Electric Appliances

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Electric Appliances

By the turn of the twentieth century, it was common knowledge that the American home did not function efficiently. With increasing interest in efficiency, homemaking became more scientific. Instead of assigning more domestic servants to the task, home economists and other observers began analyzing the processes of the home and how they could be carried out more effectively. This sensibility provided the crucial entré for technological innovation to find its way into the American home.

Household technology, especially in the form of electric appliances, radically altered the American home in the twentieth century. These innovations, of course, relied on the inventions of Thomas Edison and others who would perfect the generation and transferral of electric energy for home use in the early 1900s. Many American homes would remain without electricity through World War II, but the American ideal of the electrified home had clearly been put in place.

To say that one single electric appliance altered American life more than another is difficult, but a good case could be made for the electric refrigerator, which, as it took form in the 1920s, revolutionized food storage capabilities in a fashion that dramatically altered American life. Improving upon the "ice box," which was limited by the melting of a block of hand-delivered ice, electricity enabled the use of pumps relying on centrifugal pressure to push cooling fluids throughout an insulated box. Improved for safety reasons and efficiency, the refrigerator soon became the mainstay of any home. The refrigerator allowed homemakers to keep perishable items in the home, ending the necessary habit of frequent trips to the market. Moreover, this appliance allowed for the creation of the frozen food market. In 1941, 52 percent of American families owned refrigerators; ten years later, this proportion had risen to 80 percent and by 1980 refrigeration was almost universal.

Shifts in home technology after World War II were based most around labor-saving devices. Increased electrification, especially spurred by New Deal policies, offered the power source, and a new ideal of the American housewife offered suitable rationale. During these years, the growing middle class raised the national ideal of a standard of living to include the trappings of affluence that included electric kitchen appliances, washing machines, and televisions. In the late twentieth century, the cultural imperative for each American to own his or her own home was extended to shape expectations for the contents of the typical home. The re-formed cultural ideals identified the home as a self-sufficient support mechanism. The modern middle-class home became a facilitator that should ease the pressures of everyday life through the application of modern technology. Whereas domestic servants had aided many homemakers previously, the modern American housewife relied predominantly on the assistance of electric appliances.

The crystallizing moment of Americans' idealization of their new home is known as "the kitchen debate." In this astonishing 1959 Cold War conversation, Vice-President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev discussed ideology and domestic technology in a "model American home" constructed in Moscow. Nixon drew attention to the washing machines and said, "In America, these are designed to make things easier for our women." Kruschev countered Nixon's boast of comfortable American housewives with pride in the productivity of Soviet female laborers. In summing up the capitalist ideal, Nixon responded, "What we want is to make easier the life of our housewives."

No gadget sums up this desire to ease pressures better than the microwave. Perfected in 1946 but reaching widespread acceptance only in the 1980s, these ovens cook by heating water and chemical molecules in food with short-wave radio energy, similar to that used in radar and television. In addition to rapid heating without creating a heated environment, microwaves altered American patterns of life by making it much easier to defrost food items. In a recent survey by the appliance manufacturer Maytag, consumers chose the ubiquitous microwave as the most indispensable item in the kitchen.

Electric appliances changed the American home and gender roles after 1945. They continue to be a source of innovation and gadgetry as engineers try to solve the problems of the American home.

—Brian Black

Further Reading:

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York, Basic Books, 1985.

Matranga, Victoria Kasuba, with Karen Kohn. America at Home: A Celebration of Twentieth-Century Housewares. Rosemont, Illinois, National Housewares Manufacturers Association, 1997.

Russell, Loris S. Handy Things to Have around the House. New York, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1979.