Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

02.07.13

American Household Gadget Exceptionalism

The things we take for granted took decades to arrive elsewhere

The BBC has a fascinating little look at gadgets of yesteryear.  I found this picture particularly fascinating because of the description that comes with it:  

130207-mcardle-dishwasher
A woman demonstrates the Colston dishwasher on November 18, 1959. (Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society Picture Library)

"A new archive from website historypin.com, in collaboration with npower and Mirrorpix, is collecting pictures from the past. This 1960s dishwasher by Charles Colston Ltd cost 85 guineas. The first dishwasher was patented in 1886 by Josephine Cockrane, but was taken up only by businesses because of the amount of hot water required to run it. Home dishwashers became more common in the 1970s." says the BBC blurb.  The 1970s!  At least a decade behind US housewives.  

But I knew this was true.  Data on household appliance dispersion shows dramatic differences between the US and Britain in the penetration of household conveniences.  In most cases, new inventions show up at the same time in both places (or within a few year.  It took until 1938 for 50% of American households to install a refrigerator.  According to Bowden and Offer--though I confess that I find this hard to believe--Britain achieved that same feat 30 years later.  Then there is more qualitative research, such as contemporary fiction.  Here's an exchange from Neville Shute's The Far Country, published in 1952.  

“It was good of you to come round,” he said. He came with me to the front door, and then he stopped me just as I was going out to the car. “There’s just one thing I wanted to ask you, if you could spare a minute  …”

“Of course,” I said.

He hesitated. “I wonder if you could tell me where you got that hot-water-heater? Are they very expensive things?”

“Why, no. They’re very cheap. I don’t know what they cost to buy outright, but you can hire them from the electricity company, you know. We hire ours. I forget what it costs— something quite small. Two bob a quarter, or something like that.”

“Really— so little as that? They’re very useful, aren’t they? I mean, with one of those you’ve got hot water all the time.”

“That’s right,” I said. “We couldn’t do without ours. You can get a big one for the bath, you know.”

“Can you!” He paused in thought.

Of course, the character saying all this is supposed to be rather unwordly . . . but in an American novel, it wouldn't even have been remotely plausible for a middle class government employee to live in a house without hot water, much less to be unaware that such a thing existed.  Anyone working for a government agency in 1952 would be presumed to have hot water that came out of a tap on demand.

Yet in British novels of the 1950s, housewives are forever boiling water for hte washing up.  According to Bowden and Offer, water heaters hit 50% penetration in Britain in 1967.  

The question is why this should have been.  Britain was not quite as rich as us, but they were very rich.  Why should their housewives have been boiling water for the washing-up long after American housewives got the stuff on tap? Here are the possibilities I can think of:  

1.  Even by the 1920s, America was richer than Britain.  Britain was much grander, because they'd been richer longer.  But by 1920, American per-capita GDP exceeded that of the British Isles.

2.  The British middle class had more servants.  Agatha Christie is supposed to have said, "When I was young I never expected to be rich as to have a motor car, or so poor that we wouldn't have servants."  This went away after World War II, but in the 1930s, when a lot of appliances were adopted, much of the British middle class still had people cooking their meals and cleaning their houses.  This lessened the pressure to adopt labor saving devices.  

3.  The British radically impoverished themselves to fight World War II.  Rationing was still going on well into the 1950s. The British middle class no longer had servants--but they also lacked the wherewithal to obtain fancy new appliances.  

4.  The British housing stock was older and less easily adapted to the new electric wonderworld.  Obviously, this is not a permanent obstacle--I live in a 1905 rowhouse with a very nice dishwasher.  But such retrofitting is expensive--especially if your house never had electricity in the first place.  As a result, it takes longer, especially if you pause to have a massive, all-consuming war.

The modern British home has caught up on most fronts (except for clothes dryers, which are terrible; I know a surprising number of British people who still hang their clothes up to dry, even if they live in a flat.)  But it's remarkable to look back and see how long that took.  Here's the full table from Bowden and Offer, if you want to see just how striking some of the differences were:

Source: Bowden and Offer, 1994 ()