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Video Commentary on Life on the Farm Before the Coming of Rural Electrification
Video Commentary on Some Alternatives to Central Station Power Before Rural Electrification
Video Commentary on the History and Significance of Rural Electrification

By Dr. D. Clayton Brown, Professor of History, Texas Christian University

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Substandard Sanitation
The lack of running water precluded the use of indoor bathrooms and made the outhouse, the 'privy," the much ridiculed symbol of farm living. Sanitation was substandard, particularly if privies were located in such a fashion to contaminate the water supply. The higher infant mortality rate on farms and the higher mortality rates owing to enteric diseases, ranging from stomach disorders to typhoid, were attributed to poor water supplies. A large portion of sicknesses and deaths among infants and preschoolers related to gastroenteritis, which owed much to the deadly contaminating effects of the outdoor privy. Rural rates on nonfatal disorders also exceeded the urban rates. Illnesses associated with children such as diptheria, scarlet fever, and whooping cough struck more often in rural areas.

The Pestilence of Hookworm
No better example illustrates the connection of ill health with the outdoor privy better than hookworm, the pestilence of southern states that favored no age or gender. Hookworms thrive in the intestinal tract, sucking blood from their hosts, and if untreated, an infestation can lead to death. Hookworm larvae pass from the host, living in the privy or warm moist southern soil. The larvae attach themselves to the feet of barefoot children or adults and penetrate into the bloodstream, exiting through the lungs and then entering the digestive system enroute to the stomach. Studies conducted among southern settlements showed infestation rates at 90 percent, but the average was closer to 30-40 percent in infected areas. Hookworm accounted for the stunted look of many southern children. When electricity began reaching the rural South, mostly after World War II, indoor bathrooms replaced privies and hookworm disappeared as a menace.

More than anything, rural electrification ended the substandard hygienic conditions on farms and freed families from the extraordinary burden of disease and sickness. Therein lay much of the significance of home modernization in rural America.

Backbreaking Toil
For farming operations the lack of electricity meant backbreaking toil. Water for livestock had to be carried in buckets or pumped by hand into a trough. Bales of hay had to be hoisted manually into lofts. Dairy cows were milked by hand. Fresh milk could not be cooled, which required speedy delivery to the dairy before it spoiled. Families consumed much pork instead of beef because pork, if salted and smoked, would not perish as quickly. Night work meant danger in barns because lanterns were fire hazards. Barn fires were not uncommon and fire insurance was costly or unavailable. Much time and labor went into chopping wood for stoves that burned all months of the year. Washing pails and buckets, cleaning tools, and disinfecting milking equipment in hot water heated over an open fire made for toilsome labor.

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