Home Economics


There is a marvelous article in the New Yorker about Home Economics. Yes, Home Economics, and it was a fascinating read.

I wen through high school in the early 70s and we had Home Economics. I really wanted to take Shop instead, but girls were not allowed in Shop class, so Home Economics it was. We learned to do basic sewing and cooking, and I remember some interior design was thrown in there, too. The class gave me confidence in the skills it taught me, for which I am grateful. But because I was not allowed to take Shop, I have never felt confident handling drills or hammers. Ideally, we would have all been required to take both classes, but that's not how they thought back in that time period.

I remember reading a bit about the history of Home Economics some time ago when reading a biography of Lillian Gilbreth. The movement began in the late 1800s as a way for women to pursue science and engineering without upsetting men. Secondarily, it was a way of elevating the status of housewives, as well as endeavoring to make their lives easier and more efficient. In other words, it was purely and feminist-ly subversive.

Home Economics also created several new fields of study along the way, such as Nutrition and Dietetics. Clothing and Textiles was also a field: when I was at BYU in the late 1970s, you could major in these fields of study. Early Childhood Development was also part of the movement, as was the Culinary Arts. It was fun reading the article to see how women wriggled past the constraints men put on them at the time:

"Who were these experts on the well-run home? For most of them, home economics represented the only way they could enter scientific fields. Ellen Swallow Richards, one of home ec’s founders, wanted to be a chemist, and managed to get M.I.T. to accept her as its first female student, in 1870, and later as its first female instructor. So that other women could study there, she talked philanthropists into funding a women’s laboratory for research into sanitation and nutrition—close enough to proper feminine pursuits, if you squinted. When Martha Van Rensselaer arrived at Cornell, in the first years of the twentieth century, she tried to persuade a skeptical bacteriology professor to admit her to his course, despite her sex, because she would use the knowledge to explain the importance of a clean dishcloth. (He replied that there was no need—just tell women it was “nicer” that way.) With a clever home-ec fix, Lillian Gilbreth was able to support her eleven children after her husband, Frank, an industrial engineer with whom she conducted time-motion studies, died suddenly, in 1924. Gilbreth, who was Berkeley’s first female valedictorian, transferred the couple’s signature efficiency advice from factories to homes, figuring that manufacturers would listen to a female engineering consultant if the subject was housework."

The field of "Consumer Science" was also born from Home Economics. And there were many intersectionalities with other progressive movements, such as rural electrification. I enjoyed hearing about Louisan Mamer:

"a farm girl . . . who made her way to the University of Illinois after a girlhood of unrelenting labor on a farm with no electricity. During the Depression, Mamer went to work for the Rural Electrification Administration, trying to persuade farmers to get over their fears of fire or electrocution or the new, and sign up to join coöperatives that provided electricity. This was home ec at its most passionate and endearing. Mamer “saw a longer, healthier, fuller life for women,” Dreilinger writes. “No more headaches caused by squinting at books or mending under a sooty kerosene lamp. She saw laundry day freed of its shoulder-busting agony—lugging tubs of water from the pump up onto the coal stove, boiling dirt-encrusted clothes and linens, rubbing them by hand, wringing them through a hand-turned wringer, hanging them to dry, and ironing them with a seven-pound hunk of metal.” Women on farms worked, on average, between sixty-four and seventy-seven hours a week, and this, along with bearing many children, was killing them young. Mamer, a high-wattage energy generator herself, began touring small towns and farm areas with what became known as her electric circus, setting up ironing races between electric irons and the old-fashioned kind, and demonstrating bright lights, chicken brooders, refrigerators that chilled the ice-cream treats she whipped up for the audience, and other galvanic wonders. It was always a high point when she summoned up a couple of male pillars of the community, tied aprons on them, and set them to cooking in an electric kitchen. Dreilinger writes, “The funniest way possible to show the simplicity of electric ranges, she realized, was to show that even a man could use them.”

Not surprisingly, the author of the piece considers that it might be time to revive Home Ec classes in public schools: "Takeout and technology have deskilled us. Young people leave school unprepared for adulting, clueless about laundry, primed to annoy one another when they cohabit with housemates or partners." Certainly that is true. I once had a research assistant who bought underwear every week because she didn't know how to run a washing machine. Giving young people confidence to tackle their daily life chores might be a very compassionate thing to do.

Still, it's very sad that families are not passing on simple life skills. These skills produce resilience and confidence, and perhaps the increasing emotional fragility of the younger generation may have something to do with their cluelessness about the mundane. Maybe where we really need to re-introduce Home Ec is in the home?