1916 electric utility propaganda


In 1916, a time when electricity was still something of a luxury toy, the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company put out a pamphlet of House That Jack Built-themed doggerel illustrating all the wonderful ways you can use electricity around your home (and for such a low cost!).

There's a couple of things I find fascinating about this sales pitch.

First, you're looking at a world that still had a fairly limited number of uses for home electricity. Things were certainly on the upswing from a couple decades previous, when an electric hook-up was as much of a single-use tech toy as anything you can buy in Sky Mall. But this is an 18-page booklet, put out by a very biased source, which repeats several "benefits of electricity" as though it's running out of ideas. Hey, did we mention that you can use it to... um ...turn on a light?!

Second, the booklet really gives you a sense of the honest, fuck-all amazement and wonder people felt at being able to control their environment. In the new world of electricity, the toast never burns (at least, not like it used to when we were trying to grill it over an open fire), you need no longer schedule your week around laundry and everyone is healthier and happier. It's advertising hyperbole, sure. But only kinda. When you read old letters, you find that this was advertising capturing the way people really thought, rather than just pushing happiness that wasn't there. Think Dawn of the iPod, not Late-Night Wall-to-Wall Carpeting Commercial.

Finally, I love the last couple pages that allude to the real conflict between man and nature. Forget about simplifying housework. Centralized electricity changed energy production from a difficult, in-home process that kept the messy by-products of progress literally in your face, into something magical that happened when you threw a switch. The choking smoke was still there, but not at your house. There was still heavy labor involved, but it wasn't done by you or your children. For the first time, people were able to pretend that their standard of living was provided, free of downsides, by little elves that lived in the wall. All benefit, no detriment. Action without consequences. In other words, this is the point where everybody went a little bit bonkers.


  1. This is the house where meth is sold
    The residents are young but seem so old
    But lights here you will never see
    As they didn’t pay for their electricity
    In the electrical house that Jack built

  2. It’s funny, I’m looking around at semi-rural properties at the moment, and because of my work broadband internet connection is a necessity.

    But much like the days in which they had to promote electricity, the country folk just don’t seem to have realised how important it is! Many of them are persisting without it!

    This is the house with fast internet,
    That I really wish you’d rush out and get.
    I know you prefer outside to go,
    But there’s tons of porn, and no one need know.

    1. It is sad how many people don’t understand the benefits. I once had a 30-comment argument on Facebook with a guy who thought that the internet consisted entirely of Facebook, cute cat pictures, and porn (to be fair, he’s also an anarchist, so he was against the FCC’s broadband initiative because it is government control). People don’t see the connection between the electrification of rural America and the spread of internet access to these same areas.

  3. Electrical distribution was a good thing. Still is, really.

    There are parts of the USA now where it is now cheaper (and maybe more efficient) to generate your own power on your own property, but only if you keep your system tied into the power grid in order to take advantage of the fluctuations in power supply and demand.

    Completely separating your house’s power system from the grid is generally inefficient, and a waste of money and energy.

    How that energy is generated in the first place is another question, but I’ll bet however it’s done now, it’s cleaner than running a wood stove in your kitchen. :)

    1. Completely separating does waste money and energy, yes. But there’s a lot to be said for distributed generation, when you’re talking about renewables.

      The benefits of easy energy and our screwed-up relationship with it are kind of a paradox. Obviously, electricity is a good thing. Don’t mean to imply that it isn’t. But, at the same time, it’s so easy that we forgot to pay attention to the downsides of the technology. The tech isn’t bad, you just can’t run around pretending that it’s perfect. Does that make sense?

      1. As gastly as the impact of coal power is on the US (note that you can measure the deaths in Chernobyls/year) it sure beats the old way.

        Energy plants need to be efficient, it’s how they make profit. They also contain at least some effort at reducing emissions. Typical home stove were inefficient. Kerosene (paraffin in the UK) lamps? They _needed_ to be inefficient to make visible light (Aladdins and Colemans being a pricy exception)

        How much energy went into distributing coal to houses and picking up the ash?

        How dirty was urban life like in the coal furnace era? How many houses burned when a kerosene lantern was knocked over or a gas lamp blew out?

        Ever used a Coleman clothes iron?

        Nope, even for non-renewable distributed energy production is a big win economically and environmentally.

  4. Robert A. Caro’s chapter “The Sad Irons”–describing the electrification of rural Texas–in The Path to Power (the first volume in his LBJ biography) is great on this subject.

  5. The really interesting thing to me is the cost. At the end of the pamphlet it says the average cost was 2.4 cents per kWh. An online historical inflation calculator suggests that is about 47 cents in todays money. Yet, I’m paying only about 11 cents per kWh today.. so electricity is actually much much cheaper now.

  6. I can kind of imagine how people felt back in the day when electricity came. I once spent several months with no electricity, central heat, or running water, and I haven’t snapped a light on since then without thinking how wonderful it is.

