This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Easy A: The SuperRad Story of Home Economics, first released on April 13, 2021. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
DANIELLE DREILINGER: So I did take home ec, I took home ec in middle school, alternating with shop, which was the rule in New York State at the time, this was the early 90s. And I actually just found my report card recently. And I got an A slash A minus.
NICOLA TWILLEY: I, too, got an A in home economics, although not in needlework, which was a separate class at my school. My homemade elasticated waist culottes were not a triumph.
DREILINGER: I remember very little of the class, I remember it not being very useful. I remember a unit on making muffins—the controversial and loved and hated muffins. And I remember sewing a stuffed animal by hand.
CYNTHIA GRABER: I remember basically nothing about home ec, though I know I took it in junior high—but luckily one of our listeners sent in a voice memo.
RACHEL: I’m Rachel, and I did take home ec. In fact, I took home ec in the same junior high that Cynthia attended.
GRABER: She really is a listener, I promise.
RACHEL: The only thing that I remember about cooking was that we were working in small groups and we had to make some sort of cheesy soup. And to try to achieve the desired rich creamy cheesy looking color of it, we decided to try adding food coloring, which was a terrible idea because it just made it look more disgusting.
GRABER: Fortunately, if I did have to make something like this, I totally don’t remember it.
TWILLEY: Buried trauma. I have to admit, I was hard pressed to think of anything I learned in home ec that I still use today, but then I realized: Christmas cake. I’m Nicola Twilley, and I make a fruit cake that is actually worth eating, thanks to home ec.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and apparently, according to Rachel and my very faint memories, I stitched a pillow in seventh grade home economics, and I will never make a homemade pillow again. You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. And in case you’re wondering, we do really have a point in sharing our random home ec memories.
TWILLEY: Our point is that we, and many of you, have it all wrong when it comes to thinking of home ec as old fashioned and kind of pointless. Home ec is radical and progressive. Or at least it was.
GRABER: This episode, we’re meeting the revolutionary women who founded home ec, and changed the lives of millions of people all around the US.
TWILLEY: It’s a tale that contains electric circuses, recommended daily allowances of all major nutrients, and the precise amount of steps it takes to make a lemon meringue pie.
GRABER: And of course we’ll discover the answer to the question: How did home ec lose its way and turn into just stitching and stirring, and could it become revolutionary again tomorrow?
TWILLEY: Before we get into studying home economics, we need to get into studying full stop—we’re going back more than a century here, to a time when most women weren’t going to school at all.
DREILINGER: It’s almost amazing to realize the extent to which young people didn’t go to school in the middle of the 19th century. It’s hard to imagine today, but as of 1850 only about half of white students were enrolled in school. And almost no non-white students.
TWILLEY: This is Danielle Dreilinger. She’s a journalist and the author of a new book called The Secret History of Home Economics.
GRABER: And Danielle set the stage for us—she took us back to the 1800s in the US before the dawn of home economics.
DREILINGER: So most girls learned at home. They learned at home, they might have a couple of years of education, I mean, there certainly are a few high schools for girls in that time, that you can read histories that talk about every single one of them.
TWILLEY: And thus, unsurprisingly, there weren’t a lot of women working outside the home in professional careers. Let alone science.
DREILINGER: There were almost no female scientists. You can similarly read books that call out every one of them.
GRABER: But at the same time, the world was changing. America was industrializing, there were factories and trains and steamships. Land grant universities were founded in the 1860s. The idea was to bring basically everyone, including farmers, up to date in the new scientific industrial age.
TWILLEY: As part of that, post-Civil War America was having kind of a wake up call about the home. The Industrial Revolution had transformed so many aspects of life but inside the home, things were much the same as they’d been for centuries. The American home was untouched by scientific progress.
GRABER: And this was just what a young woman named Ellen Swallow wanted to change. She’s considered one of the founding mothers of what would become a brand new scientific field of home economics.
DREILINGER: And the first thing that I learned about her is that she was the first woman to go to MIT. And that immediately just exploded my thinking about what home economics was. Because I thought like really everybody else, I thought that it was, you know, this patriarchal tool about keeping women barefoot and pregnant, or at the very best about you know teaching kids to make muffins and sew stuffed animals. And to hear that it was founded by an early woman scientist, a hardcore woman scientist, just opened my mind to what the founders were thinking.
TWILLEY: Danielle says that Ellen stood out as special from an early age. She won first prize at the Massachusetts county fair at thirteen for a loaf of bread and some embroidery. But she was also the faster reader in town.
DREILINGER: She was always devoted to education. Her father had a store. And she was a shopkeeper. And she did the books for him because he wasn’t very good at math. She read while walking across the town green to go to school. She read when she wasn’t helping customers after school. She ordered all sorts of magazines, because they were a newsstand. And then she would read the magazines before selling them.
GRABER: Ellen loved studying, she really wanted to get an education, and she went to one of the oldest co-ed high schools in Massachusetts. But the only even semi-realistic option for her to get a bachelor’s degree at the time was at Oberlin in Ohio. Danielle isn’t sure if Oberlin was too far or if Ellen couldn’t afford it—but she saved money teaching, and nursing, and helping her parents, and after six years, not only had she saved money, but a new school opened closer to home.
