The history of "home economics" is both surprisingly radical and conspicuously regressive

Home Ec classes were touted by some as a way of freeing women; by others, a means of subjugating them

By Gail Cornwall
Published May 9, 2021 2:00PM (EDT)
Teacher and students chopping vegetables in cooking class (Getty Images)
Teacher and students chopping vegetables in cooking class (Getty Images)

What do you picture when you hear the phrase "home economics?"  Do you think of a high school classroom full of sewing machines, pots and pans, mops and brooms — in other words, a vestige of our sexist past? If so, you're not alone — and you're not completely wrong.

But it turns out such a stereotype misses the big picture, one that offers valuable perspective for today's parents. I learned this after I got my hands on a copy of "The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live," a new book by Danielle Dreilinger.

What was included in that "big picture" view, you ask? Bride schools! Practice babies! Instagram-worthy radio homemakers! You don't have to be a history nerd to find the information Dreilinger dug up fascinating. The education journalist went deep for this one, reading high school textbooks, catalogs, condolence cards, and more. She found that the history of home ec is one of hypocrisy, racism, and exclusion — but also contains a good deal to admire as well.

"They wanted to save women from drudgery," Dreilinger said of home economists. She notes that housework "used to be just backbreaking. . . Women's lives were being eaten up by pumping water from wells to put on a stove that you had to feed every morning with wood or coal. It was an enormous amount of work, and it didn't leave you any time to do anything else."

I recently talked to Dreilinger about what home ec's history can teach us about modern child-rearing, "adulting," and our best shot at gender equality.

Our exchange has been edited for clarity and relative brevity.

Let's quickly catch folks up on what home ec has meant to this country. Your mom majored in it, and then she became a little embarrassed of that. My mom was the first girl allowed to take shop class instead of home ec, and she always described it a bit like springing a trap. I realize now that both stories reflect a very post-1970 point of view. So I'd love if you'd give readers a little more context. What did you mean when you wrote, "Home economics was far more than baking lumpy blueberry muffins"?

Home economics started out as a way to systematize how you kept house so you did it as efficiently as possible. They wanted to save women from drudgery, to free them up to do other things, and then also to professionalize the home so that it could offer a career for women. In the 1920s, a woman trying to study chemistry wasn't going to find work in a chemistry lab, but she could study how the proteins of meat coagulate in a home economics lab.

The thing that blew my mind was that home economists were the ones who originated the food groups, they came up with the federal poverty level, the consumer protection movement, even the labels on our clothes and the school lunch program.

Yeah, they were responsible for enormous advances. They were extraordinarily pervasive because after they got popular, tens of thousands of women were studying home economics in college. It was how women got into business.

There was some quote about the kitchen …

Yeah, that was Lillian Gilbreth. Her kids wrote after the fact, "If the only way to enter a man's field was through the kitchen door, that's the way she'd enter."

But not all women felt the same way. I think of the "mommy wars" as a pretty recent phenomenon, but you wrote that in 1954 a group of Maryland moms complained about articles portraying homemaking—which we now call being a stay-at-home mom—as easy. They said the homemakers are the ones who "pick up the slack" for working women, watching their kids after school and running the PTA. That seemed to get at a central tension you identified between the home economists' instruction and their example. It was almost a "do what I say not what I do" kind of thing, right?

Yeah, definitely. So most home economists through World War II were not married or didn't have children. Married women weren't allowed to have careers. There were rules that visibly pregnant women had to quit their teaching jobs. So what you had was a lot of women who didn't have children working on issues about keeping a house and taking care of children.

You mentioned Lillian Gilbreth, the "Cheaper by the Dozen" matriarch in the 1920s and 30s. She had this idea that if you apply enough study you can find the "one best way" to do everything. Tell me a little bit more about that frame of mind.

They thought that taking care of children was a series of tasks. It was, "Here's how much you should be feeding kids" and "here's the timing of it." What the Gilbreths' became famous for, in the childcare realm, is just these incredibly efficient ways to run a household. Like, it was faster to button up a shirt going up and unbutton going down, or maybe it was vice versa, but Frank Gilbreth sat there with a stopwatch. They had a whole system of who could clean which parts of the house, and the littlest kids would dust the baseboards because they were close to the ground and dusting doesn't require fine motor control.

Coming from my mindset today, I'm like, "Look at this wackadoodle family with this mindset of regimentation in the home." But actually Eleanor Roosevelt was telling families that they needed to learn the "one best way" from home economists. It was a fairly pervasive idea it seems, epitomized by lab homes and practice babies.

So the "practice cottage" or "home management house" goes back to roughly 1900, and it looks like it was actually first done in one of the Black colleges. It was a home that home economics students would live in for, say, a quarter. It was self-managed and the students would be given a budget to feed everybody. They'd have to throw certain events to learn event management, the whole nine yards. Now, in reality, this is not what running a house looks like, right? You don't have 11 single adult women helping you run your house, or most of us don't.

I know I don't. What about the babies?

