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Extending the Story: Technology and Everyday Life in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

By: David Pitman, Northview High School Duluth, Georgia


We pride ourselves on the technological conveniences that surround us. We revel over handheld devices packed with thousands of hours of digitally recorded music; cell phones that take pictures; and communication networks that keep us informed and connected up to the minute. All of this is seems light years beyond the realities of the technological advances of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While we begrudge washers and dryers for taking a long 2 hours to clean our laundry, home owners 100 years ago marveled as its ease. While our collective frustration boils over as we are stuck in rush hour track, the infant automobile industry fascinated travelers in the early part of last century. And while our first impressions of 19th century technology are most likely reverent, we rarely stop to think about how the changes brought by the industrial revolution completely remade life for millions of people in homes across the United States and the world.


In the typical late 19th century American home a handful of "modern conveniences" were available for streamlining family chores. The cast iron stove offered greater cooking options to housewives (and more). As the 20th Century approached a cavalcade of new technologies would remake the homemaking industry. The turn of the century would usher in the gas burning stove regulated by a thermostat. In 1904 Willis Carrier invented the first air conditioning unit. In 1909 the first mechanical washing machine was patented by Alva Fischer. In 1901, King Camp Gillette made shaving a little safer for the well groomed man. His safety razor was designed to prevent cuts and nicks, possibly cutting into Asaph Perry's barber shop business.


After the turn of the century, the home in general was being designed around changing middle class lifestyles. The Sears Roebuck catalog offered a stately home plan and materials for $5400 including decks, sun porches, and three bedrooms. Gone from this grand floor plan were the conservatory, parlor, and butler's pantries. These middle-class homes placed great emphasis on efficiency of space. Children's bunk beds solved horizontal space problems as they do today. The fold-up parlor bed and the "Murphy Bed" addressed the space constraints felt by those who could not afford a larger living space.


Mass production a staple of industrial methods by 19010 allowed numerous products to find markets in people's home lives. Pianos became affordable for the growing middle classes followed by printed music, which led to an increase in singing parlor music for entertainment in the home. By 1910, disc phonographs became the standard home entertainment source, leading to the balloon in sales of records. This would be the case until radio took the lead circa 1930.


Possibly the single largest change in the home at the turn of the century was the shift from coal and oil to gas and electricity. Companies such as Consolidated Edison not only sold gas and electric power, they also had teams of salesmen to peddle the appliances. The marketing of electric powered home based machines simulated factory efficiency in the home, enabling greater leisure time for the whole family. Turn of the century families used some of this leisure time to see people and places in their automobiles and slowly expanded their "lived worlds" hundreds of miles from home. The automobile might not have been an everyday technology for the southerner at the turn of the century, but it was a quickly adopted once within financial reach.