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

Historians in the News
tags: education, womens history, Home Economics

How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live
By Danielle Dreilinger

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.

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