Starting roughly around 1920, college educators decided, "You know what we're missing in the home economics education experience? Child care. Well, let's just get a baby." And they did. They were most often borrowed from a local orphanage. So along with figuring out what people were going to have for breakfast, they had to figure out how to care for this baby.

And all the Cornell University practice babies got the last name "Domecon" short for the name of the department, Domestic Economy, right?

Yeah, so later on at Eastern Illinois University where this practice kind of went off the rails, their last name was North because the babies lived in the North practice house.

Tell us a little bit about Baby David North.

When practice babies began, people thought this was a great, scientific way to bring up a kid. Nowadays, of course, we look at it, and it just seems like the most bizarre thing, and where those wires crossed was in 1953. By then our views of parenting, what's good for kids and the role of the mother, had changed. Administrators at the college ended up getting in a big fight, and it just totally blew up and was national news. David North was in magazines with his photo next to Desi Arnaz Jr., Lucille Ball's son. Practice babies were out because the advice of that day focused on a stable bond between one mother and a child, and a father and a child. Which on one hand sounds right, but on the other hand, we could look back at it and see the sexism in the attitude that said, A, there's something wrong here because there's no man, and B, this idea that if the mother can't be a full-time parent for years her kid's going to be completely and forever screwed up.

And there was a second Spock-era shift toward instinct and flexibility as opposed to regimented scientific practices, yes?

Right, definitely. It no longer seemed like parenting was something that could be easily taught the same way that doing laundry can be taught. Different kids have different needs. Maybe this one needs to eat at a different time than another one.

Scheduled versus on-demand feeding is something we're still debating today. And that reminds me of another topic that turns out to be not-so-novel. You quoted Lillian saying, "The answer to home problems is to teach men how to combine a career and a home," and she says not to allow any member of the family to be a "parasite." Then by the time we get to the late 40s, we have Spock telling people, "You can be a warm father and a real man at the same time." But, "of course, I don't mean that the father has to give just as many bottles or change just as many diapers as the mother.... He might, for example, make the formula on Sunday." How did we get from one to the other?

These are good questions. I don't think that there was more of an expectation that men would be participating in the 20s. I think fathers combining career and family was always an outlier. But certainly in the 20s and 30s, the material from the Bureau of Home Economics said that these were tasks that had to be done around the house and anybody could do them, and there was nothing gendered about it. There was more emphasis in those days on woman as manager of the household as opposed to her role as a mother. Then what you hear in the 50s is much more gendered, like, "Nobody can take the mother's place in the home."

So the "one best way" is out, but when it comes to telling women what to do—I love this quote—you wrote, "Fortunately the burgeoning field of Child Psychology roared in to fill the gap." Tell us what you meant with that.

What happens towards the end of the 1930s is you have all of these developments in the field of child psychology. And that's great, but what this turned into as World War II ended and the country was going through enormous economic change trying to deal with the return of men from the war, is you have this shift in what the high school girls are learning. It's all sorts of stuff about how to have a close fulfilling emotional relationship with your family members. A lot of the home ec curriculum becomes about personal growth. It could have been this really deep way to get beyond the mechanics of sweeping. But the reality is appalling, because it's all this ridiculous stuff about what's the right way to be a girl and how to make boys like you.

Right, and it sounds like there's also a shift from having defined protocols around homemaking and toward this much more amorphous and unending standard for mothers, which we know is a recipe for perfectionistic suffering.

Yeah, and the textbooks, they all talk about the husband helping, but the women still were taught to do all of the mental work. So they'd be told to get the groceries and say, "Hey Mr., would you make dinner Saturday night? We're having chili. Here's the recipe." And then you have the emotional labor of trying to make people in the family happy, which, by the way, I've been told by mental health professionals is not actually my job. But women are taught that it's our job to make our parents happy, our partners happy, our children happy—or create the conditions for them to succeed and be happy. And with children, you have to make sure you support them, but we can't step in at the wrong time because then we won't build their independence. It's exhausting, and that is what I see in those textbooks. You can't ever be done with trying to have a close relationship with your family.

I tend to think of Instagram and Pinterest and yearn for a bygone time when there wasn't so much pressure on us, but it sounds like it was always there. There was always somebody telling you how to do things perfectly, including these home demonstration agents, whom you describe as a kind of proto Rachel Ray?

Women were hired to just go out into the community and have workshops for homemakers on things like slow cookers. They were very into slow cookers. The instant pot fixation is not new. You also had home economists working behind the scenes in business. The most famous one is Betty Crocker. There was a team of home economists who created Betty Crocker.

You wrote that there was no Betty! Every radio station had their own person voice Betty so some places she had a drawl and others a mid-Atlantic accent.

She was fictional from minute one. They call them live trademarks, which is kind of creepy. But these fictional characters were presented as real women. Aunt Jemima was exactly this. They would hire actresses to go to a fair, and Betty wrote responses to people who sent in letters asking for advice. Nobody ever admitted that she didn't exist.

And then also, I think you said at one point in the 1940s there were 14 radio homemaker shows broadcast live in Shenandoah, Iowa alone?

