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

Electrified visions and everyday life: making cultural connections

Lighting, cooking, washing and heating could all be achieved electrically early in the twentieth century, but the conversion of modern ideals of electrified life into routine practice was a gradual process. The penetration of appliances was slow in 1930s Japan, despite the fact that around ninety per cent of the country’s households had already been wired. Even the most popular appliance, the electric iron, had reached only 21.9 per cent of the country’s households by 1937, while only 18.1 per cent had radios and a mere 0.08 per cent had refrigerators (Makino, 1992). This situation could not be explained solely by the price of electricity and appliances: the major technological roadblock to appliance diffusion was the type of supply connection. A 1940 market survey noted that the penetration of radios in rural Japan was held back by the prevalence of a night-only domestic supply because rural grids were built to supply just enough power for agricultural production during the day with little surplus capacity to send electricity to households. Only 1,493 of the 4,233 villages surveyed had daytime connections and consumers were reluctant to buy radios for evening use only (Osaka Denki Shimbun, 1940).

By 1941 only 69 per cent of Canada’s dwellings were fitted with electric lighting, with the majority of these homes in urban areas (Dominion Bureau of Statistics, 1941). Regional and intraregional variations were evident in figures for appliance penetration but the predominant national trend was for painstakingly slow uptake despite intense promotional efforts. In Ontario the saturation of electric ranges grew gradually from 13.8 per cent in 1924 to only 29 per cent in 1939 (Mickler, 1928; HEPC Ontario, 1939), but there was variation across urban districts. For example, in the Thunder Bay region of Ontario 46 per cent of domestic consumers were using electric ranges in 1938, a level attributed to the more concentrated population and greater sales effort in this area. For Ontario’s rural consumers appliance penetration rates were much lower at this point with electric ranges used by only 12.5 per cent of hamlet users and 17 per cent of farmers. Ontario Hydro speculated, in a 1939 survey, that the average consumption of the urban home at 1,980 kilowatt hours per year could easily be increased to 8,000–10,000 kilowatts annually indicating a perception of much unfulfilled load.

Though the uptake of electric ranges and other appliances was still limited in Canada in the early 1940s their lifestyle-transforming potential had long been portrayed by utilities. In 1910, Berlin was the first city to be connected to the Ontario Hydro power grid. To celebrate the arrival of this modernising energy source a civic celebration was held featuring food prepared using an array of electric appliances even though most homes were equipped only with circuits for electric lights at this time (Klingender, 1994). To overcome the mismatch between utility aspiration, infrastructure capacity and unfulfilled domestic load, the electric industry worked tirelessly during the 1920s to convince consumers of the benefits of living electrically through demonstrations and promotions. Another pressing need was to ensure homes were materially equipped and designed for electrical living. As in Japan a key impediment to wider electrification lay in the finer details of wiring and outlets. ‘What a house should contain electrically to make it modern’ was the subject of one newspaper article in 1923 that described the need to fit homes with special wiring that could accommodate an electric range and potentially allow for future addition of an electric grate and water heater (The Globe, 1923). A perceived impediment was the preference for homebuilders to keep immediate costs down rather than to speculate on the potential of an all-electric future. In some parts of Toronto special wiring was becoming a necessity not a choice – as certain streets were only served by electricity not gas. Several Canadian utilities were also involved with the promotion of Red Seal Homes that promised standardised connections, adequate wiring for large appliances and many convenience outlets and switches (Stadfeld, 2002; Gucciardo, 2011). By 1930, there were one million such homes in Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver combined, but all-electric housing was limited elsewhere. In the 1940s householders in British Columbia were still being encouraged to ‘Make Your Home All-Electric’ with the utility offering grants towards the wiring of homes to accommodate electric appliances, but again these campaigns had limited reach and appeal (B.C. Electric, 1940a,b).

The goal in promoting modern appliances was not simply to increase consumption of electricity but to increase its use at specific times of the day. The improvement of load factors was a means of creating resilience from natural fluctuations in hydropower generation, such as drought, and from social fluctuations in daily routines. As Stadfeld (2002) has noted ‘from B.C. Electric’s perspective appliances were sold to fill up valleys on the chart and, incidentally, to help Madam Vancouver do her housework quickly and easily’. The role of domestic appliances in improving load factor was also appreciated in Japan but electrification promoters were reluctant to develop domestic load due to natural resource constraints. Even though an increasing proportion of base load was provided by hydropower, peak demand could only be met by burning coal, of which the country had a limited domestic supply. When domestic consumers used electric cookers and heaters during the morning and evening peaks, electricity for these appliances had to be generated from coal. An energy expert Kennosuke Tsujimoto commented in 1923 that, considering the lack of sufficient domestic coal reserves in Japan, following the United States and Britain in the adoption of electric heating and cooking ‘would be a sure way to self-destruction of our country’ (Tsujimoto, 1923). Even though the country’s plentiful rainfall and mountainous geography would eventually bring cheap hydroelectricity to a wider population, electric heating and cooking remained a luxury for the wealthy until the 1940s (Monbu Shō Futsū Gakumu Kyoku, 1923).

Japan’s electrification promoters, such as the Domestic Electricity Promotion Association (DEPA) generally shied away from discussing the inequitable nature of the country’s electrification process stressing instead its role in national cultural progress. For Shimpei Goto, a former mayor of Tokyo and the first president of DEPA, the slow penetration of electrical appliances nationwide was due to cultural factors, especially ‘the strong attachment of the people to the familiar old ways’ (Goto, 1928). Established in 1924, the DEPA organised major exhibitions, such as the Domestic Electrification Exhibition (1927), and hosted public lectures in major cities. The DEPA’s Katei no Denki (Domestic Electricity) magazine had a national circulation ensuring the wide diffusion of ideas and images of electrified life (Ito, 2008). Exploiting the vocabulary of the contemporary ‘culture life’ movement, which was designed to rationalise Japanese life by revising traditional customs and selectively adopting elements of a western lifestyle, the DEPA’s promotions aimed to selectively incorporate electricity into a new way of living (Sand, 2003). Pre-existing housing style was crucial to this process. Energy experts stated that electric heating was not suited to the open design of traditional houses due to a significant waste of heat. The electric heater was appropriate when installed in newly built western-style houses but in traditional homes it made more sense to use the kotatsu heater, which was based on the principle of ‘person heating’ as opposed to space heating (Fukkō Kyoku, 1920). Electricity was not expected to evenly transform the lifestyle of the entire population. The bread toaster, for instance, was for purchase by wealthy households with western tastes, while the shichirin cooking stove had greater appeal to Japanese consumers with modest means. The idea of electric life in pre-war Japan was doubly constrained by the limited availability of domestic energy resources and the conservative adoption of a western lifestyle.

Electrification involved making both material and cultural connections, neither of which proceeded smoothly. Ideas and visions of providers and users regarding what electrified life should mean and what it should cost diverged. Technical connectors limited visions in pragmatic ways and the promotion of electrified lifestyles often overlooked the diversity of living arrangements and cultural norms. In the next section we consider how well or poorly aligned these connections were.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180904/003