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
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