Designers, Makers and Technology
During the Second World War (1939-1945), outside lighting was only allowed in Britain for very specific military and civil defence functions. The maximum light source was a 15 watt pearl lamp, and a range of low wattage lamps were specifically designed for blackout use in most countries to prevent enemy bombers from using light on the ground to identify targets. Thorn Electrical Industries, for example, developed a shielded, filtered light lamp, which prevented its light being visible from the air while affording emergency lighting. All road vehicles had heavily shaded lamps. Carbon arc projector lamps used in search lights and similar large-scale lighting, were replaced by tungsten filament projector lamps which were smaller and brighter. Old lamps were returned to makers for re-cycling and advertising material was reduced in size. Use of paper and card were prohibited and linen and silk screen used. There was a shortage of flash lamp bulbs and batteries as so many were required for lifejackets. Lamps were used by armies in large numbers for tanks, lorries and signalling.
At the end of the war, electricity was regarded as an essential utility for economic recovery. In the UK, 15 area electricity boards were established by the Electricity Act of 1947, in preparation for nationalisation of the electricity generating industry in 1948.
The Second World War diverted commerce and industry to war production, with the bare necessities for domestic use. Electrical power – created by coal powered stations – was increasingly relied upon, from complex circuits to power search lights against bombers, sending signals to set off air raid sirens, and to communicate messages across the far flung areas of conflict. Radar and sonar, critical to the war, all relied on electricity to function. Aircraft carriers used lighting to guide pilots in landing. Low level lights were installed in tankers and bombers to help their see and perform their functions. Spotlights were still used to light up aircraft for anti-aircraft guns, concomitant with electrical blackouts on the ground to hamper bombers.
All this meant that electricity and its products were in high demand, and commercial provision and usage of domestic electricity came under pressure. It was hoped public awareness and propaganda drives would result in voluntary rationing of lights and baths, making significant savings. Nevertheless in 1942 coal, gas and electricity were formally rationed. Even before the rationing scheme was enacted, however, there was a drastic reduction in the use of electricity due to the cessation of street lighting, shop window lighting, neon and other advertising signs. Adding to this was a significant portion of the population’s displacement from urban highly electrified districts to rural areas where electrification was considerably less. Power stations were a focus of enemy bombing which put further reductions on domestic usage in favour of the war effort’s needs.
Post-war austerity arising from war damaged infrastructure, financial pressures, and economic destruction of pre-war trade networks also had an impact on electric-oriented commerce and industry. In 1946-47 the unusually cold and snowy winter meant coal shipments were disrupted and the country experienced power cuts up to 12 hours at a time. In 1947 the electricity industry was nationalised. Post-war difficulties did not mean technological advances were stymied. In use since the 1930s, fluorescent tube lighting was prevented from moving quickly into use by World War Two. In 1946 fluorescent tubes were much improved and so became more common in offices and industrial settings. The cost and availability of energy and electrical power influenced technological developments, although the deeper push for energy efficiency did not come until the 1970s.
The Second World War affected domestic electrical usage and availability. Initially it was hoped public awareness and propaganda drives would result in voluntary domestic rationing of lights and baths, making significant savings. Nevertheless in 1942 coal, gas and electricity were formally rationed. Even before the rationing scheme was enacted, however, there was a drastic reduction in the use of electricity due to the cessation of street lighting, shop window lighting, neon and other advertising signs due to blackout regulations. Additionally there was the displacement of the population from urban highly electrified districts to rural areas where electrification was considerably less, to the surprise and discomfort of many. Power stations were a focus of enemy bombing which put further reductions on domestic usage in favour of the war effort’s direct needs.
Post-war austerity arising from war-damaged infrastructure, financial pressures and economic destruction of pre-war trade networks, continued to affect domestic electricity. The bitter winter of 1946-47 and its power cuts continued to demonstrate the precariousness of electrical power sources. Post-war difficulties, however, did not mean technological advances were stymied. Invented in the 1930s, with its adoption slowed by the war, in 1946 fluorescent tubes were much improved and became progressively more common in offices and industrial settings. The cost and availability of energy and electrical power influenced technological developments and domestic choices in the UK (although the sustained push for energy efficiency did not come until the 1970s).
