"Creating the Ideal Home, 1800-1939: Comfort and Convenience in America"

Written by: Patrick Sheary DAR Museum Curator of Furnishings
October 22, 2013

Have you ever stopped and asked yourself, “How did technology play a role in people’s lives of the past?” After all, in today’s fast-paced world, the word “technology” often refers to digital devices. Only recently have we come to rely on these digital devices. In the past, say 150 years ago, people thought anything relating to a new invention, like the manual typewriter, cast iron heating stove or gas lamp was “technology” or even innovation. The idea for the exhibition “Creating the Ideal Home, 1800-1939: Comfort and Convenience in America” came from a discussion I had with a friend who found it hard to believe that the old manual typewriter could possibly have anything to do with technology. “Technology is about the digital world,” she exclaimed. I explained that most labor-saving devices we take for granted today, such as the electric light bulb, is an example of inventions and technological advancement. The electric light bulb didn’t just happen; it was the result of many experiments by many inventors. This conversation got me thinking about how people of the past viewed technology and the changes it brought.

I wondered how an exhibition could be planned that explained the important role technology played in the development of all sorts of non-digital devices. I began my search for historical technological objects not in museum storage, but in the period rooms. For instance, many types of early lighting are on view including candles, oil, gas and even electric lamps. The Oklahoma period room displays all types of cooking accessories for open hearth cooking available to the nineteenth century cook. There is even a sewing machine and a quilt sewn on one in the Texas period room.

Since the period rooms relate to the home, I felt that this exhibit should be developed with this as the theme. I chose to set the exhibit beginning in the year 1800 because the Industrial Revolution had just begun with inventions for heating and cooking already being developed. The exhibition ends with the World’s Fair of 1939 in New York City. This fair looked to the future with the debut of television to the public and the beginnings of the electronic age.   

There are around 70 objects in the exhibition that show how inventions made life at home easier and more comfortable. We didn’t have to go far for some objects since many came from the period rooms. Three important oil-burning lamps on exhibition can usually be seen in the Maine, Ohio and Alabama period rooms. Each shows advancements in lighting, from making the flame burn brighter to the elimination of cast shadows on a tabletop. Open hearth heating is represented by fireplace implements usually on display in the New York period room. Private collectors generously lent many of the “newer” items like the electric appliances and vacuum cleaners.    

On opening night, visitors told me of their favorite items like the electric stove made by Simplex Electric Heating Co. of Cambridge, Massachusetts around 1912. The unusual porcelain plug, high burners and grill amazed people. Mrs. Young told me her favorite items are the first electric toaster made by General Electric Co. in 1908 and the bellows vacuum called the Daisy Baby. Operating this manual vacuum required two people, one to pump the bellows with the long poles and another to maneuver the suction hose. Perhaps the old-fashioned broom was easier to use!

Curator General, Mrs. Rehnberg liked the coffee pot made by Carpenter Electric Heating Co. of Saint Paul, Minnesota between 1891 and 1896. This is the earliest electric cooking appliance known. Few people had electricity in the 1890s so the original purchaser must have been fascinated with the latest technology. The show-stopper was arguably the 1939 RCA television. Everybody wondered how people could actually watch a show looking at the TV screen reflected in a mirror.   

Visitors during opening night recalled how their grandmother used an electric mixer or early memories the family gathered around the radio. People then, as now, looked for ways in which to make life easier and more comfortable—and they didn’t even have an iPhone.       

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