Thursday, October 6, 2016

Housewife Maude and the Electric Farm

Maude Laughlin was a farmer’s wife – although it took her a long time to find her farmer.

Maude was 54 when she made her block for the quilt.  In 1937 Maude and farmer husband George had only been married a few years.  Both George and Maude had been married before; Maude’s first husband was killed by a freight train as he was walking along the railroad tracks.  George was a widower; neither George not Maude had any children.

In the 1940 census George Laughlin’s occupation was listed as ‘farmer’ and the number of hours worked in the previous week was 60.  Maude Laughlin’s occupation was ‘housework’; hours worked was left blank on the form.  I wonder if Maude was amused or dismayed by the lack of significance of her labour compared to that of her spouse. 

In the late 1930s 25% of American farms were connected to the electricity grid.  Power poles ran alongside main transport routes so connection depended on proximity to main roads.  If the Laughlin’s farm did not have a grid connection they would have other sources of power.  Windmills, gasoline engines and sets of batteries were standard power sources.  Kerosene lamps were used for lighting and the cellar or icebox would keep food cold. 

Connecting the farm to the electricity network was actively promoted in the 1930s especially for dairy farmers.  The modern farmer needed pumps for automatic watering systems for cows to drink from; milking machines; motorised cream separators; and of course refrigeration instead of ice.  Electricity saved labor and farm costs and thus boosted profits.

When the electricity arrived in the farmhouse the first use was for lighting.  Next were electric irons and vacuum cleaners.  Kitchen refrigerators remained very expensive for years and the uptake was slow.  

In 1937 the thrifty housewife could trade in her old vacuum cleaner and purchase a new one for $21, ten days free trial.  An electric washing machine with wringer was $29.95, although the modern gasoline motor washing machine was still a best seller.  She could even buy an electric kitchen range from the mail order catalogue with

 …inside oven light, a sensational new feature.  Lights up automatically as the oven door is opened, illuminating every corner of the oven.”

Contrary to advertising electricity did not lessen the housewife’s workload.  Social expectations changed with the new power source.  Meals had to be better with more variety, houses needed to be cleaner and wardrobes of clothes were more varied and laundered more often.  Housewives in 1940 worked about 60 hours per week on the housework – just the same as their farming husbands.

“Orange Juice – This mixer is appearing in a new finish of chrome and white to fit the color scheme of the bride’s new kitchen.  It beats, and mixes, and mashes, too.  It has more strength than a dozen brides.”  


  1. Social Expectations..... wonder how those have changed the last 10 years with internet and Facebook, etc.?

    1. Facebook is 12 years old and before that we had Yahoo Groups and emails. What was life like before we had social media?
      I used to read books...

  2. Our farm here got electricity in 1946 after my husbands grandmother died. Not sure if that was because she would have disapproved, or because her husband and son had to do all the cooking and housework as well as all the farm work. Two years later her son married a farm girl who did not know how to cook, surprisingly. She learned fast.

    1. Here in Victoria, Australia, the last town to be connected to the electricity grid was Walhalla, an old gold mining town in the hills that now attracts the tourists. It finally got mains electricity in 1998.


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