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.
Yesterday’s Sparkling Vintage moment was a French concept, joie de vivre. Today we’re thanking the Germans for kaffeeklatsch, a term that dates back to 1888, from kaffee (coffee) and klatsch (gossip or chitchat).
The website etymonline.com quotes Mary Alden Hopkins from a 1905 cooking magazine: “The living-room in a German household always contains a large sofa at one side of the room, which is the seat of honor accorded a guest. At a Kaffeeklatsch (literally, coffee gossip) the guests of honor are seated on this sofa, and the large round table is wheeled up before them. The other guests seat themselves in chairs about the table.” Although any beverage, coffee or tea, can be consumed, a kaffeeklatsch carries a less formal connotation than a tea party.
Here in North America throughout much of the 20th century, kaffeeklatsches were enjoyed by homemakers, who might take a break from household chores mid-morning or midafternoon to gather with neighbors around one of their kitchen tables for coffee and chitchat. Now, with many women working full-time and those at home too busy to sit and chat for an hour, the kaffeeklatsch tradition has pretty much fallen by the wayside (although there’s a loose workplace approximation–the coffee break). Perhaps the modern equivalent is the playdate, where parents chat while their children play together. It doesn’t seem like quite the same thing, though.
Perhaps we need a kaffeeklatsch revival–well, maybe not the gossip part, but certainly the caffeine and conviviality. And the coffee cake. Here’s a recipe from a 1950s church cookbook to inspire you.
CINNAMON COFFEE CAKE
1 c. flour
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
3 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. cinnamon
3 Tb. butter, melted
1/2 c. milk
1 well beaten egg
Sift all dry ingredients together, then add the melted butter, milk and egg. Put in wide shallow pan and sprinkle with granulated sugar and cinnamon. Bake 20 minutes in moderate oven (350 degrees F.).
The recipe writer notes with brutal honesty, “This is good with morning coffee but should be made just before eating. It isn’t good after it stands.”
Do you think the kaffeeklatsch is a tradition worthy of reviving? Why or why not?
My husband and I watched a fascinating documentary last night via Netflix. Top Secret Rosies tells the story of the highly talented and dedicated women who worked as “computers” for the U. S. government during World War II (at the time, the term “computer” referred not to the machine, but to the person doing the computing). Civilians all, these women used their well-educated mathematical minds in ballistics research for the military to increase the accuracy of weapons’ trajectories–in other words, to increase the likelihood that the torpedo or rocket would hit its target, no matter what weather or other atmospheric conditions prevailed.
This was fascinating stuff. I will set aside (temporarily) my personal feelings about things like carpet bombing and Hiroshima. I will also set aside (temporarily) my complete and utter awe of people who function easily in the world of higher mathematics, when the simplest calculations make my brain fog over like London in a Dickens novel. My focus here is on the women and the work the did, and the fact that they did it.
As I trawl around the blogosphere, I find a couple of common fallacies about women and work. Depending on the blogger’s personal and political ideology, it usually goes something like this:
“Before 1965, women were chained within their kitchens. The rare woman who sought a career outside the home was treated as a social pariah and blocked at every turn as she bravely trampled down barriers so that future generations of women would not be chained to their kitchens.”
or, at the other extreme,
“Before 1965, women sang joyfully within their kitchens. The rare woman who was forced by circumstances to work outside the home was an object of pity. If she worked because she (gasp) liked it, her family suffered for her selfishness, or she had to forgo family life altogether and return every night to a lonely supper of crackers and canned soup, which is exactly what she deserved.”
The first group attacks the second group by questioning their values. mocking all things domestic and calling women who pursue them all sorts of ugly names.
The second group attacks the first group by questioning their values, mocking all things industrial, and calling women who pursue them all sorts of ugly names.
Ladies, can we stop all this? Just stop.
Now, there will always be exceptional women like those portrayed in Top Secret Rosies. No one’s suggesting that their lives are typical of every woman. After all, if they weren’t extraordinary, why would someone make a documentary about them? In Top Secret Rosies, most of the “women computers” eventually married and had children. Mind you, not necessarily during wartime, when they were working ’round-the-clock on secret government projects. But within their lifetimes, there was room for both public and domestic lives. Let’s just say they did their part to contribute to the postwar Baby Boom. For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1).
The point of this post is that most women’s lives are, and always have been, an ebb and flow of varying responsibilities, even in the “bad old days” when they were “forbidden” to work, or in the “good old days” when they were “protected” from it.
When I worked full-time away from home, I was still a homemaker, in that I had a home to care for and a mouth to feed, even when it was just my own. Now that I’m at home most of the time, I’m still a businesswoman in that I have clients to serve, meetings to attend, and [sometimes infuriating] software to master. This is the case with most women I know. So why do we feel we have to choose a side and dig in our heels about it?
Just this morning I was reading in the Bible about Lydia, the “seller of purple cloth” who supported the apostle Paul’s ministry out of her abundant resources. Lydia may have been exceptional for her time. She may have been a single woman without children, or a widow with grown children (for everything there is a season), which would explain the freedom to travel around that was unusual for a female in her culture. But in the end, the important thing was not whether she was a businesswoman or a homemaker, or a bit of both. The important thing was that she followed Jesus Christ. That’s what she’s remembered for.
No matter what else I may or may not do in life, no matter what “season” I find myself, I hope the same will be said about me.