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Electricity and the End of the Outhouse


Although nearly 90 percent of urban households had electricity by the 1930’s, only 10 percent of rural households had access. The cost to bring power lines to remote farm homes was too expensive for private utility companies, so the government stepped in to help with the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1935.

At the time the REA was passed, electricity was commonplace in cities but largely unavailable in farms, ranches, and other rural places. Representative John E. Rankin and Senator George William Norris were supporters of the REA, which was signed into law by Roosevelt on May 20, 1936.

Technical Issues

In the 1930s, the provision of power to remote areas was not thought to be economically feasible. A 2300 volt distribution system was then used in cities. This relatively low voltage could be carried only about 4 miles before the voltage drop became unacceptable. REA cooperatives used a 6900-volt distribution network, which could support much longer runs, up to about 40 miles. Despite requiring more expensive transformers at each home, the overall system cost was manageable.

Wiring Homes and Farms

REA crews traveled through the American countryside, bringing teams of electricians along with them. The electricians added wiring to houses and barns to utilize the newly available power provided by the line crews. A standard REA installation in a house (post World War II) consisted of:
A 60 amp, 230 volt fuse panel, with:
1. A 60-amp range circuit
2. A 20-amp kitchen circuit
3. Two or three 15-amp lighting circuits

A ceiling-mounted light fixture was installed in each room, usually controlled by a single switch mounted near a door. At most, one outlet was installed per room, since plug-connected appliances were expensive and uncommon. Wiring was performed using type NM (nonmetallic sheathed cable), insulated with asbestos-reinforced rubber covered with jute and tar. Many of these original installations still exist today, though most have been augmented to support a greater number and variety of appliances.
Within just four years, 25 percent of rural homes had electrification. By 1942, 50 percent of home did. By 1959 ninety percent of farm homes in the U.S. were electrified, compared to three percent in the early 1930s.

With electricity, of course, came the toilet.


Helen Bolton says before electricity her family only took baths once a week on Saturday nights. Several members of the family were forced to use the same bathwater. REA loans changed all of this because they provided for both the installation of electrical and plumbing appliances in homes. Once electricity was installed, families could now pull water up from wells and pump it through their home. This included indoor bathrooms, running water for baths, washing dishes and cloths. Families now had the luxury of using a warm bathroom. These amenities dramatically changed work and life on the farm. Indoor plumbing was a revolution in rural life. Public health also improved with running water as pits under outhouses were filled in.

Later Amendments.

In the years after most of rural America electrified, the REA continued working to bring telephone lines and later broadband Internet connections to the countryside. This included:

• 1944 – loan terms increased to 35 years the act is made permanent.
• 1949 – extended the act to allow loans to telephone companies wishing to extend their connections to unconnected rural areas.
• 1993 – Provisions to restructure the direct loan programs for rural electricity, telephone cooperatives, and energy conservation market.
• December 8, 1993 – “North American Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act” – The “Buy American” provision to now include Mexico and Canada.
• 2008 – Provisions for access to rural broadband telecommunications network and rural internet
• 2014 – Pilot program for rural gigabit broadband network

So today you can thank the federal government that you are no longer trekking through the cold at night with a lantern in your hand to the outhouse. You can also thank them for the electricity you enjoy, warm running water and many other amenities we have today because of the REA and President Roosevelt.

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