Research Seminar: New Business from Old Houses - Promoting Electricity through Home Alteration in Progressive Era Philadelphia

Research Seminar: New Business from Old Houses - Promoting Electricity through Home Alteration in Progressive Era Philadelphia

Amanda Casper of the University of Delaware will discuss her paper, “‘New Business from Old Houses: Promoting Electricity through Home Alteration in Progressive Era Philadelphia.”

Author's abstract for the seminar paper:

In 1910, only 31,000 households (less than 11 percent of Philadelphia homes) had electricity. Lamenting the slow rate of adoption, industry promoters perceived that they had a lot of prejudice to overcome not only about the safety of electricity and the wiring that carried it, but even the basic process of wiring an old home, which many considered messy and disruptive. For electricity marketers, owners of old homes presented a two-fold problem: advertisers needed to sell the convenience and comforts of electricity yet minimize the inconvenience of getting it. To cultivate these customers, PECO (supported by national trade organizations) supplemented their marketing material with the visual and verbal rhetoric of home alteration. Promoters also made great effort to explicitly describe the technical details of the wiring installation, all the while portraying it a clean, friendly process. Between 1906 and 1916, the Philadelphia Electric Company (PECO) developed and honed its marketing approach for customers in old homes, culminating with the 1916 “wire-your-home campaign.” This campaign became the model used after WWI to get home wiring business.

The wire-your-home campaign was a new approach to selling home alteration that integrated nearly every step of a consumer’s alteration project into the company’s business operations, including planning, financing, equipping, and installing. Corporations like PECO already familiar with vertical integration enacted this approach to nullify most of the concerns of home owners, and at the same time it allowed PECO to manage and profit from the entire process. Key to this approach was a deferred payment plan, which allowed customers to buy a wiring project on credit just as they would a piano or automobile. The complete integration of a home alteration project into a corporate structure serves as a lens to understand how business models of vertical integration and broader corporatization trends during this period manifested in the more intimate home setting.

The seminar is open to the public and is based on a paper that is circulated in advance. Those planning to attend are encouraged to read the paper before coming to the seminar. Copies may be obtained by emailing Carol Lockman, Reception at 6 p.m., seminar begins promptly at 6:30 p.m., and takes place in the Copeland Room of Hagley’s library building.

Read more about Hagley Research Seminars here.