Pop Culture

Electricity on the honor system.


Original publish date:  April 9, 2012

An interesting item caught my eye while strolling through an antique show a couple of weekends ago. When I first saw it, I thought it was a school notebook, not unlike we all used back in the day. It is a colorful Red-White & Blue item with an image of a couple of men, one dressed in overalls, carrying an American G.I. soldier proudly on their shoulders. It has a large “V for Victory” symbol done in a stars & stripes pattern and is called a “1944 Victory Meter Reading Calendar” with the patriotic slogan “There’s a Great Day Coming. We must speed it up!! Let’s pull together and save manpower.” on front. Needless to say, I was intrigued. As I flipped through the calendar pages inside, I noticed that at the bottom of each monthly page, there was a stamped postcard attached to the bottom of each page. Each postcard is pre-addressed to the “Utilities District of Western Indiana Rural Electric Membership Corporation” of Bloomfield, Indiana and each is titled “Meter reading Post Card”.

z map_of_bloomfield_greene_inMy first thought, where the heck is Bloomfield, Indiana? Well, if you didn’t know, it is a small town of some 2,400 people located in Greene County not far from, and currently considered a part of, Bloomington. Its best known for having one of the most well preserved covered bridges in the state and for its long association with the Native American Indian tribes including the Miami, Kickapoo, Piankeshaw, and Wesa tribes. That settled, I was on to the next question. What is this thing? I’m guessing some of you already know the answer, but it was unknown to me. It is a book, distributed by the electric company to their wartime, homefront customers to read their own meters and pay the fees associated with usage based on the honor system. That’s right, the honor system. With the electric company. An Oxymoron if you ever heard one right?

z original-vintage-honor-system-lock_1_9600e42eb8c4cb9c026a128a1030ab61The customer would record the electricity their household used, pay the bill, and the electric company trusted them. Seriously? The electric company…trust you? Could that be possible? Can you imagine such a system? I gotta tell ya, when I see things like this I’m convinced that I was born in the wrong era. I must admit, I’m one of those people that believes that the World War II Generation was truly our greatest. Life was simpler, people were nicer, and businesses were staffed by friends and neighbors who were really rooting for our success. Whenever I see things like this I realize that back then, everyone pulled together to do their part. All for one and one for all. Corny, but true. I didn’t realize that this little booklet was a first generation relic of the rural electrification movement that began in 1935 as part of an effort to bring electricity, telephone and indoor plumbing to the rural communities all over the state. Something we take for granted today.

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Willie Wiredhand.

Sure, I’d seen the signs for the Rural Electric Movement, or REMC, in small rural communities all my life. These colorful signs stuck out in my mind probably because of the cartoon mascot they used called Willie Wiredhand. Remember him?  I always looked at Willie as the country cousin of that city-slicker Reddy Kilowatt. Willie had a light socket head, push button nose, and on old fashioned electrical plug as his lower torso. (In Latin America they call him “Electro Pepe.” ain’t that fun?) Turns out he was “born” on Halloween of 1950, created by Drew McLay, an entomologist turned artist who worked for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) a program of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression Era New Deal. Turns out, I was right about that “highfalutin” Reddy Kilowatt lightning bolt guy (created in 1926). His creator, Ashton B. Collins, felt that these FDR programs, in particular co-ops, were socialistic in nature because they borrowed money from the federal government, so he refused to let the NRECA use his “Reddy” character.

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Reddy Kilowatt

Go figure. Reddy’s creators actually sued Willie’s creators for copyright infringement but lost. That explains a lot. Turns out that rural electricity co-ops were owned by the customers who paid the bills, which surely peeved off the larger electric companies to no end. Surely Reddy’s cronies would NEVER allow their customers to use the honor system to pay their bills, war or no war. The Victory calendar pages are full of helpful tips for their rural farmer customers on every page with slogans like: “Use your electric chick brooders for Victory… Keep your milking machine clean and in top-notch working order… Be Wise-Be Patriotic-Make your electric equipment last for the duration” with talk about “Victory Gardens” and “Collecting Eggs for Victory.”  Oh, by the way, electricity was two cents an hour back then.  Yes, I was enraptured with this 1944 homefront relic, imagining the honesty and trust that must have proliferated the Era. Then I noticed, May, June, July and August’s coupon postcards were still intact and had never sent in. Surely, that was because they didn’t have air conditioning back then…right? Yeah, that had to be the reason.

2 thoughts on “Electricity on the honor system.”

  1. Alan, I was an 18 year old electrician’s helper in 1970 when I first heard of Willie. (I’d known Reddy, physically, since age 6) A Navy submariner that came to work with us, informed me of Willie’s existence. I’d never known the reason for the difference, but had suspected something on the order of copyrights. THANK YOU for the clarification! I also was unaware that Reddy was so old.


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