A dimly lit electric light bulb against a dark background.

Better Sight, Better Light: Eyesight and Selling the Farm Wife on Electric Modernity

On a chilly Monday in early February 1940, hundreds of locals had crowded into a “big top” tent in Johnson City, Texas to see the electric circus.[1] On the stage, a woman stood before a table of lamps, prepared to give a speech that she’d given dozens of times before. She would begin:

“Everybody here tonight will agree with me that we have come a long way since the day of the caveman…From then down through the ages, we have passed from the use of candles, to the oil lamps, to the modern electric lamp.”

Like a practiced showman, she would first light the candle, then the oil lamp, and finally switch on the electric lamp in a demonstration of human progress. She was there as a representative of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), to show the women of rural Texas the glories of electricity through domestic education.

As consumers of home goods and advocates for household improvements, women represented a critical market for expanding electricity access throughout rural America. In order to encourage this consumption, government-funded pitches leveraged concerns that they believed would capture the imaginations of women, particularly concerns about health. By casting the farm wife in the role of guardian of health in the home, these marketing campaigns reinforced commonly-held ideas about gender roles and used them to make a more convincing case for electricity to women consumers.

Convincing the Farmer

It turns out that folks in Texas needed convincing in order to bring electricity into their homes. In addition to its cost, there was still a lingering fear that electricity was dangerous, causing more harm than good. Even electric experts, such as the director of the early rural electrification Red Wing Project, warned farmers that mishandling electricity could lead to a painful death.[2] This fear of electricity lingered well into the 20th century, where even in the 1920s – over 40 years since Thomas Edison patented the electric light bulb – a farmer might ask whether an electric irrigation project wasn’t “a new scheme to electrocute the farmer.”[3]

But by the late 1930s, electrification was a cornerstone of New Deal modernity. The REA, tasked with electrifying rural America, had to overcome this fear – and the poverty of the Great Depression – to convince farmers that electricity was a good idea. Electric power would no longer be the domain of the wealthy urbanite, but of everyone, even the poor, Texas dirt farmer. The question that government agents and appliance manufacturers had to answer was: how do you convince the dirt farmer of that?

As it turned out, the answer depended on whether you were convincing the farmer or his wife. The Electric Farm Equipment Roadshows – affectionately dubbed the “electric circus” – trekked through rural America from Cassopolis, Michigan to Lafayette, Louisiana, pitching the electric way to whoever would listen. Selling electricity to farmers concentrated on the financial benefits: electric-powered farm equipment increased production and saved time and money. REA pamphlets outlined the power of power: electric milkers, electric saws, electric pumps and electric grinders. “Man alive…” one pamphlet declared, “Look at electricity work!”[4]

An ad for the Rural Electrification Administration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, featuring a black and white photograph of farm machinery at work.
“Man alive…look at electricity work!,” 1940s (Louisan E. Mamer Rural Electrification Administration Papers, Smithsonian Archives Center)

But the REA didn’t think that farm women would be sold on the power of electric milk pumping, despite the fact that women were integral labor on the farm.[6] Instead, for housewives, one key focus was on health, and particularly the eyesight of children, which could be ruined by reading in the dark hovels that the REA believed rural farmsteads to be. This was a coordinated campaign, including local cooperatives, dealers and extension service experts. The REA’s “Better Sight, Better Light” campaign included financing for I.E.S. lamps, certified to be better for the eyes.[7]

Photocopy of a black and white ad featuring a drawing of an eye and the slogan "Better Light for the Farm Home."
“Better Sight, Better Light for the Farm Home: Better Farm Home Lighting,” 1939. (Box 23, Folder 2, Louisan E. Mamer Rural Electrification Administration Papers, Smithsonian Archives Center)

Central to the campaign were scripted demonstrations, conducted by trained home economists, such as the one at the start of this piece. The home economists were educated women – career professionals, often younger, and less likely to be married than their rural students – who believed the home could be a center of evidence-based practice, improved through domestic sciences.[7] This belief was core to the premise of the discipline, laid down by one of its founders, Ellen Swallow Richards, a chemist whose early research focused on sanitation, nutrition and public health.[8] In highlighting how the lamps were designed especially for eyesight protection, the home economists were connecting the physical sciences of lighting and lumens to modern medical knowledge.

It is because of these home economists, who wrote out every word and action required in these demonstration scripts, that we know so much about the marketing of electricity. After explaining the science of measuring light, the demonstrator would invite a few handpicked locals up onto the stage. One of them, described in the script as “Billy,” would be asked to read next to the lamps as though studying. The first was a short and squat “humpty-dumpty”-like lamp, casting light across the stage. The second had a white lining, directing the light to the pages below. The third had a shade with an open top, which allowed more ambient light. The fourth and final lamp had a glass bowl that diffused the light softly.

