions (e.g. medical use), electricity cannot be seen or felt, and it can only be used through appliances. Thus, as the supply of electricity grew, a host of appliances appeared. While electric lamps, heaters and cookers replaced old fuels, innovations like washing machines, vacuum cleaners and cooking devices reduced human labour. Furthermore, radios, record players and televisions ushered in new activities made possible only through electricity use. Scholars have provided several good cultural and social histories of appliances like the refrigerator (Peavitt, 2017; Rees, 2013), the lift/elevator (Bernard, 2014) and air conditioning (Ackermann, 2002; Cooper, 1998). More theoretically-oriented science and technology studies have problematised a wider range of large and small technologies, including some mundane technical objects. Studies on gas and electricity meters, for example, have examined how these humble technical objects regulate and modify social relationship by visualising the flow of invisible energy (Gooday, 2004) and allocating responsibilities to suppliers and customers (Ackrich, 1992).

David Nye’s (1990) Electrifying America demonstrated that electrification has been much more than the sum of technological innovation, infrastructure building, business strategy and appliance use. The book described electrification as a process in which technological, social and cultural changes are deeply intertwined. Nye’s story of electrification depicted consumers as active partners of inventors and business managers, and this partnership was mediated by cultural symbols and discourses that appeared in advertisements, journalists’ reports and cultural commentaries. Commercial advertisers and marketers self-consciously exploited signs and symbols and circulated them throughout American society to propagate the gospel of electrification. Thus, many historians saw commercial promoters as primary actors in bringing electrical life to modern homes. Andrew Feldman’s (1994) study of 1920s America focused on the individuals who sold the ‘electrical idea’ for General Electric, Westinghouse and the National Electric Light Association. During the period between the First and Second World Wars, the electricity supply industries of industrialised nations intensified their efforts to cultivate the domestic demand for electricity. The industry’s turning to the domestic energy market was initially prompted by the slackened industrial demand after the First World War; however, more generally, the growth of a supply infrastructure required additional demand from non-industry users to fill the gap during ‘off-peak’ hours (i.e. hours when industrial demand dropped) in order to make efficient use of generation capacity. Given the inherent issue of fluctuating electricity demand, it is no surprise that industrial nations mounted vigorous national campaigns to connect a greater number of customers with different consumption patterns to the grid, and encourage them to use greater amounts of electricity at different times of the day (Forty, 1986). In 1919, Britain’s electricity supply industry and trade associations established the Electrical Development Association (EDA) to promote electrification and electrical appliances (Carlsson-Hyslop, 2016; Luckin, 1990). While acting as the main voice for electrification, the EDA also funded a separate publicity organisation, the Electrical Association for Women, to edify female consumers as the main users of domestic electrical technology (Pursell, 1999). With respect to this focus on women, as Anne Clendinning (2004) showed, Britain’s gas industry outstripped its rival, the electricity industry, until the 1920s. As early as the Edwardian period, female demonstrators, or ‘lady demons’, formed an important part of the gas industry’s sales force, as they were believed to best understand women’s needs and desires.

Figure 3

early twentieth century black and white photograph of a woman cooking at a kitchen oven

Demonstration kitchen at the Electrical Association for Women headquarters, London, 2 January 1939

Figure 4

Magazine advertisement for a gas cooker showing a maori cooking at a hot spring next to a western woman cooking on a stove

An advertisement promoting a gas cooker, c.1913

The recognition that consumers were an integral part of the electrification process led historians to grow more critical of the previously implicitly held assumption that electricity fulfilled the promise of its promoters. In other words, historians began to ask: To what extent did producers’ visions of electrical modernity match users’ actual experiences? The pioneering work in this literature was Ruth Cowan’s (1983) More Work for Mother, which argued that new domestic technologies did little to alleviate American housewives’ burdens. The redistribution of housework following the introduction of ‘labour-saving’ devices enforced a clear demarcation between housework, for which housewives were to be responsible, and other types of (paid) work. As the result, men were largely relieved from house chores, and domestic work fell firmly on housewives, who were expected to achieve the traditional tasks with a higher level of care and efficiency and, simultaneously, required to fulfil tasks associated with the use of new appliances. Cowan’s discussion shed light on the fact that, from women users’ perspectives, electrical modernity hardly became reality. Her critical revision of the diffusion process of modern domestic technology was further developed in her later formulation of the ‘consumption junction’, a heuristic device that posited a site where ‘technologies begin to reorganize social structures’. At the centre of this socio-technical intersection was the consumer’s choice of technology (Cowan, 1987, p 263).

