Top of page

Lesson Plan Thomas Edison, Electricity, and America


Using documents from the Library of Congress, students investigate electrification as both a technological and social process. A focus of the student's investigation is Thomas Edison.


Students will be able to:

  • analyze the role of Thomas Edison in the electrification of America;
  • demonstrate an understanding of electrification as both a technological and social process;
  • analyze advertising and assess its significance as it relates to electrification and consumption;
  • develop an understanding of the emergence of the mass-consumer economy.

Time Required

Two weeks

Lesson Preparation


Lesson Procedure

Lesson One: President Coolidge Honors Edison (1-2 class periods)

Direct students to the student section of this lesson: President Coolidge Honors Edison.

Students analyze a speech by President Calvin Coolidge.

  • Students may work individually or in groups.
  • Class discussion of student findings and conclusions is essential.
  • Be sure students cite examples to support their responses.

Lesson Two: Edison's Role in the Electrification of America (2-3 class periods)

Direct students to the student section of this lesson: Edison's Role in the Electrification of America.


Students focus on the life of Thomas Edison. The timeline activity could be an entire class project and displayed in the classroom.


This activity works well if student groups work on different sections of the project.

Sound Recordings:

  1. Provide students with an example such as vaudeville. Explain how vaudeville influenced popular vocal recordings. Play excerpts to demonstrate how each recording sounded. For some genres, provide copies of the words with an analysis.
    You may want to use the collection American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920.
  2. Assign groups to each of the seven genres of Edison Diamond Disc recordings. (See Overview of Edison Disc Recordings by Genre.)
  3. Each group prepares a presentation for the class, incorporating selected portions of various recordings and an analysis and explanation of each genre.

Motion Pictures:

  1. Assign groups of students to specific sections of:
  2. Assign presentations to each group. The presentations should provide:
    • a brief summary of an aspect of Edison movie history.
    • an analysis of one of the film genres.

Lesson Three: Merchandising and Advertising (1-2 class periods)

Direct students to the student section of this lesson: Merchandising and Advertising.

  • Advertisement Gallery: Assign students to work in pairs for written and oral work on each advertisement.

Lesson Four: Women and the Mass Consumer Society (2-3 class periods)

Direct students to the student section of this lesson: Women and the Mass Consumer Society.



  • Ask students to brainstorm words or phrases based upon electricity that describe human behavior, feelings, emotions, or situations. Some examples are: live wire, charged, dim-witted, bright, shocked, out like a light, plugged in, and recharge your batteries; and words and phrases with a mechanical or electronic/computer focus: screw loose, zapped, and overloaded circuits.

Lesson Two

Library of Congress digital collections provide numerous collections offering interesting and informative material about the era.

Lesson Three

  • Students may do more in-depth research of the three magazines to further an understanding of the world of the 1920s. The advertisements for other products, such as automobiles, provide interesting comparisons with today's products. Students may analyze the technological and social changes occurring in the increasingly electrified mass-consumer society depicted in the mass circulation magazines.
  • Students may read Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt, a wonderful novel about the mass-consumer society of the 1920s.
  • After completing the activities in this unit students participate in a "talk show" to discuss the various themes of this unit. Guests could include Thomas Edison, and other individuals such as: farm men and women, including teenagers; urban residents with a variety of gender, class, racial, and ethnic characteristics; and business, political, and civic leaders, such as the head of the Chamber of Commerce. Students in the audience prepare questions prior to the show. The teacher acts as host, wandering about the audience, or that role may be assigned to a student.
    Questions to consider for discussion:
    1. The increased emphasis on leisure and entertainment: is it good or bad?
    2. How has electricity altered people's lives?
    3. Are there differences in the impact of electricity on men and women's lives?

Lesson Evaluation

To assess understanding of the social and technological effects of electrification, students identify and analyze examples of each kind of change: new inventions, changes in work activity for women and men--both at home and in the workplace, uses of leisure time, and changes and continuity in values and beliefs.

The purpose of this activity is to validate student constructed generalizations about the process of electrification. Assign this activity at the start of the unit so students can gather their documentary materials as they do the various lessons.

  1. Students assemble a gallery of excerpts from documents in collections investigated in these lessons. Additional documentary material may come from other American Memory collections.
  2. Students create presentations.
  3. In a report to the class, students state their generalization and present their document selections, explaining and analyzing how these excerpts validate their generalization.

