- Domesticating Electricity: Expertise, Uncertainty, and Gender, 1880–1914
The preeminence of electricity in the home was not inevitable, argues Graeme Gooday in this intriguing book. Locating his study “outside the sway of modernization theory,” the author rejects the deterministic quality of previous scholarship interpreting the “impact” of technology on the home. Influenced by Anthony Giddens and Clifford Geertz, the author embraces a “domestication” approach used in cultural studies to understand recent media technologies. Rather than ask how British homes were electrified, Gooday frames his study by asking why British householders chose to have electricity in their homes at all.
Gooday characterizes the domestication of electrification as a “two-fold process” that involved both the translation of electric lighting and power supply from the public world to the private home, and the “taming” of electric light and cooking for the purposes of adapting these power sources to the domestic order. This second aspect of the process required overcoming cultural uncertainties, including concerns about safety and aesthetics, about both arc and incandescent lighting.
The many “contingencies associated with the domestication of electricity” [End Page 935] (p. 220) are thus the subject of this investigation, which focuses on England, while making many useful comparisons to the United States. Most of the book is devoted to examining the cultural debates about electricity in the 1880s and 1890s, with a focus on the considerable efforts of promoters, entrepreneurs, and commentators who helped to demonstrate why consumers should have electricity in their homes. Through a close reading of the contemporary press, Gooday considers the class and gender identity of these historical actors and their audiences, and he reveals the technical and cultural work that a group of experts performed in creating a stable meaning—and market—for electricity in the home.
Domesticating Electricity calls attention to the large number of accidents caused by electricity in the late nineteenth century, and makes a convincing case for a resulting fear that provided a significant obstacle to electrical promoters. The examination of the diverse public response to a much-publicized death in 1881 of a domestic worker at the home of political celebrity Lord Salisbury provides a jumping-off point for Gooday to explore an array of technical, organizational, and cultural efforts—ranging from wiring regulations to theatrical productions featuring electrical fairies—to establish electricity as safe.
In one of the book’s most interesting examples, the author highlights a gendered conflict that was central to the introduction of electric light. While most men appreciated the brightness of incandescent light, many women objected to its glare. In response, in the early 1890s fixture companies hired women to design silk lampshades and find other aesthetic solutions. Alice Gordon, the wife of electrical engineer James Edward Henry Gordon, mounted a campaign to promote an idea of “decorative electricity.” She emerged as an influential female voice, guiding wealthy homeowners in a series of techniques to temper and soften incandescent lighting. Rather than push a modern or industrial look, Gordon emphasized strategies for making electric light appear more traditional. The story of Gordon’s campaign and its reception points to the idea that authorities and experts were often audience-specific, and offers a look at how individuals establish their authority as experts. Gooday’s thorough examination of the reception of Gordon’s book suggests that the issue of electrical aesthetics was a major one in its time. It also highlights the untidy, “nonconsensual” array of ideas about who was qualified to speak as an expert about domestic electricity and why.
There is great value to setting aside assumptions that electrification of the home was bound to happen, and Gooday does an excellent job at critically examining a process that many scholars have taken for granted. In contrast to David Nye’s Electrifying America (1990), this work points our attention away from effects of technological change on the home to paint a more complicated, gradual picture of the process by which engineers, [End Page 936] entrepreneurs, experts, and consumers together adapted electricity to the domestic environment. By uncovering sources...