DREILINGER: Then Vassar opened, and she took the exam. And she got in. And she went to Vassar, where she studied first astronomy with Maria Mitchell, who was one of the very few women scientists. And then she discovered chemistry and really fell in love with it. But then after she graduated with a bachelor’s in chemistry, once again, you know, there wasn’t any place for her to go get more training.
TWILLEY: There was no school that offered further study for women. So Ellen wrote to a couple of commercial chemists asking to apprentice, and of course they said no. But one of them suggested that she should apply to MIT.
DREILINGER: And this was ridiculous. MIT was quite new. And it didn’t take women. And she wrote in and said, Well, but maybe would you take me anyway? And at first, the registrar held on to her letter for a few months, hoping that she’d just forget about it. And then she got lucky. It turned out that the head of the college believed in women’s education, and he made the case for her, and went to the mat with the faculty senate. And he got her admitted as a special student. So she wasn’t actually taking any classes and she wasn’t paying, she was basically auditing. And it was all for like plausible deniability. So that, you know, if anyone found out and criticized, he could say she wasn’t really a student, after all.
GRABER: But Ellen certainly thought of herself as an MIT student. She was so interested in answering questions about the world around her through chemistry, and in helping other women get into science. She even became MIT’s first female instructor.
DREILINGER: Her primary focus was public health. She did a lot of work on water quality, she did a survey of the entire state of Massachusetts’ water supply. And she also worked for a fire insurance company studying things like arsenic in wallpaper. And simultaneously, this was in the 1870s and 1880s, she really focused on getting other women educated in chemistry. So she had correspondence classes, and in-person classes for women teachers, and just interested women to teach them about chemistry so that they could pursue the field or teach young women themselves.
TWILLEY: But there weren’t any jobs for these women. Ellen was the exception, as a professional scientist—she was basically a unicorn. And as passionate as she was about science and its ability to improve the world, Ellen eventually realized she needed to meet women where they were.
DREILINGER: She began thinking about housewives. And famously, the Boston school superintendent came in and saw her working and said, and he meant to be like, sneering at her like, Oh, what good do you think this will do women in the kitchen? And she took it seriously, she thought, Well, what good can this do women in the kitchen? And from there it really blossomed out into this whole world of home science. And she wanted to bring science into the home, to make housekeeping more scientific so that women could spend less time and do things that were more meaningful. Like she had a vacuum cleaner, for instance. She tried out the early vacuum cleaners, she found they were way more efficient than sweeping. Great. There you go.
TWILLEY: She had this idea that on the one hand, science could make housework quicker, and on the other it could make it more interesting and respected. Women could be scientists of the home—Ellen wrote books on the chemistry of housework, and nutrition, and how to test for adulterated food.
GRABER: But at the same time, Ellen didn’t think that everyone needed to do everything at home—some things could be farmed out. Like cooking. She founded a kind of proto Boston Market, and she made inexpensive prepared food for working families.
DREILINGER: Because she saw that, you know, the productive labor, the productive work, economically productive, of the home had left. And so the only things that were left for people to do in the home, were just, you know, what she called something like “the tedious work never done.”
TWILLEY: Earlier, women’s work in the home had included weaving and butter churning and jobs that produced goods that actually had exchange value, that you could sell in the marketplace. But those kinds of jobs had been industrialized, and now all that was left was pure drudgery—and it wasn’t valued in the eyes of society.
DREILINGER: So, she thought that it was important for women to find a way to earn wages, but also just that the housework was not interesting, and it was not productive, and you should really spend as little time on it as possible.
GRABER: Thank you, Ellen.
TWILLEY: We said home ec was radical and revolutionary, and this is why. But when Ellen was getting going, in the late 1800s, there was no home economics yet.
GRABER: But there was another woman around the same time with some of the same high ideals that Ellen had.
DREILINGER: So Margaret Murray was a fascinating woman, a Black woman who grew up in Mississippi around the end of the Civil War. And she had to fight even harder to get educated than Ellen.
TWILLEY: Margaret was one of ten kids, growing up in a town without a single public school. But her family allowed her to stay home and study with a white Quaker couple, who she eventually moved in with. And Margaret persisted and eventually got herself an education at Fisk, which is a historically Black college in Tennessee.
GRABER: As she was nearing graduation, Margaret applied for jobs as a teacher but she hadn’t yet gotten one. And then one night, she went to a graduation dinner, and she happened to be sitting across the table from a man to whom she’d actually applied for a job, though he hadn’t gotten back to her. His name was Booker T. Washington. Yes, many of you in the US will have heard of him.
TWILLEY: Booker T. Washington was a leader—one of the leaders in the African American community, in that first generation post-Civil War. He was a huge advocate for education as a way for African Americans to advance their situation, and he built and led the Tuskegee Institute, another early historically Black college.
