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History Brief: Electricity and Its Impact in the 1920s

22 Comments



Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, electricity
was becoming more and more common in American homes. How was electricity making the American
home different? What type of impact did it have on society?
Electricity had existed for many years, but it was expensive for individual families to
have in their homes. It had also been a difficult transition because most homes and buildings
had not been designed with electrical wiring in mind. However, by the late 1910s, some
of these obstacles were being overcome. The introduction of electricity had a dramatic
impact on daily life. The most obvious impact was the use of electric lighting. Lamps were
considerably brighter than candles or lanterns, which helped improve eyesight. Also, as electric
lighting became more available, it eventually proved to be much less expensive than the
oil or gas used to light lanterns. It was also cleaner than other forms of lighting
because there was no soot or smoke filling the air. The number of house fires dropped
significantly because there were no longer as many open flames in people’s homes.
Manufacturers began introducing a number of appliances and other devices that used electricity.
Most of these devices were intended to make life easier. For example, electric vacuum
cleaners, irons, stoves, and washing machines all reduced the amount of time the average
family used to perform daily tasks. Homes and clothing also became cleaner as a result.
Tea kettles, toasters, waffle irons, and many other devices also started showing up in many
kitchens. Radios and phonographs provided a new form of entertainment as well.
Electric refrigerators also had a profound effect on day-to-day life. These were a vast
improvement over wooden ice boxes. Food could be purchased and stored for longer periods
of time. It also made food safer to eat because refrigerated food did not grow bacteria as
fast. Additionally, grocery stores and markets could offer a wider variety of foods. Produce
such as fresh fruit and vegetables could be available year-round, rather than just when
these items were in season. Electricity resulted in other changes as well.
The structure of architecture began to change. Natural lighting was no longer necessary as
a light source. This allowed windows to become a convenience rather than a necessity. Buildings
could also become taller because electric-powered elevators allowed for quicker travel to the
upper levels. It was many years before every community would
become electrified. Rural communities in the South would not receive electricity until
the late 1930s. However, for most Americans, electricity became an affordable reality.

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22 thoughts on “History Brief: Electricity and Its Impact in the 1920s”

  1. accent77 says:

    Love these!

  2. Ayad Saleh says:

    Thank you for the well made and informative video.

  3. Pluggit1953 says:

    Electric lighting didn't improve eyesight, but it did improve visibility.

  4. Jorge Ponce says:

    Great job.

  5. Albert Ramos says:

    The unappreciated man,making life easier for every one.

  6. CrampedGrampy says:

    My dad in 1950 showed me an Edison Bulb that was lighting the milk house attached to the barn; around that time I clearly remember dad exclaiming his concern for the electric bill. Keeping in mind the time and the finances of the era, I laugh now at the $5 he was genuinely concerned with. I imagine that $5 then is not much off the value of, say, $150 today. Like the video, thankee!

  7. TheMinnie419 says:

    I bought a house in Oklahoma that was built in 1905. It was a beautiful home with lots of room. However, all of the light switches and electrical outlets were above the 3-12 to the 4 ft high mark on the wall. I investigated and found that they didn't get electricity until the 1907's. It was a wonderful home for me and I loved it. It was two story and the closets were made from any extra room between the rooms and the roof. The kitchen was made from a back porch so the floor was lower than the rest of the house. It was just delightful.

  8. KRB52 says:

    I love that washing machine ad, "More manageable than servants."  Just try putting that in an ad now!

