Willoughby: How to clean house when the witches run away with the brooms
Legends & Legacies
Electricity lit up Aspen’s streets and drove its mining equipment during the 1890s. Later, through the first decade of the 1900s, electricity eased the burden of chores at home. The Aspen Times ran a series of articles that touted the new inventions.
One of the first articles reported on the electric toaster, which came out in 1908. “It only takes three minutes to prepare two nice browned slices from the time the current is turned on.”
In 1909 the title of an article hinted at a range of electrical comforts, “A house without a broom or a match and without coal and gas.” The story claimed that electrical power would take care of all the cooking. “It has already proven itself cleaner, quicker and more effective than any other kind of heat for culinary work.” With a small motor, such as one on a mixer stand, electricity would energize “coffee grinding, meat and food chopping, egg beating, cream whipping, cake mixing, butter churning, grating, ice chopping, cream freezing, noodle cutting and vegetable paring.”
During that era, men held most door-to-door sales jobs. But in 1909 the New York Vacuum Cleaner Agency recruited women to sell vacuum cleaners in Aspen. Blakemore’s, a local store, sold and rented vacuum cleaners.
In 1911 some people thought of electricity as a magical substance to be feared. An explanation in The Aspen Times, which described the relationship of hydroelectric power and cooking, fell on the muddled side of clarity. “It is not the water, exactly, that cooked the cereal, boiled the steak or made the toast — it is the water power converted into electricity and the electricity changed into the heat which actually did the culinary trick.” Aspen’s residents may have developed a more intuitive understanding of that relationship. In plain view, the town’s hydroelectric plant had produced electricity for nearly two decades.
That same year another column in the series featured the electric flatiron. “Thousands of housewives” loved the iron, the story reported, because it “gets hot upon the instant and stays hot until the ironing is done.” Before electricity, people heated heavy irons on the wood stove. The heat did not last long enough to press many clothes. People would place the cool iron back on the stove and take care of other chores while it reheated.
By the early 1920s electricity reigned. A Tomkins Hardware ad featured a range of electrical appliances. An electric sewing machine cost $50 ($543 in 2019 dollars). For about double that you could buy “the one–minute washing machine.” More affordable items, but still expensive compared to today’s imports from China, included an electric coffee percolator for $10 ($108), and toasters and irons for $5 ($54).
December’s Tomkins ad listed one more item that demonstrated the invasion of electricity into cultural life: Christmas tree lights. Edward Johnson, who worked for Thomas Edison, had created the first string for his own home in 1892. Around 1900, retail stores began to use electrical lights for Christmas displays, but they remained too expensive for most families.
Within a generation, costs had come down and colorful electric bulbs had replaced traditional candles on the tree. How long would it be until the long dark nights of Aspen’s winter twinkled with fantastic strings of outdoor flashing lights?
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.