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What was life like before electricity?

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Electricity is useful for doing so many things, like lighting up a room, doing laundry, and making breakfast. But electricity hasn’t always been readily available through the sockets in our walls. Our great-great-grandparents’ generation didn’t have electricity in their homes at all! There were different ways to do the same work we do today by using human energy instead of electric energy.

Green Schools Engagement Officers have been showing our History Before Electricity presentation to classes around Nova Scotia over the last several weeks. The presentation includes a guessing game where students guess what each old item was used for and what we use today to do that same job. What jobs are done by the items in the featured photo? Unsurprisingly, we use way more electricity today than our great-great-grandmas and grandpas did. That means our ecological footprints are much bigger because greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are released when electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels.

Last week I presented to the grade six class at Cabot High and the grades six and seven classes at Whycocomagh Education Centre. The grade seven students were studying life in the 1800’s in Social Studies class. They were learning about the Industrial Revolution and the language debate between French and English in Upper Canada. In the early 1900’s, around the time of WWI, electricity started to become available in individual homes. Electricity meant that washboards, oil lanterns, and ice boxes were out and washing machines, light bulbs and refrigerators were in. Electricity made many jobs easier but created a new cost that people didn’t pay before. Adding electricity to our daily lives also started adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than humans had ever done before.

We’re not suggesting that everyone should go back to living without electricity, but we can learn a lot from the lifestyle of our great-great-grandparents. For example, we could choose to have dinner by candlelight once a week. It’s fun to eat by candlelight, and it saves energy. We can also hang our clothes to dry, and play outside after school instead of immediately turning on our screens. What about that electric pencil sharpener in your classroom? Manual sharpeners take hardly any effort to do the same job without using any electricity at all!

Electricity has changed the way we live. It has also impacted the changing role of women. Electricity simplified labour-intensive housework like laundry which used to be a gendered task in our culture. Using electricity to improve our lives has a cost, creates pollution by burning fossil fuels, and keeps us indoors more often than ever before. Saving energy whenever we can by choosing alternatives helps reduce our ecological footprints. We might even learn a thing or two about helping the Earth from great-great-grandma and grandpa!

Contact your Engagement Officer to find out more about virtual engagements, and the curriculum links of the History Before Electricity presentation.


~Shandel Brown
Engagement Officer, Cape Breton

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