Like Goldilocks, Billy would read beneath each of the lamps as the home economist described the study experience. And like Goldilocks, Billy would decide the final lamp was just right–convenient, since this was the I.E.S. branded lamp that the REA had been advocating for. The home economist would then turn to the audience, and in a set of text that is almost entirely underlined for emphasis, she exhorted:

“Now, one last word about study lamps that I want to leave with the parents here tonight – Your children look to you to give them the things they need. Well, during school days, there’s nothing they need any more than adequate light to study by, because their health, happiness and progress in school depend, to a very great extent, upon good vision – – and good vision depends largely upon good light. Make your plans to get them a good study lamp right away.”[9]

She may have said parents, but she was speaking directly to the mothers in the audience. The entire demonstration script is labeled for home economists “who may be working with farm women and girls.” This demonstration was performed for over 60 towns across America, as the REA partnered with appliance companies and utilities to market electric modernity to farmers. And they were going to sell women on it by reminding them of their role in preserving the health of the homestead.

It wasn’t just the government who emphasized the eyesight angle: in their marketing materials, corporate appliance manufacturers like General Electric and Westinghouse also drew a line from the ancient past to the modern child’s eye. Across a double-page spread, fourteen sets of children’s eyes stare out from a pamphlet on the importance of proper lighting. Nature had designed human eyes for doing tasks outdoors, it explains, but now children are doing small, precise tasks inside, straining their eyes. Westinghouse echoed the final message of our home economist: “That’s why it is so vital to the proper care of eyes that homemakers provide each pair of eyes with adequate lighting for each and every indoor seeing task.”[10]

A section of a pamphlet or book with photographs of young white children and the heading "Why more protection is needed today to help keep eyes young."
“The Whys and Hows of Lighting a Home.” (Box 3, Folder 2, Louisan E. Mamer Rural Electrification Administration Papers, Smithsonian Archives Center)

It is clear from the repetition that the wellbeing of children’s eyes was implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) the responsibility of the farm wife. In comparison to the equipment-focused advertising to men, these messages to women about lighting stand out for their emphasis on health. In general, REA advertising targeted men in the fields with messages of corn grinders and women in the home with stories about electric cookers, assuming that the house was the domestic domain of women. As scholar Katherine Jellison has discussed, the REA’s “propagandists” – from home economists to extension agents to the electric circus – actually reinforced gender relations, “keeping the patriarchal farm family in its place on the farm.”[11]

The advertising for home lighting follows this pattern in reaching out to women, but where other domestic appliance advertising focuses on time and labor saved, these messages are specifically about the health of the household. In focusing on children’s health, these messages reveal something about the REA’s assumptions about gender roles of rural America: a woman was not just a homemaker, but the central caregiver of the household.

And it worked. Within a decade, lighting would be ubiquitous across the countryside. This isn’t to say that only women cared about eye strain in dark rooms, but rather that in marketing a new technology, women’s connection to the health of the household was both leveraged and reinforced. Reading through demonstration scripts, we see not that women were sole protectors of children’s health, but that women were perhaps also being reminded: your children, and their health, are your responsibility.

While times have changed, and appliance companies are increasingly incorporating men into their vision of a happy household, we still see this appeal to women’s role as health champions in advertising today. From the more subtle commercials that include men but notably only show mothers touching the air purifiers, to the much more on-the-nose disinfectant advertisement entitled “Protect Like a Mother,” these messages come through loud and clear. For mothers, family health is still their responsibility.

Notes

  1. “Lost-Cost L.C.R.A. Electricity Brings a New Era in Farm and Ranch Life.” Austin American-Statesman. February 11, 1940.
  2. Wolfe, Audra J. “‘How Not to Electrocute the Farmer’: Assessing Attitudes Towards Electrification on American Farms, 1920-1940.” Agricultural History 74, no. 2 (2000): 515–29. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3744869.
  3. Wolfe, Audra J. “‘How Not to Electrocute the Farmer’: Assessing Attitudes Towards Electrification on American Farms, 1920-1940.” Agricultural History 74, no. 2 (2000): 515–29. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3744869.
  4. “Man alive…look at electricity work!,” 1940s, Louisan E. Mamer Rural Electrification Administration Papers, Smithsonian Archives Center, (Washington, D.C.).
  5. “Man alive…look at electricity work!,” 1940s, Louisan E. Mamer Rural Electrification Administration Papers, Smithsonian Archives Center, (Washington, D.C.).
  6. Jellison, Katherine. Entitled to power: Farm women and technology, 1913-1963. (Univ of North Carolina Press, 1993.)
  7. Dreilinger, Danielle. The secret history of home economics: How trailblazing women harnessed the power of home and changed the way we live. (WW Norton & Company, 2021.)
  8. Goldstein, Carolyn M. Creating consumers: Home economists in twentieth-century America. (Univ of North Carolina Press, 2012), 62-63.
  9. “The Whys and Hows of Lighting a Home,” n.d., box 3, folder 2, Louisan E. Mamer Rural Electrification Administration Papers, Smithsonian Archives Center, (Washington, D.C.), 2-3.
  10. “The Whys and Hows of Lighting a Home,” n.d., box 3, folder 2, Louisan E. Mamer Rural Electrification Administration Papers, Smithsonian Archives Center, (Washington, D.C.), 2-3.
  11. Jellison, Katherine. Entitled to power: Farm women and technology, 1913-1963. (Univ of North Carolina Press, 1993), 103.

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