  7. It really is amazing how differently people think today. In the past, technology was thought of being in service to mankind. The future was a place where things were better. The fact is, comparing 1900 to 1950, even with a great depression and two World Wars inbetween, the world really *was* a better place for most people in America. Since the negativism of Nixon and the hippies, we have gone in the exact opposite direction… we *expect* things to continually get worse and worse. With that kind of bad attitude, it might end up being a dream come true for us too.

    I’m optimistic about optimism. I wish more people would join me.

  8. Kurt:

    What a great reminder of when today’s intuitive technology wasn’t. :)

    ASIFA Animation Archive:

    I, too, am optimistic about optimism. So much so, that I may turn this into a T-shirt.

  9. Heh, humans have always been bonkers. It just comes out more whenever we get a new toy to play with.

    1. I craved that house since the very minute I followed the link. And I crave that glowing happy sanitary middle class life.

      Did you notice that the wife grills a steak right at the dinner table? That’s a bit of futurism that sort of missed the mark, until George Foreman came along.

      Really nice post, Maggie.

    2. That, and a wood-burning cook stove. I actually looked at a house (built in the 1950s) for sale in my town in Finland where there was still only a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. I’m not sure I could have lived with it on an every-day basis, but I do like the idea. The noose in the garage kind of put me off the idea of buying the place, though.

  10. Finally, I love the last couple pages that allude to the real conflict between man and nature.

    The historical ignorance here is nothing short of appalling. Compared to the misery and filth of the early 20th century, every Edenic promise that pamphlet made has absolutely come true without requiring a trace of irony. You are more than welcome to turn up your greenie snoot at any aspect of modern society if you wish, but as you do so please take the time to frankly consider how far we’ve come.

  11. Does anyone know why the lady of the house is referred to as “she” when sewing. Is there something about “mom” that we need to know!?

  12. I grew up with Reddy Kilowatt, but my parents were Depression-era folks and they were always on my case for leaving lights on. For them, electricity (and lots of other stuff) was not to be wasted. The conservation ethic was lost sometime in the 1960s.
    In 1969, a representative of PP&L (Pennsylvania Power & Light) came to our school as part of their PR campaign to start building nukes. The spokesman said in the future we’d all have little reactor boxes in our basements. I only remember that because I asked him if that was feasible, and all my classmates gave me crap about using the word “feasible.”

    1. Re: your classmates giving you crap about using the word “feasible”:

      When I was in 3rd grade our teacher set up a fish tank with dirty water and plastic wrap, and showed how putting it in the sun and letting the condensation drip down into a cup would produce clean water. She asked, “What do you think could be done with this?” and I piped up with (literally) “On a large-scale basis, you could turn seawater into drinking water for whole cities!” And my classmates didn’t stop teasing me about “On a large-scale basis” for months.

      Ah, the tortures of a young geek.

  13. It occurred to me while reading the pamphlet that it may have been designed in order for women to implore their husbands to hook up their house to the grid. It sure looks like women were the largest beneficiaries in terms of electricity in the home. All the men do is sit around drinking coffee and eating toast!

    1. It sure looks like women were the largest beneficiaries in terms of electricity in the home.

      Women were.

      Men working outside had already had their lives revolutionized by gasoline motors, and men working inside were working outside of the home, in the office or in the factory. Women were largely responsible for the house and just about all the labor that would be saved by electrical labor saving devices.

  14. My favorite piece of pro-electrification propaganda comes from a couple of decades after the material written about above, but has the benefit of having a catchy tune.

    Woody Guthrie was commissioned by the Bonneville Power Authority to write songs about the electrification of the Northwest. “Grand Coulee Dam” is my favorite:


  15. Am I the only person to whom the precise reversal of the meanings of it’s and its in this publication is curious?

  16. First, you’re looking at a world that still had a fairly limited number of uses for home electricity.

    It strikes me that we haven’t come up with many new uses for indoor plumbing since the Roman Empire, but I’ll keep it anyway.

  17. What is it today, the blog brought to us by Apple? I’m sorry, but the “Dawn of the iPod” does not compare to the dawn of electricity in houses. Comparison to the dawn of the internet, the rise of automobiles, indoor plumbing – okay – but not a new frickin’ mp3 player. If you want to argue the dawn of portable music, at least give it where it belongs, with the Walkman.

    I swear, Apple gives you guys some pretty toys in a nice case and you just go nuts. Those are good *products*, not world changing forces.

  18. As an aside, the document is lovely. I particularly like the use of white ink, it provides a real lift.

  19. I think the conservation bug went out in the 50s. You can see all kinds of ads touting the disposability of items as a great thing. Ads with dreams of the future were full of wear once and discard clothes and the like. Disposable everything was some sort of goal in the 50s, it seemed.

    1. I’m no sociologist, but I’d attribute that directly to the Great Depression. Two decades of near-abject poverty (the Depression itself followed by the privations of WWII) created an entire generation of individuals taught to waste *nothing.* To hang onto absolutely everything by your fingernails because there’s literally no telling when you’ll get it again. At the dawn of the Fifties we were a nation of obsessive packrats. To be able to actually let something go was a hell of a marketing pitch.

