The only time any teacher talked about birth control at my rural Idaho high school was in a home economics class. I took the class, called Parenting Skills and Child Development, mostly to plug a hole in my schedule that semester. Well into college, whenever I mentioned that I took a parenting class in high school, people would almost reflexively snicker: Isn’t parenting a set of skills everybody should just have? My sophomore-year roommate said, “I just think of classes like that as classes for idiots,” and went on to snark that we needed more classes telling people how to avoid becoming parents in the first place.
I pointed out that my parenting class had done just that—though the district’s abstinence-only policy meant that students had to be given the choice to go to the library instead of watch our middle-aged teacher roll a condom over her fingers—and went on to argue that if parenting were a universal or obvious set of skills, it wouldn’t be the subject of research or controversy, and child-abuse courts would be empty. But my arguments were largely a lost cause, and I wasn’t surprised. It took actually completing the class to turn me into a believer, too.
Since its inception, the discipline of home economics—which had changed its name to Family and Consumer Sciences by the time I was in high school—has been dogged by two slightly contrary assumptions. The first is that every young girl ought to know how to do the things taught in home ec classes anyway, having learned those skills at home or just being innately inclined due to, well, being female. The second is the assumption that cooking, sewing, household budgeting, interior decoration, and childcare are trifling activities to begin with; women’s quotidian labor unworthy of classroom time, research, or serious investigation.
But in fact, the movement to create a system of formal education about domestic matters was founded largely on the notion that nothing about cooking, sewing, cleaning, or parenting was intuitive—and certainly none of it was inherently feminine. Early home economists sought to simultaneously elevate the perceived value of domestic work and to create career opportunities for women. Founding documents of the American Home Economics Association in 1908 addressed “students, investigators, housekeepers, institution managers, social and municipal workers, interested housewives and homemakers, professional workers in allied fields.” By dint of its interdisciplinary focus, the field had even struggled to settle on a name at first (early proposals included “oekology” and “euthenics,” the latter of which was defined as “the science of right living”).
Home economics was initially a university-based discipline: The first department in the country devoted specifically to the subject was established at Kansas State in 1873. It then caught on in high schools, cooperative extension services, and later, private industry. Many of the first home economics departments opened at land-grant colleges created by the Morrill Acts, and the home ec movement arguably extended the acts’ mission of creating a formal educational discipline devoted to passing on traditional skill sets, as well as conducting research on best practices and keeping the public updated on the latest developments in those disciplines.
At the same time, many arguments for elevating the status of domestic skills were shrouded in the rhetoric of the 19th-century “cult of domesticity,” which stressed the nobility not just of female work, but of a selﬂess feminine affect. In 1978’s For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women, one of the first works of feminist scholarship to look at the origins of home economics (if also one of the least sympathetic), Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English argue that increasingly sentimental attitudes about domestic life were largely a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. As the public sphere became increasingly urbanized, mechanized, and dehumanizing, the home was elevated as the only institution where people, particularly overworked men, and later children, were seen as having inherent worth.
The rise of home economics as a discipline was closely linked with the push to make higher education available to female students. Ellen Swallow Richards, one of the founders of the discipline, became the first female student at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology in 1871—but she was only admitted as a “special student,” which saved her tuition but also kept her name off MIT’s official roster. She was also forced to study in a special corner of the chemistry lab. Similarly, many schools effectively confined women to their colleges of home economics, with some offering feminized versions of majors available to men elsewhere on campus. (While home ec classes were technically open to all college students, it wasn’t a popular major among male students.) Still, many of the movement’s founders were also involved in the movements for women’s suffrage and education, and some home economics departments offered courses that explicitly discussed women’s roles in society: In 1909, the University of California at Berkeley offered a class called “The Household as Economic Agent,” and in the 1910s, Cornell offered courses called “Woman and the State” and “Women in Industry,” as well as histories of housekeeping.
But there was a significant gap between what founders intended to do with home economics—to recognize domestic work as a skill and to improve the efficiency and safety with which it was performed, and to raise questions about the economics and justice of the work itself—and what college administrations seemed to want home ec departments to do for women students—to perpetuate a patriarchal, capitalist status quo.
