About: Home Economics

What is Home Economics?

The term "home economics" may call up stereotypical images of girls busily sewing and cooking in 1950s classrooms, images that have led many people to view this field as fundamentally narrow, dull, and socially conservative. In the 1960s and 1970s, the women's movement was often critical of home economics, seeing it as a discipline that worked to restrict girls and women to traditional domestic and maternal roles. More recently, however, researchers in the field of women's history have been reevaluating home economics, developing an understanding of it as a profession that, although in some ways conservative in its outlook, opened up opportunities for women and had a broad impact on American society. There was always a significant degree of disagreement among home economists, and among the legislators, policy makers, and educators who supported them, about what the field's mission should be. Some were focused on the home, while others were more concerned with the broader social environment. Some saw home economics as a vehicle for creating vocational and economic opportunities for girls and women and for educating boys and men about domestic skills, while others sought to enforce traditional models of sex roles and family life. However, even the most conservative models of home economics offered some women a path to careers as teachers and researchers. The books and periodicals that are being made available through the Core Historical Literature of Home Economics project document the history of this field in all of its ambiguity and complexity.

Although the term "home economics" did not come into wide usage until the early twentieth century, efforts to formalize and teach principles of domesticity go back to the mid-1800s. Increases in literacy and in the availability of printed materials during the nineteenth century made possible the emergence of a literature on homemaking. One of the most influential early examples was the Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home (1841), written by Catharine Beecher (1800-1878), an educator and social reformer who was a half-sister of the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Beecher argued for the importance of domestic life and sought to apply scientific principles to childrearing, cooking, and housekeeping, and she also advocated access to liberal education for young woman, although she opposed female suffrage on the grounds that women should leave the public sphere to men.

Other forerunners of home economics were the cooking schools that began coming into being in the 1870s. Women such as Maria Parloa and Fannie Farmer, both of whom taught at the famous Boston Cooking School, offered instruction in preparing healthful, low-cost meals. At first they provided training mainly for professional cooks, but over time they opened up their classes to an eager general public. Teachers during this period also published some of the first cookbooks directed at a large popular audience.

An important event in the development of home economics as an academic field was the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862, which led to the establishment of land-grant colleges in each state. Until that time, American higher education had focused largely on teaching the classics and on preparing young men for white-collar professions such as medicine, law, and the ministry. The Morrill Act mandated a wider mission for the institutions it funded, covering not only the traditional curriculum, but also research and instruction in practical areas of endeavor. These included what were called the "mechanic arts," but the major emphasis was on agriculture, given that the United States was at that time still a predominantly agrarian society. Unlike most private colleges, the land-grant schools were open to women, and, over time, a belief emerged that farmers' wives were also in need of scientific training in order to carry out what was then understood to be their role in rural life: management of the household. Activities such as cooking, housecleaning, sewing, laundry, care of the sick, and sanitation were all to be transformed and modernized through the application of scientific theories and techniques. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the land-grant schools, along with a few private institutions, established courses of instruction in what was generally called "domestic science."

Ellen Richards (1842-1911) was one of the major figures in the emergence of home economics as a profession. As a young woman who had grown up in modest circumstances in a small town in Massachusetts, she defied convention by leaving home to attend the newly founded Vassar College, from which she received a bachelor's and later a master's degree. She went on to be the first, and for many years the only, woman to earn a degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After graduating, she taught at M.I.T. as an instructor of sanitary education. She was also active in public health and social reform efforts in the Boston area. Throughout her career, she emphasized the influence of environment on health and well-being.

Beginning in 1899, Richards, along with Melvil Dewey and other educators and activists, organized a series of annual gatherings that became known as the Lake Placid Conferences, because the first of these, and several of the later ones, was held at Lake Placid, New York. Out of these conferences, a movement took shape that slowly defined itself and began pursuing specific goals. At the first conference, participants agreed on the term "home economics," which was held to be sufficiently broad to cover a wide range of concerns, and they began energetic and successful efforts to promote the teaching of home economics in secondary schools and in colleges and universities. (Attentive readers will notice that the conference proceedings use unfamiliar spelling-a product of Dewey's spelling reform efforts.)

In 1908, conference participants formed the American Home Economics Association. This organization effectively lobbied federal and state governments to provide funding for home economics research and teaching, including adult education work through agricultural extension services, leading to the rapid expansion of educational programs. Over the following decades, home economists worked as homemakers and parents, and also played significant roles in diverse areas of public life. Many pursued careers in business, including the food industry, textiles and clothing, hotel and restaurant management, and interior design. Home economists also often found jobs in public-sector and nonprofit organizations in such fields as public health, institutional management, social work, housing, and, of course, education. In addition, home economists contributed heavily to public debate on a variety of policy issues, including social welfare, nutrition, child development, housing, consumer protection and advocacy, and standardization of textiles and other consumer products. The many facets of home economics are explored in more detail in the short essays that accompany each of the subject bibliographies on this web site.

- Martin Heggestad, Mann Library