Improvements to the National Grid were made in the late 1940s, and it became more feasible to install large domestic electrical appliances. The electric cooker was the clean alternative to the gas stove, and they came in various shapes and sizes from simple 1 door and two rings to deluxe full size including boiling plates, warming oven, and splashguard.
The Second World War and its austerity aftermath affected the amount of leisure time and choice, but the main mass-media trends born of electricity remained: going to the pictures and listening to the radio. The blackout and complexities of navigating streets at night added difficulty to leisure life, but cinemas, theatres and music became even more attractive. Although cinemas and theatres were briefly closed at war’s onset for fear of bombing casualties, they soon became a major feature of wartime leisure. During the war, for live performance the majority of shows were matinees or early evening performances due to the blackout.
The newly formed Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) originated in 1940 to organise classical, opera and ballet performances which were taken to new audiences. Thus leisure activities that had been changed and grown by the advent of electricity continued – if slightly modified – during the war. Remaining comfortably at home, with radio for entertainment and blackout curtains fully drawn, had its definite leisure appeal. Radio news and comedy programmes were particularly popular: ‘It’s That Man Again’ (‘aka ‘ITMA’, 1939-1949) drew almost 40% of the population weekly. In radio, cinema and theatre, comedic, romantic and melodramatic escapist fare took the mind safely off the war, whilst the many war-related films were designed to inspire unity and shared purpose.
The 1940s are considered the golden age of cinema-going. Technological developments in lighting, lenses, sound, and colour meant a greater visual realism in film. Cinema attendance peaked in 1948 with 1,650 million cumulative visits recorded in Great Britain. Notably however cinema attendance during the war was urban and younger than before. The Wartime Social Survey, conducted in 1943, found that around one-third of Britons went to the cinema frequently (once a week or more), slightly more than one-third attended occasionally (once a fortnight or less), yet 30% of the population never visited the cinema at all. For many older people and those in rural and unelectrified areas radio still dominated. The cinema audience being largely young, urban and working class, it was considered by the wartime government the least likely to read books and newspapers. Hence the government of the time was interested in supporting cinemas and their fare, whether fiction, documentary or newsreels. In the late 1940s, film subjects began to change with the arrival of the ‘social problem film’, integrating social, political issues into the plots and personalities.
Industrial repurposing for war needs and material shortages brought changes to clothing – rationing and styles for men and women that used (and reused) little fabric and decoration compared to previous decades of length, draping and pleats, and sparkling embroidery and spangles. Yet some of the pre-war ideals of electricity-inspired dramatic glamour remained. Make-up for women in the U.K. was now so completely culturally embedded that lipstick use was encouraged as a patriotic act. Rather than cutting make up production (as had other countries), special lipstick red colours were created for women in the armed services.
Most famously with Dior’s New Look in 1947, fashion houses made a major leap from wartime utilitarian thrift into attire requiring yards and yards of fabric. Such costumes were however accessible to few as clothing rationing continued until 1949. The post-war period brought a deeper focus on the home and its leisure opportunities. Advertising and availability of new, time-saving domestic appliances were marketed as increasing leisure time. Given post-war austerity however, it was not until the following decades that income rises and production increases enabled these desires to be widely obtained.
Further Reading and References:
Bud, Robert: Nizoil, Simon: Boon, Timothy: Nahum, Andrew. Inventing the Modern World. 2000
Dillon, Maureen. Artificial Sunshine. 2002
Hammond, Robert. Electric Light in Our Homes. 1884.
Hannah, Leslie. Electricity before Nationalisation. 1979.
Nevett, T.R. Advertising in Britain. 1982.
Otten, John. Death of a Lightbulb. 2012.
Parsons, R.H. The Early Days of the Power Station Industry. 1940 (reprint 2015).
Tye, Ray. Rays of Light: A Comprehensive History of the Incandescent Light Bulb. 2014.
Usai, Paolo Cherchi. Silent Cinema. 2019.
Westinghouse. Everything Electrical for Cinemas, Theatres and Public Buildings Generally. 1914.