I was convinced that Winter Storm Stella dropped around a foot of snow in our area on Monday night and Tuesday: schools were closed, roads were treacherous, businesses stayed shuttered. Imagine my annoyance when I, looking for accurate data to share with you, learned that my county got 3.7 inches of snow during that period according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. Well. Maybe it wasn't that much snow, but it sure did have an impact. We had freezing rain and sleet throughout the night and woke up to icy trees and snow with a slick of ice on top. The natural appearance of ice-covered trees is really so much more beautiful than the artificial, winter-looking home decor you see at Christmas. That morning, I gazed outside, thinking about winter wonderlands from my cozy pajamas.
Just as I was settling in for a long day of snuggles with my little baby, the power went out at our house. I watched the power flash twice, "trying" to come back on, as we say. Alas, nothing. It was out. I whipped out my iPhone and typed in the web address to my power company. I reported the outage on a webform and spent probably ten minutes clicking on the interactive map on their website, counting the number of outages. There were already more than 50 in the area. Yuck, this could take a while.
[Scroll, scroll, scroll]
OH! I have to conserve phone battery!
It must have been after seeing all the other outages online that I dismissed the cracking sound I heard earlier that morning. I assumed it was a tree branch falling, heavy with the weight of all that ice. I was right. Two hours into our powerlessness, I looked out a back window to admire the snowfall. And there it was. A large branch from one of our trees crashed through the wooden privacy fence between our house and the neighbors'. The branch splintered parts of the fence and brought down the power lines that connected our house to all of civilization. This could take a long while.
Our power was out for eight hours, which is not that bad, considering. Here are some things that didn't work:
How could I be so dependent on this technology? What would I have done in the olden days?
In the 1880s, electric lights and the telegraph were still awesome sights to behold. From spectacles and novelties, cities began to adopt electrification in fits and starts around the country: a streetlight here, a factory there, a streetcar elsewhere. Electricity was popularized in public places before it reached the homes of mostly wealthy Americans in the beginning of the twentieth century. Electricity was expensive, conspicuously so, but it had the benefit of being safer than gas for heat and light. I don't think it's obvious for those of us who have always had the benefits of electric light in our homes that houses used to be dark. Candlelight and lanterns only get you so far. Fires were much more frequent occurrences.
Electricity in the home started to change how people thought about the space. With heat and light throughout the house, it wasn't necessary for the family to huddle together in front of the hearth. So sometimes they didn't do that anymore. With more available light, people could see better at night. They read more. And they saw more of the dirt and grime in their homes and cleaned more. Electricity meant that large open hearths and expansive pantries weren't necessary in kitchens anymore. They shrunk. There was suddenly more useable time in a day. The pace was quickening.
Electricity made possible the invention of new "labor-saving" appliances and gadgets for the home. But wait! Before WWI, American families paid for outside services to deliver ice, milk, and groceries. Laundry was cleaned and pressed and delivered. Servants, children, and the men of the household completed regular chores. Steadily though, these tasks fell to the women of the household to complete. By the 1920s, a combination of electricity, changing ideas about home life, and scientific management had shifted the job of the housewife and the expectations that went along with it. While it may have seemed easier to wash, dry, and iron a load of laundry with machines rather than by hand, fewer outside services, longer days, higher standards, and the illusion of efficiency meant that laundry became housework. Clothes were not only cleaner than in the past, they were cleaned more often, and they were cleaned by mom.
Thinking through the history of electrification can give us a much more satisfying answer to the question I was mortified about on Tuesday: What would I have done in the olden days had my power gone out? What if I have no discernible skills? Well, 21st-century self, it's just not true. Technologies cannot be separated from the ways we live. Technology, society, and behavior are shaped by each other all the time. Without electricity, I might not live in the suburbs, or feed my child prepared milk from cold storage, or do laundry as often as I do, or see my clothes as dirty at all, or feel the need to be doing something all day long. The floors would be grimier, servicemen would deliver things to me, my kitchen would be equipped with the right tools (and not a dumb electric bottle warmer that I love so much). I might even get a little more rest.
To read more about electricity and household technologies, see:
David E. Nye, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology (1992)
Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technologies from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (1985)
Susan Strasser, Never Done: A History of American Housework (1982)
Michelle Everidge Anderson centers "home" as a place and a concept in her work to tell stories about American families.