Story+ Project

Joining the electric circus: rural electrification and gender in the papers of Louisan Mamer

(2020)

Between 1939 and 1941, representatives from the Rural Electrification Agency organized a carnivalesque roadshow designed to encourage families to purchase and use electrical appliances and other equipment in their homes and on their farms. A key audience of the roadshow was rural farm women, who were seen as equal partners in the effort of electrification — and who, the REA reasoned, needed to be shown the way to modernity through electricity. This Story+ project will draw on the Louisan E. Mamer Rural Electrification Administration Papers located at the Smithsonian National Museum for American History to examine how officials’ understanding of the gendered division of labor on American farms informed the tactics they used to encourage utilization of electricity. The overall goal of the project is to understand and share how assumptions about gendered labor influenced the electric circus’s programing, as well as collate any lessons learned for similar programs happening today.

Students will be asked to (at minimum) compile a report on their findings for the Duke University Energy Access Project, and there is also scope to create a podcast episode, or a brief documentary-style video. The Data+ project entitled, “Taking electrification on the road: Exploring the impact of the Electric Farm Equipment roadshow (1939-1941),” is a partner project to this one and may offer opportunity for collaboration with a data-driven team.

Skills undergrad:

Ability to read and synthesize information quickly and succinctly (required). Strong writing skills (required). Interest in relevant topics, such as technology, gender or energy (required). Interpretation of historical documents (preferable). Experience interpreting findings for intercultural contexts (e.g. what about findings is applicable or not) (preferable)

Project Sponsor(s): 

Victoria Plutshack, Policy Associate

Rob Fetter, Senior Policy Associate, Energy Access Project, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

Ashley Rose Young, Historian, Division of Work and Industry, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C..

Graduate Mentor(s): 

Ashton Merck, PhD, History

Undergraduates: 

Maddie Fowler, Abigail Phillips, Grace Sipp

Outcome: 

For Story+ 2020, the “Joining the Electric Circus” team conducted research on the role of gender in rural electrification using the Louisan Mamer Papers. These researchers had prior experience in scientific or quantitative work, but for many of them, this was their first experience working with archival sources. Because of the unusual circumstances, these researchers and leaders never met in person, and the researchers completed all of their work using digitized scans of archival material provided by the project leaders.

By the end of six weeks, the team produced:

  • a written report, titled “Beauty & Efficiency: The Modern Woman and Household Appliances in the REA Roadshow,” which gives an overview of the role of gender in the rural electrification programs of the 1930s United States, and is directed to social scientists and economists who study rural electrification programs today.
  • a draft script for a live cooking demonstration using a historical recipe that highlights the impact of electrical appliances on womens’ lives. The script will be sent to collaborators at the Smithsonian Institution for their potential use or repurpose for use in their own live cooking demonstration programming, “Cooking Up History” 
  • 2 original oral histories and interviews with home economists in North Carolina
  • a video presentation for the Story+ symposium that summarizes the script and features each researcher preparing the chosen recipe
  • 3 delicious lemon icebox pies!

Since the conclusion of Story+, the team has had an opportunity to present their findings to the Sustainable Energy Transitions Initiative, and one member received funding to pursue a follow-on microhistory project from the MicroWorlds Lab.

From Louisan E. Mamer Rural Electrification Administration Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Topic(s)

  • Environment
  • Women
  • Archives
  • Energy