Part I: The impacts of Electrification in the Household

If electrons did not exist or they were unable to move from atom to atom and from object to object, electricity would not exist and the most convenient and possibly the only method available to humans of moving energy over long distances and using it efficiently in the home would not be available to us.[1]  In 1930, more than sixty percent of American homes lacked electricity or were only wired for basic lighting, and only a few families owned a single major electric appliance.[2]  Thomas P. Hughes describes diffusion of electrification as “a great network of power lines which will forever order the way in which we live is now superimposed on the industrial world.”[3]  By 1960, electricity had a congregation of new consumer durables diffused into American homes and nearly all households were equipped with electric lights, running water, and a variety of modern appliances.

The history of electricity reveals a series of discoveries with the simplest discoveries being made first and more complex discoveries being made later.[4]  At first, American households discovered that they were able to have electric lighting, heating and innovative kitchen appliances such as microwave ovens.  Later, we discover that the diffusion of electricity into American homes in the twentieth century has a multitude of economic affects on the household sector.  As such, a simple appliance commonly known as the vacuum cleaner, for instance, can later be utilized to exemplify the modernization of household labour and how exogenous economic forces prior to electrification affect decision making in the home.  During the diffusion of electricity into American homes, the household revolution introduced labour-saving consumer durables, such as washing machines, as well as timesaving products, such as frozen foods.[5]  At the turn of the nineteenth century, women mostly laboured at home, however technological progress in the household has arguably liberated women from the home allowing them to enter the labour market.[6] As such, this article will assume the neoclassical model of family in which there is a mother, father and children.  By the end of the twentieth century, the majority of women have arguable decided to join the labour market, which begs the question, how has electrification of the twentieth century affected the decision making of households?  As a result, this article will attempt to explain the effects of electricity on the household sector through discussing the implicit variables that impact family decision-making when faced with technological change in the household.  Further, using papers from Carl Kitchens, Jeremy Greenwood and other notable sources, this article will discuss the ambiguity of changes that households face when deciding to modernize.  For example, deciding to have children, deciding to enter, or re-enter, the workforce or deciding whether or not to invest more time and money into health and childcare, or starting a family.  Furthermore, this article will discuss the household influences of accessibility to electrical resources by examining the Rural Electrification Administration establishment in the early twentieth century.  Finally, using works from Joel Mokyr and Joshua Lewis, this article will examine the relevance in allocation of time between leisure and income producing activity of a household.

In practice, the challenges of household modernization can be portrayed by the gender roles within each twentieth century home.  From a Neoclassical perspective, female roles in particular are affected by the household revolution.[7]  More specifically, when a household moves towards using electric durable household goods, of higher quality, such as washing machines, electrics stoves, and electric irons, productivity in home production increases and requires less input as a result of efficiency.[8]  Notably, between 1930 and 1960, electricity had a multitude of new consumer durables in the majority of American households.[9] Coinciding with electrification in the United States, there was a rise in female employment in the twentieth century as a result of the household revolution liberating women from domestic work and allowing them to enter the work force.[10]  In his book “More work for mother: the ironies of household technology from the open hearth to the microwave”[11], Ruth Schwartz Cowan argues that household electrification is associated with a rise in female school attendance, which is consistent with the idea that domestic duties that were previously performed by older daughters, such as childcare, were taken over by housewives.[12]  Prominently, well-educated people also tend to have lower rates of time discount and thus are more likely to invest time in their health.[13]  

