The Modern Electric Home, ca. 1920


Of the scores of photographs Grandpa Hanna (Abe) took, this is my favourite. Addie is standing proudly at her Delco electric washing machine – see the electric cord snaking across the floor to the outlet in the pantry. Mind you, she still had to heat the wash water on the cook stove, hence the copper boiler in the lower right hand corner.

I don’t know whose idea it was to electrify the new house when it was built in 1917, but I’d like to think that Addie was the instigator. I imagine her saying: “Why should I continue to grate my knuckles on that old washboard? If you can get machinery to make your work easier, then I want to have something that makes my life easier!” And then she’d cross her arms, glare at Abe, and defy him to deny her that modern convenience.

They installed a 32 volt light plant, perhaps one of the newly manufactured Delcos . It wasn’t cheap. An undated advertisement of the complete Delco package (generating plant, supplies for five outlets, and five light fixtures with bulbs) cost $245.00!

Electric washing machines weren’t cheap, either. The 1920 Eaton’s catalogue advertised one (not the same model as Addie’s) for $79.00. It was “the usual family size, and will give a great amount of satisfactory service.” The purchaser was advised to indicate if it was to be used on 32 or 110 volt because a different motor was required for each.

Just as important, electricity meant electric lights. No more cleaning lamp chimneys, no more worries about spilling kerosene when filling the lamps. Just a pull on the chain (that was attached directly to the light socket) or a flick of a switch and light flooded the room. The convenience of electric lights was the major selling point for farmers (and, I dare say, farm wives) who otherwise might be hesitant to make such a hefty investment.

The Delco plant remained the sole source of power in the house until the “high line” came through in 1949. The cost of bringing in power was about equal to the cost of replacing the wet cell batteries, my father told me, and he would no longer need to recharge the batteries. I don’t know what happened to the generating plant or the wet cells (probably taken to the nuisance grounds), but the stepped concrete battery rack remained a permanent fixture in the basement, a reminder of that early form of electrification.

The house as I knew it contained another reminder of the Delco system – two light switches (one on the main floor, the other on the second) for the lights in what we called the “back stairs.” The problem was, they were not three-way switches. Unless they were both in the “on” position, the lights would not come on. Alas, there was no way to tell which way was “on” because the switch rotated rather than flipped. I can’t remember the number of times I ran up and down those stairs, trying to get those two switches in sync – a small price to pay for not having to clean lamp chimneys.

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