Thursday, August 4, 2016

Electric Lighting and the Mail-Order Industry

By Gretchen Sawatzki
Bare bulb light fixture from ca. 1935.
Image by Hannah Manning via Materials Unlimited

As early as 1802, inventors worked to create an effective electric light, and by the 1880s the light bulb was perfected. Inventors Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison were also in a race to provide electricity to every home in every major city in the United States.

By the turn of century, gas powered lights gave way to electric and wealthy individuals capitalized on the luxury of electric light bulb. To demonstrate their wealth, many middle and upper-class families of the era purchased bare bulb light fixtures for their homes. This visual cue told all visitors of the families' modern sensibility and affluence.

In cities where the electric light bulb was becoming more commonplace, gas fixtures were quickly phased out. Although 90% of the population had access to electricity by the 1930s, 10% of the population located in rural areas still lacked the utility. In these areas gas fixtures were a necessity. The mail-order catalog industry capitalized on the lighting needs of metropolitan and rural families alike. Companies like Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward offered gas fixtures, combination gas and electric fixtures, and the ever-coveted electric bare bulb fixture.

Combination gas and electric fixtures from the Sears and Roebuck mail-ordercatalog circa 1910.

In 1936 the United States government passed the Rural Electrification Act as a part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal which allowed the government to collaborate with private utility companies to supply electricity to isolated farmsteads. For many rural farmers the government initiative and the mail-order industry were the only links to both electricity and a supply of affordable lighting. By purchasing through a catalog company, farmers could order the fixture they needed and have it sent via rail line to rural post offices nationwide. By the post World War II era, electricity had reached all corners of the country with help of not only the U.S. government but also the mail-order industry.

   National Park Service
   The History Rat

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