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BETTER LIVING THROUGH ELECTRICITY: When appliances came to Central Texas

0801
 2014


Electric appliances were rich with imagery from promotional material: A Sunbeam toaster ad from the '50s; A Kelvinator 'Foodarama' refrigerator ad circa 1955; a 1920s advertising image for Armstrong Electric Co.'s Perc-O-Toaster, which made toast and coffee at the same time; Hoover 1908 Model O 'Suction Sweeper;' and a Schick electric shaver ad image from 1953.
 
Image credits: toaster.org; adclassix.com; blog.oregonlive.com; Photo courtesy Hoover Historical Center/Walsh University, North Canton, OH.

When shiny new appliances hit the homes of rural Central Texans, family life was never the same


By Ed Crowell
 
In 1939, life inside the homes of rural  Texas families was not much more advanced than that of the log cabins of Abe Lincoln’s day. While city dwellers enjoyed an array of 20th century appliances, a few miles out in the countryside there were no such conveniences.
 
They had no electricity.
 
Cooking was done on wood-burning stoves, where heavy irons also were heated. Water was hauled in with buckets, filled from outside hand pumps. Perishable food was kept in small wooden iceboxes.
 
Washing was an hours-long chore using tubs and washboards.
 
Sewing was done by hand. 
 
Lighting came from smelly, dim kerosene lamps.
 
If the outside world of radio newscasters and entertainers came into the living room, it was through battery power. 
 
No wonder that when the rural electrification movement began in the 1930s and early 1940s, it was accompanied by dazzling displays of appliances in circus-like tents. Under the canvas, people could eye all the shiny new devices that were saving so much time and labor for modern families.
 
As stores and kitchens filled with modern appliances in the decades following World War II, electric cooperative families were eager to try new products and recipes if they could afford them. Home economics classes taught high school students how to help in the kitchen and laundry room. At Giddings High School, the students practiced on appliances loaned by Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative.
 
When microwave ovens became widely available in the 1980s, Bluebonnet hired a demonstrator to teach people from Brenham to Lockhart how to best use the speed-cooking appliance.
 
The acceptance and progression of appliances that seemed so natural in the Baby Boom years wasn’t always so.
 
When rural families still emerging from the Great Depression were asked by fledgling co-ops to spend $5 to $10 a month for electricity, it took some persuasion. But the cost of signing up for a co-op and buying appliances remained a factor. Convincing rural Central Texans “in many cases really was a hard-sell situation,” Art Anderson recalled for the 1988 book “Corralling the Colorado.”
 
“Even a cooking range back in those days cost about $250. And a lot of these farmers were just barely getting by.”
 
Anderson was an engineer for the Lower Colorado River Authority. He took a 12-foot model of LCRA’s hydroelectric dam projects and public utility system to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. People “oohed and awed” over the exhibit, which included a large painting depicting the history of electricity. 
 
Revised models were taken to the Texas State Fair and other locations for years. 
 
“Many of them thought that about all electricity was good for was to provide a light to read by. And light for reading proved to be our biggest selling point.
 
“But once you had the house wired, it was kind of a race between the radio and the refrigerator as to which they got first. Usually, the wife won with the refrigerator. Of course, if you had a dairy or a place where a lot of food would spoil, a freezer came along pretty fast,” Anderson said in the book.

In 1941, the Austin Statesman reported on the new experiences with electricity of the R.L. Sansom family of Hays County. The family first acquired an electric range and refrigerator, then a radio, iron and water heater, the newspaper reported.
 
For the Sansoms’ dairy operation “in place of a gasoline-powered motor now is an electric one that goes into action with no more trouble than the turning of a switch.”
 
The cost of gasoline and ice to cool the Sansoms’ milk had been $30 a month, the newspaper said. “They now pay an electrical bill of about $9 a month. And in the electrical bill, too, is not only the dairying work … but also lighting, cooking, refrigeration and other conveniences for the home.”
 
When the electric cooperatives were begun with loans backed by the federal Rural Electrification Administration, some prospective members wondered if they would ever use all the electricity that would be available.
 
The REA surveyed members of an unidentified co-op one year after they got power and broke their appliance purchases down by percentages:
 
     l Irons, 84 percent
     l Radios, 84 percent
     l Washing machines, 63 percent
     l Vacuum cleaners, 48 percent
     l Toasters, 35 percent
     l Electric motors, 27 percent
     l Electric water pumps, 16 percent
 
 
Presumably, the purchase of shiny, expensive electric stoves and refrigerators was put on the back burner.
 
The REA began its national circus-tent tours of electric appliances and farm equipment in the fall of 1938 with a dozen two-day stops in Iowa and Nebraska. For the next three years, the tours crisscrossed 26 other states, including Texas.


Here is how the 50th REA anniversary book “The Next Greatest Thing” summed up the tours:
 
“Farmers and their families flocked to the circus by the thousands, eager to learn more about electricity and the many labor-saving tasks it could perform.
 
“Word of the circus’ success soon reached dealers and manufacturers and they quickly became part of the caravan. . . . They were astounded at how farmers took to electricity and how willing and able they were to pay for it and for the equipment to use it.
 
“Many farmers later said the hours spent at the circus often marked a turning point for them. The knowledge gained and the purchasing decisions made then and there dramatically changed their farming operations.
 
“And wherever the circus toured, rural electric (co-op) managers and project superintendents were ecstatic. Memberships grew. Appliance sales skyrocketed. Kilowatt-hour sales showed healthy increases.
 
