August 27, 2004

The Electrification of the Whole Country

I admit that not everyone will be as fascinated as I am by a technological-social-political-economic history of domestic appliances and property, complete with statistical documentation of the failure of the washing machine to take off in the 1920s, the local politics of Riverside, Calif., and the intersection of electrification and the great black migration.

Ronald Tobey, Technology as Freedom: The New Deal and the Electrical Modernization of the American Home, University of California Press, 1996 [Online]

But sometimes these things are (pardon the phrase) illuminating.

The New Deal in domestic electrical modernization worked an invisible revolution. The New Deal shifted the majority of American families to an asset strategy for economic security through state-enframed home ownership of electrically modern dwellings. Geographic mobility declined. Unrestrained domination of local politics by a locally resident real estate elite ended. Material accumulation based in the owner-occupied home created unprecedented material affluence. The dwellings modernized their occupants, as households rebuilt their social and labor relations around new technologies. Minority groups previously locked out of affluence gained the keys to their future. ...

In the 1920s, private enterprise marketed electrical household appliances to a small percentage of the nation's households. In that social context, appliances were not technologies and their employment did not challenge the bourgeois values held by that social class. The depression brought into political power a statist-tending progressive political party that sought to democratize the material benefits of the electrical age. The New Deal redefined 1920s luxury commodities into the necessities of the many, from the material symbols of the upper class's conservative retention of an unequal social structure to the material instruments of mass freedom and material justice. As a political issue, the New Deal pointed to those luxuries as the material condition of freedom to which the mass of American households had a right. New Deal policies embedded electrical devices in a primary project shared by most Americans. The New Deal made electrical home appliances into technology. The fading of the New Deal as a project, ironically involving its transubstantiation into structure, stripped electrical household appliances of their technological status. Commodification of household technology worked reciprocally to normalize the New Deal.

Drawing analogies to the present is left as an exercise for the reader.

The Beloved Republic; The Great Transformation

Posted at August 27, 2004 10:10 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth