Electricity has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately – coal fired power stations and climate change, high electricity bills, and political leadership, so let’s look back to a time in Sydney’s history when electricity was a novelty and promising to deliver so much in our lives.
Electric street lighting was first introduced to Sydney’s streets in 1904, courtesy of Sydney Municipal Council and the Sydney Electric Power Station at Pyrmont (now part of the casino). A number of public and private power stations rapidly developed to supply domestic power to suburban Sydney, such as the Balmain Electric Light Company, the Electric Light and Power Supply Company, and the NSW Tramway and Railway Commissioners, who built the Ultimo Power Station and the White Bay Power Station.
Domestic consumption grew in the 1920s as electric lighting in the home was enthusiastically taken up, but there was some uncertainty about the safety and uses of electricity for other purposes, and in 1934 an educational association was founded in Sydney by Florence Violet McKenzie to promote the use of electricity to make women’s household work easier – it was the Electrical Association of Women (Australia).
A similar association had been founded in Britain ten years earlier. No doubt this was the inspiration for McKenzie, a pioneering female electrical engineer and leader in radio communications and signalling. She is one of 200 amazing Australian women profiled in Heather Radi’s book 200 Australian Women: A Redress Anthology, (Women’s Redress Press, Broadway, NSW, 1988), and of course, we have a great biography of her on the Dictionary of Sydney, written by Catherine Freyne.
McKenzie believed in the empowerment of women and the E.A.W. had feminist underpinnings. It was “an Association formed by women to provide for the electrical needs of women”. (E.A.W. Cookery Book, p.12), aiming to instil “complete confidence” in the “safe handling” of electrical appliances.
The association was non-profit. Women could become members of the Association for a modest annual subscription, and use the club rooms. These were originally located in King Street, Sydney and later moved to the corner of Clarence and Grosvenor Streets, down near Wynyard Station. As well as having a Showroom, fitted out with electrical appliances from different manufacturers, the club rooms included a Library, Bridge-room, Tea-room and Electric Kitchen.
Women could receive advice on “all electrical matters”, attend lectures on the uses of domestic electrical appliances, and have their appliances tested for safety, whether they were members of the association or not.
In conjunction with the Association’s activities, McKenzie compiled a cookery book with an electrical guide, encouraging women to be bold and adopt a new technology to transform their lives. Published in 1936, this went to seven editions, the last of which was released in 1954 under the auspices of the Sydney County Council.
The cookery book gives a wonderful insight into the transformation of cookery by electricity and the new-fangled appliances on offer to help with domestic drudgery. An advertisement from John Danks & Son promised “Cooking & Washing are now Pleasant Hobbies”. Another, for the McClary Electric Range, promoted “Better, Quicker and more Economical Cooking”, while the Sydney County Council encouraged women to “Enjoy Electric Light, don’t merely use it!” and reminded them that “Good Light means Good Sight”.
There are many old-fashioned recipes in the cook book, and we have a few photos on the Dictionary of Sydney, but I’m lucky enough to have a copy in my personal collection of cook books. Here’s an intriguing recipe from the Cakes, Scones and Pastry section, faithfully transcribed (remember that oven temperatures are in fahrenheit):
1/4 lb. butter, 1 cup castor sugar, 2 eggs, 1/2 cup dessicated cocoanut, 1 cup s.r. flour, orange essence, jam, 1 tablespoon milk, cocoa or grated chocolate.
Cream butter, beat in the sugar, beat each egg separately and beat into the mixture. Add milk and essence, stir in the sifted flour and cocoanut. Fill round, greased patty tins, about half full, sprinkle with sugar and cocoanut and bake in a moderately hot oven 400 degrees for about 20 minutes, top element off, bottom low. When cold, cut small pieces from the centre of each cake, fill the hole with jam, then replace the pieces as “stalks”. Cover with whipped cream and sprinkle with cocoa or grated chocolate. Mark with a fork to resemble mushroom markings. Leave the stalk white.
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thank you Lisa! Lisa will be giving the Annual History Lecture this year for the History Council of NSW as part of History Week 2018. Find out more about how to book on the History Council of NSW website here: https://historycouncilnsw.org.au/history-week-annual-history-lecture-2018/
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