Go back to article: Making Material and Cultural Connections: the fluid meaning of ‘Living Electrically’ in Japan and Canada 1920–1960

After the Second World War: electrical life still in flux

The misalignment of visions and everyday experience was not something that was exclusively associated with the early phase of electrification. These issues resurfaced repeatedly in the post-war period. In Canada, a variable and fluctuating landscape of electrification continued to drive efforts to more fully electrify urban households and rural communities. By 1948, although close to 95 per cent of homes on Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia were electrified, only 63 per cent of homes in Alberta had electrical service and a higher proportion of these homes were self-serviced via home generation (Dominion Bureau of Statistics, 1948). It was also in this post-war period that many provinces, other than Ontario, pursued a public ownership approach as the role of the state in ensuring economic and social betterment was increasingly recognised. The culmination was what Nelles has referred to as a ‘provincial nationalization’ of utilities that acted as a prelude to massive frontier projects in hydroelectric power and expanded rural electrification and load development in provinces such as Quebec and British Columbia (Nelles, 2003). As the cost of appliances, rather than electricity per se, had become a key impediment to the continued electrification of society (Netherton, 2007), this push for electrical expansion also involved subsidising the cost of appliances and offering them on extended payment terms.

In British Columbia, the utility’s Hydro Home Service Centre was the focus of intensified efforts to expand its rural customer base and to make electricity work harder for its existing consumers. The centre’s promotional materials in the 1950s–60s show how the company prioritised different domestic uses for load development purposes, and what they believed households might value the most. A 1958 survey found that the appliance most women tended to purchase first was a radio as this provided entertainment for the whole family (B.C. Hydro, 1959). Second on the priority list was a washing machine, which supported an intensified focus on laundering practices as a means of developing domestic load. In pursuit of this objective the company set out to promote the four key appliances required to attend to the needs of modern laundering: a washing machine, a water heater, a dryer and an iron. Household desire for such modern laundering equipment was explained in the context of specific local conditions: ‘because of our rainy season and sooty atmosphere, especially after the furnaces are on in the fall, drying clothes becomes quite a problem’ (B.C. Hydro, 1959). A new way of laundering was to be ‘connected’ to local consumers by selling them a solution to the vagaries of the West Coast climate. Establishing cultural connections to new laundering methods also required adjusting material ones. Electrical dryers would require a vent and ‘special wiring’ that operated on 230-volt electrical lines if drying time was to greatly improve; the older 115-volt lines would unlikely be up to the job. For electric water heaters and washers a constraint was whether the house was wired with ample capacity for the extra kilowatt-hours to be consumed. There followed a list of other considerations in buying the hardware of washing, including the size of the home and the number of inhabitants.

Behind the statistics showing almost universal connection to grids lay material limits and multiple social arrangements that differentially shaped the experience of living electrically. As domestic energy historians have elsewhere noted it was such complex material and cultural interfaces at the ‘consumption junction’ that defined how households made choices between competing technologies (Cowan, 1987). In the specific case of the automatic washer, Parr (1997) suggests that post-war spatial diffusion also depended on availability of indoor plumbing, consistent running water and, in the context of income limitations, on priorities – such as whether to first purchase an electric stove, refrigerator or radio. Such factors helped to explain why automatic washers were adopted early in some provinces but not in others. For example, in Quebec, where 63 per cent of farms had running water, by 1951 automatics were a popular choice early on, while they were less favoured in Ontario and the Prairies, where only forty per cent and nine per cent of farms respectively had a reliable supply of running water (Parr, 1997).

Figure 4

Japanese colour advertisement for a washing machine from the 1950s

‘Washing clothes while you cook’, a Matsushita Electric advertisement, 1953, Japan Archives

In Japan, the electric washing machine was seen as one of the so-called three sacred treasures – the others being the television and refrigerator – to be widely adopted in the late 1950s. The transition from manual to machine laundering was accelerated by the country’s adoption of mass-produced western clothes after the war (Suzuki, 2013). Widespread adoption of electric washing machines was facilitated by an expanding appliance industry, including companies like Sanyo and Matsushita that emphasised the benefits of new machines in enabling Japanese housewives to multi-task (see Figure 5). As an additional benefit manufacturers pointed out that the electric washer would eliminate the hardship of handling icy cold water to wash clothes during winter, as was the common practice (Suzuki, 2013). Spearheaded by the washing machine, Japan’s post-war electrification progressed rapidly. By 1960, more than fifty per cent of the country’s households owned washing machines, 45 per cent had black and white TVs and nearly twenty per cent had refrigerators (Nihon Enerugī Keizai Kenkyūjyo, 1996).

Another technical device that played a crucial role in the post-war electrification boom in Japan was the electricity meter. As Ackrich has observed (1992), meters do more than measure kilowatts, they also define a relationship between utilities and users by embodying a supply obligation on the one hand and a contracted responsibility to pay for the service on the other. The wide-scale introduction of the meter in the late 1940s transformed the way electricity consumption was monitored in Japan. In the immediate post-war period, chiefly in response to a surge in the rate of illicit use, the country’s utilities made a significant investment in installing meters. The cumulative number of installed meters increased from four million in 1945 to nearly ten million in 1952 (Teishin Shō Jigyōkyoku, 1945–1952). With the transfer of customers from fixed-price to metered rates in the 1950s, Japan’s utilities gradually withdrew from domestic space. Domestic wiring became the property of homeowners and the meter, which was still owned by the suppliers, was normally installed outside the house. The meter effectively became a ‘gatekeeper’ device that demarcated domestic from public space and consequently redefined the responsibility of utilities and consumers (Marvin et al, 2010). While utilities no longer prohibited the use of additional appliances, domestic users were now held responsible for upgrading domestic wiring when the pre-existing infrastructure became insufficient to cope with the increased load. Users themselves had to plan and pay for adequate home wiring and extra outlets in their homes, taking into consideration both their immediate and anticipated future needs.

