Shortly before the start of the 20th century (1900), electricity began to improve the lives of Iowa families in many ways. However, few farm families had the new service. Farm families began to feel that life on the farm was not as good as life in town, and some farm families began wishing that they could quit farming and live somewhere else.
Electricity Comes to Town
In 1880, Thomas Edison invented a working model of a light bulb. Two years later Edison built the first municipal electrical generator to make electricity in New York City. Soon electric wires were going up in towns all across America as people discovered the wonders of electrical current.
Little improvements began showing up everywhere. In Jefferson, Iowa, guests at the hotel pressed a button to ring for someone to get their suitcases. Telephones connected homes and businesses. Town families replaced their kerosene lamps with light bulbs and quit washing up the soot-stained glass covers of the lamps.
Most women did their washing on Monday and ironing on Tuesday. Ironing day was long and hard. Women stood by a hot stove that heated their irons and then lugged the heavy irons back and forth over shirts and dresses. Electric irons were much lighter, and they could be used anywhere. Soon so many women in Jefferson were using electric irons on Tuesday that the local electric company had to boost the output on the generators to keep up with the demand.
Soon many town families began to buy electric toasters, stoves, vacuum cleaners, fans and hot water heaters. The town put up electric lights along the streets and sidewalks. Many children growing up in towns after World War I had never lived in a home without electricity.
The Government Steps in to Help
Farm families were not so fortunate. It cost more money to run long lines through the country to hook up farm homes. Some estimates put the cost between $1,000 and $2,000 per mile. Private electric countries found it more profitable to serve two homes in town built close together. Farm families continued to cook their means on wood-burning stoves, use outdoor toilets and light their rooms with kerosene lanterns. In 1925, the census reported that in Greene County, only 265 out of 2,000 farms had electric lights, heat and indoor toilets.
In 1936 the federal government stepped in to help farm families get electricity. Congress passes the Rural Electric Act (REA) setting up an agency to loan money to farmers to build and operate rural electric cooperatives, or co-ops. The co-ops were not created to make money selling electricity. They were owned by the farmers themselves and any "profits" were distributed back to the electricity uses, the farmers themselves. The co-ops hired men to dig the holes for the electricity poles and power lines began going up across the countryside. At first, the co-ops purchased their electricity from nearby private electrical companies, but later they built their own generators. World War II created temporary shortages in copper wire and other materials necessary to run electricity to farm homes. After the war, however, the wires went up quickly and soon farm families were enjoying the same benefits of electricity that town families had used for half a century.
One woman has a special memory of the day electricity came to her farm. Her mother had a refrigerator already plugged in, ready to go as soon as the co-op could get an electrical line to the farmhouse. When she and her mother heard the refrigerator motor start, they jumped into the car and headed towards town. What did they buy? Jell-O. Jell-O needs a cool place to set up and become firm. Before farm families had electric refrigerators, only town families could make Jell-O. To that family, the REA meant that they could have Jell-O, just like town families.
Another woman remembers that the electric crew finished connecting the wires to their farm home just as the sun was going down and it was growing dark. The whole family stood in the yard while her older brother ran inside to turn on the electric lights. She remembers that her mother stood there crying. At the time, the woman thought her mother was happy because she would have electrical appliances to make her work easier. Many years later, she understood that it was much more than that. With electricity, her mother knew her daughter could choose to live on the farm and not have to live in a second-class home. With the coming of electricity, one of the big reasons farm families often wanted to the leave farm ended. The differences between homes in the country and home in the town grew smaller.
- Amy Ruth, “The Changing Home,” The Goldfinch 17, no. 3 (Spring 1996): 11-13.