Women in a science lab studying textiles

“The Secret History of Home Economics”

How Women Got to “Do” Science and Made Daily Life Healthier and Safer for Us All

When you hear the phrase “home economics”, what comes to your mind?  I think of a 1950’s era classroom with a bunch of female students wearing aprons, and I worked in secondary schools, where we actually had these classrooms, for years (…in the 1990’s. I’m old, but not that old!).  It turns out that there is a lot more to home economics than that: the field was filled with women who used homemaking as an excuse to get OUT of homes and into science labs, design studios, and executive offices, and not as the secretary (although some women did their foot in the door that way).

Along the way, these women made life safer and happier for all by developing safe and efficient products for the home along with better nutrition and even better laws to protect families.

The mission of Danielle Drelinger’s new book, The Secret History of Home Economics (You can get me to read a lot of things if you say it’s a “secret history”.  I’m a total sucker for that.) is to show that home economics was and is about a lot more than girls spending their school years learning how to be housekeepers, or providing a career path for “failed” wives as home economics teachers. 

First, early home economics programs were designed to meet a real need.  Food preparation and the care of the home has not always been as simple as it is now.  Think about it: ever had food poisoning from buying bad food at the store? There was a time when you were risking your health if you didn’t prepare the food…and by that I mean harvest or slaughter the food. Also think about how difficult it is to prepare food in an unfamiliar environment: the U.S. had a large immigrant population, so not everyone was familiar with American products.  There was also a large rural population who genuinely needed up to date information about growing and preparing food, not only for their own use but as a money making proposition.

Food preparation is only one part of the equation of course.  In addition there is child and family care, the science and craft of making of clothing and other textiles, not to mention the other features of the home.

So on the one hand, changing technology demanded that girls, and later everyone, have formal instruction in these areas, but on the other hand…and this is where the secret part is…home economics gave women opportunities that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Many fields in home economics are related to chemistry and physics, and sometimes biology as well.  In a time when women were either barred from entering those fields outright, or had difficulty getting hired even if they got their educations, women had an “excuse” to learn science if it were related to their being good wives and mothers…once they needed to learn these subjects, schools and universities had to provide them with lab space. 

Aside from the food you eat, think about how much technology has gone into the clothes on your back right now.  Don’t we all love that everything comes in stretchy now? The different fabrics we use, and how they are processed to enhance durability and keep us warm, cool, and/or dry…all come from science.

So women had a “back door” into scientific fields, and they could get well-paying jobs because their knowledge had value.

The second thing that home economics did for women is to develop products that allow all families…no matter how we define family (which home ec also had a hand in…the definition of a “family” as a domestic group who live with each other and take care of each other)…to physically be able to provide food, clothing, and a habitable/pleasant shelter without the full time work of someone, whether family member or servant. 

Think about how you family eats: To eat at home, you can throw something frozen in the oven, make something out of semi-prepared ingredients depending on your time and skills, or use one of the services that do some or all of the work for you.  All of those options involve a lot of science and business acumen, and at one time, home economists were involved in the development and selling of all of them.  Once new products hit the market, someone had to teach homemakers how to use them.

Home Economists did more than teach girls how to take care of the home: they devised the first nutritional plans so that people could gauge what and how much to eat, they devised food products that enabled both partners to work for money while feeding their families nutritiously, and they ensured that products developed for the home did what they were designed to do, and did it safely.

The Secret History of Home Economics and Opportunity

As with everything, the problems that the dominant culture women had (which changes over time) were the same problems had by other women, only in more pronounced ways, and as with everything, Black and other ethnic and cultural minorities were able to use this loophole of “science” recast as housekeeping to get their feet in the door as well.  That’s the reason the cover of this book shows contrasting photos of a “traditional” housewife and a female scientist, one who appears to be of African-American descent.

Just as African-American men got into scientific fields under the guise of studying “agriculture” and “industry”, African-American women got into scientific fields under the guise of “home economics”, even if the reason given was to train young Black people to be domestic servants. Whatever gets you in the door, right?

