Urban Techno-Commodity-Displays: Electrification of the City

“In the 1870s and 1880s, electricity transformed from an experimental curiosity into something practical that could light cities and moves vehicles about. The 1880s found John Joseph Wright, an English immigrant, experimenting with electricity in a small shop near Yonge and King, and selling light bulbs and the electricity to light them to various shops and factories.”


With the addition of electric lampposts, telephone poles, and electric trolleys to the streetscape, large scale companies directed their efforts towards “energies on the bourgeoning markets for industrial power, streetcars, and commercial lighting.”

The domestic market, however, had quite different characteristics. Electricity transformed domestic activities to the extent that “the home was no longer defined by production but by consumption.”  Electric tools, such as dishwashers, washing machines, carpet cleaners, among others, were sought for their comprehensive takeover of housework.

Technology propagated the reorganization of domestic space, with specialized rooms requiring particular technological objects and wiring (kitchen, bathroom, etc.). This particularity of form and function prompted the rise of standardization in housing design. Small manufacturers took note, realizing that “once a home was wired, anyone might build a device that could be plugged into the system,” and capitalized on the role of electricity in the home through children’s toys, fashion, lighting, tools, and small appliances, among others, all of which revolutionized leisure and enabled the mechanization of housework.

In turn-of-the-century Toronto, 355 and 357 Yonge Street were occupied by the ‘1900’ Washer Co. and Beatty Washer Store, respectively, and the former put out “an invitation to women” in the local newspapers and magazines declaring that “troubles of wash day are over” with the purchase of electric washers.

Macdonald and Wilson’s 347 Yonge Street showroom,“specializing in electrical lighting fixtures and electrical appliances” continuously advertised refrigerators, ovens, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines. Branded as “saving labour in the home,” many of advertisements featured well dressed women enjoying their new appliances or sharing them with friends. Above demonstrating that technological innovation had a profound role in redefining the modern home,  advertisements,  in addition to the showroom as concept, point towards an inexorable connection between electricity and display value.

Display value is addressed in Benjamin’s “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” and refers to the valuation of desire by virtue of appearance. In a sense, electricity, especially lighting, affected appearance to a great degree. Whereas “the combination of smoke, humidity, and acidity” from “gas fixtures… soiled wallpaper and fabrics,” prompting frequent and extensive cleaning procedures (ceiling re-whitening!), “electric lighting blended utility, decoration, and social display,” allowing for ornamental features such as light coloured wallpaper, garden lights, Christmas lights, and, in the case of Mrs. Vanderbilt, an electrified dress adorned with tiny bulbs.

Indeed, the notion of display value is intricately connected with commodification, insofar as electricity is “always a mediated form of consumption,” not purchased directly but rather through “intermediary devices that use it,” and thus, there are a whole series of related commodities which are advertised and promoted through technology and lighting.

Take Yonge and Dundas Square, at the heart of Toronto’s downtown core, as the ultimate form of commodity fetishism and display value. The host of advertisements projected on electrified billboards provide nonstop illumination, and beyond that, “images” associated with particular values and visions, target markets, desired commodities, among others. Ruppert’s article, “Making Yonge and Dundas Good,”  examines the process and impact of major infrastructure projects of this nature, whereby it becomes evident that display value and commodification section out segments of the population, always excluding some, and pitting individual stakeholders against aggressive doctrines of urban renewal.

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About Ryerson On Yonge

A course in the Faculty of Arts, we have been studying the history of the neighbourhood around Yonge and Dundas, and Ryerson campus, in order to consider the social context and cultural importance of the new Student Learning Centre, which will occupy 341 through 355 Yonge Street. This blog is not an official Ryerson publication, and is a student-composed analysis of campus and its neighbourhood.
This entry was posted in Permanence and Circulation: Toronto's Maleable History. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Urban Techno-Commodity-Displays: Electrification of the City

  1. Pingback: Permance and Circulation: Toronto’s Maleable History | Ryerson On Yonge

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