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.