Technological developments were transforming Bangor a century ago. Automobiles had begun coughing and sputtering along the streets a decade before. Movie theaters had opened a few years later, and young tinkerers began experimenting with wireless receivers about the same time. A dirigible had floated over the Eastern Maine State Fair, and before too long an airplane would buzz the Queen City of the East.
The family household was one place where the average person could experience some of the most noteworthy high-tech transformations — electrical gadgets that made life easier. All you had to do was have the money to hook up to the expanding electrical grid and then pay the electric bills later.
The best place in Bangor to get an idea of what was available electrically speaking in February 1911 was at the Winter Carnival and Food Fair held at City Hall, located just up from West Market Square at the corner of Hammond and Columbia streets. Thousands of people attended from as far away as Aroostook County. The Bangor Railway and Electric Co.’s exhibit, “The Electric Home,” was one of the most popular attractions.
The company had been laying down tracks and power lines for some years as the trolley system expanded. If residents wanted, the company also wired homes along the new trolley routes. Eventually, the trolleys stopped running, but by then the Bangor Railway and Electric Co. had evolved into the Bangor Hydro-Electric Co.
The Electric Home display of 1911 consisted of three rooms, a kitchen, dining room and bedroom, with the latest electrical amenities. The kitchen contained “an electric range, a fireless cooker, ice cream freezer, flat iron, washing machine, hot water urn and waffle liner,” according to the Bangor Daily News on Feb. 8. It was necessary to add the phrase “all these utensils being operated by electricity” in case some country fellow still didn’t get it.
The dining room contained a similar array of electrified wonders: “a chafing dish, bread toaster, coffee percolator, vacuum cleaner and tea pot.” In the bedroom, the excited visitor could see an electric “bed lamp, heating pad, hair drier, luminous radiator, sewing machine and nursery milk warmer.”
Two days later, the reporter revisited The Electric Home, perhaps to satisfy the complaints of readers who feared electricity was too expensive, unsafe or unsightly. “In the planning of the electric lighting arrangements of the electric home at the Food Fair, careful attention has been given to secure efficient illumination in an artistic manner without losing sight of that important item ECONOMY,” the reporter explained. The secret, he said, was Mazda lamps, a brand of incandescent light bulb. “[T]hese lamps are used in all positions, hanging pendant in the ceiling fixtures and standing upright in the wall fixtures.”
These “arrangements” were described in minute detail for people who had perhaps only seen an electric light bulb in a newspaper advertisement or a store. “In the kitchen one 60 watt Mazda lamp provides a splendid general illumination, while the dining room is equipped with a center dome in which are installed three 40 watt Mazda lamps; the object being to throw the light on the table without having the rays in the eyes of those seated about it … .
“The [bed] chamber has a centre fixture for general illumination, with wall brackets on each side of the dresser or my lady’s toilet. On the desk is a charming portable lamp, and attached to the head of the brass bed is a bed lamp for reading in bed … . The lamps used in the chamber are 25 watt Mazda, and the illumination obtained is more than ample, the yellow wallpaper aiding the lighting greatly.”
By the end of the Bangor Winter Carnival and Food Fair, the city definitely had decided that displays of electrical prowess in the streets were the way to impress visitors. City street lights were already electrically powered. For the carnival, however, lots more light bulbs were strung around the downtown, outlining buildings and illuminating sidewalks, in an effort to give the area a “metropolitan look.” The dim, gas-lit days when intoxicated loggers were mugged in the shadows for their winter’s pay or walked off the docks at the end of dark alleys into the Kenduskeag Stream were about over.
“There is a decided sentiment … that the brilliant electrical illumination, or at least part of it, shall remain,” said the Bangor Daily News on Feb. 10. “Bangor streets never looked as pretty, and it seems a pity say those who favor the illumination plan to have them revert to semi-darkness. The more metropolitan the streets, the more people seem to catch the true metropolitan spirit — the spirit of shopping and theater-going. Electricity, as an incentive to sight-seeing, has a very definite and practical value.”
The Winter Carnival and Food Fair lasted a week. Declared a success by its organizers, the United Commercial Travelers’ Bangor Council, plans already were under way to hold it again in 1912 when there would be new and better-designed electrical gadgets. In such ways did Bangor emerge from its logging and maritime past into a new economy, in which it became the shopping and cultural center of eastern Maine.
An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.