Before World War II, few rural women were familiar with electric appliances. The Rural Electrification Administration (REA) had to do something about this because electric co-ops wouldn’t be able to pay back their government loans if members used electricity only for lighting.
Louisan Mamer was one of a number of women on the REA staff assigned to work on this problem. A recent graduate of the University of Illinois College of Agriculture with a degree in home economics, Mamer came on board in 1935 as a home electrification specialist, or “demonstrator.”
Three years later, she hit the road with the REA Farm Equipment Show, which boasted two big-top tents and soon became known as “The REA Circus.” The show made 22 stops in Iowa and Nebraska between October and December 1938 and, over the next three years, visited 26 other states.
In a 1975 interview, Mamer described a typical stop for the circus: “We would usually move into a town over the weekend. Having made the move and set up the tents … and gotten ready for the show during the day- time, say, on a Monday, that night we would have the home electrification specialist, which was my job, demonstrate lighting equipment.
“I believe the next morning we had a laundry equipment demonstration at about 10 a.m., and in the afternoon, we demonstrated small appliances and some kitchen and laundry planning along the way. The last evening, [there was] a big cooking duel between two local men. That was a highlight of the whole program.”
The REA Circus was discontinued in November 1941, a week before Pearl Harbor. With the U.S. readying for war, REA couldn’t justify the gasoline needed to keep its trucks on the road. At that point, Mamer and her colleagues had demonstrated for nearly a million rural people.
The co-op history book The Next Greatest Thing notes that everywhere the circus went, “rural electric managers and project superintendents were ecstatic. Memberships grew. Appliance sales skyrocketed. Kilowatt-hour sales showed healthy increases.”
Mamer resumed traveling for REA after World War II ended, demonstrating lighting and kitchen appliances and educating rural women about how to run a modern, electrified home. She also wrote training manuals for REA staff and co-op home advisors, gave lectures, and adapted recipes for cooking on an electric range and oven.
The American History Museum in Washington, D.C., has in its collection a deep-well cooker Mamer used in her REA demonstrations. These large pots were built into electric ranges in the 1940s and 1950s and were used primarily for stewing vegetables and braising meats.
Mamer stuck to her mission of bettering the lives of farm families through electricity right up until her retirement from REA in 1981 (she died at 95 in 2005). Born on a farm in southern Illinois that had neither electricity nor running water, she identified with these people. In a 1948 article in Practical Home Economics magazine, she wrote about “mowing, raking, doing everything but plowing” and “selling pecan meats” so she could pay her college expenses.
As she reached the end of her 40- year career, her co-workers bestowed on her a nickname befitting her broad impact on the success of electric cooperatives: the First Lady of REA.
More: Along Those Lines Podcast, The Rise of Female Lineworkers