“Before the REA big top folded in late 1941 because of World War II, it had brought its electrifying message to one million farmers.”
 
After the war, the LCRA and co-ops such as Bluebonnet got into the business of promoting appliances in various arrangements with dealers. They encouraged the full use of modern kitchens.
 
Recipes and an emphasis on home cooking with the newly available electric kitchen appliances were a cornerstone of Texas co-ops from the start.
 
In the summer of 1944, the third monthly issue of the Texas Cooperative Electric Power publication (forerunner of today’s Texas Co-op Power magazine) introduced a recipes page. Electric cooking advice was printed alongside recipes for Summer Chiffon Pie, Fruit-Stuffed Spareribs and a Victory Vegetable Plate named for the anticipated end of World War II.
 
Before long, Bluebonnet’s forerunner, the Lower Colorado River Electric Cooperative, and other Texas co-ops touted all the advantages of living electrically, including such comforts as water heaters, fans, home heating systems and eventually air conditioning.
 
Appliances could be ogled, touched and heard humming in store showrooms and even at Bluebonnet’s headquarters building in Giddings. Special demonstrations by co-op employees were held in towns near the service areas. Dealer promotions, installation discounts and payment plans were touted by the co-op.
 
Throughout the post-war Baby Boom era, advertisements for the ease of living in all-electric homes were everywhere. 
 
Shirley (Schramm) Hannes began teaching “home ec” classes at Giddings High School in 1961. She was 21, a recent graduate of what was then Southwest Texas State College in San Marcos.
 
The tools of her classes: stoves, refrigerators, washers and dryers, set up as four kitchen nooks.
 
The Lower Colorado River Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Giddings, loaned the appliances to the school and then sold them as demos after they were used for a limited time.
 
“The classes were electives then but almost everyone took them as freshmen and sophomores. We didn’t have computer classes and such. Ninety-nine percent were girls,” Hannes said.
 
Many students from the city of Giddings at that time had grown up with an array of electric appliances in their homes, but for some of the rural students, appliances had only reached their homes in the past decade, Hannes said.  
 
Although many students had been taught some cooking by their mothers, they enjoyed practicing at school to learn more.  “They took recipes home to try out on their families as homework. They made desserts and certain kinds of meals,” she said.
 
Appliances were “pretty basic” when Hannes started teaching, but they quickly advanced with more settings, particularly washers and dryers.
 
Hannes, now 74 and living in Pearland, taught for three years in Giddings before moving to the Houston area, where she taught at an elementary school because “they didn’t have a strong home ec program in the city.”
 
She remembers when her family got electricity. She was in the third grade in Thorndale. “The invention that made the greatest difference was a refrigerator to replace the icebox and those big blocks of ice we had to buy. Iceboxes dripped water into a pan that had to be emptied and food didn’t keep long before spoiling.
 
“It also meant we didn’t have to rent a freezer drawer at a locker plant in town where we kept our fresh processed meat,” Hannes recalled. 
 
New appliances were developed and marketed in the 1970s and ‘80s to fill every kitchen counter and cabinet. Meals became easier and quicker to prepare, giving women more time, in some cases to enter the workplace.
 
In the summer of 1983, Bluebonnet helped introduce people to the new time-saving technology of the microwave.
 
Lavonne Morrow of Giddings remembers when Bluebonnet General Manager Henry Umscheid hired her to give members cooking demonstrations for the small boxes with see-through doors.  
 
He told her, “I need somebody to show people how to use these microwaves.”
 
She answered, “I don’t even have one.”
 
“Well go out and buy one,” he said. “Learn how to cook something. I want you to be able to prepare a whole meal in one.”
 
For about two years, the former nursing home administrator did just that in front of women, men and young people. Groups as large as 110 showed up in Brenham, Giddings and Lockhart for the free demonstrations. One time she microwaved at the Washington County Fair and made 15 batches of peanut brittle over the course of a long day. “It really smelled good and people were waiting in line. I showed them you can do anything in a microwave,” she said.
 
Working women  realized how microwave cooking would save valuable time. “A whole meal for six people in 30 to 45 minutes with basic ingredients,” she said.
 
The recipes she shared ranged from a tortilla, cheese and chicken casserole to a simple three-minute fudge. “People just loved mixing all the fudge ingredients in one bowl and sticking it in the microwave.” She also poured cake batter into ice cream cones and microwaved them to create an unusual treat for birthday parties.
 
Although the microwave demos lasted only a couple years, Morrow, now 77, stayed with Bluebonnet for 23 years. She held various jobs, including promoting electrical safety in schools and several member services roles. 
 
Throughout the 1950s and nearly until Morrow’s time of microwave introductions, the LCRA continued appliance promotions through dealer alliances and free installation offers. For a while, Bluebonnet sold electric water heaters and electric outdoor barbecue grills directly to members.
 
Even as the 21st century dawned, Bluebonnet still helped people get appliances or upgrade to more energy-efficient models.
 
A 1999 “Pay Easy Plan” encouraged members to buy from certain local dealers and make payments through the co-op. Monthly bills sent by Bluebonnet included a payment for that new refrigerator or dryer along with the standard charges for electricity.
 
One thing hasn’t changed. Today, just as so many decades ago, bringing a sparkling new appliance home can elicit a thrill.  
 
Now, however, energy efficiency is a selling point for most high-tech appliances, and Bluebonnet provides tools and tips to save power and money. Members can monitor and control their power use with the co-op’s online Energy Tracking Tool. Go to bluebonnet.coop and click on the Net Energy Market tab to learn more.

 

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