  9. Rick Delair says:

    As a lighting historian and bulb/fixture collector, I have many bulbs and fixtures from this and even earlier era! I just mentioned on the my comment on the 1930's video about the development of fluorescent lighting starting in 1934, and going on the market on April 21, 1938. Only 3 sizes of fluorescent lamp wee available until mid 1939, with a fourth introduced early 1939. these 3 sizes still exist and are still made and used today. They are 15 watt, 18 inch (length is the lamp plus 2 standard lamp holders (sockets) and actual lamp length is about a half inch shorter than the length stated for it) in the skinny T-8 (1 inch diameter) and the "fatter" T-12 (1-1/2 inch diameter, so 8/8 and 12/8th of an inch hence T-8 and T-12 T representing bulb shape–tubular.), also a 24 inch, 20 watt T-12, and a 30 watt, 36 inch T-8. The fourth lamp was originally designed to run on a resistance ballast consisting of a special incandescent bulb intended as a resistance ballast, on 72 volt DC railroad and street car lighting circuits. This lamp was the also still made today, 14 watt 15 inch T-12 lamp, and a T-8 version was introduced in the mid-late 1950's but is hard to find and not often used, and at that mainly in appliances where a smaller diameter lamp is needed. Interesting, that this lamp could be used as supplementary fluorescent lighting in floor lamps, along wit the 100-200-300 pr 50-100-150 watt 3 way mogul base incandescent lamps introduced in the early 1930's. There were 2 of these 14 watt lamps in series with a manual push-and-hold-until-the-lamp-ends-glow-then-release-to-start starting and on/off switch, and the ballast that ran both lamps in series on 110-125 volt AC or even DC (with life cut in half on the lamps) was a MAZDA incandescent intermediate base S-11 shape bulb rated 60 volts 1/2 amp (.5 A) and operated the 2 lamps in series once started. Some of these lamps also used a more efficient choke-reactor type magnetic ballast with far fewer losses, good for AC ONLY. A standard 25 watt choke ballast for hard to find 33 inch 25 watt lamps will run 2 14 watt in series just fine. The ballast for 2-14 watt lamps was actually why the 25 watt 33 inch lamps were even developed in the late 1940's. The next size to f come out was the familiar 40 watt 48 inch (4 foot) lamp in mid 1939.

    I have many incandescent bulbs, probably over 50,000 to 75,000. I am currently using a genuine Edison 16 CP (Candle Power) 110 volt carbon filament bulb with the little tip (exhaust tip) on top where a glass tube was fused into the bulb to connect it to the vacuum pumps, for removing the air in the bulb so the filament won't just burn up. In 1918, they figured out a way to exhaust and seal lamps through a tube inserted into the filament stem, and the tip on he bulbs was eliminated. (tipless) though such lamps, tediously hand made were made as far back as the 1880's, but such construction became common place in 1918-1919. I have a "Meridian" lamp from 1905 that is tipless, and a thing of great beauty, and one of the first high light output lamps ever made. I don't use this Edison bulb often, in my bedroom, but it casts a beautiful soft yellowish glow that stimulates sleep patterns beautifully! It is actually running about 18-20 CP as it is a 110 volt lamp on 120 volts, which reduces life, but again, it is not used too often and old carbon filament lamps were tough as nails. Sintered tungsten filament lamps came out in 1906, but they were very fragile because they had 4 individual hairpin shaped filaments in series in the bulb, and the tungsten, in powder form, was sintered together in a mold at very high temperatures, but the resulting filaments were ultra brittle and fragile, and lamps could only be shipped in specially padded boxes in a vertical, usually base down position, even carrying them required them to be upright, and breakage of the filament can happen just removing it from the box and installing it in the fixture! My 16 CP carbon lamp uses 60 watts and makes the light of a 15-25 watt tungsten lamp. In 1909, William D.Coolidge of GE developed a way to make actual continuous drawn tungsten wire, which was flexible, strong and rugged, and even more efficient than sintered individual filaments, and a long straight wire of a length needed for the voltage desired, cold be woven up and down on a number of support hooks and the ends could be crimped to the lead in wires, while sintered were so fragile, crimping would break them, so they literally had to be welded to the lead in and interconnection wires! The development of ductile tungsten wire is the single most important development in lighting history. The new lamps were named "MAZDA" for Ahura Mazda, the Persian God of Light. I have a Buckeye MAZDA box but the original bulb is long gone and the carbon lamp this lamp replaced is in the box, working of course. This was actually a sintered lamp made after the MAZDA name came out, as production continued until they changed over to making ductile tungsten lamps, so using he new MAZDA name was sort of wrong. the gas filled tungsten lamp with the very first coiled, compact filaments to reduce surface area and cooling by the gas in the bulb, was developed in 1915 by Irving Langmuir, also of GE. The traditional vacuum MAZDA lamps were then called "MAZDA B" lamps and the new higher efficiency, and only made in 75 watts and above back then, gas filled lamps were called "MAZDA C" indicating gas filled. By the late 1920's, all standard incandescent bulbs from 50 watts and up were gas filled. anything 40 watts and below was vacuum. In the mid 1940's, the 40 watt size became a MAZDA C gas filled, and some lamps as low as 15 watts are gas filled today where they still exist, being taken over by the AWFUL LED excuses for "light bulbs" now plaguing the market today. Smaller lamps will lose more heat to the gas, so vacuum is always more efficient unless the filament is very small and compact to reduce cooling from the convection of gas currents in the bulb. A vacuum works like a Thermos bottle to block heat loss from the filament.

