Abuzz about electricity | July 20, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - July 20, 2007

Abuzz about electricity

Historical exhibit shows how new devices changed life for Americans

by Rebecca Wallace

Today's breathless crazes over new technology are by no means new. Ruffle through a 1939 issue of Ladies Home Journal, and there you have the dream of millions, standing proudly upright in an advertisement: the electric vacuum cleaner.

Beth Bunnenberg holds the magazine aloft with amused reverence, gazing at the woman in the holiday-themed ad.

"The vacuum cleaner is the most important thing under the Christmas tree," she says. "And she's vacuuming in high heels, because it was so easy."

Bunnenberg picks up another magazine in the current Museum of American Heritage exhibit, which she curated. This ad, in the June 1938 Woman's Home Companion, simply glows. The headline is "The One You've Always Wanted," and even though a bride is being carried over the threshold, she has eyes for only one thing: the new white refrigerator.

Located on Homer Avenue in Palo Alto, the museum is at the 100-year-old Williams House, where members of the Williams family lived until 1989. The current exhibit is part of a pair celebrating the house's centennial. While the first focused on the early years of the 20th century, the museum now displays electrical appliances from the 1920s, '30s, '40s and '50s: some original to the house.

The exhibit explores how these devices changed everyday life for the Williamses and other American families -- and particularly for homebound women.

Take the humble rug beater, for example. The museum has a lovely wooden one that resembles a piece of a basket with a handle. It's lightweight and sturdy, and probably dates back to 1910. You could still use it to whack the heck (and the dust) out of your Oriental rugs.

Or you could be seduced by the whir of the electric vacuum cleaner. According to a display card in the exhibit, the Air-Way company introduced the first vacuum cleaner with a disposable bag in 1920.

"These were supposed to be labor-saving devices," Bunnenberg says, pointing out a display in the middle of what was once the Williams' living room. Vacuum cleaners from the '20s through the '50s stand in a neat line, some with a sleek, aerodynamic-looking design.

"A major word that came in in the '30s was 'streamlined,'" Bunnenberg says. It was used to market everything from trains to home appliances.

The surge in electrical devices was buoyed by residents' greater access to electricity. In the first few years of the 20th century, the city of Palo Alto would turn on the electricity just from dusk to midnight; electricity was used only for lighting, Bunnenberg said. That soon changed.

The evolution of electricity in the home has been reflected in the pair of centennial exhibits. The first one, for instance, showcased an icebox and a crank-era phonograph. Now there's an electric refrigerator in the kitchen and a huge 1949 Halicrafters mahogany entertainment center in the living room, with a record player and an AM/FM radio.

"It could play 78s -- what I grew up with -- and 45s, and long-playing 33 rpm records," says Bunnenberg, who hails from Texas but has been active with the local historical association for years.

Records and album covers decorate the wood-paneled walls, and nearby is a 1950 television with a 12-inch screen, and a concave plastic magnifier that was placed over the era's diminutive TV screens.

"It (the picture) looked small to us in the beginning because we were used to movie screens," Bunnenberg says.

Shelves are filled with electric clocks, which came into vogue in the mid-'30s. There are also old cameras, shavers, portable fingernail-polish dryers and a plug-in, heat-up tie press.

The treadle sewing machine from the previous exhibit has been replaced by an electric one: a glossy black Singer Featherweight. It weighs 11 pounds and is thought to date back to the post-World War II years.

"People still keep trying to buy this one from us," Bunnenberg says.

Clearly the old ways still have some appeal, and even during the growth of electricity the Williamses sometimes harked back to previous years. For example, they had a brand-new refrigerator, but they still kept many items cool in a pantry cupboard, Bunnenberg says. Openings in the shelves allowed the naturally cool air from the basement to flow into the cupboard. And no need to plug anything in.

With many families coming to the museum, Bunnenberg hopes children learn the lesson that the latest technology is not always the only way. The appliances on exhibit were built to last, to be repaired and used for years, unlike the throwaway gadgets of today, she says.

"Some of these devices still work perfectly well," she says. "It's not the end of the world when the computer stops working."

What: The exhibit "100 Years At The Williams House: Look How Things Have Changed," showing a range of 20th-century electrical devices

Where: Museum of American Heritage, 351 Homer Ave., Palo Alto

When: Through Nov. 4. The museum is open Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Call 650-321-1004 or go to http://www.moah.org .


Like this comment
Posted by Mary Carlstead
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 20, 2007 at 12:34 pm

I remember a very hot scorching Illinois day about 1932 or 1933 when I heard my Dad call my mother. "Mother, your box is here." A 'box'? How strange. It was an electric Westinghouse refrigerator - stood off the floor on legs - and that was the end of the old wooden 'box' that took ice for refrigeration. These now bring big money. The new one must have cost a fortune during the Great Depression. No more signs in the window for 25# of ice or whatever, which I would flip over and Mom got the wrong mount of ice. But we now could keep milk cold which was delivered daily, and things didn't spoil in the heat. And ice cream, so there must have been a freezer compartment. I remember Mom's Hoover vacuum cleaner. and a a Bissel non-electric carpet cleaner. I remember the neighbor who did her washing outside in the summer - with a vat for hot water, one for bleach, and one for blueing. We had a dirt basement in our 1888 house, so Mom sent her laundry out each week to Weem's Laundry in Quincy, Illinois. I also remember the phone on the wall, party lines, the policeman, Mr. Bruger, who walked the 'beat' during the week, mail twice a day and on Saturdays, and horse drawn milk wagons. We ground up the beef for 'hamburger' and used it immeditely , and I still have the grinder. And chickens were bought the day of use or Saturday for the traditional Sunday dinner. Fried in the summer and baked in the winter. And long lazy summer nights with parents sitting on the front porches and the children playing and "Kick the Can" Mother May I, and Statue. Chasing 'lightening bugs" and drinking "black cows". This is an exhibit I definitely want to see. Thanks for the memories.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 20, 2007 at 3:15 pm

The youngest son had the duty to empty the drain pan before it overflowed. When he inevitably failed he got to mop up, propelled by harsh words.
In 1938, a friend proudly showed off his new radio that had a small patch of glass in the front for television as soon as it was available.
Another little boy chore was turning the mangle to wring out the clothes or, in families with a maytag, feeding the wet cloths into the wringer without feeding their fingers.

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 20, 2007 at 5:11 pm

I am always amazed when my kids say things like, wow you had tv back then when you were a child, or wow, how did you manage without electricity. There is the feeling that it was all or none. It is the rotary phones that get them, give one to an average teenager and have fun watching them try to dial their phone number. They just do not have the patience to wait for the dial to do its thing, they want to hurry it or they dial the next number too quickly. Very amusing.