The Electric Home and Farm Authority, "Model T Appliances," and the Modernization of the Home Kitchen in the South

Article excerpt

DID YOU KNOW THAT UNCLE SAM WILL HELP YOU BUY THAT ELECTRIC appliance you have been waiting for?" The Ocala Light and Water Department put this question to Floridians in mid-1941, advertising low-cost government financing for refrigerators, ranges, water heaters, washing machines, and other domestic appliances. (1) Although many scholars of advertising and domesticity have emphasized the 1920s and growing urban populations in the history of American mass consumption, not until the Great Depression did manufacturers and retailers move these electric amenities beyond a luxury market. (2) Moreover, the spark igniting this change occurred not in the urban centers of the Northeast but in the rural South, where the federal government targeted its efforts. Advertisers and chain stores may have tempted purchasers, but it was government intervention that first made kitchen modernization affordable. Starting in 1934, the now largely forgotten Electric Home and Farm Authority (EHFA) worked with manufacturers, utilities, and retailers alike to offer electric appliances to low- and moderate-income families through inexpensive purchase prices and affordable financing. Customers needed only a small down payment and had up to five years to pay off their appliances. Through the EHFA, the government transformed the domestic appliance business--and the home kitchen--during the Great Depression, by opening what had been a luxury industry to a mass market in the South.

The electrified, modern American kitchen took shape within a government-managed economic, social, and technological infrastructure, in which not only appliances themselves but also, and more fundamentally, home electrical service first became widely affordable and understood. The expense of this nascent technology, in both equipment and usage costs, precluded the vast majority of American consumers from investing in electric refrigerators and ranges in the 1920s; sales of appliances remained low throughout that decade. Frigidaire, the largest manufacturer of refrigerators, priced its least expensive unit at $468 in 1926--when the median family income was just over $2,000. The company did not sell its one millionth unit until 1929--when there were nearly thirty million households in the United States. (3) Data compiled by historian Ronald C. Tobey reveals that in 1929, at the end of nearly a decade of economic expansion, just 4.6 percent of American homes had an electric refrigerator; moreover, only 6.2 percent of the nation's adequately wired homes contained this appliance. (4)

During the decade when mass consumption supposedly transformed American households, the combined efforts of manufacturers, utilities, retailers, and advertisers had not managed to make these durable goods more affordable. In fact, Electrical World reported in 1927 that refrigerator manufacturers, despite decades of technical research, had been unable to lower costs. Instead, manufacturers counted on retailers to increase the sales volume as the best hope of lowering prices. The trade magazine suggested that lower prices might have to come first, but its data indicated that most manufacturers and retailers were not keen to try such a move. As it was, electric refrigerators remained too expensive for 80 percent of American families until the 1930s. Even before the financial crisis depressed sales, the luxury market for appliances had approached saturation, and manufacturers depended on selling replacement units. (5)

With the coming of the New Deal, the EHFA addressed the financial obstacles to household electric modernization and signified a new relationship between the federal government and the home kitchen. Federal administrators realized that utility rates and appliance costs could be--and perhaps only could be--lowered in tandem, through a coordinated effort. Lower appliance costs allowed families to invest in consumer durables that used far more electricity than did lamps or radios. …