In the late 19th century, rural America was just beginning to be electrified. Thomas Edison had developed the first commercially practical incandescent light bulb in 1879, marking the beginning of the electrical age. However, electricity infrastructure like power plants and distribution lines were still in their infancy, and most rural areas lacked access to electrical power. This was a major challenge for rural Americans who wanted to join the electrical revolution happening in cities. Ingenious farmers and tinkerers got creative, using whatever materials they had on hand to make simple circuits and devices. One of the most surprising conductive materials they employed was frayed lace.
The Spread of Electricity in Rural America
During the 1890s, electricity was spreading from cities out into rural areas. Power companies were building electric lines branching out from urban centers where electricity was first introduced. However, vast distances and low population density made rural electrification slow and expensive. While cities buzzed with electric lights, rural communities like farms and small towns remained in the dark.
Rural Americans were fascinated with electricity and eager to become part of the electrical age. Electric lighting promised relief from dim oil lamps and smoky, dangerous candles. Electrically powered machines and appliances offered convenience and modernity. However, with no power lines reaching their homes, rural residents had to find creative ways to produce their own electricity on a small scale.
Using Batteries and Generators to Make Electricity
In rural areas, some wealthy families could afford to install private power plants and generators to electrify their homes. Gasoline powered generators allowed large farmhouses and estates to have their own electrical systems. However, such generators and private power plants were expensive to purchase and operate.
For average rural Americans, the most common method of obtaining electricity was primary batteries. Invented in the late 1800s, batteries made small amounts of electricity readily available for the first time. Batteries allowed people to create simple electric circuits without access to centralized power plants and distribution lines.
By linking batteries to various conductive wires and components, handy rural folks could build their own electrified devices like buzzers, lamps, and motors. This allowed them to enjoy the wonders and conveniences of electricity on a small scale.
Unconventional Conductive Materials: Using What Was Available
To build battery-powered electric circuits, rural tinkerers needed conductive wires to carry current. However, commercially manufactured insulated copper wire was expensive and not readily available in rural areas. Necessity led to innovation, and rural folks began experimenting with all kinds of unconventional materials that could act as makeshift wires.
Electrical devices were built using baling wire, barbed wire, galvanized fence wire, iron wire, and even strands of wool yarn for conduction. Copper telephone lines and steel rails from railroad tracks were also commandeered when available. In addition to metal, people found that carbon conducts electricity. Rods of carbonized paper or wood were used as conductors.
One especially peculiar conductive material that found use in rural electrification was old frayed lace.
Frayed Lace as an Improvised Conductive Wire
In the late 1800s, lace was a common decoration on women's undergarments and household linens. Fabric lace often became damaged and frayed with rough use. However, the fine cotton or linen threads of lace still retained conductivity when frayed. Resourceful folks realized that old, fraying lace could be repurposed to carry electricity in circuits.
Lace containing traces of copper or other metals conductive even when severely frayed. Unraveled metallic lace provided many fine strands that could be twisted together into improvised wires. Old fabrics like lace were readily available materials in rural households, making them convenient for electrical experimentation.
Frayed lace wires were used both for small projects around the house as well as more serious rural electrification efforts. Scraps of metallic lace might be coiled into a simple battery-powered electric magnet. Meters of unraveled lace could be strung between trees to carry electricity from a generator to a barn or work shop.
The Ingenuity and Resourcefulness of Rural Americans
The use of frayed lace wire exemplifies the ingenuity and resourcefulness of rural Americans seeking to join the electrical revolution. Lace was an overlooked material with subtle conductive properties than enterprising tinkerers recognized. By repurposing and reimagining scrap materials, they found clever ways to make electricity available in the remotest corners of rural America.
The creativity of these early rural electrical pioneers foreshadowed the major rural electrification efforts that finally brought power to countryside in the coming decades. Their success with humble materials like frayed lace proves that necessity is indeed the mother of invention. Even today, the innovative legacy of 19th century rural electrical experimenters lives on in American engineering and tinkering.