GRABER: And that dinner got Margaret a job at Tuskegee.
DREILINGER: First teaching English, then as dean of women, and then running home economics there, which was called “domestic science.” And marrying Booker T. Washington, she was his third wife.
GRABER: The domestic science program that Margaret ran encompassed a lot of the types of things you might imagine: There was cleaning and cooking and embroidering and ironing.
TWILLEY: In some ways, these were the kinds of tasks Black women would have had to do, unpaid, when they were enslaved, and the kind of things they would do in the few service jobs available to them, as housekeepers and maids. But Margaret didn’t see learning how to cook and clean as demeaning.
GRABER: This is also something that Booker T. Washington believed—that there was nothing demeaning in cleaning and cooking. He said that there was as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.
DREILINGER: And even though Margaret had started at Fisk, which was much more following the elite education model at the time, she adopted his perspective that it was really important to train women and Black women for the jobs they were going to have and the jobs they were going to be able to get. And that Booker T. Washington really championed this idea that this was not drudgery. This was not slave labor. This was important work that had moral value. And so simultaneously, Margaret saw her work as training women to have jobs but also training them to be moral leaders. She was like, we don’t train maids. We train moral leaders, young women who are going to go back to their communities. Because Margaret believed and said that one of the ways to free African Americans from the continuing effects of slavery was to help poor people live what she considered to be respectable middle class lives.
TWILLEY: Today, this kind of seems a little like telling Black people to act more white. But at the time, Margaret and many others felt that first of all, if African Americans led middle class lives, the white community would have to accept that there was no difference.
DREILINGER: And she also felt that you know even if the white community never came around, these people would be given the tools to live good lives and bring up their children and have self respect, and, you know self-respect for Black people in the 1890s was a political statement in and of itself.
GRABER: Margaret and her friends and fellow domestic science experts wrote a book together called, quote, Work for the Colored Women of the South. She also spread the study of domestic science to the network of Black colleges and inspired a lot of other Black women to follow in her footsteps. And so Margaret and Ellen were basically two of the founding mothers of what would become home economics.
TWILLEY: By the turn of the century, Margaret, Ellen and a handful of others had begun to get some real traction. Practically every agricultural college in America offered some form of domestic science type program, and in big cities like Chicago, Boston, New York, and LA, school kids were studying it too.
GRABER: There was an organization called the National Household Economic Association that had multiple chapters around the country, and the magazine American Kitchen reported on new developments in the field.
TWILLEY: But for this burgeoning field to achieve self-actualization and finally become home economics, it needed yet another founding mother. Annie Dewey.
DREILINGER: Annie Dewey, wife of Melvil Dewey. So Melvil… Well, let’s start with Annie. Annie worked behind the scenes for the most part, and she pulled together the legendary conference that you know, quote, unquote, created or codified home economics, that gave it the name Home Economics, which was the Lake Placid Conferences in Lake Placid, New York, where the Deweys had a resort.
GRABER: Annie and her husband Melvil—he of the famous library Dewey decimal system organization—they were both really into research. And Annie spent a lot of time thinking about how best to run the resort, which meant she was really interested in this new field of domestic science. She decided a conference would help spread the word about domestic science.
TWILLEY: The word conference makes it sound grand, but it was just a small group—not even a dozen. Annie invited Ellen Swallow Richards, who wasn’t going to come at first, until Annie somehow convinced her. They all gathered for five days in September 1899.
DREILINGER: And at this first conference, they famously decided that they should call the field “home economics” instead of domestic science or domestic economy, because they wanted to have a place in colleges, and they wanted to be respected professionally. And they thought that this was a more respectable and elevated term.
GRABER: The group believed that the home was looked down on by men, and so it was completely overlooked.
DREILINGER: And that women were going to build it into a place of power: They were going to spend less time doing house work, they were going to bring science into it so that they could be free to do more things. And they were going to take this sphere and turn it into a bunch of career paths, such as hotel management and nutrition and dietetics and teaching so that women could have jobs in business and science and chemistry.
GRABER: This was the first of many such annual Lake Placid meetings. And a lot of progressive ideas emerged from these gatherings. The group believed in valuing the work of seamstresses as much as the people hiring them. They thought both boys and girls should know how to build shelves. They thought women should be able to train for careers. And that we should all use science to make the home run most efficiently to free everyone up for everything else in life.
TWILLEY: So far, so awesome. Except for the minor detail that for starters, all the attendees were white. Margaret Murray Washington, who was defining the field alongside Ellen Swallow Richards—Annie didn’t even invite her
DREILINGER: There were no Black women or men who came to the Lake Placid conferences, and that’s because the resort was segregated.
GRABER: Melvil and Annie were kind of all around haters—no Blacks or Jews were allowed at the resort. And Annie got into eugenics—
TWILLEY: Which was a movement at the time. Eugenicists believed this pseudo scientific and totally abhorrent idea that there are biological differences among the races that justify racism and that the breeding stock of the world should be purified through the forced sterilization of quote unquote defective or lesser people.