The idea that consumers played a key role in technological choice sparked an investigation of rural electrification, since rural consumers were often confronted with different sets of technological choice than those usually available to urban consumers. In America, urban and non-urban electrification drew their support from separate sources. In urban areas, the organised promotion of electrification was carried out chiefly by commercial corporations. By contrast, in rural America, where potential customers were spread far and wide and there was comparatively little prospect of business profit, electrification was often led by public and semi-public organisations, such as the Agricultural Extension Service and the Rural Electrification Administration (Glaser, 2009). The distinction between private- and public-led electrification was often less clear in Western Europe, where both the state and the municipality were major actors in the development of the electricity supply system in both urban and rural areas (Schott, 2008). Even in America’s urban electrification, as Ronald Tobey (1996) pointed out, commercial corporations’ early electrification initiatives could not have been sustained without wider social provisions, especially the housing initiatives institutionalised by the New Deal policies of the 1930s.

In practice, those who led America’s urban and rural electrification often came from similar professional backgrounds. As illustrated by Carolyn Goldstein (2012), between the 1920s and the 1940s, home economists frequently crossed the boundary between public and private organisations. Even when they worked for commercial companies’ customer service divisions, home economists’ primary agenda was to propagate ‘rational consumption’ among domestic consumers, rather than to maximise profit for their business employers. Ronald Kline (1997) revealed that these self-proclaimed ‘agents of modernity’ who brought their urban ideas to the countryside rarely questioned the legitimacy of their mission to bring modern energy life to rural consumers. However, their aspiration to electrify America’s farmsteads did not always find willing ears among rural consumers, who were often reluctant to adopt electrical modernity. As Katherine Jellison (1993) argued, in early twentieth-century Northwest America, there was a tension between the government policy of farm mechanisation and the visions held by rural consumers. Many farm women refused to take up electrical appliances despite electrification advocates’ tantalising offer of liberation from housework. Jellison explained this disagreement in terms of farm women’s desire to maintain their place in farm production, which had a direct bearing on their status in the patriarchal family structure, by refusing to accept any movement to confine their role to one of merely operating domestic technology. Sandwell (2015) scrutinised a similar case, examining Canadian consumers’ reluctance to embrace electrical modernity. To understand this indifference, Sandwell suggested, one needed to consider the broader energy regime in which they operated. Prior to the Second World War, Canadian consumers’ knowledge and skills were largely structured according to the old energy regime of coal and wood, and official and commercial indoctrination was not sufficient to persuade them to abandon long-established knowledge and lifestyles in favour of new technology.

Figure 5

Magazine advertisement informing the reader that electricity and associated pylons will be arriving in rural areas

‘The New Farming Age: Electricity Comes to the Country’, Electrical Development Association, n.d.

The chapters of the recently published volume Transforming the Countryside (Brassley, Burchardt and Sayer, 2016) compel us to examine past electrification in its multitude of forms. The book offers a kaleidoscopic view of rural energy situations in England, Wales, Scotland, Sweden and Canada, showing that rural consumers were hardly passive ‘marginal’ users, but, rather, people who actively coordinated their energy lives, often using traditional and modern fuels side by side. Kline (2000) argued that the refusal to accept electrification was one of a variety of tactics rural consumers could employ in their reception of new technology, which included creative uses of appliances (e.g. listening to music via the telephone). The insight regarding technical appropriation also applied to urban consumers. In Consumers, Tinkerers, Rebels, Ruth Oldenziel and Mikael Hård (2013) explored historical cases of tinkering consumers, such as the residents of cooperative houses in 1920s Amsterdam, who fiddled with the central heating systems to warm up their rooms beyond what the cooperative board was willing to support. Pushing Cowan’s (1987) argument of technological choice further, Oldenziel and Hård (2013) claimed that consumers co-produced technology by frequently challenging engineers’ and designers’ intentions concerning what constituted the ‘proper’ use of technical objects.