In the 1920s, advertisers turned their eyes toward the fortunes of the newly savvy middle-class housewife, and home economists noticed. Some were skeptical and critical (covering labeled soup cans with paper to avoid subjecting students to more advertising, for instance); others wholly embraced the trend. Christine Frederick, a contemporary of Richards, penned the 1929 book Selling Mrs. Consumer, in which—after dedicating the book to Herbert Hoover—she argued for more efficient and scientific management of the home, as well as suggesting that manufacturers deliberately give their goods short life spans to keep women buying. Frederick had previously written that “our greatest enemy is the woman with a career,” and presaged the Phyllis Schlaflys and Caitlin Flanagans of contemporary America by making a tidy income arguing that women shouldn’t work; Selling Mrs. Consumer was an effort to underscore the home as women’s rightful sphere. (To be fair, Frederick also said advertising should be honest and informative.)
The emerging connection between domesticity and industry opened up a new career path for the home economics graduate. During the second quarter of the 20th century, and for decades after, a new home economics graduate was also likely to go into industry or marketing. In 1929, Mansfield State Teachers College home ec professor Lucy Maltby approached executives at Corning Glassware to tell them their Pyrex line of bakeware was impractical for modern home cooks. She came in with a few sketches suggesting improved textures and sizes more compatible with published recipes and modern ovens. Corning, whose sales had stagnated, subsequently created a home economics department to test new products and get the “woman’s perspective” on their wares. In 1921, Mercedes Bates, a home economist working for Washburn-Crosby (which eventually became General Mills), decided the company should start signing a person’s name when they responded to customers’ answers to baking questions, and Betty Crocker was born. In the 1930s, a portrait of Betty Crocker was created from a composite of dozens of women who worked for the company; in 1949, General Mills hired actress Adelaide Hawley Cumming to perform televised cooking demonstrations as Betty Crocker, which she did until 1964. Other food and cookware companies hired demonstration agents to teach cooking classes through department stores or at events, though the success of the Betty Crocker persona (who many believed to be a real person) is unique.
Home economists also worked in hospitals as dietitians and for electric companies in the 1930s, touting the value of electrification to rural families and for city families, the power of refrigerated food. Likewise, ice companies enlisted home economics graduates to urge families to keep their iceboxes.
In the 1950s, home ec departments at universities underwent a gradual but noticeable upheaval. Historian Megan Elias, author of the 2010 book Stir It Up: Home Economics in American Culture, notes that many of the first home ec professors reached retirement age in the 1950s and ’60s. As they did, they weren’t replaced with an up-and-coming crop of female professors (most home economics graduates were women), but instead with male professors—who usually ended up earning far more. In many cases, home ec departments were eliminated, renamed, or folded into other departments, and funding was cut (although administrators’ salaries typically rose). “Administrators, all male then, held skeptical and hostile attitudes toward home economics, even as they expressed unabashed ignorance about the field,” Margaret W. Rossiter writes in Rethinking Home Economics. “Those at prestige-conscious universities confessed to a growing sense of embarrassment at the field’s strong vocationalism and explicit links to teacher education (often required by state law). They pointed to the low proportion of doctorates among home economists and observed openly that most of its faculty consisted of women (usually 90 to 100 percent), especially older and single ones. To them such female domination constituted proof that the field was out of date.” This became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as home ec curricula were made lighter and less interesting.
By the mid-1960s, home ec’s status—and that of feminine domesticity in general—was flagging. Having already weathered the male backlash, and ensconced in a culture that, contrary to Michael Pollan’s recent claim, had come to favor frozen TV dinners, Campbell’s soup, and other convenience foods, home ec now faced another backlash—this time from second-wave feminists. Elias notes that at the iconic 1968 Miss America protest, feminists burned not just false eyelashes but copies of popular women’s magazines, including both Cosmopolitan and Ladies’ Home Journal. “It would probably have shocked these protesters deeply to know that their basic message was one that home economists had been advocating since the beginning of the 20th century. And it might have shocked home economists just as much to realize that the Miss America pranksters were on their side,” Elias writes, noting that early home economists attempted to create better-educated consumers and believed that kitchens and clothes should be designed to fit their bodies and not the other way around.
Elias goes on to note that the rise of DIY culture in the 1960s and ’70s—in radical movements as well as in the popular vegetarian cookbook–slash–hippie manifesto Laurel’s Kitchen—appealed not just to rather woo-woo notions of the sacred feminine hearth but more specifically to a romantic notion of old-world womanhood: “For all its aura of newness, even the radical Laurel’s Kitchen was steeped in the same kind of progressive nostalgia that can be found in the writings of the early home economics movement…. The women’s own mothers, however, who came of age in the era of the dream kitchen, might not have been so comfortable there.” Even Ehrenreich and English, while largely disdainful of both the early home economics movement and its 1960s and ’70s manifestation, can be found romanticizing the older, immigrant woman, and in fact accuse the home ec movement of killing women’s traditional skill sets and values. Calling the 19th century “the heyday of professionalization,” a time when occupational groups ranging from doctors to social workers began to organize and create stringent criteria for membership, Ehrenreich and English write, “It was only natural that the homemaking experts would organize to elevate their area of expertise beyond the state of recipes and household hints and onto the higher ground of scientific professionalism.”
