History Piece

 
The Making of Power and the Land (1939-1940)

BEAUTY IN THE SERVICE OF A POLITICAL AGENDA

By Dr. Ruth Schwartz Cowan




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Historians of technology and historians of agriculture have also taught us a lot about farm incomes, as well as about the price of electrification and the price of appliances in relation to farm income in the interwar years. All of what we have learned about these matters leads to the same conclusion: no one viewing Power in the Land when it was first produced could possibly have believed that the Parkinsons acquired all that equipment at one time. (Indeed, as we now know, Bill Parkinson would not agree to have his family and his farm filmed until he had been guaranteed that he could keep most of the equipment free of charge.) Farm incomes varied a good deal from year to year and from region to region; $1135 was the average reported for 1935, right in the middle of the Depression.[ ii ] The per household startup costs for an REA co-operative (for a generator, wiring and poles, labor, household outlets and some small appliances) came to roughly $600 —more than half of that average annual household income. The average price of a refrigerator was $164 in that same year (prices varied from $75 at the bottom of the line to almost $600 at the top); an average electric cooking range cost $130, a water heater was $73, a washing machine $66 and a table model radio was $41.[ iii ] Indoor plumbing (a pump, piping, a single toilet, two sinks—one for the kitchen, one for a bathroom—a tub or a shower) was similarly expensive, even with bottom of the line fixtures. Small wonder, then, that REA officials had more than a little trouble getting farmers to sign up. Small wonder, too, that they asked the directors of Power in the Land to make a film that would magnify the possible benefits of electrification without once discussing, or even intimating, what the dollar cost would be.

Historians who study the complex relations between gender, work and technology can also help us to interpret Hazel Parkinson’s enigmatic smile. In that concluding scene with the roast which has just been cooked in an electric oven, she looks both pleased and wary simultaneously. In many ways, that ambivalent expression reflects the realities of farm lives and farmer’s attitudes in the years between the two world wars. In those years, American farm families lived very differently from their urban and suburban contemporaries; in the cities and suburbs the transition to industrialized living had been almost completed; on the farms and in rural towns the transition was still an ongoing process.

Rural lifestyles of the 1930s required enormous amounts of physical labor, every day, from every member of the family: men, women and children. When women cooked on wood-burning stoves, their husbands and older sons hauled fuel, and the younger children hauled ashes. Men and boys produced, gathered, stored and processed wheat, corn and hay; women and girls produced, processed and preserved vegetables and fruits. Young girls milked cows; older girls and adult women made cheese and butter—and also cared for the roosters, hens and eggs. Cloth was bought from a store or a catalogue (in earlier times, of course, yarn might have been spun and woven at home) but women and girls made it up into shirts and dresses and overalls. Men and boys cared for, butchered and preserved cows and pigs; women and girls killed and plucked poultry. All of this was hard work. On the Parkinson farm, and thousands of others like it, everyone had to work hard--mothers, fathers, children, hired hands-- in order to maintain a minimal level of health and comfort.

[ ii ] From, U.S. Department of Commerce, The Statistical History of the United States from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 1976) pp. 457, 483 as used in Table A.1 in Ronald Kline, Consumers in the Country: Technology and Social Change in Rural America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) p. 285.
[ iii ] These figures come from Electrical Merchandising and Radio Retailing, Appliance Specifications and Directory, Including Refrigerators and Radio Sets, 1936 (New York: McGraw Hill, 1936) as tabulated in Kline, Consumers in the Country, Table A12, p. 294.


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