GRABER: And just for the icing on this very unpleasant cake, the one man at the conference, Melvil Dewey, he was known in library circles as someone who regularly groped, kissed, and all around harassed women.
DREILINGER: He has been, to use like terms today, just like totally canceled. Because he and Annie were racist, and he was a sexual harasser. And this is like, all totally documented.
TWILLEY: So there’s a bunch of tensions there. One, the attendees are all women apart from a token sexual harasser, and yet their goal is to make work in the home equally valued by both genders, and work outside the home accessible to women.
DREILINGER: Right, so early on we, we have these, like core tensions of the field that were set. So like, you have women of color who are simultaneously central to the field and excluded from the field. You have this question of, you know, is this oppressing women? Or is it liberating them?
GRABER: This was an actual debate at the time, not something we’re reflecting on now looking back. The women debated whether focusing on the home as a science, and worthy of monetary value, even leading to careers for women—whether that was a boon for women or just another form of bondage. One of the big questions in home economics the whole way through has been: Is this oppression, or is this liberation? And it cut really deep in Black colleges for obvious reasons.
TWILLEY: Particularly in high schools, where men tended to be setting the curriculum, home ec was seen as maid training for women, and particularly women of color.
GRABER: And then in women’s colleges and universities, especially ones that were majority white, a lot of them weren’t fans of home ec for that very reason.
DREILINGER: The president of Bryn Mawr just said that domestic science was you know, too dumb for smart women. And that her students deserved the same curriculum as Harvard. And this is an argument that goes on today, right? We still are arguing over whether the purpose of college should be to get a job or to expand your horizons.
TWILLEY: The home economists at Lake Placid, with all their huge problems, they really thought home economics could do both. They believed they could use science to make this undervalued work in the home both easier and more interesting, and they thought that if they succeeded, society would then actually value that work.
GRABER: Of course there were some intellectual pretzels in this thinking. These women were trying to make housework more valuable, but they also wanted to find jobs for women out of the home. They talked a good game about believing that men were equally qualified to do housework—and frankly some of them, like Ellen, had really egalitarian marriages—but pretty much the only people hearing their message were women.
TWILLEY: And of course men who were in charge of high school curricula who jumped at the idea that women could be trained to do housework better.
GRABER: And all of these tensions, they mostly haven’t really been resolved, they’ve stuck around.
TWILLEY: Nonetheless, undaunted, these crusading first home economists charged forward. Within the decade, there were home economics departments opening at Teachers College at Columbia University and Cornell and the students were learning bacteriology and civil engineering for sanitation—hard technical subjects.
GRABER: The students in home ec—basically the women in home ec—they would go on to do some of the foundational research in nutrition and industrial design, they got jobs in advertising and food production, all sorts of career paths that would have been really tough to get a foothold in without the benefit of home economics training.
TWILLEY: It’s important not to underestimate how big a deal this was, in a world where most doors were closed to women. Home economics got women in the door in government and in huge corporations. And from there, they achieved big things.
DREILINGER: Often the first VP, woman in upper management of these consumer-oriented companies was a home economist who had come through the ranks.
GRABER: And this all was kicked off those early home economists in the first decade of the 1900s.
TWILLEY: World War I just cemented home economics as the hot new essential subject: women home economists were busy working for the government and the military, improving rations, saving cloth, and coming up with recipes to avoid deprivation on the home front.
CLIP WWI ERA SONG
SINGER: Sister Susie’s sewing shirts for soldiers / Such skill at sewing shirts / Our shy young sister Susie shows!
GRABER: And women in home ec kept doing great work after the war, too.
DREILINGER: In the 1920s, home economics just started this golden age, where it became everything that the founders had wanted. It was taught in most schools. It was taught in hundreds of colleges, you had the founding of the Bureau of Home Economics in the government, which had what was at that time, the highest ranked woman in government, Louise Stanley, running it. And she hired more women scientists than any other entity in the US. And they did radio shows, they did research into women’s time, they had time-use studies. They did studies on textiles, on how to make sure that shoppers weren’t being cheated when they bought cloth, on how to sew patterns for clothing that toddlers could put on themselves.
GRABER: Yes, in case you missed that, there was a US government bureau called the Bureau of Home Economics. They reached millions of Americans with their publications and they got back more than 15,000 letters a year.
TWILLEY: And a lot of women got pretty cool jobs working in home economics. Like Louisan Mamer.
DREILINGER: Okay, so Louisan Mamer was a real firecracker of a woman, her stand mixer’s in the Smithsonian. And she grew up on a farm. And she went to college and she wanted to be a journalist. But she realized, and many people will really cringe at this, that she was going to have a hard time getting a job as a journalist because it was a career for men. And so she became a home economist figuring that would give her a career where she didn’t have to compete with men.
GRABER: At the time, there was a New Deal program called the Rural Electrification Administration. Almost no farms had electricity, people had to do everything by hand. They had to go get water and clean everything in a tub and feed a stove with wood or coal, it was all incredibly labor intensive and hard.
TWILLEY: And the Rural Electrification Administration planned to change all that.