In Canada electricity meters were already commonplace in the 1940s and people were generally used to paying for what they consumed rather than paying a fixed price for electricity. Earlier concerns appear to have centred on the unpredictability of metered use for monthly billing cycles compared to a pre-arranged flat rate (Fleming, 1992). In addition, while monitoring illicit use may not have been a priority for utilities, citizens routinely complained about the accuracy of meters and many demanded independent testing, being convinced they could not be using as much electricity as they were being billed for (The Globe, 1935).

The problem of mismatched technical connections re-emerged during Japan’s post-war electrification boom. In spite of the Adequate Wiring Programme, which was initiated in 1958 by the utilities and semi-official Electricity Safety Committee, rewiring Japanese homes progressed only slowly (Horii, 1960). The lack of sufficient wall outlets was a perennial source of complaint by the residents of modern apartment blocks. In a 1954 survey of apartment blocks in Tokyo, residents grumbled about the lack of service sockets for washing machines (Jūtaku Kenkyūjyo Iinkai, 1954). The connection problem was worse in traditional style houses – a decade later, in 1967, more than 25 per cent of houses in Tokyo had fewer than two electric outlets, and 4.2 per cent had none, explaining why electricity users of this period had to resort to ‘octopus wiring’ (Nihon Denki Kōgyō Kai, 1967) (see Figure 6). Furthermore, about 173,000 households in the country still did not have access to electricity in 1959, primarily in the northern region of Hokkaido.

Figure 5

Black and white photograph of a Japanese living room with electricity cables connecting from the light fitting to various electrical devices

‘Octopus wiring’ in a Japanese house, in I Sawada, Denkaseikatsu no Subete (Tokyo: Yomiuri Shimbun, 1961). ©Yomiuri Shimbun

The regional service disparity was even more pronounced in Canada where the glacial pace of rural change, compared to the speed of urban electrification, has been noted by social historians (Gucciardo, 2011; Sandwell, 2015). After the war, most provincial governments promised comprehensive schemes to bring electricity to the farmer. In British Columbia electrification visions shifted from serving primarily the more lucrative areas of demand in the pre-war period towards an expansionary logic of serving the largest number of people at the lowest cost, particularly from 1945 when the BC Power Commission was formed as a public-sector enterprise to extend electrification in rural or isolated areas.

In Alberta the initiation of rural power proceeded even more slowly and more closely followed the approach adopted earlier in the United States by delegating responsibility to communities for making connections. After much deliberation about whether rural electrification should proceed under public or private ownership, in the late 1940s Albertans voted marginally in favour of a private ownership model (Dolphin and Dolphin, 1994). Under this system, farmers were encouraged to form cooperatives or Rural Electrification Associations (REAs) and applied directly to the Alberta Power Commission for subsidies to obtain central station electricity and for funding assistance for line construction. Each member of the REA paid an equal share toward the capital costs of farm electrification. Utility companies built the lines and employed local electrical workers to install equipment up to the farm gate. Farm Electric Service Ltd (FES), a non-profit subsidiary of Calgary Power, provided assistance to REAs and set out power supply conditions. From there, responsibility lay with rural users to connect buildings in accordance with Alberta wiring standards. This cooperative self-help approach appears to have had remarkable success in a short time period in terms of material connections: over ninety per cent of Alberta farms were reportedly electrified within a decade (Alberta Power Commission, 1965). However, the experience of electrification was still greatly variable at this point. A map published in 1965 by the Alberta Power Commission showed individual REA areas distinguished by the average monthly KWh usage per farm, with a vivid array of colours depicting significant variations in electricity usage between different areas.

Figure 6

Colour coded Canadian map showing electricity usage per farm in rural areas

‘Average Monthly KWh used per electrified farm by REAs’, Farm Electrification, Alberta Power Commission Report, 1965 (Glenbow Archives)

The REAs’ impressive connection figures also obscured the laborious efforts of its members in mediating new power arrangements. The evolution of rural electrification in Alberta involved enlisting communities to help make connections and teaching people how to live with electricity. As in Japan in earlier decades, it involved policing of illicit activity and misuse, including attempts to stop farmers climbing utility poles to make DIY repairs, monitoring of illegal connections and educating the neighbourhood children not to shoot at the glass insulators on the line (Government of Alberta, 1970). In the case of the Albertan REAs, connecting rural homes to electricity grids was not only a matter of visualising electrified ways of life on the farm; it involved making technical connections and the mediation of new social relations to energy.

Taken together, our selected cases from Japan and Canada in the post-war period show that electrical life was becoming more normal but was still in flux at the start of the 1960s. At this point electricity had touched the lives of the majority of households in these two nations but experiences of electrified life were to some extent still diverging. National and regional variations in how people lived electrically were certainly not eradicated by progress in universal access to electricity grids. In late 1950s Japan, where more than 98 per cent of households were wired, the impact of the economic divide in electricity consumption emerged as a major problem. In Hikari city in Yamaguchi in 1955, the majority of average income households had five to six electric lamps and a radio, while more than sixty per cent of the households receiving social benefits had one or two lamps and only ten per cent had a radio (Yamaguchi Ken Tōkei Ka, 1956). Poverty in urban areas was now creating a different sort of electrical life for this economically disadvantaged population. In Canada too there was divergence in the experience of living electrically. Even in Ontario, where Beck’s promise to lighten the load of all had defined the pioneering public electrification approach there were still some pockets of non-electrified existence – as noted by a disgruntled resident of remote rural Muskoka who was ‘still waiting for the hydro to arrive’ in the mid-1960s (Turnbull, 1965).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180904/005