Electric Divide

Electric Divide

(Cooperative Connections, Nov. 2019, Vol. 20, No. 7)

Urban Progress

Electrification was one of the greatest advancements of the Second Industrial Revolution, which began during the late 19th century. This revolutionary idea, which lit up homes and powered factories, made manufacturing advancements, like assembly lines, possible. However, a significant divide emerged as widespread electrification occurred primarily in cities while neglecting the sparsely populated rural frontier because it wasn't profitable for private utilities.

"We are striking it big in the electric light, better than my vivid imagination first conceived. Where this thing is going to stop, Lord only knows."

           -Thomas Edison predicted electric light would spark progress.          (The Franklin Institute, 1879)

(Oakland Tribune, 13 Sept. 1938)

"Assembly line workers at the Ford Motor Company factory at Dearborn, Michigan." (The Henry Ford, 8 March 1928)

Rural Darkness

While urban areas thrived from their sudden power surge, residents on the rural frontier suffered from being left in the dark, as less than 10% of American farms were electrified by 1932 ("Power From the People," NMAH).

 (The New York Times, 23 May 1924)

Rural living (Wessels Living History Farm, N.d.)

"We ate breakfast many times by lamplight to be at work by sunrise. Everything was done by hand... There were just no advantages in those days for rural people. They had to do it manually and the hard way."

                       -Alvin Morrison recalls living without electricity.                        (Southern Oral History Program, 23 Oct. 1984)

As a result, rural residents led primitive lives, heavily dependent on manual labor, in inadequately heated homes, without running water and electric light.

"The burden of these hardships falls more heavily on the farmer's wife than   on the farmer himself. In general, her   life is more monotonous and more isolated, no matter what the wealth or poverty of the family may be." 

     -President Theodore Roosevelt (​​​​​​​Report of the Country Life Commission,      9 Feb. 1909, p. 49)

       "Before rural electricity, farm wives used heavy 'sad' irons                     heated on woodstoves to press their families' clothes."           (Indiana Connection, N.d.)

"A woman pumps water on her farm... in the 1930s." (Power Africa, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association)

99-year-old Anna Mae Bahlmann (Personal Interview, 25 Jan. 2023)

Because work on the rural frontier was more tedious, time-consuming, and dangerous than work in electrified urban America,  many fled the farm for the comforts of city life, which contributed to rural economic decline that only worsened during the Great Depression.