Ellen Swallow Richards
According to several reliable sources, home economics classes are being added back into the curriculum at a number of schools. What is home economics, where did it go, and why is it now coming back? Tune in as Jennifer waxes nostalgic (or not) about her own middle-school home ec class, and lists five reasons why home economics matters.
If you’d rather read than listen, scroll down to find the transcript.
Mrs. Dunwoody’s Excellent Instructions for Homekeeping by Miriam Lukken
Today we’re talking about home economics, which is making a comeback in some schools after being basically ousted as a field of study for a couple of decades. What’s that all about? Grab your saucepans and your seam rippers and find out.
But first, a little news. My short story collection, SONGBIRD AND OTHER STORIES, is now available in paperback in addition to the eBook edition. This is especially gratifying for me, as this was the first book my husband and I self-published under our new imprint, Mountain Majesty Media. It was a learning experience and took longer than expected due to hiccups along the way. But it’s here now! So hop on over to Amazon or wherever you buy books and grab your copy. If you’ve not been introduced yet to my fiction, the short stories in SONGBIRD are a great way to sample my writing and see if you like it. It’s also a lot easier to give someone a print book as a gift, rather than an eBook. Hint, hint.
Also, You’re the Cream in My Coffee and Ain’t Misbehavin’ are getting some good attention with their spanking new covers. So check them out as well.
And now back to our topic: What the heck is home ec?
If you’re of a certain age, or if you talk to your mother and grandmother, you know about the home economics classes girls took in junior high or high school. It was also offered as a college major in some universities–one of the first college majors available to women. More on that in a minute.
The dictionary defines “home economics” as “the theory and practice of homemaking.” Wikipedia expands that definition into “a field of study that deals with the relationships between individuals, families, and communities, and the environment in which they live.” That’s so broad as to be virtually useless. In essence, if you manage a dwelling of any type, within a community of any type, you are practicing home economics. Over the years it has been called by various other names. My school called it “Home Arts.” My grandmother told me her high school called it “Domestic Science” back in the 1920s. But it was all basically the same thing: classes meant to teach young women how to be homemakers. Boys in those days were assigned to shop class instead, where they learned sturdy things like carpentry and welding and fixing engines.
Now, before we go any further, I must confess that I was a home economics failure, with a capital F. I attended middle school in the waning days of home ec, as it was being phased out of the curriculum.
I did all right at the cooking part of home ec. I have some good memories of making applesauce, chocolate pudding made with cornstarch, and Cornish game hens. My Cornish game hens were a great triumph, as I recall. But sewing was a complete and total disaster. I couldn’t sew a straight seam to save my life and spent many tearful hours with a seam ripper in my hand. I now know that I have real issues with spatial perception. I can’t envision at all how the pieces of a pattern are supposed to fit together and was forever attaching sleeves upside down or a neckline inside-out. Also, at age 12 or 13 or whatever it was, I had the patience of a gnat, and so rebelled at the tedious work of pinning and basting and hemming. Today I fervently wish I could sew, so I wouldn’t be limited to wearing the clothes that are available in stores, which are often poorly made and rather ugly besides. I’m terribly envious of those who sew well. (Is the word sewers? Because that looks like sewers when it’s written out. Are they still called seamstresses? Sewists? Anyway, people who sew. I envy them.) But even the words “inseam” or “facing” or “mercerized cotton thread” are enough to make my blood pressure spike.
When I reached high school, home ec classes were elective. So I elected to stay as far away from them as possible. Sadly, that’s been to my disadvantage, as I’ve had to learn so many homemaking skills the hard way over the years.
Over the centuries, of course, these skills were usually learned at home from mothers and other female relatives. Home economics as an academic field of study got its start in the 1800s as a means of teaching girls how to cook, sew, and manage a home economically. At that time it was assumed girls would be homemakers and boys would become breadwinners of the household. The field got a boost by the Morrill Act of 1862, which started the so-called Land Grant colleges to teach vocational subjects like mechanical arts, agriculture, and home economics. In the early 1900s home economics was organized into a formal field of study. Prominent women such as Catherine Beecher and Ellen Swallow Richards were at the forefront of the movement. Richards helped form the American Home Economics Association, today called the Association of Family and Consumer Sciences. Catherine Beecher was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sister, for those who are curious. Harriet, of course, was the author of the landmark novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Beecher and Richards and their ilk organized Home Economics around seven areas: cooking, child development, elementary education, home management and design, sewing, budgeting, and health and hygiene. I only recall studying cooking and sewing at my school, although it’s possible we touched on other subjects that I simply don’t remember. I do remember one memorable unit on how to buy a bra, with a bright pink booklet issued by one of the major bra manufacturers, like Maidenform or Playtex. I kept that booklet for a long time. Wish I still had it; it might fetch a pretty penny on eBay. I also remember all of us girls laughing at each other as we applied beaten egg white to our faces, so I suppose there must have been a unit on skin care. But mostly I remember cooking and sewing. I definitely don’t remember discussing child development or elementary education topics.