    In 1919, the first "A" (Arbitrary) shaped bulbs—the shape we all know and love as the "regular common bulbs" came out, replacing the older S shape pear shaped bulbs. They had straight sides tapering outwards to a rounded top from the base, a classic early shape that was easy to make. But with gas filling, a bulb with a long narrow neck was needed to reduce gas currents in base-up operation, to keep base temperatures and cooling of the filament to a minimum, and PS (Pear bulb on a Straight long neck to the base) and A shaped bulbs were developed. Even MAZDA B vacuum lamps had A shaped bulbs by 1920-22. Some MAZDA B S shaped, straight wire "cage" filament lamps hung on until as late as 1925. But most were the familiar A shape by 1921. Inside frost lamps were developed by Marvin Pipkin of GE in 1927 (I have a dated prototype of a 60A21/IF Pipkin lamp in my collection and it came from his estate in my bulb collection!) and he developed the famous "Q-Coat" soft white bulbs in 1946. Also, single coiled filaments were made even smaller and more efficient with double coiling, coiled once, then again, in 1934. most bulbs up until the ban in 2012-2015 of standard incandescent bulbs to force LED trash on us, used gas filling and double coiled filaments, with no support wired on them which came along in 1973 at Westinghouse on lamps 200 watts and up because the heavy filaments were strong enough to not need a support wire, and on lamps as small as 40 watts then 25 watts later on (they were fragile JUNK in the 25 watt size!) from GE in 1978, and adopted by all others by 1979-1980. But for a meager 2% increase in efficiency by eliminating the small heat loss of the support wire, making 1-2 turns of the filament not glow because of heat sinking by the loop of the support wire touching the filament, you got fragile, easily broken lamps almost as bad as the first sintered tungsten lamps in 1906! the real reason was to both cut production costs and make lamps fail early from filament breakage, to insure you have to buy more bulbs! That was a very generalized overview of what happened in the era mentioned in this clip in electric lighting. Sorry it is long, but I enjoy sharing my knowledge and love of something I have been obsessed with and have collected since I was 5 years old, light bulbs! they are things of great beauty, little miracles of the highest precision manufacturing possible, in an item considered "common" and "nothing special", and they are special and amazing indeed! i want the good incandescent bulb back, SCREW LED TRASH! Total junk, and I don't care how much they supposedly save on electric bills, that are garbage before you even open the package. Incandescent is simple, reliable, and beautiful when lit. NO LED could ever match these qualities, EVER, there is no reason we shouldn't still be using them today. "Energy efficiency" is a piss-poor excuse. Happy New Year! 😀

  10. madbear3512 says:

    You always put 100% good non half ass work in your videos. The decade was my favorite as far as history is concern. Great video

  11. Lynn Rahn says:

    Who knew that over 100 years and due to green energy costs we are going back to candles and oil as it is much cheaper. Hydro is no longer affordable.

  12. Sandra D says:

    My mom told me that in western VA, they didn't get electricity to their home until 1944, right after WWII

  13. Marla Bullard says:

    My grandparents' home was built in 1905 and originally did not have electricity. When it was installed the outlets were only put on the outer walls. Luckily, they did put in ceiling lighting also. My husband and I lived in that house when we first married. Loved the big rooms and the tall ceilings but so few outlets made life a game. Don't overload the circuits!

  14. Scratch Dog 22 says:

    I'm working on a 100+ yr. old Victorian in Boston,Ma. USA. It has original gas and electric lights. Both fixtures are very pretty and ornate. Nice old stuff.

  15. Rosella A Alm-Ahearn says:

    I was born in 1942 in Chicago, Illinois. We had a refrigerator at home. I didn't see an ice box until my mother and I came to Los Angeles, California in 1947. I thought it was amazing that someone would deliver Ice in a big block three times a week.

  16. gord gibson says:

    I'm in northern Ontario electricity is not so affordable now

  17. Brown Paw says:

    I see my Grandparent's time here. They saw all of this happen.

  18. Political Gypsy says:

    the first beast.

  19. ekuenzel1 says:

    I remember the early electric lighting in Milwaukee from the 20's Thanks for posting

  20. marbleman52 says:

    There were many rural areas that did not get electricity until well after WWll and even into the 50's.

  21. Alex Pisocky says:

    This allowed people to stay up later!

  22. Nathan Byrum says:

    My father was born in 1948. He grew up on a farm in a very rural area. They did not get electricity until 1957.

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