      The big difference between conservation then and conservation now is that today, conservation is a luxury. Even the most hermitlike off-grid neo-hippie these days doesn’t have to worry whether he’ll be able to buy his children shoes.

      1. I attribute most of the insane accumulation of debt over the last ten years to the fact that most of the generation who knew the Depression as adults were no longer part of our normal family life by the recent turn of the century.

        My grandparents were a big influence on my life. They turned off lights like crazy, never bought a car that wasn’t at least three years old, and the biggest party they ever had for my parents and siblings was not a wedding, not a graduation…but the day my mom and dad burned their mortgage.

        This upbringing has stood me in good stead while many of my friends and neighbors spent hundreds of thousands they didn’t have.

  20. The last sentences about going bonkers was, IMO, a great analysis.

    The dawn of a disconnect
    between cause and effect.

  21. Page 8 is awfully awkward.
    “The Light that’s Right / Is restful, without glare, and bright, / Nor does it vitiate the air,— / Its healthful qualities impair / In the Electrical House that Jack Built.”
    With the whole comma-dash bit after “air” and the lack of a comma after impair I thought at first that they were trying to use impair as a positive. As in, the Light that’s Right impairs the air and it becomes more healthful! Yay!
    Realized that couldn’t be right and hashed out that they were just repeating the thought before, but it still seems forced and weird. Am I wrong? Is I just not know grammar?

  22. “The choking smoke was still there, but not at your house. There was still heavy labor involved, but it wasn’t done by you or your children. For the first time, people were able to pretend that their standard of living was provided, free of downsides, by little elves that lived in the wall. All benefit, no detriment.”

    You make it sound like we simply transferred the same “detriments” somewhere else. We did not. There was still smoke, and there was still labor that went into keeping the lights on, but there was a whole lot less.

    And it’s not “no detriment” for the user, anyway. Electricity wasn’t free. You could simply pay for your lighting, but you could do that before, too, by hiring domestice servants. The relative costs of electricity and domestic servants should give an idea of how much heavy labor was actually involved.

  23. I’m pretty sure that pre-electricity, I’d have been making my toast on a stovetop, not an open fire.

    Said method is still the best way to make toast, when you have the time, because you can fry it in butter, which is awesome.

    As you were.

  24. During a period of long unemployment in the 00’s we were so far behind the electricity got turned off. Fortunately I had been big into mountain rescue and camping and ham radio including backup power systems so we had some nice gear that we had not sold off yet. Cooking and lighting by kerosene was not so bad, we wore warm clothes to stay warm. Internet router and computer was powered by solar, but had that been down I was still able to use HF radio, VHF packet, or even OSCARS satellites to get email out and an offline copy of wikipedia on my computer. I charged my mobile phone at my startup company.

    The thing that ruined the fun was not so much the drudgery of washing clothes in the bathtub, it was trying to get them to dry indoors on rainy days in cold weather. When the power was turned back on after two weeks we had to repaint because of the soot on the kitchen and dining room ceilings from the kerosene pressure lantern and kerosene pressure cooking stoves.

    Electricity has been real magic after that experience. Think about your world, warm dry well lit homes, clean dry clothes, large amounts of hot water on demand, clean walls and ceilings, far fewer house fires and terrible burns from spilled fuel and open flame, quick warming and cooking stoves and ovens, easily powered electronic gadgets for entertainment and communication, and no major concern of extended outage. Then there is sewing machines, power tools, electric welding, etc.

    I am glad for the practical lessons I learned during that experience, glad that I and my wife had good equipment and education, glad that my family were all troopers enough to give it a go, and I am glad I learned the humility and had people to to ask for help at the end.

    It is important that we never forget the importance of using our best minds to keep civilization working and progressing not tearing down the progress we have made. Science fiction has been leading the young geeks and I hope the hope and wonder will keep providing us with what we need to continue down the path of egalitarianism and group success by eliminating the traditional undesirable jobs for us so we can aspire to be geniuses, artisans, scientists, artists, and dreamers.

  25. Great find.

    Interestingly, even the Wisconsin Historical Society (who really should know better) asserts copyright on this 1916 document. (No permalink possible due to *shudder* frames, but click “go” next to “document description.”)

  26. I really find the little mantra at the bottom of each page a bit amusing… “Twitch the Switch”.

    Remind anyone else of the campaign to get people to wear seatbelts? “Click it, or Ticket”

    Somethings really don’t change.

  27. A quick web search will reveal what has been claimed in several fictionalized accounts to be what drove many home electrification requests …

    Electromechanical vibrators were first used in medicine in 1878 and were available as a consumer product by 1900. The vibrator was the 5th home appliance to be electrified. It was preceded by the sewing machine, fan, teakettle, and the toaster. It would be another ten years before the electric vacuum, iron, and frying pan became available as consumer products.

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