But back in those early years, home economics emerged throughout the early 20th century as a movement to train women to manage their households and to sort of professionalize job of homemaker. Some schools had “practice homes,” where students would live together and work in actual homes. Some childcare classes were taught using infants temporarily borrowed from orphanages, or from daycare centers set up at the schools for mothers who worked. At the same time, more and more consumer goods were becoming available to the general public. Interestingly home economics moved from an area of production–producing things for the household, such as cooking, sewing, and gardening,–to consumption–how to buy things and become an expert consumer.
After World War II, the so-called Second Wave Feminism led first to home economics classes being opened to both women and men, and later pushed them out entirely as being sexist. Vocational courses in general declined during this period as high schools focused on preparing students for college instead of vocational work, and especially for taking tests in the “No Child Left Behind” era. Then as now, homemaking in general was derided as being somehow less important or less valid than pursuing a professional career outside the home. First of all, that’s hogwash. Homemaking is extremely important to our families and society at large. Witness the range of problems, from childhood obesity to fractured family relationships, that come from a devaluation of homemaking and caretaking. And–newsflash–even professional career people need to make a home, unless they live in a hotel and eat all their meals in restaurants, which is unlikely. So getting rid of home ec to guide women into careers was a bit short-sighted, in my opinion.
But now, some schools are incorporation home economics back into the curriculum, often rechristened as “life skills.” They’re teaching kids of both sexes how to balance a checkbook, how to boil an egg, how to sew on a button. They’re teaching good nutrition, personal finance, and basic childcare, as well as topics like environmentally responsible house cleaning methods that weren’t a “thing” back in 1955. One downside is that there seems to be a lack of qualified teachers working in the field. With home economics eliminated as a college major, in many areas the demand for teachers outstrips the supply.
I think there are several good reasons that home economics needs to be fully reinstated in schools under whatever name. Aren’t schools supposed to prepare for adulthood? What better way to prepare than to learn the practical details of taking care of yourself and those you love? Here are five reasons.
1. Things all adults should know. There is no benefit in not knowing how to feed yourself and your family, or how to wash dishes or do a load of laundry.
2. Eco-friendly. Kids should learn how to fix things vs. replace them, to replace a button or repair a torn sleeve rather than buying a whole new shirt. It’s also better for the environment if they learn how to care for a home without using harmful chemicals.
3. Budget-friendly. Kids can learn how to save money by fixing things or making them instead of buying them. I think home economics went off track when the focus shifted from household productivity to household consumerism. Let’s bring back the production angle: to grow food, sew clothes, be well prepared and resourceful instead of running to the nearest big-box store for everything. Along with learning how to save money, we can also teach kids financial literacy, from how to balance a checkbook to how compound interest works.
4. Practical, applied use of other subjects, particularly math and chemistry. Working in the kitchen or at the sewing table teaches practical application of fractions or geometry or physics in a way that textbooks don’t. How do you follow a recipe, or a sewing pattern? How do you halve or double that recipe, or adjust that pattern to fit your particular body? What happens when you mix various elements of salt, fat, and heat, as a popular book addresses? These are practical applications of scientific and mathematical principles.
5. Safety. There are a lot of latch-key kids coming home to empty houses these days. They should know how to do so safely. How to cook a simple meal without starting a fire. How to handle the fire extinguisher if that first option fails. How to prepare and store food properly without getting sick. How to handle a sharp knife. And so on.
Those are just five reasons I think home economics should be reinstated in schools. What do you remember about home economics classes? Do you think they should still be part of the curriculum? Feel free to leave a comment at sparklingvintagelife.com/podcast. Look for episode 7, where I’ll also leave the show notes. And I’ll be back in a moment with today’s grace note.
Today’s grace note is a fun book called Mrs. Dunwoody’s Excellent Instructions for Homekeeping, by Miriam Lukken. The jacket copy describes it as “a delightful compendium of homespun advice, cleaning, and etiquette tips, traditional recipes, and Southern wit.” In it you’ll find vintage cleaning hints, kitchen and laundry tips, social advice, and ideas for entertaining, drawn from a variety of old-timey sources. In the spirit of this very podcast, the book promises “Now you can bring the wise, unhurried ways and charm of an earlier time into the 21st century.” Isn’t that what we’re all about?
And that’s it for today. Have a lovely week, enjoy the spring sunshine, and tune in again next Thursday when I’ll be back with another topic on A Sparkling Vintage Life.