In his Domesticating Electricity, Graeme Gooday (2008) contended that the adoption of electricity was not an historically inevitable process, substantiating this claim by elucidating the process of how electric lighting was integrated – or domesticated – into British society between 1880 and 1914. Gooday departed from the early historical assumption that the success of electricity could be attributed to its inherent technological superiority to rivals, notably gas: an assumption held by such scholars as Wolfgang Schivelbusch (1988). On the contrary, Britons in the late nineteenth century were generally unconvinced of electricity’s practical benefits. According to Gooday (2008), electricity was accepted in British society only through a range of cultural manoeuvrings. Advocates of electricity strove to sever the popular association between electricity and danger, while also inventing visions of an electricity-oriented future. Although these efforts bore fruit in British society, Gooday (2008) cautioned his readers, electricity’s triumph was limited or incomplete, and gas and coal retained more than a small share of the country’s household fuel (for a critical revision of historical electrification as a fluid and open-ended process, see Chappells and Shin’s article in this volume).

Another major theme of Gooday’s (2008) book was gender, which he addressed on two overlapping levels. At the level of cultural representation, the gendered personification of electricity spread the image of electricity as a harmless or even beneficial entrant to the domestic space. The early iconography of electricity often positioned electricity as female (also in Wosk, 2001). In the early twentieth century, however, electricity’s gender identity became less clear-cut, as electricity was increasingly represented in diverse and often contradictory ways (e.g. as feminine, masculine, androgynous or sexually neutral). On one hand, de-sexualising electricity’s image generally helped to minimise the cultural anxiety of female consumers, thereby boosting electricity’s wider acceptability. On the other hand, by failing to give electricity a clear gender identity – unlike the country’s gas industry, which had the iconic ‘Mr Therm’ – Britain failed to complete the cultural domestication of electricity. At the practical level of technological diffusion and business strategy, utility companies and appliance retailers could not deny the importance of gender. During the early period of electricity’s introduction into British society, women’s influence over purchasing decisions regarding domestic equipment and furnishings made them a crucial target of sales campaigns, as ‘it was only by winning over such female consumers that electric light came to have a long term future at all in Britain’ (Gooday, 2008, p 34). This comment brought Gooday’s study in line with a strand of research on gendered aspects of technological development, pioneered by Ruth Cowan (1987) who described the introduction of new domestic technology as a process that carved out and consolidated women’s role in domestic work according to the ideology of domesticity. As much as labour-saving technology may have reduced the time and effort required to complete a unit of a domestic task, it also confined women to the role of the housewife (Jellison, 1993): someone required to be an effective house manager and to oversee the health and safety of the domestic space (Tarr and Tebeau, 1997).

Figure 6

Poster in German depicting an angel figure holding electrical connectors

Cover to Die Elektricität im Dienste der Menschheit (‘Electricity in the Service of Mankind’) by Alfred Ritter von Urbanitzky, 1885

While some female consumers resisted the new domestic machinery and accompanying gender ideology (as noted above), these shifts were successfully implanted in many other places. Susan Reid’s (2009) study of Soviet Russia showed that the historical complicity between electrical technology and domestic ideology could be observed in the electrification processes of not only capitalist nations, but also non-capitalist nations. In his pioneering work on the social aspects of appliance design, Adrian Forty (1986) argued that the (presumably masculine) idea of workplace efficiency was transplanted into the domestic space through the design of appliances. Similarly, Shelley Nickles (2002) showed that the process of refrigerator design in 1930s America involved negotiations between competing ideas about domestic life. In fact, the design of electrical appliances was an area in which some historical attempts were made to redress the male-dominated technological development; however, in most cases, these efforts eventually failed. The statist intervention to orchestrate this process, as discussed in Karin Zachmann’s (2002) study of East Germany’s Central Working Group on Household Technology, foundered in the face of more immediate concerns about resource shortages and production planning, which shut women out of the process of envisaging the future shape of domestic technology. A similar process of gender role assignment was described by Amy Bix (2009), who examined the act of repairing domestic equipment. When a growing number of domestic appliances began to enter American homes after the First World War, women were expected to acquire skills to fix domestic technical problems. The situation was transformed in the aftermath of the Second World War, when traditional gender roles reasserted themselves, and home repair was ‘remasculinised’. Thus, studies on electrification have revealed the many gendered assumptions that are deeply entrenched in modern energy life.

