America Off-The-Grid | living in the early 1900s | Before and after the grid
This was a period in history when people were mostly self- sufficient. Something that many are now striving to go back to today.
Even though electricity was being used in American cities in the early 1930s, it was not until much later and even into the 1950s that electricity was fully integrated in 94% of American households.
In 1935 the Rural Electric Administration (REA) was created to bring electricity to rural America, even then it was a very slow process that would span over the most of three decades.
Converting a home to electricity was very costly. People were still very leery of spending any money after going through or still struggling with such times as they did during the depression.
During this time people had to scrape by doing with what they had, either making, patching, repairing or repurposing items, or just doing without instead of buying anything new.
People were also Leery, many were just resistant to any change at all and just didn’t trust big business.
Most rural people were very set in their ways and rather stay with what they were use to.
Besides that electricity seemed way too dangerous to many, it was like having lightning striking a house.
Others with religious beliefs and even today people who are Amish won’t use grid electrical power.
There were some motivations for people to move to the grid such as having an electric refrigerator.
The real motivation to convert to grid power especially in the Southern regions probably came with the expansion of air conditioning in the 1950s.
Television also played a big role in electrification in the 1950s as families wanted this new magic box that would play picture shows in their living rooms. Besides it would save them the expense from having to travel into town and pay to see a picture show.
Living off gird during this period people could do fairly well with gas stoves, gas hot water heaters and hand operated kitchen tools and ice boxes.
Even washing machines could be run off a small gas powered engine, until the automatic spin cycle washing machines became wide spread into the late 50s and early 60s.
Up until the 1950s the only electrical entertainment needed or even available came from a battery operated vacuum tube radio located in the living room that could run off batteries. Those batteries could be charged by a wind generator such as the once popular Wingenerator.
The compact power plant provided by wind and battery power was also used for some DC lighting and some DC appliances made during this period just for these small home power units.
For lighting most used oil lamps or gas powered lamps piped directly to propane tanks.
Even after homes were electrified the electrical service was not considered very dependable. Most held on to their old ways as back up.
Rural electrical service was poorly designed. Wires were mostly ran on poles that were cut from cedar, locus or other disease resistant trees.
It would take several years of experimentation and design changes before electrical companies found ways to preserve poles from decay and to better install the electrical lines.
Electrical wires were attached to the sides of the poles using glass insulators to keep the wires from shorting out. Later they were spaced further apart on cross braces.
The stair stepped design of the glass insulators created a break in the water flow so that electricity couldn't travel on down the wet pole when it rained. But, the exposed un-insulated wires could be easily shorted out by a sagging or broken tree limbs.
Just a small windstorm could leave people without electricity for days and weeks as repair crews had to visually look for shorted and downed power lines.
Homes also had very limited electrical service, it terms of watts and amps, which at the time did fulfilled most all electrical needs.
Each room may have had only one light and one electrical outlet. The light would likely have consisted of a single exposed bulb hanging down from the center of the room with a simple wall mounted light switch or a switch mounted into the light socket.
The kitchen might have only two electrical plugs, one for the refrigerator and one located near the kitchen counter. If there was any electrical appliances in use, it would probably have been an electric toaster and a sunbeam stand mixer. One electrical plug was all that was really needed at the time.
The electric came into the house attached to insulators screwed into an exterior wall. The wires would run to either a single or double fuse block. The single fuse would provide the house with 110 volts, and if available in the area, the double fuse block would provide 220 volts.
These fuse blocks would be open and exposed leaving a very dangerous situation for families to be around.
The electrical systems were mostly wired into the house with a limited 30 Amp service and then branched off into a 20 Amp circuit or circuits.
Two single insulated #10 size copper wires from the fuse block would likely be ran directly through the main attic of the home.
The wires were separated about 10” apart to prevent them from rubbing together and creating an arc that could easily catch the house on fire.
The insulators also spaced the wire away from exposed wood rafters to help prevent them from catching on fire when the electrical lines became hot. Wires that ran through walls or joist would have ceramic tubes to insulate them from direct contact with the wood.
Additional wires would then tee off these main wires and run to the lights and wall plugs.
The insulation on the main wires would be cut back and the branch wires to an adjacent rooms would then be wrapped and tapped with not electrical box or other enclosure.
Homes that were built new during the period could have electrical wires and insulators installed inside the walls before they were finished.
Homes that were converted to electricity would likely have the wiring dropped down through the ceiling and then ran exposed on insulators down the walls to electrical switches and plugs.
This wiring would only carry the max of 20 Amps, which for the time was all that was needed to run a few lights, a fan and radio.
This old wiring method was called “Knob and Tube” with some of it still being used today, in older homes that have not been completely rewired. Google Knob and Tube wiring to learn more.
As more electrical items were added to the home, people began overloading the 20 Amp circuits and began blowing fuses.
Some became tired of being caught in the dark and either replaced the fuse with a larger one over 20 Amps or would stick a penny in behind the fuse to bypass it.
Without fuse protection the wires could become red hot and many times would catch combustible items surrounding them on fire.
As people advanced to more electrical use and appliances they began to push the boundaries of the 30 Amp service even more.
Most discovered that they could not operate many of the more popular electrical appliances until they had their house electrical service upgraded. An electrical dryer just by itself would use 30 Amps and an electrical stove would require 50 Amps.
Both appliances required 220 volts, meaning the house would also likely have to be converted to 220 volt service with a larger fuse box and more circuits.
Even in 1947 while 86% of American homes had electricity only 60% of rural homes were electrified.
The balance between city and rural balanced out in 1956 when 99% of American homes were electrified, 96% of those being farm homes.
What is most amazing is that these numbers are actually going back down as more people are moving back off-grid or reducing their energy dependence.
Many are converting back to home size wind power generator systems to charge a bank of batteries.
With the growing popularity of solar, manufactures and increased competition the cost of solar panels is also beginning to come down.
Even DC refrigerators and freezers are now becoming available, about double the cost of a traditional unit though with less storage capacity.
A deep well DC power pump is also available for rural homes.
With so many recent devastating storms and threats to the power grid people are also seeking out some of the old hand crank and human power tools which are still be made and used by the Amish.
Will we totally be able to live off grid again? We have become very dependent on the grid and while most electrical needs can be supplied by off grid means in combination with gas appliances. One sticking point remains is the good old cold A/C.
Air conditioning technology is improving to use less electricity but, in order to install a complete off grid system with enough power to run a modern home that will also power the A/C is still pretty cost prohibitive.
Who knows at one time we may have never dreamed that we could be talking on a completely wireless phone either.
Photos courtesy of Cottage Craft Works .com back to basics general store, with many off-grid and hand crank Amish products. www.cottagecraftworks.com