Converting to Electricity: Irish Housewives in the 1960s
By Ciara Meehan, University of Hertfordshire
Electric rings, electric kettles and electric coffee pots were in much demand in April 1961 as the Evening Herald reported that Dublin housewives were preparing for a ‘kitchen emergency’. Although domestic consumption of electricity had increased steadily from the 1950s, many homes still relied on gas appliances. So when strike notice was served on the Dublin Gas Company, Dublin housewives began to prepare themselves for temporary disruption to the pattern of their daily life.
While the threat of a strike might have been the immediate cause of some housewives turning to electric appliances, there were a number of other factors that led women to embrace electricity in the 1960s. ESB had been actively campaigning to educate people about the benefits of electricity in the home since the 1930s and had opened its first all-electric demonstration house in late 1934. But it was the growth in economic prosperity in the 1960s that led to the emergence of a consumer society in which the purchasing power of middle-class women was directly targeted by advertisers.
Woman’s Way and other Irish women’s magazines provided a picture of modern living, centred on the kitchen, which had been facilitated by electricity, piped water and technological advancements. Their pages were filled with advertisements for items – washing machines, electric cookers, refrigerators, dishwashers, electric whisks, vacuum cleaners, electric irons, etc – that promised to modernise lives, give women back hours in the day and create new opportunities (such as hosting dinner parties). These Irish publications were part of a worldwide trend in women’s magazines that presented the electrified house as the norm. As work had begun to connect rural Ireland to the electricity grid in 1946, the divisions between urban and rural living were blurred. (For more on the origins of the electrification programme, see Deirdre McParland’s post here).
The magazines not only carried advertisements for refrigerators, but also published featured articles on how owning one could transform the housewife’s life. Woman’s Way ran ‘The New Approach to Home Life’ in the June 1963 edition of the magazine. Over several pages, readers were shown how the housewife and her new fridge were ‘going to be very close friends’. The feature included ‘dos and don’ts’ tips on using the refrigerator, a recipe page entitled ‘Cooking with a refrigerator in the background’ and a spread on the different types of fridges available, depending on the size of the kitchen.
Monica Sheridan’s Monica’s Kitchen was one of the defining Irish cookbooks of the 1960s. The content was punctuated with pictures of kitchen layouts, one of which was captioned ‘Modern cookers have revolutionised our kitchens’. According to models advertised in women’s magazines, the various merits of electric cookers included an automatic timer that would switch the oven on, leaving a woman free to go about her day, and the labour-saving benefits of electric cookers that could be ‘wipe[d] clean in a whisk’. ESB advertised benefits to men, as well as women. The clean nature of electric cooking meant the husband would spend less time freshening up the kitchen — and what husband wouldn’t want that?!
In 2012, the then Irish Times editor Geraldine Kennedy asked the participants of a roundtable on feminism what invention changed their lives the most. Mamo McDonald – a former president of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association who was born in 1929 – replied without hesitation, the washing machine. It’s hardly surprising that a 1971 survey of the attitudes and opinions of housewives towards the design of new houses found that plumbing for automatic washing machines was one of the three most popular kitchen fittings for which respondents said they would be willing to pay extra. These machines, facilitated by electricity and piped water, freed women from the drudgery of fetching and boiling water and hand washing each item individually.
There were clear, practical benefits to owning electric goods, and it can be easily understood why housewives converted to electricity. But there was continuity amid change: despite all the emphasis on progress and modernity in the marketing of these electric-powered technologies, the sub-text of the advertisements reinforced traditional expectations of housewifery — maintaining the home.
Electric Generations: The Story of Electricity in the Irish Home will be at dlr LexIcon in Dún Laoghaire, Dublin from 2 October until 2 December 2017 and at the Irish World Heritage Centre in Manchester in spring 2018. Learn more about Ciara and the Electric Generations team here.
 Caitriona Clear, Women’s Voices in Ireland: Women’s Magazines in the 1950s and 60s (Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 20.
 Feature on modern cooking, Woman’s Way, 25 November 1966.
 Advertisement for GEC Estate, Woman’s Choice, 7 October 1969.
 Quoted in The Irish Times, 15 December 2012.
 Anthony C. Cunningham, ‘New Homes: Housewives Likes and Dislikes’, Business Research Report No. 3 (November 1971), p. 6.