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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Survey after survey of farm men and women between the wars revealed that modernization seemed a very mixed blessing to them. Well, yes, making work easier and incomes higher, that would be a very good thing—but changing everything about the way we work, day in and day out, well, that’s not quite so attractive. Here’s one telling example out of many: when farm women were asked what appliances they most wanted to purchase, electric ranges (like the one in Hazel Parkinson cooked that roast) and refrigerators were almost always at the bottom of the list. The reasons for this low priority were complex but, interestingly enough, not always primarily related to the price of the appliances. Many farm women liked to cook and did not regard cooking on wood or coal burning stoves as especially taxing, since someone else had to deal with the heavy lifting of fuel and ashes. Cooking on such a stove was very skilled work; farm women were proud of their skills and looked forward to passing those skills on to their daughters; electric ranges did not require nearly as much skill. Most important of all, no electric range on the market was large enough for the important work of canning. Canning, of course, was the way in which farm women and girls preserved farm produce for off season use. If you were canning and if you had a few dairy cows, well then, why would you need a refrigerator? Some farm women told the survey takers that they would rather have electric incubators for chicks than ranges or refrigerators; more chicks meant more chicken and eggs to sell on the market, more income for the family—without anyone having to leave the farm to go out to work. Others women said they wanted their husbands to purchase tractors instead of kitchen appliances. With a tractor fewer hired hands would be needed; this would lower the number of mouths to be fed at dinner time. The labor of cooking and serving would be reduced while family privacy would be enhanced—and there would be no alteration in the traditional allocation of work roles.[ v ]

All these surveys led to the same, crucial conclusion. Reasonably prosperous farmers, people who had managed to hold on to their farms during the Depression, people who had decided to stay on their farms when their neighbors had given up and headed for the city-- the very people that Power in the Land depicted, the audience that it was made to attract--these people wanted to modernize without disrupting their traditional way of life; they wanted what we might call conservative modernization.

All of which helps to explain why Hazel Parkinson looks pleased, but not enthusiastic, about her new electric range. It also explains why the filmmakers spent so much time, money and energy insuring that the Power in the Land would be both beautiful and respectful of the traditional, hard-working patterns of farm life. The film had to convey the impression that modernization could be accomplished without destroying tradition. It had to emphasize the positive aspects of modernization--improved health, better opportunities for education, more leisure for everyone, less physically taxing labor-- while simultaneously ignoring the negative aspects, which were very much on everyone’s mind during those Depression years: the deskilling of work, the devaluing of manual labor, less need for children to respect and learn from their parents; less need for parental co-operation and co-ordination. Farm men and women knew about these negative aspects, they knew from listening to the radio, from reading their newspapers, from corresponding with friends and relations who had moved away. Power in the Land had to work hard to counter those negative messages about modernization.

Like Hazel Parkinson who couldn’t bring herself to smile unabashedly (and who, one of her grandchildren recalled, went right back to using her wood burning stove after the film crews had departed) American farmers were going to be a skeptical audience for the REA message. Power in the Land needed to be beautiful—and to honor the special qualities that conservative farmers cherished about their way of life--in order to be persuasive.

[ v ] These surveys of rural women’s attitudes are discussed in Jellison, Entitled to Power and in Kline, Consumers in the Country. Both books have tables which demonstrate that rural households most resisted the appliances which would alter household work patterns the most. The two most popular appliances on farms in the 1930s were, significantly, irons and radios.

Ruth Schwartz Cowan is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She is an historian of science, technology and medicine, whose scholarship focuses on many aspects of the relationship between technological change and gender. She is the author of several books and many articles, including More Work for Mother; The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. For more information, see her web site at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/hss2/hss/faculty/fc_cowan.html


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