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7 - Personifying Electricity: Gendered Icons of Uncertain Identity

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Summary

In the last seventy years or so […] the new facts discovered have been so numerous and remarkable, their applications so curious and important, that electricity has been compared to a kind fairy, of whom it was only necessary to ask miracles to have them realised.

Edmund Atkinson, Natural Philosophy, 1872.

…there are persons who will not fail to warn us that we shall be blown sky-high, or shrivelled up to a cinder some day, if once we let such a mysterious stranger into our houses.

Ascott R. Hope, Wonders of Electricity, 1881.

From the 1880s to the 1920s, electricity was personified in remarkable range of literary and iconographic forms in industrial cultures across Europe and North America. Just as the ‘what is electricity?’ debate was more or less coextensive with the arrival of electricity in everyday public life, the flourishing pictorial culture of anthropomorphized electricity was also more or less coextensive with attempts to domesticate electricity in the home. Just as there were many mutually incompatible answers to the question ‘what is electricity?’, the promoters and popularizers of the electrical life generated an extraordinarily diverse and dissonant array of quasi-human forms in which to present electricity. While indicative of the fertile yet elusive character of this mysterious agency, the more important point for this book is that the effort of producing recognizably human images of electricity in this period was clearly tied to the project of presenting electricity as a congenial presence in the home – rather than a perturbing ‘mysterious stranger’.

This final chapter extends the theme of a gendered visual culture of electricity explored in the previous chapter by mapping the diverse sources and forms of electrical personification, both male and female. In contrast to much extant scholarship on this topic I show that this iconography was not necessarily dominated by female forms (fairies, angels, servants goddesses etc.), nor necessarily always sexualized.

Type
Chapter
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Domesticating Electricity
Technology, Uncertainty and Gender, 1880–1914
, pp. 197 - 218
Publisher: Pickering & Chatto
First published in: 2014

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