So the radio homemakers would chit-chat about their lives, and they would bring their kids in, and they would often record from their homes. That struck me as definitely the predecessor of these influencers and women who clean on YouTube, in that their whole appeal was that they were just folks like you. But in reality they were getting paid.

And in addition to these shows and home ec classes in high school, there's more formalized instruction in how to be a wife?

Oh yeah, the marriage courses.

And the bride schools. Tell us about those.

There were a few bride schools that were created by professional home economists in Japan to train picture brides, Japanese women who were going to be wives to white men in America. And then at the end of World War II, those bride schools had closed but the Red Cross picked it up and volunteers would train the Japanese women whom U.S. servicemen had married while serving in the Pacific. The assumption was absolute: They were going to be keeping house the American way for these American husbands. There was a real power differential. It's pretty painful to look at today.

And then there's also 1,200 colleges and universities by 1961 offering a marriage course where they were training American women to be American wives?

Yeah, which incidentally, how natural can this all be if it requires that much training?

Right. To a certain extent the whole book seemed to tell the story of two competing stances. On the one hand there was a college president who said, "There are not enough elements of intellectual growth in cooking or housekeeping to nourish a very serious or profound course of training for really intelligent women."

Yeah, M. Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr, 1901.

And then you quote others for the idea that a homemaker "need never be bored because she has plenty of opportunity for using her mental ability to the utmost." So this question of whether stay-at-home parenthood offers enough for personal fulfillment and whether it enables women to offer enough to society is still a topic of debate. In what ways do you think the home economists made headway on it?

I think the only parts of their fight that have been won are the ones we don't really see. Housework used to be just backbreaking. Women's lives were being eaten up by pumping water from wells to put on a stove that you had to feed every morning with wood or coal. It was an enormous amount of work, and it didn't leave you any time to do anything else.

But the pressure on women to maximize children's social-emotional state is not freeing them up the way early home economists would have envisioned.

 Totally. It's not like you can get your child-maximization work done by 10 in the morning.

There was a quote that jumped out at me from a critic who said, "Lo how the mighty have fallen" when it comes to comparing the initial vision of home ec with these sexist textbooks. Tell us a bit about your vision for the future of home ec, because I thought it was done and gone, but it sounds like that's not the case.

Home ec is not gone. At last count, there were at least three million kids in high school taking home economics. It's still a college major in more than 100 U.S. colleges and universities, and the thing is we don't see it because they rebranded to names like Human Development and Family and Consumer Sciences. By the way, I have to tell you that as I've been talking with you, I've been pacing around my bedroom and looking at how dusty the floor is and thinking, "Man, I really need to sweep the floor."

If only you had some low-to-the-ground children to do that for you.

I know. Anyway, it's still around, and it is much more progressive than it used to be, and some make it work more than others.

There was talk of teaching students about the role of the sewing machine in capitalism?

There's a teacher I met who had them research the politics of quilting. She was interested in teaching about e-textiles. But you have a lot of home ec classes that just teach kids how to sew and make pot holders. The class is a little bit torn today between career skills and life skills.

Right, and you make a couple persuasive arguments in that regard in the book. One was that if we don't teach them life skills in school, it's yet another burden that falls largely on mothers.

Yeah, and I think that's one reason why we should care. We should care because kids really enjoy this class. It is always hands-on, project-based learning. Really good for kids who are not so successful at sitting and doing math on a worksheet. It can still help girls get into applied science. I also just think that the visibility of house work and of child care is a real problem. I wrote the conclusion of the book in June of last year as women were dropping out of the workforce to care for their kids. Could I have finished this book if I had kids? Hard to think I could have finished it on time.

I'm sorry, what did you say? I can't hear you over my kids.

Exactly. Household labor is invisible. We don't count it in the economy unless you're paying somebody else to do it. I think about the arguments over this child benefit and people saying, "Are you paying people to stay home with their kids?" Well, that is work that has to be done. And if we don't look at that, it defaults to gendered norms and then you have this situation where all of these companies are finding it extremely convenient to pretend that they can have mothers work from home, doing their jobs while their kids aren't in school, and it just can't be done.

And if we have 3 million out of approximately 50 million public school students in the U.S., so about 6% in home ec, largely girls, what would it look like if we had much higher than 6% and if we had equal enrollment across gender?

I think boys will learn how to do stuff around the house, that's what I think it would look like. We would have much more equality in the knowledge of how to take care of a household. So many adults have told me, "I wish I'd taken home ec." They say, "I wish I'd known how to budget. I wish I'd known how to get a quick healthy meal on the dinner table." We're just talking about adulting. Our home lives would run much more smoothly if we had more knowledge of how to take care of the household.

When I'm listening to you now, as I'm hearing about lives running smoothly and elevating the labor women do, I'm hearing echoes of the early home economists. So the bottom line I'm getting here is that the work of home ec is unfinished.

Yeah, oh absolutely. They'd be thrilled at how much of the drudgery is gone, but they would be dismayed about the fact that women still haven't been freed up to do whatever they want to be doing.


Gail Cornwall

Gail Cornwall works as a mother and writer in San Francisco. Connect with Gail on Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.

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