Monday, November 1, 2010

Percentage of Rural Farm Homes with Four Technologies, 1930-1950

Hey, check out this chart. Who knew that 12 numbers could have so many fascinating implications? Bear in mind this was true locally too--Augusta Township, Ypsi Township, Superior Township.
First of all, did you try to guess the four technologies? Did you get them all right? I got one wrong. Instead of "telephone," I guessed "sewer system." But I shouldn't have, since this is from a book called Out of the Dark: A History of Radio and Rural America, by Steve Craig. I checked it out from Halle Library--yes, you, fellow average non-student Ypsilantian, can get a FREE library card at Halle! And check stuff out! When I found that out I was like JESUS I just got A WHOLE NEW LIBRARY!!! They charge you an arm and both legs to do that at U-M. But I digress.

1. Amazingly, car and telephone ownership is pretty much steady over these two decades. Why is this so? Well, of course, because cars became available shortly after the turn of the century, so by 1930 they were an established technology. Same with telephony.

2. But wait, why is electricity different? Like telephony, electricity also requires a wiring infrastructure (and as a commercial technology is roughly the same age as telephony). Yet as you can see the vast majority of rural residents wanted electricity--it really caught on as the rural infrastructure kept expanding post-war. Telephones, not so much. Why is this? With a telephone you could save the life of someone who just got injured on your farm. Wouldn't that be the vital, demanded thing?

3. And strangest of all, the least practical technology of all in terms of getting things done in daily life is the most wildly popular. Just look at that adoption rate soaring. And radios were EXPENSIVE---console radios were priced at what is comparable to larger plasma TVs today, hundreds to over a thousand dollars when you adjust for inflation. (There were smaller, cheaper radios too of course). Here are two examples that were on sale in Ypsilanti in 1932. Why would a practical subsidence farmer waste money on this frippery?

4. Comparing telephone and electricity again, it's interesting to note that the initial adoption rates of these two roughly contemporaneous technologies vary. This may be due to a number of reasons, but I'm guessing one big one was that the rural demand for electricity was initially not as strong. After all, rural residents got by previously with daylight and kerosene lamps. Absent a houseful of electric appliances, electricity does not add anything new per se. But the telephone does, so perhaps a larger group was initially willing to pony up for it.

5. Last, a mere seventeen years before DD was born, a 62% majority of homes in areas like Augusta Township did not have a phone. Contrasted to today, that is astonishing. How were people's lives changed by this absence, compared to today? Were their minds quieter? Were their lives calmer? Did things move more slowly? What else might have been different?

What strikes you about this intriguing chart?


Fritz said...

I was wondering what they were listening to... Wikipedia says the radio drama "The Shadow" ran from 1937 to 1954.

Dusty D said...

Here are a bunch of them you can peruse and listen to for free!

Dusty D said...

...and here's a complete list of the available shows, just to browse for a flavor of what was out there.

jml said...

In all three decades, more people had radio than electricity. Were they crystal sets? Did they have to turn a crank? Were battery radios available?

That meshes well with your theory about phones - radios had an advantage, without needing the full infrastructure of electricity.

Dusty D said...

jml: My husband pointed that out too; it's a good observation. I do not know. But if I find out after reading this book, as I hope to, I'll definitely post an update.

Russ said...

I've gotten hooked to the old radio shows from the 1930's & 40's. We can listen to radio at work on our computers. I found a favorite station on the radio option of the iTunes application. (Mac or PC). It's in the "Eclectic" Stream. AM 1710 Antioch. on the web. They have a blend of all types of old shows throughout the day. Comedies are my favorite which are mostly in the mornings. There's other old time stations in the group too but Antioch is my favorite. My co-workers make fun of me but it's almost like being able to watch TV while I work. It's SO entertaining! After you listen for a while you get to know the characters and look forward to the shows and the variety. They try to keep the dates current. If it's November 6th, you'll be listening to shows that aired on 11/6 in the 30's or 40's. Plus, all the original commercials are included. You should hear the way war time rationing effected American life and the cigarette ads are unbelievable! The stars of the shows making a personal pitch for the sponsors. Buy a carton of smokes as Christmas presents and Doctors giving testimonials about a brand being better than others! Hope you enjoy as much as I do!


Dusty D said...

Wow, Russ, what a great tip! Thank you for the URL! I will definitely check this out and report back; I appreciate it!