A ramble through domestic history in the 20th Century
In 2015 we are busy worrying about green energy – being eco friendly – trying to save money in the face of soaring energy costs. In the 1920s things were no simpler. Householders were facing a changing world where there were new options of gas or electric for cooking, heating rooms and water, and even lighting wasn’t electric by default.
Of course the new methods of energy had plenty of detractors, claiming they were dangerous or unhealthy, or both. A browse through adverts of the time is interesting because there are as many traditional coal ranges – or kitcheners – and fires on the market as those for the new fuels. An important reason for that is that electricity supplies were fragmented and mainly in towns and cities – the national grid did not being operation until 1933. Gas also is not ubiquitous, but more widely available than electricity – simply because its been around so much longer.
It was not purely an issue of availability – cost for electricity varied hugely from supplier to supplier (no change there then!) and people could also find there was one charge for the lighting circuit and another, often much more expensive, for power. Consequently, although where it was available electricity was winning the battle for lighting, it was much less popular for cooking and rarely used for heating except for small areas. This two-tier charging also impacted how the electricity in the home was installed. Plenty of houses would just have a lighting installation – no sockets – so if they wanted any electric appliances, they had to plug them into the lights. To us today that seems crazy and dangerous, but it was quite normal practice and went on for decades.
This was also a time when the early cookers were just starting to take on features that we take for granted now – the regulo was a new innovation of this time – people were only just starting to be able to set their ovens to a fixed temperature and having it stay there with no intervention, and the glass door so people could check the cooking without opening the oven up was also new.
For the people out in the country, beyond the reach of mains electric there was hope – as long as they had plenty of cash – there were numerous devices out there so they could generate their own electricity. They were advertised for “country house”, literally meaning houses in the country of all sizes, rather than with the modern implication of something large and posh – but in reality they were expensive, so unlikely to be a realistic option for most normal people, so for these people plenty of coal fires and ranges were still being freshly installed.
Of course the coal fire is cosy and comforting so it was hard to let go of even for those with all mod cons. Even electric fires and gas fires were most commonly designed as mock fires, and people were still working on modernising and engineering the perfect efficient coal fire.
With all this, even central heating was an option – although not common – but in these days heating and water were not considered all of a piece and boiler to heat radiators would usually be separate from a boiler to heat water. A “duplex” system that did both was possible, but something of a novelty. Interestingly a single source of hot water was not as ubiquitous as you might expect – although when coal or coke was still used then for practicality an independent boiler might well be used – but for gas users the geyser was often the water heater of choice – a small house might have one in the bathroom and one in the kitchen, separately heating the water in each location. A “distributing geyser” was available but less common than smaller separate ones.