Culture · Industrial Revolution · Technology

Little Things Mean a Lot

Here’s how two specific products of the Industrial Revolution affected the way we live our lives and how we feel about what we do.

When electricity was brought into the home it enabled the darkness to be dispelled with the flick of a switch. Along with the invention of the light bulb, came the introduction of electric lamps. Not only did the replacement of the smelly messy whale oil with a light bulb give us more time to do what we wanted to do, it meant that the lamps now moved to the wall where they could attach to the outlets. This meant that gradually the center table lost its usefulness as a place where the family gathered around a single light source to listen to one person (usually the father) read and where they talked to each other and interacted face to face.

Researchers examining Civil War diaries are struck by the literary quality of the letters sent home by uneducated young men. The reason, of course, is that they absorbed the rules of writing by hearing well-constructed sentences read aloud night after night.

Now with the lamps beside a chair near the outlet, family members could privately pursue their own interests.

The light bulb made electric lamps possible

Then there was running water and city sewer systems, which brought the toilet inside the house. Heretofore going to the toilet was hardly a secret because the outhouse was always located as far from the house as possible. Women could be clearly seen making their way to the outhouse. (Imagine poor women having to deal with a hoop skirt and ankle length skirts using a 3-holer. Also they no doubt suffered some pretty uncomfortable moments trying to “hold it” at a party. Medical literature of the time indicates they even suffered medical consequences at times because they delayed having bowel movements for days.)

With the toilet inside, toilets could be strategically located behind several closed doors, and going to the toilet became more of a private event. (Women actually crocheted toilet lid covers to block the noise of someone putting the seat down.) This attitude persists to this day as architects design homes with the bathroom behind several closed doors and as far as possible from the public rooms where one entertains guests.

4 thoughts on “Little Things Mean a Lot

  1. I love your insights here Mary. Kids holed up on their own ‘devices” is the direct result of the electric light bulb! Ha haha. But it’s true, for better or worse. Xoxo Cass



  2. I really enjoyed your article Mary. I heard that when the first time electric light switches was added to the White House, First Lady Caroline Harrison was terrified to use them. When I visited Cape May, N.J., a tour guide told us when “modern” bathrooms were added to Victorian homes, they were actually built as adjoining rooms or sheds (although still attached to the main house), because people were concerned about having a “privy” so close to their living quarters. They considered it “unhealthy.” It’s funny to think that the Victorians were afraid of the modern conveniences we now enjoy…and take for granted!
    **From the website: “President Benjamin Harrison and First Lady Caroline Harrison refused to operate the switches because they feared being shocked and left the operation of the electric lights to the domestic staff.”

    Sam Ramirez


  3. I’m all about the private toilet. Having been married now for a good long while, I have come to the conclusion that the secret to a happy marriage is separate bathrooms. As for electric light, it is very hard to imagine life without it. In the apartment I lived in in Jackson Heights, NY, there were gas lines in the ceiling. I assume they had gas lighting when the place was built in 1919. Seems kinda dangerous…


  4. I have often wondered how the ladies managed these things before the 20th century, especially those who lived in crowded cities. Somehow they never cover these things in period movies.
    I do know about the evening book reading. In my used book store we often receive series of books from one author, like Dickens, which were relatively inexpensive. Their advertisements indicate that they were intended for “family home reading.” What do you suppose people in 2121 will think of our primitive style of living.


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