Sample generalizations:

  • Thomas Edison, while given credit for things he did not create, was a significant figure in the development of modern forms of entertainment.
  • Electrification had significant social effects on women.
  • Magazines played a significant role as educators of women in the development of the mass-consumer society.
  • Americans sought to redefine their long held values in light of the changes in society.
  • The social and technological changes of the period were a mixed blessing for women.
  • The "New Woman" of the 1920s was a product of the changes brought about by electrification.


Robert Gabrick & Barbara Markham


Lesson One: President Coolidge Honors Edison

President Calvin Coolidge presented a medal to Edison in 1928, saying: "[T]here is scarcely an electrical process or instrument of to-day which does not reflect in some way changes wrought by his researches."

Go to the Coolidge Speech marking the presentation of the medal, and answer the following questions:

  1. According to Coolidge, what makes Edison a leader?
  2. What do people call Edison? Why do Edison and Coolidge disagree with such labels?
  3. "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration." What does Coolidge say is important about such a belief? In particular how is the value of "work", a significant component of American values, important in explaining Edison's success?
  4. One of the important beliefs about success in America is that you can rise to the top from the lowest level. Identify Coolidge's remarks about Edison's rise to success.

Lesson Two: Edison's Role in the Electrification of America

The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies

Inventing Entertainment includes primary sources on both the Victrola phonograph and the movies.

Edison Biography

  1. Read The Life of Thomas A. Edison to gain an understanding of the major features of Edison's life.
  2. The Timeline for Inventing Entertainment provides information about the major events in Edison's personal life and the key dates for the phonograph and motion pictures. Develop a timeline which provides the most essential items relevant to the development of the phonograph, sound recordings, and motion pictures.


Thomas Edison developed both a cylinder phonograph and recordings and a disc phonograph and recordings.

  1. Go to Edison Sound Recordings and read the introductory material.
  2. Despite Edison's pioneering work, “Victrola” became a term people used as a synonym for the phonograph. The History of the Cylinder Phonograph is an informative summary of Edison's work with the first type of phonograph and recordings.
  3. Also informative is the complete catalog for Edison Phonographs, Cylinder Types: 1913-1914.
  4. Edison's work with discs is in The History of the Edison Disc Phonograph. This collection provides a history of both the Edison cylinder and disc phonographs.
  5. Based on the material about Edison's development of the phonograph:
    • Construct a visual display and history of the phonograph, illustrating the changes over time.
    • Include Edison material as well as that of various models over the years up to now. Materials for recent equipment can be found in contemporary publications.
    • Compare and contrast these systems in terms of design and technology.

Sound Recordings

Edison recordings also provide an auditory archive.

  1. Go to Edison Sound Recordings to search the selected recordings.
    The disc recordings include instrumental, vocal, spoken word, spoken comedy, foreign language and ethnic, religious, opera, and concert selections.
  2. Go to Overview of Edison Disc Recordings by genre.
    Each genre offers an opportunity to analyze the type of selection and cultural factors which influenced their development. Prepare a web-based presentation with your group that incorporates select portions of several recordings and analyzes each genre.

Motion Pictures

Edison's work with the movies began with the earliest camera test in 1891 and ended in 1918, when his company ceased film production. Edison Motion Pictures is the brief introductory page to the film collection.

Working in your assigned group:

  1. Read your section of:
  2. Create a presentation that contains:
    • a brief summary of an aspect of Edison movie history; and
    • an analysis of one of the film genres, including films.

Lesson Three: Merchandising and Advertising

Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929 documents aspects of the "transition to a mass-consumer economy [and the] widespread electrification of plants, factories, and households." Entertainment implies the availability of leisure time to enjoy it. Notions of "work" as an activity were being redefined during this period. More and more people could purchase goods and services which were not necessities.

The Introduction to Prosperity and Thrift and The Prosperity of the Coolidge Era argue that "Always associated with self-restraint, moderation, and frugality, thrift now came to acquire the meaning of 'wise spending'." One of the important tasks for influential leaders at this time was to find new ways to retain America's old values while adapting them to new circumstances.