Alternately, Joshua Lewis argues that household electrification had no immediate effect on the female labour force participation rate.[14]  As a result, there weren’t many short run changes in terms of household investment decisions shortly after electric commodities were adopted into American households.  Conversely, although it did not have immediate effect on female employment, it did lead to an increase in school attendance, particularly for teenage daughters if we assume that household labour became more productive with electricity. However, if we consider the second generation of women, prior to household electrification, we can conclude that childhood access to electricity is associated with large increases in employment and personal income.[15] In order to prove this theory, Lewis examined changes within the home rather than examining local economic development.[16]  Changes in informal parental investments or revised expectations over future employment among younger women are examples of changes that occur outside of local economic development.[17] The majority of Lewis’ research focuses on understanding the large increase in female labour force participation since 1950.  Similar to Greenwood's paper on “Engines of Liberation”[18], Lewis’ results suggest that modern technology in the home, specifically electricity, played a significant role in the rise of female employment.  In fact, he highlights that household electrification can account for almost one quarter of the cross-cohort differences in employment for women in the early twentieth century.[19]  This can be compared to the research of Jeremy Greenwood, Ananth Seshadri, and Mehmet Yorukoglu, which is presented in “Engines of Liberation.”[20]  This paper uses Becker’s Model[21] to explain household production in terms of utility. In the model, yielding utility, household capital and labour can be combined to produce home goods.[22] The household production model postulates that households “combine time and market goods to produce more basic commodities that directly enter their utility functions.”[23] Evaluating utility in this model is what will assimilate the household preferences based on the level of utility the decisions carry.  This is relevant to an argument made by Robert Pollak as he points out those households with different tastes, and the same technology, will select different commodity bundles.[24] In turn, the commodity bundles they chose will host different commodity prices.  In this case, it’s important to note that differences in commodity prices are a reflection of differences in preferences, not differences in household consumption opportunities.[25] Overall, the Beckerian model can be used to predict that the adoption electricity frees up the amount of time devoted to housework and that the price of these durables will fall over time.[26]  In each period, the family is faced with two decisions. The first is whether or not they will invest in a new durable and the second is whether or not the women in the family should work in the market sector. Greenwood argues that households approach these decisions as follows: “when the burden of housework is great it simply is not feasibly for women to enter the labour market.”[27] That being said, with regards to individual preferences, the price of durables as well as the time allocation to household work certainly plays a significant role in the decision making process of a family with access to electricity.[28]

By,

Alina Kahil

Works Cited

Picture titled, "Electricity", taken by Phillippe Put on March 28, 2011, obtained through Creative Commons.

[1] Forrester, Rochelle. "History of Electricity

[2] Lewis, Joshua. “The short-run and long-run effects of household technological change”

[3] Hughes, Thomas P. Networks of power: electrification in Western society

[4] Forrester, Rochelle. "History of Electricity."

[5] Greenwood, Jeremy, Ananth Seshadri, and Mehmet Yorukoglu.

[6] Greenwood, Jeremy, Ananth Seshadri, and Mehmet Yorukoglu.

[7] Lewis, Joshua. “The short-run and long-run effects of household technological change”

[8] Kitchens, Carl, and Price Fishback. Flip the Switch the Spatial Impact of the Rural Electrification Administration 1935-1940

[9] Lewis, Joshua. “The short-run and long-run effects of household technological change”

[10] Greenwood, Jeremy, Ananth Seshadri, and Mehmet Yorukoglu.

[11] Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. More work for mother: the ironies of household technology from the open hearth to the microwave. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2008.

[12] Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. More work for mother: the ironies of household technology from the open hearth to the microwave. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2008.

[13] Mokyr, J. Why “More Work for Mother?” Knowledge and Household Behavior

[14] Lewis, Joshua. “The short-run and long-run effects of household technological change”

[15] Lewis, Joshua. “The short-run and long-run effects of household technological change”

[16] Lewis, Joshua. “The short-run and long-run effects of household technological change”

[17] Lewis, Joshua. “The short-run and long-run effects of household technological change”

[18] Greenwood, Jeremy, Ananth Seshadri, and Mehmet Yorukoglu. "Engines of Liberation."

[19] Lewis, Joshua. “The short-run and long-run effects of household technological change”

[20] Greenwood, Jeremy, Ananth Seshadri, and Mehmet Yorukoglu. "Engines of Liberation."

[21] Pollak, Robert. "Gary Becker's Contributions to Family and Household Economics."

[22] Greenwood, Jeremy, Ananth Seshadri, and Mehmet Yorukoglu. "Engines of Liberation."

[23] Greenwood, Jeremy, Ananth Seshadri, and Mehmet Yorukoglu. "Engines of Liberation."

[24] Pollak, Robert. "Gary Becker's Contributions to Family and Household Economics."

[25] Pollak, Robert. "Gary Becker's Contributions to Family and Household Economics."

[26] Greenwood, Jeremy, Ananth Seshadri, and Mehmet Yorukoglu. "Engines of Liberation."

[27] Greenwood, Jeremy, Ananth Seshadri, and Mehmet Yorukoglu. "Engines of Liberation."

[28] Greenwood, Jeremy, Ananth Seshadri, and Mehmet Yorukoglu. "Engines of Liberation."