CLIP ARCHIVAL SOUND
VOICEOVER: As farm families watched, yard poles were put up, transformers hung, meters installed. The great moment had come. Electric lights began to go on, all over rural America. In the home and in the farmyard, electricity began to help the farmer. Modern appliances and equipment replaced overworked arms and backs. Grandma didn’t have to strain her eyes over her needlework. Electricity gave new enjoyments to all the family.
GRABER: Louisan was into this new program, she knew that electricity could help make things a lot easier for farmers and their families. She got hired as the home economist for the REA. But there was a problem.
DREILINGER: It would seem like it would be easy to convince farmers to get electricity. But it required forming cooperatives and taking out loans and you know, wiring things and changing everything about the way that you did things around your home and your farm. People were scared of it. They were like, it’s electricity, it’s like lightning, right? Isn’t it gonna burn down the house? And they realized that they needed a public education program. And Louisan Mamer did that. And she focused it on the wives.
TWILLEY: But after three years of visits and talking to women’s clubs and pamphlet writing, progress was still pretty slow. Louisan realized that people needed to see electricity in action. So she created an electric circus. Her first one was in Iowa in 1938. She drove into town, she set up a circus tent, and she held a mini world’s fair of electricity.
DREILINGER: And they had a cafe portion where all the food was kept warm by electric appliances. She had an ironing race, where people would see whether a traditional stove-heated iron or the electric iron worked better. They had a cook off between the big men of the community, and they put on aprons. And you know, the point was like, Oh, these electric stoves are so easy to use that even a man can use them. And she was the emcee of the electric circus and just thousands of people would come to these events to check out electricity.
TWILLEY: Louisan’s electric circus was a hit, and those thousands of people—they signed up for electricity.
GRABER: Electricity was awesome, it made things a lot easier. But the appliances were new, the designs weren’t necessarily great or super efficient—basically the house hadn’t really been optimized yet. Until Lillian Moller Gilbreth.
DREILINGER: So Lillian Moller Gilbreth is known as the mom in Cheaper by the Dozen. So many people have read the Cheaper by the Dozen book, and its follow up, Bells on Their Toes, and the movies that have been made about her. So what she originally was famous for is she and her husband, Frank, they were management consultants, they were engineers, they were productivity experts. They went into factories and analyzed the movements that it took to do a particular act. And then they made it more efficient so that work could be done faster. And they very famously had a dozen children, they had six boys, they had six girls, one of the girls died in childhood.
CLIP CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN
MAN: Are all these kids yours, mister, or is this a picnic?
FRANK: They’re all mine, and believe me, it’s no picnic.
BOY: Well look—
TWILLEY: Cheaper by the Dozen was written by one of those twelve kids, Frank Jr, and it is full of the totally bananas ways that the Gilbreths made their home work like a factory. Lillian did a time motion study of her kids to see which were freeloaders and which were carrying their weight, she wrote out their tasks on time slips with a number for each kid rather than their name, because numbers are quicker to write, so she saved a few seconds every time.
GRABER: This is just how Lillian and Frank approached the working world, too. Together, as business partners, they were famous for something called the Gilbreth System, where they found the quote One Best Way by filming, studying, and then systematically minimizing workers’ movements to make industry as efficient as possible.
TWILLEY: And they would be paid the equivalent of four and a half thousand dollars a day by big companies for this analysis and advice. Working as equals.
GRABER: And then, tragically, Frank suddenly died, at the age of 55, while he was on the phone with Lillian.
DREILINGER: But even though she was just as active in the business, after he died, she just couldn’t get clients because nobody was okay with a woman coming into a factory telling men what to do. And she recognized, this is in the 1920s, that home economics is booming. And she realized that she could take advantage of that to get work.
GRABER: Lillian became home ec’s industrial engineer. She helped one company redesign its ice boxes so women didn’t have to stoop to get eggs and butter. She helped another add a drainage hose and pump to the new electric washing machines so users didn’t have to drain that soapy water out into a bucket themselves.
TWILLEY: Lillian used her time motion studies to entirely redesign the kitchen to save steps. Her L shaped practical layout reduced the distance a cook would have to travel to make a lemon meringue pie by more than half, from 224 feet to 92 feet.
CLIP ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE
SALESPERSON: Since you folks have an old-fashioned kitchen, you know the amount of stooping and reaching that must be done. And the running from one corner of the kitchen to the other. During the last few years, our bureau and the land grant colleges have received hundreds of requests from farm homemakers asking for suggestions that would help them do their kitchen work faster and more easily. That’s why we’ve developed this kitchen.
GRABER: This might seem kind of strange now—today we wear step counters to make sure we’re doing enough steps! But women really needed to be spared some of their backbreaking labor, and so people bought these new kitchens that were designed by Lilian Gilbreth. That audio is from a film made by the Bureau of Home Economics about this amazing advance.
SALESPERSON: In this kitchen, that has made her task of food preparation so much lighter, the housewife can share her family’s enjoyment at mealtime. JOYOUS MUSIC SWELLS
TWILLEY: This truly was a golden age for home economics.
