Much More Than Muffins: The Women Scientists Who Invented Home Ec

The New York Times Book Review , May 04, 2021

In 1972, I was the overeager student who always raised her hand and preferred reading the encyclopedia to doing “something creative.” So I was not happy to be told that my seventh-grade courses would include home economics. It sounded dumb.

“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,” M. Carey Thomas, the president of Bryn Mawr, declared when the college rejected the field in 1893. Twelve-year-old me would have agreed.

In “The Secret History of Home Economics,” Danielle Dreilinger argues that we were wrong. “Home economics was far more than baking lumpy blueberry muffins, sewing throw pillows or lugging a bag of flour around in a baby sling to learn the perils of parenting,” she writes. “In its purest form, home economics was about changing the world through the household.”

Women trained in home economics wrote recipes for food manufacturers, invented clothing care labels and defined the federal poverty line. They set nutritional standards, demonstrated electrical appliances to rural residents, designed clothing patterns for female defense workers and pioneered radio programming. They served as military dietitians and endured captivity as prisoners of war. One of their number, Bea Finkelstein, developed food for the Project Mercury astronauts.

“Space food,” Dreilinger writes, “emerged as a fascinating engineering problem complicated by human nature.” It’s a good summary of home ec at its best: scientific, pragmatic and psychologically savvy.

The discipline began with Ellen Swallow Richards, a Vassar-educated chemist who in 1870 became the first woman to attend M.I.T. While earning her second bachelor’s degree, she researched water sanitation and analyzed mining debris. She appreciated chemistry’s application to everyday problems such as testing wallpaper for arsenic. In an 1879 lecture, she chose a subject that would define her life’s work: “Chemistry in Relation to Household Economy.” Richards and her followers would use science to eliminate drudgery and improve the home.

Home economics was very much an American discipline, aimed at improving the lives of ordinary people through practical science. It grew along with three new forms of higher education: technical institutions like M.I.T.; land-grant universities like Iowa State, which introduced domestic science in 1871; and Black colleges like Hampton Institute, whose “women’s labor” department dated to its founding in 1868. The field was racially segregated, and Dreilinger mines the archives of Black institutions to include African-American pioneers.

She interweaves Richards’s story with that of another strong-willed woman, Margaret Murray Washington. Born in Mississippi to a Black washerwoman and an Irish railroad worker, Washington received a classical education at Fisk College in Nashville. At her graduation dinner in 1889 she met Booker T. Washington, who hired her on the spot to teach English at Tuskegee Institute. She soon became the dean of women, and in 1892 she married the twice-widowed Washington. She embraced his philosophy of practical instruction along with the liberal arts. For women, that meant domestic science. “As the homes among the Colored race make progress,” she wrote, “so will the race itself advance.”

Washington added homemaking education to Tuskegee’s community outreach, offering advice sessions to the country women who came to town on Saturdays. In 1894, she edited a household manual for rural Black women, including her own essays on ventilation and how to dress. The manual and meetings foreshadowed the how-to publications and “home demonstration agents” that followed as federal and state agriculture departments incorporated home economics.

Although Dreilinger voices discomfort with home economists who preached middle-class norms to the poor, her history demonstrates that the field has always been about the good life as defined by educated middle-class women. In the 1910s, that meant technocratic science, economic regulation and, much to Dreilinger’s discomfort, eugenics. In the 1950s, it meant the suburban nuclear family and psychologically informed child rearing. In the 2020s, it means racial diversity, STEM education, environmental consciousness — and sniffing at Victorians like Washington for “classist” attitudes. The ideal of “one best way” runs through every era. What that way is changes.

A diligent reporter, not an intellectual historian, Dreilinger scants the broader context of the discipline’s evolution, viewing it instead through a contemporary progressive lens. She finds it paradoxical that people who supported women’s rights and food regulation looked favorably on eugenics and segregation. Few early-20th-century progressives saw a contradiction. These positions all fit into prevailing ideas of efficiency and scientific order. The women who replaced “domestic science” with “home economics,” tying their field to the ascendant social sciences, would be baffled by her bafflement.

Dreilinger chronicles home ec’s decline beginning in the 1960s and its frantic efforts to reinvent itself, most pathetically with cryptic new names. What is a school of “human ecology,” other than a sign of 1970s trendiness? “The only people I have met who know the term ‘family and consumer sciences,’” she writes, “are middle-school teachers or married to them.” Change the name back, she says. It’s good advice.

But the book doesn’t frankly confront the big question: As an academic discipline, does home economics still make sense? Women no longer need a ghetto to pursue careers in science or business. The problem of household drudgery has largely been solved. Maybe the field should go the way of natural history — scaffolding that served a vital purpose and then disappeared.

The field’s efforts at reinvention don’t inspire optimism. In the 1950s, Dreilinger writes, “home economists refocused on managing not the physical structure of the household but the people and relationships within it.” Instead of emphasizing what homemakers did, she observes, the new emphasis on “family life” focused on who they were, replacing skills with endless emotional labor.

But Dreilinger glosses over how much easier it was to manage a ’50s tract house than a 1930s farm or urban apartment. Keeping a homemaker occupied required new, absurdly high standards of cleanliness, child rearing and personal presentation. Alternatively, the housewife could get a job and pay others for child care, housecleaning and meals — which is what eventually happened. The pioneers of home economics respected the division of labor.

But the discipline’s origins lie in homemaking. In the 19th century, cooking, cleaning and provisioning constituted a laborious full-time job. A homemaker was, in effect, running a small factory. Laundry alone required a whole day of strenuous effort. “Modern conveniences,” from electrical appliances to packaged foods, changed the economics of home ec, moving production from the generalist housewife to the specialist business.

So subjects that used to live harmoniously under the domestic roof — nutrition, consumer research, textiles, child psychology — have grown apart. Cornell’s College of Human Ecology is still a research powerhouse. But a scientist using nanotechnology to develop fabric finishes isn’t working on household problems, and the research has nothing to do with nutrition or child development.

The one place that home economics still makes sense is where I first encountered it: in middle school. As it turns out, I loved the class, despite a paucity of academic content. We made aprons and, yes, blueberry muffins. It was home ec as the “stirring and stitching” that Dreilinger and her sources disdain.

But learning how to cook and sew — to make useful physical objects with sensory appeal — was deeply satisfying for a 12-year-old bookworm. It’s the same satisfaction that animates the contemporary maker movement. It powers innumerable YouTube videos and much of the Discovery Channel’s lineup. People crave control over their immediate physical environment. And they’re obsessed with food. Integrate some electronics and carpentry and you’ll have a hit — even if you call it home ec.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOME ECONOMICS How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live By Danielle Dreilinger Illustrated. 348 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $27.95.