As the nineteenth century eased into the twentieth, America was in a manufacturing boom that began to create a consumer class. With new manufacturing methods came consumer-level products for the home. Among these products were floor sweepers, sewing machines and washing machines. Each delivered a marked improvement over the labor required previously, yet they were still human-powered.
By the 1910s, electric motors were being manufactured and put to work powering new appliances as well as replacing older ways of performing the same tasks in existing products. Now the Edwardian-era floor sweeper became the electric vacuum cleaner; an electric motor replaced the foot pedal on the sewing machine; and an electrical cord removed the need for heating an iron in a fire or loading it with hot coals before each use. New appliances that joined the consumer field included toaster ovens, toasters and refrigerators. Electricity was available in most locations as the 1920s arrived. The concerns about safety in the household from earlier decades was replaced with electricity’s promise of less drudgery. However, the relatively high cost of these new appliances restricted their widespread use; then, to make matters worse, the Great Depression took hold. Any boomer can tell you by way of The Three Stooges and The Little Rascals reruns that not everyone had electric refrigerators and appliances in the 1920s and 30s.
Entering the late 1930s, western countries were only beginning to pull out of the throes of the Depression when World War II came knocking at their door. Naturally, this put a significant crimp in consumer purchasing power as rationing and sacrifice were the order of the day and manufacturing factories were converted to wartime production.
So we see that the first chance for companies to fully enjoy the fruits of the Industrial Revolution was during the post-War boomer years. As soon as the war ended, companies took full advantage of the growing number of parents who willingly partnered with them to lay the foundations for the consumer-driven market of today. The American Dream was alive and well, and along with the perfect home came labor-saving electrical appliances.
Improving on older product designs and inventing new ones, manufacturers created dozens of appliances for home use. The advance of television, interrupted by the War, now moved into full gear as the Golden Age of Broadcasting was ushered in. New, modern home units would be necessary to receive the signals transmitted through the airwaves, and view the marvels that were the TV shows of our youth.
Even though all the ducks seemed to be in a row for manufacturers, a funny thing happened along the way. The new consumer class expected quality products that lasted. If and when an appliance broke down, a new category of workers was created to repair it rather than replace it. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense that our parents, having lived through tough financial times the entire first half of their lives, first with the Great Depression then with the War, would be frugal with their earnings as they became new parents themselves. Consequently, they didn’t rush out to buy the latest and greatest items as soon as they arrived. Instead, they did what their parents had done in their own families — fix whatever was broken themselves or have it repaired. The result was boomers walking around with darned socks and patched jeans (though now of the iron-on variety), radio and TV tubes were replaced and the toaster oven and hand mixer were taken into a repair shop for diagnosis and restoration.
More than likely, every boomer has a memory of going to a small appliance repair shop. They were busy places, usually of the storefront variety, with contraptions and parts scattered about and stacked to the ceiling on old wooden shelves. They were always run by men, and it always seemed that the repair would take a week — no matter what the problem.
Mister Boomer recalls trips to the repair shop via both the family car and walking the distance, with whatever the appliance was sitting in a little red wagon we dutifully pulled along. The shop seemed dark and dingy, and the man was dirty and not very friendly. Yet a magical alchemy was evidently performed there weekly as our appliances were returned, “good as new,” and with a 30-day warranty to boot.
As the 1960s edged toward the 70s, manufacturers were building planned obsolescence into their products even as the prices were coming down, so consumers could — and would have to — replace them more often. Manufacturers got an assist from boomer moms as they headed back to the workforce in heretofore unseen numbers, leaving less time for household chores. By the end of the 70s, the Disposable Era had begun in earnest and the steady decline of small appliance repair shops soon followed.
Do children today understand the history of why they now throw things away and buy new rather than repair the old? Perhaps it’s a lesson whose time has come. What do you think, boomers?