GRABER: In the 1920s, home economists created standardized clothing sizes from about five million distinct measurements. They were behind the creation of school lunch, which we discussed in our past episode on the topic.
TWILLEY: In the 1930s, the home economist Ruth Wakefield even came up with the recipe for the tollhouse cookie, which is often celebrated as the world’s first chocolate chip cookie. And then home economists stepped up again as World War II broke out.
GRABER: The army needed healthy men to enlist to fight in the war, but a shockingly high number of those young men were malnourished. So home economists did that early nutrition research, and they figured out what people needed to eat to be healthy enough to fight—their work turned into the food groups and the recommended daily allowance of different vitamins and minerals, or RDA, that we still use today.
TWILLEY: Meanwhile, the designer of functional clothing for the Bureau of Home Economics came up with a wartime women’s wardrobe. She designed a two piece farm suit with snap-on, snap-off sleeves, and ankles that could be drawn tight to keep out dirt and bugs; as well as a handi-coat tweaked to make shopping for groceries and carrying them home easier. It had zippered pockets and a tab to mount your shopping list on the sleeve.
GRABER: So cool! These women were designing super practical articles of clothing. One of the biggest complaints about women’s clothing over the past decades is usually how impractical it is.
TWILLEY: Still today women’s clothes don’t have freaking pockets or if they do, they’re tiny and not usable.
GRABER: Women in home economics were so critical to the War effort that the government made an entire movie about them. Voiced by none other than Katherine Hepburn.
CLIP WWII ARCHIVAL TAPE
HEPBURN: Our history is full of the inspiration which our pioneer women left us as a proud heritage. And again today, American women are stirred by that heritage, serving their country in the laboratory, on defense production lines, in the civilian defense services, and in the home—which is, after all, the first line of defense.
GRABER: Thanks to home economics, women had not only gotten super cool jobs like running electric circuses and redesigning newfangled electrical appliances, but they’d actually improved the lives of millions of people, both men and women.
TWILLEY: And on that triumphant note, it’s time to burst the balloon. Sorry folks, but things were about to go really wrong for home ec.
CLIP SPUTNIK ARCHIVAL TAPE
VOICEOVER: Moscow newspapers were first, then headlines around the world echoed the news: Russia had blasted a man-made moon into outer space.
GRABER: Russia sent the first ever satellite into space in 1957, and yes, it did actually have an impact on home ec.
VOICEOVER: Soviet films of student groups tracking the satellite underscore the emphasis on science in Russian schools. It is a challenge that President Eisenhower has said America must meet to survive in the space age.
DREILINGER: After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the US really flipped out about what are we doing in education? Why are we behind? What do we need to do to catch up? So they immediately began talking about how we needed more science. You know, the first of what later became like a wave of come to Jesus moments in education, where people said, we need to do more hard academics, we need to do less of this lifestyle stuff.
TWILLEY: Home economists at the college level had fought hard to show that their curriculum was based on real, hard science. But in high schools, the critics were right: home economics had become, honestly, pretty much cooking and sewing. It was lifestyle stuff.
GRABER: This divide between the professionalized home ec in college and what went on in high school was an issue from the start, as we already explained. Women usually ran the home ec programs in colleges, but men were mostly in charge of high school, so those were really focused on housekeeping.
TWILLEY: But home ec got way more gendered and honestly kind of irrelevant after the war. What happened?
DREILINGER: Right. So, you know, one of the questions that I took the most time trying to figure out during my research is, okay, this is how home ec started. Here’s the founders’ vision. So how did it become what we think of it as? I have spoken to I don’t know how many people telling me about their home ec classes from the 50s through the 90s, where they weren’t doing much that was useful. That was very much not this vision.
TWILLEY: Part of the problem is just that the high school curriculum isn’t really structured to mix biology and chemistry and math with household examples. The chemistry teacher would teach straight chemistry, pure chemistry—and the home ec teacher would teach baking.
GRABER: But there were also a lot of bigger societal changes going on. For one, women were forced back into more traditional roles in the 50s when men came home from the war. This was the time of the ideal, at least in the white community, of Leave It To Beaver.
CLIP LEAVE IT TO BEAVER
VOICEOVER: Leave it to Beaver!
JUNE: Wally, Beaver!
GRABER: And so it made sense that home ec became just basically housework for women.
DREILINGER: I read all these textbooks, like one of them said: “Home is a place my father is proud to support, my mother is glad to keep and my friends are happy to visit.” Gag me.
TWILLEY: Our listener Leslie took home economics in the 50s, and those kinds of stereotyped gender roles were all the rage at her school.
LESLIE: Back in the 1950s my name, Leslie, was often a boy’s name. I invariably was scheduled to attend shop, a class that was denied to girls at that time. As I entered the class, I have vivid memories of being turned away to go back to the home ec class. That always made me laugh as I returned to the place of domestic arts.
TWILLEY: Meanwhile, by the 60s, the message of women’s liberation that had been part of home economics—it was taken up by a new generation, and they were thinking bigger than household efficiency and a chance to create professional opportunities.