Mass-Circulation Magazines

Mass-circulation magazines documented the mass-consumer economy of the time and the increasing electrification of homes. The following activities provide opportunities to analyze several of these magazines, all from 1926: Good HousekeepingCountry Gentlemen, and Household Magazine.

Introductory Assignment

  1. Go to the sections Introduction to Prosperity and Thrift and Merchandising and Advertising for an overview of this lesson's topic. Links provide access to documents that explore more specific subjects.

  2. Reflect on the magazine titles to understand their focus. Review the "Table of Contents" and investigate the entire issue of each magazine.
    • What meaning[s] does each title seek to convey?
    • Who is the intended audience?

Specific Assignments

  1. Good Housekeeping is the only one of these magazines which is currently published. Compare and contrast a current issue with this issue from 1926. Consider such things as the content and subject matter of the articles, the full range of advertisements, and the artwork and illustrations.
  2. Country Gentlemen is no longer published. What magazines are currently aimed at the same audience? Find an issue of such a magazine and do the same analysis suggested for Good Housekeeping. Make reproductions of selected pages, as they provide useful visual comparisons.
  3. The Advertisement Gallery provides an opportunity for an analysis of advertisements of the developing mass-consumer economy. Each ad provides a window into the world of people like Mrs. Lathrop. Use the Primary Source Analysis tool as you study these ads. Your teacher may have additional questions to guide your analysis.

Lesson Four: Women and the Mass Consumer Society

Christine McGaffey Frederick's Selling Mrs. Consumer, published in 1929, provides factual material, but also illuminates the larger issues relevant to women as consumers, and to the development of a mass-consumer economy.

Introductory Assignment

Provide the answers for these questions that are raised in Selling Mrs. Consumer:

  1. What are the characteristics of the "New Woman" emerging in the 1920s?
  2. What is the relationship of the mass-consumer society to this "New Woman?"
  3. What are the essential elements of electrification, both technological and social?
  4. How has the process of electrification affected women in particular, as well as men?
  5. What impact has electrification had on the household?
  6. What is the relationship of electrification to the developing mass-consumer society?

Specific Assignments

  1. Host a radio show.
    • Create a radio interview program with Mrs. Frederick as the guest. Choose a "show host" to pose questions to Mrs. Frederick and her staff. Different classmates may alternate role-playing Mrs. Frederick.
    • Write and perform commercials for consumer products from the magazines in Prosperity and Thrift, 1921-1929. The actual text for the ads can come directly from the ads in the magazines. Create a real radio show atmosphere. Include music in the the show, perhaps from Edison recordings from Inventing Entertainment.
  2. Enter contests in Good Housekeeping. Select one:
    • "My favorite appliance is . . ."
    • "I would like a set of appliances[Name them] because . . ."
    • "How electricity has changed my life"
    • "How electricity helps the man of the house"
    Questions for the man of the house:
    • "What arguments would you accept as reasons to purchase electrical appliances?
    • "What are the reasons you want electricity in your home?"
  3. Enter a contest in Country Gentleman in 1926 aimed at the rural readers. Write a letter to the editor in 250 words or less explaining how life on the farm has changed with the availability of electricity. Assume that children are a part of the family you write about.
  4. Read the following:
    Prosperity: Fact or Myth by Stuart Chase is a summary of the economic conditions of the 1920s. Chapter IV looks at "the specific goods and services delivered to the ultimate consumer."
    • Answer the following questions about the Chase article:
      1. How is Middletown linked to the larger world (p. 55)?
      2. Chase analyzes the classes of Middletown. Identify some of the characteristics of the different classes. (p. 55)
      3. Summarize Chase's findings about working class houses valued at less than $2500. (pp. 56-7)
      4. Summarize Chase's findings about houses valued at $2500 to $4500. (pp. 57-8)
      5. Summarize Chase's findings about houses valued at $7500 or over. (pp. 58-9)
      6. The rest of the chapter (pp. 59-63) covers a variety of characteristics about homes of the 1920s. Identify those statistics which focus on aspects of electrification and usage.
  5. It is 1926. You have just moved into a new house with electricity. As a housewife you have been reading Good Housekeeping and other magazines, including those with articles by Christine Frederick, the author of Selling Mrs.Consumer. You want to purchase electrical appliances. What arguments would you use to persuade your husband to agree to such purchases?