Emily Matchar’s 2013 book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, an examination of the recent resurgence of DIY culture, opens with the observation that references to grandmothers are everywhere in early-21st–century culture: from menus at farm-to-table restaurants to Michael Pollan telling us not to eat anything our great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (My great-grandmother worked in a french fry factory, so that’s fine with me, though I think she’d be fairly suspicious of the quinoa and Technicolor heirloom veggies I eat now.) Matchar’s analysis falls flat in many places—she fails to note that the omnipresent grandma is just as often invoked not as a symbol of rustic authenticity but of prudish poor taste by marketers selling craft products to young women.
Still, Matchar notes that the current cultural love affair with all things diy is inextricably linked with the libertarian spirit that permeates our contemporary lives. While she even stretches that point a bit too far—saying the DIY movement is full of “smart, educated, progressive-minded people, people who in other eras would have been marching for abortion rights or against apartheid,” as if knitting a sweater and marching on the Texas capitol were mutually exclusive—she notes that raising children is increasingly viewed as a set of individual choices rather than a job for the village.
Still, as public schools’ budgets shrink, the number of students who are offered home ec —er, Family and Consumer Sciences, as the discipline has been called since 1994—shrinks. The Family and Consumer Science Association says the percentage of secondary students receiving family and consumer science education was about the same in 2003 as it was in 1959—25 percent—but cautions that this statistic doesn’t break down the number of students enrolled in nine-week or semester-long classes vs. more comprehensive yearlong classes. After Mrs. Betts, my home economics teacher, retired, she wasn’t replaced, and her former classroom was turned into a certified nurses’ assistant training program.
While there’s a strong case to be made for replacing classes that teach a broad set of domestic skills with classes intended to give graduates a competitive advantage in a hobbling economy, it’s ironic that it’s happening amid a cultural conversation about the importance of cooking at home—and of almost relentless hand-wringing over the weight and overall health of American kids and teenagers. Maggie Michaels, the creator of the Curriculum of Cuisine, a cooking curriculum designed to be integrated within public schools, was a high-school English teacher in Portland Public Schools for 10 years before quitting to create the program. She told me she had a lightbulb moment teaching a post-lunch-period class: Kids were spending their lunch periods at fast-food restaurants or eating refined carbs and fat-rich food from the cafeteria, and would come back sugar crashing, exhausted, and unable to concentrate. Reasoning that kids would never thrive in school unless their physical needs were met, she created a curriculum that would be interdisciplinary (no need to hire a new teacher) and flexible enough to be taught in any high school. A similar program, the Portland Kitchen, offers after-school cooking classes to address both the high rate of food instability among students and Portland’s youth unemployment rate.
Michaels told me that the Curriculum of Cuisine has a deliberately modular design, and that it’s meant to be taught as part of standard curricula, instead of being a separate class: While the curriculum is being taught, math classes would address how to multiply and adjust recipes, history classes would focus on the history of food, chemistry classes would talk about the history of baking, and so on. That’s partly because schools seem increasingly unlikely to rehire specialists to teach domestic skills, and partly because they’ve already torn out the kitchens in the classrooms that formerly housed home ec classes. It remains to be seen whether a modular approach or a vocational approach to teaching domestic skills is more likely to catch on. I’m not aware of any efforts to teach sewing, or any practical domestic skills other than cooking in schools. And it’s more than fair to be wary of “teach poor people to cook and eat properly” campaigns, which can be as paternalistic as the late-19th-century experimental kitchens that sought to reform the habits of the urban poor.
Yet coupling discussion of domestic life—and domestic instruction—with academic institutions seems in line with the progressive ideals of the home economics movement’s founders. In urging a closer and more serious examination of ordinary lives, they sought to improve them, and taught students to look outward, to what Richards called “that larger home, the city.” The movement that gave us home economics education also gave us clean drinking water, public parks, and fire codes. In an era marked by increased austerity and a renewed celebration of traditional or domestic skills, I can’t help but think the public and private spheres are overdue for the kind of reconciliation home ec’s founders envisioned.