Electrical In The 1940s

By Jim Olsztynski

The electrical trade arose pretty much in lockstep with plumbing. After Thomas Edison found a way to use electrical power to make light in 1879, his invention spread rapidly. By the end of the 1880s, small electrical power stations were in place in many major cities and by 1930 nearly 90% of urban households were plugged in, though only 10% of rural households were so lucky. The cost to bring power lines to remote farm homes was too expensive for private utility companies.

There are still a few old-timers around who remember what life was like without electricity. There were no electric lights, radios, TVs, air conditioners, washers and dryers, electric irons, and so many other electronic devices we take for granted. People living in households without electricity tended to awaken with the sunrise and go to bed at nightfall. What little nighttime activity they engaged in was lighted, barely, by kerosene lamps. Imagine trying to milk cows by kerosene light! Families heated water on a stove to take baths and wash clothes. Meals were cooked on the same stovetops, heated by burning coal or wood. A few enterprising farmers hooked up battery systems to run lights, a radio and a few crude appliances, but they were a small minority of rural households.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program included creation of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1935, and by 1939 the percentage of rural households with electricity had risen to 25%. This boon also gave rise to a big increase in rural indoor plumbing, because electricity made it possible to operate the pumps needed to circulate water indoors.

Despite resources being redirected to the war effort, REA progress continued throughout World War II. Farmers were exempted from the military draft because agriculture was considered a critical occupation, needed to feed both the military and civilian populations.

Electrical manpower shortages arose as electricians were put to work in shipyards, industrial plants and housing for both the military and an increasingly transient population of workers heading to where the jobs were. As with plumbers, electricians working on projects deemed critical to military needs were draft-exempt. Many other electricians were called to military service. Their ranks were replaced by retirees, teens and those deferred from the draft due to health problems or other reasons. At the end of 1942, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union reported membership of 240,000.

At this point a digression is in order to point to one of the most valuable resources discovered by your author in researching this subject. The IBEW has published a monthly magazine, The Electrical Worker, previously called The Journal of Electrical Workers and Operators, ever since 1893. Remarkably, each edition since then is archived online. This collection reveals a richly detailed history of the electrical trade union spanning government relations, technology, economic progress, and our evolving American culture. I skimmed various editions from the 1940s and learned much about life on the home front and organized labor’s perspective of that era. The scope of this article permits me to report only an occasional glimpse of that content. For anyone interested in more detail, you can spend a lot of time reading about the electrical trade’s history at www.ibew.org/media-center/IBEW-News-Media-Center/Archives.

IBEW’s publications reflect the universal patriotism of Americans during World War II. Yet at the same time they show that the politics of organized labor continued unabated. Here is one passage, excerpted from the August 1943 edition of The Journal of Electrical Workers and Operators, which nicely illustrates the confluence of patriotism and self-interest that motivated both labor and management during the war:

“THE INTERNATIONAL BROTHERHOOD OF ELECTRICAL WORKERS (original caps), by wise leadership and by the loyalty of individual members, is growing stronger each day despite the multiplicity of problems that face it during the war. Membership is increasing monthly and problems are being solved intelligently. It is well to recapitulate. Unionism is an index of democratic strength in any country. As fascism grows, unions diminish. It is to be believed, therefore, that America has its course well charted toward democracy as union strength increases. Despite the cheap, hostile opposition to unionism by clandestine conspirators who say one thing and do another, unionism goes forward in this country, and it should. Unionism is the best way yet formulated for common people to look after their own affairs, to gather strength, to register dissent, to cooperate with one another, to voice their aspirations, to seek a more just position in the national economy, and to carry on the eternal battle for human emancipation.”

The electrical home front: Most urban homes and apartment buildings were electrified by the 1940s and the average consumer enjoyed indoor lighting and rudimentary appliances such as radios. A form of wiring called “Knob & Tube” had become standard practice since about 1920. It was strung along wooden framing on ceramic knobs and run through lumber via ceramic tubes. Anyone who knows anything about combining electricity, heat and wood can tell this was inherently dangerous. By the 1940s electrical code changes led to safer practices.

As of 1943, the War Manpower Commission put 149 occupations in its critical list, stating: “Men with those skills who are not in essential industry at present should register with their local employment office and make themselves available to take essential jobs. If they do not agree to transfer when called, they will be subject to reclassification so that they will be available to the military forces which also need skilled men.” In other words, though exempted from the draft, electricians had to work where the government told them to or else serve in the military.

An interesting sidelight uncovered during my research was an upsurge in demand for protective lighting around industrial facilities. This was to protect against enemy sabotage and espionage, which was in the forefront of public concerns. “Loose lips sink ships” was a propaganda slogan devised by the War Advertising Council and a familiar sight on posters at defense plants and facilities. Electricians also went to work on air-raid systems and devising blackout procedures to prepare for attacks that were anticipated but thankfully never reached the United States mainland.

Fast-track construction of wartime factories often called upon electrical work to begin even before the drawings were completed, or with new construction superimposed on what was already built. Adequate lighting was deemed an important element to maximize production in factories. Electricians also found plenty of work with maintenance and repair in industrial plants running full tilt, often with 24-hour operations.

Even in defense work, material shortages plagued the electrical trade. A supplement to the 1940 National Electrical Code revealed new amendments to help electricians interpret existing Code rules in light of the materials shortage during the war. In the November 1942 issue, John M. Turnbull, service engineer for the United Electric Light Co., Springfield, Mass., reviewed these new provisions and illustrated important changes, starting with the scarcity of rubber.

“Rubber is too precious to be put onto ‘white’ wires intended for general use, and government orders now prohibit the use of rubber on grounded neutral conductors,” he wrote. “The NEC permits the use of AC systems, weatherproof braided wires, and emergency insulation as grounded conductors in any of the 0V to 600V Code wiring methods. This means wiremen can use them in cables, run them exposed as in open wiring, or pull them into raceways. The Code has approved bare conductors for use in open individual service drops. The shortage of copper will inevitably force the electrical industry to use whatever materials it can to transmit the maximum amount of power over minimum-sized conductors.”

After the war, a common problem faced by residential electricians of the era was undersized electrical systems. Small systems of less than 100 amps were common, as were two-prong ungrounded outlets.  This stemmed from an era when typical homes and apartments were tiny and electrical appliances few. Back then, it was common to put all the electrical needs of one room or even a couple of rooms on the same circuit. As households grew in size and more appliances came into use, the older circuitry became overtaxed. In kitchens, for example, lights might dim every time the compressor in the refrigerator kicked on. Postwar electricians got plenty of work helping to construct new homes and upgrade older ones.



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