The Gendered Provenance of an Electric Range

Electric Range

Simplex Electric Co. Electric Range, c.1910 CSTM Collections

By Dorotea Gucciardo

 

This range serves as an interesting entry point for a discussion about the early history of domestic electrification in Canada. It was manufactured in 1910 by the American-based Simplex Electric Company. Typical of the time, its materials include cast iron with cast metal hotplate-burners, and boasts handy features like an oven thermostat and individual temperature dials for each burner. More than just an electric cooker with oven, this range represents early twentieth century notions of scientific and technological progress, and embodies within it implicit assumptions about the nature of domestic work.

The Simplex Electric Range is the first generation of electric cooking technologies, and was part of Ontario Hydro’s Museum of Electrical Progress collection before transferred to the CSTM in 1992. The history of this particular artifact may be traced back to Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario, when the city’s lights were turned on for the first time, using power derived from Niagara Falls. The inaugural ceremony was organized by the Hydro Electric Power Commission (HEPC), which promoted power at cost for every residence in Ontario, and was born out of a public power movement that began in Berlin in 1902. So for the HEPC chairman, Adam Beck, the celebration was just as much about turning on the lights, as it was about marketing an electrical lifestyle.

Advertisements for subsequent generations of electric ranges promoted the electrical lifestyle as well. Often geared toward housewives, they promised that electric ranges would make “cooking an exact science from which chance [would be] practically eliminated.”[1] Cooking would become effortless, and with a lightened workload women could enjoy more leisurely pursuits. Some ads spoke to “the breadwinner”; they promised husbands that electric ranges would make perfect gifts, and ultimately serve a dual purpose: she gets to enjoy cooking and he gets to enjoy the results.

Perhaps fittingly then, it was not women who enjoyed the food cooked from ranges like the Simplex during the banquet in Berlin — out of the 500 people in attendance, only one was identified as a woman: the chairman’s wife.[2] Attendees were businessmen “representing nearly all portions of older Ontario,” presumably as a way for Beck to encourage sales of electric technologies, like the Simplex Range. Though housewives were the intended users of the range, the design, advertisement, and proliferation of the technology were the purview of men. And despite Beck’s promise to bring affordable power to all Ontarians, electric ranges remained expensive and out of the reach of most consumers until after the Second World War.[3] Thus, this Simplex Electric Range was not just an early twentieth century symbol of scientific and technological progress, it was also a status symbol — owned by a wealthy family with the means to outfit their kitchen with a modern power source, and perhaps even domestic staff to operate it, raising even more interesting questions about the social history of this particular artifact.


[1] “Electric Cooking in Western Provinces,” Canadian Electrical News 24, no. 15 (1 August 1915): 28.

[2]  “Niagara Power Inaugural Demonstration at Berlin,” The Globe, 12 October 1910, 1.

[3] Dominion Bureau of Statistics, Ninth Census of Canada, 1951, vol. 3, Housing and Families (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1953), 36-1–36-5.

The Gendered Provenance of an Electric Range