Figure 7

Black and white early twentieth century photograph of a woman ironing

Electric kitchen display at the Daily Herald Modern Homes Exhibition, London, 1946

Although electricity was the major focus of several studies from the 1980s, a growing focus on the variations of energy life has led historians to assign greater significance to electricity’s competitors, such as wood, coal, kerosene and gas, thereby providing a more comprehensive view of the modern energy landscape. Various chapters of Powering Up Canada (Sandwell, 2016) draw readers’ attention to the complexity and unevenness of Canada’s energy development, in which traditional fuels (e.g. wood) remained an important source of heat long after power networks covered a large part of the country (for a similar approach, see Yaeger et al, 2011). In Britain, Scott and Walker’s (2011) empirical study of household expenditures revealed that, in the nation’s domestic energy market, gas and coal maintained their strong competitive position against electricity well into the 1930s, chiefly due to their role as the primary fuel for many working-class households. Trentmann and Carlsson-Hyslop’s (2017) research article on Britain’s council housing uncovered further complexities in residents’ energy life. The study found that residents’ individual energy choices produced significant variations in consumption patterns in a place where, one might assume, standardised energy provisions would have created a degree of homogeneity in energy life.

History’s neighbouring disciplines – notably, anthropology and sociology – have helped to fill the gap in the traditional energy history, which has long been preoccupied with developed societies. From the anthropological perspective, Harold Wilhite (2008) examined the diffusion of electrical appliances in South India as a major challenge to the society’s pre-existing habitual practices, resulting in the creation of new or modified social practices (also see Wilhite in this volume). Tanja Winter (2008) produced a rich description of the interactions between electrification and indigenous social structures in Zanzibar, Tanzania, while Leslie Bank’s (2011) ethnographical work elaborated the cultural significance of paraffin for female energy users in East London, South Africa. These investigations of energy development in the Global South, as summarised by Akhil Gupta (2015), raise such questions as ‘What is it like to live in the dark?’ and ‘Why do people steal energy?’. Recent studies have attempted to answer these questions without falling back to the simplistic argument of ‘backwardness’ in the energy cultures of developing countries. The wide range of emerging questions was illustrated in Cultures of Energy (Strauss, Rupp and Love, 2013), a volume that brought together diverse anthropological approaches and their application to energy studies. Historians have also drawn inspiration for the examination of energy from the field of sociology. The ‘Energy and Society’ special issue of Theory, Culture and Society (2014) showcased several of the sophisticated theoretical perspectives and imaginative approaches of energy sociologists. Mimi Sheller’s (2014a) contribution to the special issue interpreted modern society from the perspective of an energy-intensive material: aluminium, sometimes dubbed ‘packaged electricity’ (also in Sheller, 2014b. For a similar approach examining plastic, a petroleum product, see Meikle, 1995). In the same volume, Elizabeth Shove and Gordon Walker (2014) contended that everyday practice should be taken as the analytical focus when explaining the social and material development of domestic technology (see also Shove, 2003). Theoretical discussions like Shove’s offer clearer expressions of what some historians of domestic technology have observed on such topics as machine washing (Parr, 1997). Overall, recent works in history, anthropology and sociology have important theoretical and topical overlaps and are breaking new ground in the geographic and thematic coverage of energy studies. What connects the increasingly multidisciplinary research of energy is the general departure from technological and economic determinism in favour of an acknowledgment of culture’s greater significance as a factor in the shaping of modern energy society.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180912/002