CLIP WOMEN’S LIB MOVEMENT ARCHIVAL TAPE
GLORIA STEINEM: Now, thanks to the spirit of equality in the air, and to the work of many of my more foresighted sisters, I no longer accept society’s judgement that my group is second class. CHEERS
VOICEOVER: A new movement for women’s liberation is launched. And once again, protesters take to the streets to support their demands for total freedom: Economically, politically, socially. Congress responds, passing a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women equality of rights under the law. Within two years, it is ratified by 20 of the 38 states needed for adoption.
GRABER: As the century progressed, and also with the help of the women’s movement, women could just become a biologist, they didn’t have to get into biology through studying how bacteria make your food go bad. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But everything was more open to women.
DREILINGER: You don’t need to go in through the kitchen door anymore. You can go to business school, you can go to culinary school. Women weren’t allowed in chemistry labs in the early 1900s. So they created home economics science labs, where they could do chemistry, as long as it was focused on clothing or food. And women didn’t have to do that anymore.
GRABER: Home ec had succeeded. Women could do all those things, it had kind of put itself out of business. Nutrition has become a well-respected field at the university level, studying textiles can get you a well-paid job. It’s not unpaid women’s work.
TWILLEY: And meanwhile, who stepped in to make the household more efficient? Companies! With labor-saving products that women could buy. In this version of rationalizing the home, women no longer had to become household scientists because companies could sell them all the scientific, futuristic products they’d need.
GRABER: Home economists even debated whether this meant that women were just being turned into consumers, and whether that was a good thing or not.
TWILLEY: They still thought their field was important. But they didn’t seem to be able to turn the home economics ship around. Their beloved field had kind of lost its way.
DREILINGER: So over the 80s, the field really began a steep decline.
GRABER: In the 80s—this is when I was in junior high and high school—Reagan really had it in for home ec. He was super into school reform, and there was a big report saying American kids were behind the rest of the world in terms of test scores. This report has since been criticized, but Reagan wanted hard academics and computer labs and nothing soft like stirring and baking.
TWILLEY: All of which combined made home economics seem really old-fashioned and kind of BS.
DREILINGER: You know, basically all of the forces that had contributed to what they call like the stitching and stirring stereotype had won.
JONAH HILL: Look, we all know home ec is a joke, no offense, it’s just like everyone takes this class to get an A. It’s bullshit, and I’m sorry, and I’m not putting down your profession, but it’s just the way I feel.
TWILLEY: Uh huh. Jonah Hill, speaking truth to power in Superbad.
GRABER: I’m not sure the home ec teacher represents power, but whatever.
TWILLEY: We put out a call for your home ec experiences. And a lot of you shared those Superbad vibes.
LEAH: Hello, Gastropod. This is Leah from St. Louis. I went to middle school in the early 90s. And instead of home ec we have something called Lifetime Skills, I think, and it was basically you go through units. And instead of learning to bake or cook, we had microwave skills in which we learned how to make cookies in the microwave, which tastes as you would imagine cookies from the microwave would taste, which is very squishy. So I considered it pretty lame. And I didn’t really learn much from it.
LISTENER: I took home ec in the early 90s. I remember learning to wash dishes with a soapy bin to save water and learning some easy recipes. The only one I definitely remember was a chocolate malt, made of ice cream, milk, Ovaltine and chocolate syrup. And for the record, I don’t wash my dishes the way I was taught.
GRABER: People are still taking home ec, even today, even despite the fact that it feels pretty pointless to a lot of people.
DREILINGER: At last count, more than 3 million students in the US, middle and high school students, were taking it at any given time. And it’s still a major in a good one hundred plus US colleges and universities.
TWILLEY: Although oftentimes it’s not called home economics anymore, because in the 90s, home economists realized their field was facing irrelevancy and panicked a little.
DREILINGER: They were thinking, you know, people think that home ec is dowdy and dumb. So we’re gonna rebrand and they came up with a new name, which is “Family and Consumer Sciences.”
TWILLEY: I really hope they didn’t pay a consultant a lot of money for that one.
GRABER: The rebrand did not do much to change home ec’s reputation. But you know what has worked, on occasion? Reimagining what home ec can be.
DREILINGER: Angela DeHart is amazing. And she is now retired, unfortunately.
TWILLEY: But, before she retired, Angela taught home economics in Virginia’s largest middle school.
DREILINGER: She’s African American, and she is a big crafter. She loves to sew, she loves to make things. Her father was an engineer, but never encouraged her to go into engineering. And she realized as an adult, she’s like, Oh, wait, I’m an engineer, too. Because I craft. And she talked to me about you know, she manipulates materials and solves problems. And she had this extraordinary view of what home economics can be. And her class was the best, I think, like the the acme of what home ec can be.
