by Sheila Connolly
This past weekend my community lay smack in the path of the Blizzard of 2013. I wasn't worried about the house: it has weathered plenty of storms before (including the disastrous Hurricane of 1938), and we'd just had a new roof installed and any hanging tree limbs removed, to make our insurance company happy. What I wasn't prepared for was living without the benefits of power for a couple of days.
Most middle-class citizens in the United States are used to their electric-powered creature comforts, like lights and television and dishwashers. Of course we can survive without them (as long as we're not stupid enough to burn down the house or collapse from carbon monoxide poisoning from unventilated generators or gas stoves), but we've lost the knack of managing things like light and heat.
When my house was built, around 1870, it had a coal furnace and gas lighting. Any time we renovate, we find the gas pipes (no longer connected, I assure you) behind walls and running between floor joists. The heating was passive: you stoked up the furnace and let the hot air rise, without benefit of fans or pumps—and you fed the furnace by hand from the bin in the basement. Temperature regulation consisted of opening or closing a vent using a simple chain and pulley system which ran from the living areas through the floor to the basement.
Municipal electric power didn't arrive in my town until the 1890s. This house was close enough to the center of town that electrical connections probably came early, but electricity initially was used sparingly within the house. We still have a fuse board in the basement (no, not connected to anything) with a handful of circuits, one of which was devoted solely to the toaster (the label is still there). Rooms had one or two outlets at most. I'm still amused by one in the dining/sitting room, where the plug is smack in the middle of the floor, presumably for a table lamp.
But what coping with a storm drives home to a writer is how hard it would have been to read before electric power. Assuming, of course, that you wanted to read, but the dim light would have made it equally difficult to do anything useful like mending clothes or darning socks. Admittedly I'm talking about urban or suburban dwellers—there are good reasons for farmers to retire when the sun goes down. Farming is hard work.
But, gentle readers, imagine reading a book by the light of a flickering fire or an oil lamp or candle. Try it yourself: it's not easy. The problem is compounded because the print in books and newspapers back in the day was ridiculously small, made worse by the fact that corrective lenses were not necessarily available or accurate, even with Ben Franklin's invention of bifocals in 1784. It goes a long way to explain why people read out loud: one person, perhaps the one with the best eyesight or the best spectacles, claimed the seat closest to the light source and read for the benefit of the gathered family. The added benefit was that everyone remained in a single room for this pastime, which meant you could get away with heating only that room. It was kind of efficient, if you think about it.
One small loss associated with the decline of this mode of entertainment: ladies' poetry. There was a time when newspapers or magazines needed content, and many a gentlewoman could pen a pretty piece that would be printed. No doubt there were strict conventions (not unlike contemporary genre fiction): limitations in subject matter, language, length, and so on. Sad subjects were allowed so long as they were uplifting. Humor was permitted, as well as some elements that we would consider politically incorrect these days, like ethnic caricatures. But I would venture to guess that most pieces were constructed so that a family could share an edifying moment together by the warm fireside and retire happily.
I was very happy when our power returned!
And one very happy announcement: my newest release, Buried in a Bog, is #14 on the New York Times Mass Market Bestseller list!