Energy Transitions in the Home

by Rachel Gross & Adam Mandelman

Changes in energy regimes haven't just transformed the ways we work and play, but have also dramatically altered our homes and the ways we live in them. This collection of images, from flame-heated hair curlers to coal-burning stoves, attempts to serve as a reminder of the ways energy has changed domestic spaces and daily life.

Flame-Broiled Hair

Prior to electricity's widespread use in households, women curled and straightened their hair using flame-heated irons, some of which didn't clamp and therefore required the hair to be held against the hot metal. Electric irons reduced the risk of burned fingers and did "away with black smears of soot" that the old irons produced.1

Figure 1: An alcohol-flame heated curling iron, manufacture date unknown. A user would squeeze the handles separated by a spring (on the left side of the image) to open the heating rod before clamping their hair. Image courtesy of Arbyreed (Flickr username) and licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic.

"Stimulating Circulation" and "Restoring Shrunken Organs"

The booming mid-twentieth century advertising industry found creative ways of promoting novel household applications for electricity. While clearly designed to exploit highly gendered insecurities about the body, the Venus-Adonis Normalizer (Figure 2) also seems to gesture at what was an unmentionable realm of solitary female sexuality. The advertisement claims that the "invigorating" Normalizer "does the work of many hands" and will "banish that tired, tense feeling."

Figure 2, Left: A 1950 advertisement for the Venus-Adonis Electric Normalizer. Image courtesy of Medicine and Madison Avenue On-Line Project - Ad #MM0769, John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History; Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library; Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, (accessed April 27, 2010).

Figure 3, Right: The "Electrocure" for "Restoring Shrunken Organs," from the American Electrocure Company. Undated leaflet courtesy of Advertising Ephemera Collection - Database #A0388-02, Emergence of Advertising On-Line Project; John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History; Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, (accessed April 27, 2010).

Upgrade the Home, Downgrade the Environment

The rise of electricity in the United States paralleled a growing consumer culture. Changing energy regimes allowed not just for entirely new conveniences, but also for new versions of old products. While these stove-heated General Electric irons (Figure 4) were likely melted down and reused in some other form, the dramatic increase in obsolescence sparked by the electrical revolution undoubtedly topped up a few landfills.

Figure 4: A pile of 2000 flat irons exchanged for new electric irons, ca. 1912. Image courtesy of the General Electric Collection at the Schenectady Museum & Suits-Beuche Planetarium.

The World Wide Energy Web

Jonathan Koomey, project scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, calculated that the servers, backup power supplies, and cooling systems in U.S. data centers consumed about 1% of all retail electricity sales in 2005 (about 0.4 kWh per day, per person). That figure is twice as big as the power consumed by servers in 2000. Journalist Ginger Strand observed in a 2008 article for Harper's Magazine that a single Google query searches through millions of gigabytes of data. For every watt used in processing in 2007, a Google server required a half-watt of cooling. Strand projected that by 2011, Google's data center in The Dalles, Washington would require enough energy to power a city the size of Tacoma, Washington.2

Figure 5: Google's data center in The Dalles, WA, 2008. Image courtesy of John Nelson, all rights reserved.

Energy as Interior Decorator

Oil and gas lighting produced significant quantities of soot, marking up walls, ceilings, and carpets. Moreover, gaslights burn at relatively high temperatures, consuming oxygen and producing both humidity and carbonic acid. A typical Victorian home was marked by small, individual rooms that facilitated airing-out while also preventing drafts from extinguishing fragile gas and coal flames. Walls and draperies were almost exclusively dark red, green, or brown to disguise soot, while books and other home furnishings quickly deteriorated in the humid and acidic atmosphere. When electrical lighting reduced the acidity, moisture, and smoke of older lights, it completely changed the typical Victorian Home. The new lighting allowed for open floor plans with brighter lighting and decoration; increased the lifespan of books and furnishings; and eliminated labor-intensive, soot-oriented cleaning regimens.3

Figure 6, Left: The Pierce Home at 424 N. Pinckney Street, Madison, WI, ca. 1888. Note the dark wallpaper and furnishings.
Figure 7, Right:
One of five fireplaces in the Pierce Home, ca. 1951. Note the considerably brighter interior. Images courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, Image IDs: 45191 and 45192.

Changes in the Kitchen

Martha Washington's late eighteenth-century kitchen (Figure 8) shows how heat and cooking systems were combined in the colonial period. Later kitchens (Figure 9) document the move to cheaply made coal burning iron stoves from cooking over fireplaces. Important in this change in technology was the ability to go from one-pot cooking over fireplaces to multi-pot cooking, with the possibility of varying heat to produce different dishes. Between the 1920s and 1940s (Figure 10) electric stoves were all the rage.

Figure 8:"The Old Kitchen Fireplace, Mt. Vernon, VA." The photograph was taken between 1900 and 1915. Image courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, (accessed April 14, 2010).

Figure 9:"Mary Ellen Nevin and her Sister," 1897. Nevin lived at 12 North Broom St. in Madison, WI with her husband James Nevin. Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID: 3739.

Figure 10: "Kitchen of house at 4935 Hillbrook Lane." Next to the stove is an icebox. Image courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, (accessed April 14, 2010).

The Isolation of an Electrified Home

Energy and technology historian, David Nye, suggests that while electrification offered housewives new conveniences, it also resulted in increased isolation for women working at home. Washing machines, refrigerators, and freezers all ensured that housewives would receive fewer and fewer visits from people offering laundry services, milk and ice delivery, or fruit and vegetable dealers.4

Figure 11: Man delivering ice from an Oscar Meyer truck, Madison, Wisconsin, 1940. Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, Image ID: 6915.


1 "Electricity in the Household," Scientific American 90, March 19, 1904: 232.

2 Jonathan Koomey, Estimating Total Power Consumption by Servers in the U.S. and The World, Oakland, CA: Analytics Press, 2007), (accessed April 28, 2010). Per day, per person energy consumption of U.S. servers calculated by David MacKay using Koomey's data in Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air (Cambridge, UK: UIT, 2009): 69. Ginger Strand, "Keyword: Evil," Harper's, March, 2008, 64-5.

3 Nye, David E. Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998. 195; Nye, David E. Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990. 243, 253; Kennelley, A. A. "Electricity in the Household." Scribner's Magazine. Vol. 7 (January-June, 1890): 102-115. 107-109.

4 Nye, Electrifying America, 257.