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Annmarie Adams on Demons of Domesticity

16 December, 2020

This annotation is an extract from Annmarie Adams (2006) review ‘Demons of Domesticity: Women and the English Gas Industry 1889-1939, American Historical Review, December 2006, 1602-1603

This book is not about evil household spirits. In Britain between 1889 and 1939, demon was shorthand for demonstrator: an educated, middle-class, middle-aged woman paid to teach other women how to cook with gas. Anne Clendinning’s book explores the important roles of these demons, as well as the general roles of women in the growth of the gas industry. While chapters one through three chart the rise of the lady demons, the three final chapters explore post-demon, female replacement workers during World War I and the grand promotional schemes of the interwar period. It is a fascinating, hitherto untold story that touches on a broad range of themes that overlapped in the half century under study: domestic science, professionalisation, progressive technologies, consumption, separate spheres, household labor, industrialisation, and women’s rights.

Clendinning’s approach, with a special focus on gender, is original and convincing. Refuting the notion that the gas industry was solely motivated by the apparent popularity of electricity in the 1880s, she argues that the lady demons occupied a liminal realm between the producers and consumers of domestic technology. ‘The use of women experts to mediate between male producers and female consumers helped to domesticate, perhaps even feminise, gas technology, engendering sales and challenging gendered assumptions about the corporate’, Clendinning explains.

The book’s concentration on a single industry, gas, is both its strength and its weakness. The author’s careful scrutiny of everyday sources such as the Journal of Gas Lighting and a 1911 poem by a demon gives readers a sharp sense of the characters who made British gas a modern industry and the unusual positions they occupied between the home and the corporation. The book opens, for example, with the lovely tale of lady demon Ethel Margaret Lovell-Wright taking top honors at the International Gas Exhibition in London in 1904. Her prize was a gold watch, traditionally the symbol of corporate masculine respectability. At the same time, readers are left wondering about other professional women whose paid work took place in the homes of others. Lady decorators, realtors, health inspectors, music teachers, even lady doctors walked the same fine line between feminine respectability and manly enterprise.

Annmarie Adams on Demons of Domesticity

This annotation is an extract from Annmarie Adams (2006) review ‘Demons of Domesticity: Women and the English Gas Industry 1889-1939’, American Historical Review, December 2006, 1602-1603