The Secret History of Home Economics and Education

Finally, I was impressed to discover the role that home economists had in developing daily nutrition recommendations for American families, ones that are probably burned in all of our brains on some level, and other innovations such as government subsidized school lunch.

School meals help ensure that all children get at least some healthy food each day, and they can also help children learn what a healthy meal looks like and develop a taste for healthy foods. School lunches can also teach children to enjoy eating certain foods and help a country develop a national cuisine.

When schools first been contemplating the need to close their doors when the Pandemic hit the U.S. in spring, 2020, the first thing I thought, as a former teacher in low income schools, is how were they going to feed the kids?  School lunch is a convenience for middle class families, but for low income families, school lunch is a lifeline.  Many American families rely on free or low cost school meals for breakfast and lunch.  In low income communities, school cafeterias continue to operate in the summer so that children don’t go hungry, and believe me, on a bad weather day, once the cafeteria starts cooking, the school is not closing until after lunch.  As you probably know, schools responded by feeding anyone under 18 who turned up at scheduled drop offs throughout the pandemic months.  I’ll bet even middle class families were happy to have that extra support while they scrambled to see that their kids were supervised while they brought in paychecks.  If grandma had to watch the kids for them, at least she didn’t have to make meals too.

Without home economics pioneers, we wouldn’t have had any of these structures in place.

A Final Word

I strongly recommend this book.  The stories of the people…95% female…who pioneered and developed this field…should make us all proud…along with the significant influence of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s). 

Drelinger’s style is anecdotal and engaging; I found myself tearing through it like a good novel.

Beyond The Secret History of Home Economics: A Curriculum Specialist’s Insight

The Secret History of Home Economic in the United States

Although I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in history, economics, the environment, women’s studies, African American studies, immigrant studies, LGBTQ+ studies, and the list goes on…Drelinger runs into a bad case of her not knowing what she doesn’t know in her conclusion, which is ill informed…but ok, she’s not an educator, and she’s most definitely not an international educator, who is just about the only professional who would know what I know about how things are done outside the United States.

I agree with her assertion that Home Economics should “come back” (I’m pretty sure it’s still in most American public schools) and should be universal (more of a problem). 

As far as I know, for a long time “Home Ec” has been treated as an elective…a nonacademic subject.  That status means that often the “college bound” students don’t have room for it in their schedules (music classes and language study can supersede it), and now, even the traditional population of “weaker” academic students might be forced to use that time for “enrichment” (remediation) because of the pressure schools are under to produce test scores.  This pressure isn’t all bad…it means schools can’t ignore these kids…but every solution in life creates a new problem, right?

What most Americans don’t know that the British school program has a very good solution that might work for us as well, if Americans can get their heads around it.

The Secret History of Home Economics in the United Kingdom (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales)

In the U.K., the curriculum for the traditional “home ec” and “shop” classes are combined into a subject called “design”.  It is a part of the natural science curriculum in elementary school, required for everyone in middle school, and available as an option among the other natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics) for advanced high school students.  In this course, students use computers to design and develop products, which they create using sewing machines, kitchens (the “food technology” lab), woodworking tools and machines, etc.

Ironically, in he conclusion, Drelinger almost stumbles on the solution when she, in passing, connects “home ec” to its traditional “male” counterpart, “shop” (aka Industrial Technology).  She’s right that we should all know some basic home repair and build techniques as a part of creating pleasant homes and lives, but again, she didn’t know that someone else has already gotten there.

American educators usually encounter “design” in the International Baccalaureate Programme (that’s how it’s officially spelled), and I have literally had American educators tell me that “we didn’t know what that was” when they see it in the curriculum.

Students learn a lot about materials and applications as elementary students, which is great because they can understand science well through practical lessons.  As they get older, they continue to learn how to apply scientific principles in order to develop and create products.

Ever hear the catchprase “STEAM”?  It is simply an acronym for science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics.  Talk a walk around IKEA.  That’s STEAM.  That’s what the Brits call “Design Technology”.  And yup, we were doing it a hundred years ago, and it deserves more attention in the 2020’s.