GRABER: It was a really cool class, it’s one I’d love to have taken. Angela taught kids to sew by hand, so they can attach buttons and also maybe become surgeons. But then she taught the life cycle of shirts, and the global fashion industry, and the related economic and ecological issues. It basically was what the founders of home ec probably would have imagined for their classes, if they’d imagined home ec a century into the future. I mean, a century ago those foremothers were inventing safe, nontoxic dyes to be used in clothing factories to protect the women who worked there.
TWILLEY: Angela’s class was the same way—based in real science, based on what’s traditionally been seen as women’s work, but focused on improving the world for everyone. Angela advocated for this kind of home economics at conferences—she even sold the traditional gender bias of home ec as a strength.
ANGELA DEHART: The value of highlighting the STEM found in home ec is one of the major ways that we can attract more women into STEM. In fact, by making home ec an applied science class, we can introduce and retain countless students in STEM, especially those that have been traditionally left out. Home ec is a STEM class. Thank you very much. APPLAUSE
TWILLEY: This is super inspiring but it’s not what most home economics classes are like. At all. And even Angela herself—well, like we said, she’s retired now.
DREILINGER: She really got sick and tired of trying to fight for her way of doing things.
GRABER: We asked Danielle, is it even worth it to teach home ec today, if for most people it’s basically BS and Angela, even with all her hard work, couldn’t turn things around?
DREILINGER: I went into this project thinking, am I gonna come out of this having to advocate for home economics? Because that’s going to make me really uncomfortable. But so many people want it. So many people, even people who said that they hated home ec or found it really boring. Almost everyone says to me, we should bring that back. Because like, our kids don’t know how to sew on buttons. Like, I wish I had learned how to cook a basic weeknight dinner.
TWILLEY: Listener Greg told us he really valued learning that kind of stuff in home ec.
GREG: Hi Gastropod, my name is Greg Pourrier. I grew up in northern Cape Breton in a rural fishing village in eastern Canada. In home ec, I remember very clearly learning how to follow a recipe, the basics of cooking, even how to use an oven. Small things like never measuring over the mixing bowl so you don’t ruin everything in it if you over-pour salt or another ingredient. Probably more importantly, we learned about nutrition, food safety, salmonella, for example, how to budget and plan a grocery list, how to sew a button back on pants and do basic mending. Home ec might be the most referenced class I took in junior high. So that’s a big thank you, Mrs. McLeod.
GRABER: What Greg described is obviously important. But Danielle, like Angela, thinks home can be even more than that.
DREILINGER: I also say that this way of using home ec as this multidisciplinary field that looks at structures, looks at individual action, looks at science, looks at nutrition, looks at the way we live our lives, that like looks at the power that our homes have, and the way that the world affects them, and the way that we affect the world. Like, I think that that is really valuable.
TWILLEY: Angela and Danielle have me convinced—home ec the way it was originally conceived, the way Angela taught it—it is valuable. But to really be what it could be, home economics actually needs to lose its gendered status. This is a field founded by women, championed by women—but if the point is that domestic labor is valuable and that understanding the place of the home in the bigger picture matters, everyone has to study it, not just women.
DREILINGER: Absolutely. I mean, I think that that is the reason to make home economics mandatory, is to make sure everybody takes it. Because when it’s an elective, you know, it defaults to those gendered patterns of more girls taking it. And even though, I mean, I interviewed seventh grade boys in family and consumer sciences class, and I said, This used to be something that only girls took, and they were like, What? That’s dumb. Everybody needs to know this stuff. And that’s, like adorable and sweet and wonderful. But, you know, the reality is that as adults, we tend to fall into patterns. So I do think it should be equal gendered.
TWILLEY: This gender thing is where home ec still has a problem. Those early pathbreaking women—Ellen Swallow Richards and Margaret Murray Washington—they succeeded in one way. They made us see that, for example, the work of feeding people well—that had real science behind it and real value. But they failed in this other way, which is that in many homes, women still have to do the majority of this work of feeding people, unpaid, on top of everything else.
GRABER: And another place they failed was at home ec in junior high and high schools. For many reasons we’ve already discussed, schools rarely even attempted the scope and ambition that the universities did. It was rare that classes like Angela’s succeeded in living up to the founders’ high ideals that this type of work should be valued and studied and optimized, and that the people who do this work should have safe working conditions and be treated well, and that all of that should be part of a home ec class.
TWILLEY: We asked Danielle whether she saw any hope that home economics, particularly in schools, could ever really deal with these issues.
DREILINGER: Whether it can live up to its promise? don’t know. I mean, all of education, every discipline has these visions for what the class should look like and what it should teach. And then they come up against realities of the way we’ve always done things and what’s necessary to make that happen. And well, but we only have a certain number of minutes in the school day, and so on and so forth.
GRABER: Still Danielle thinks home ec is worth making time for.
DREILINGER: I certainly think that home economics can be more of its best if people pay attention to it.
TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Danielle Dreilinger—there is so much more in her awesome new book, The Secret History of Home Economics, and we have a link to that book at gastropod dot com for you to check it out.
GRABER: Thanks also as always to Gastropod producer Sonja Swanson for her help on this episode.
TWILLEY: We’ll be back with something even more fiery next time.