Beyond Bustle and Sewing: The Women Behind Home Economics

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Home economics classes typically conjure up bland, sterile thoughts — tasteless food, domestic flattery, and ill-fitting A-line skirts. But women who pioneered home economics knew the subject could be much more than that. They believed that home improvement could and would improve society.

Was the backbone of home economics moral, scientific, or both? That’s a question journalist Danielle Dreilinger asks herself, as her research on the subject’s history veers away from the cooking and sewing perhaps remembered in high school classrooms. Dreilinger talks about his work and his new book, “The Secret History of Home Economics: How Pioneering Women Harnessed the Power of the Home and Changed the Way We Live.”

KCRW: What was the state of education for men and women, black and white, in the 1800s?

Danielle Dreilinger: “One thing that surprised me was that education was very limited, even for white people, in the middle of the 19th century. As we know, enslaved people could not even learn to read. But most people didn’t spend much time in school. And it wasn’t until well before the turn of the 20th century that most people graduated from high school. The possibilities of schooling were therefore really limited.

Part of what drove home economics was this explosion of education, both K-12 and college, after the Civil War that expanded this world of those who educated, from elite white men to people of color, to women, to those interested in science, to farmers. And educators started asking, “What do all these people need to know? And there was a group of mostly women who argued that home economics – this field that they created, the science of the home and how science applies to the home – was a piece important part of this puzzle.

You say that when women got married, it was as if they died legally.

“Yes, very depressing. Women could not sign contracts in their own name. Women could not receive a salary. And they were supposed to be home. The first kind of proto-home economist, Catherine Beecher, tried to redefine the home as a place of power, as the most important part of our society, because it is where we raise the citizens of tomorrow. But the women who came 20, 30 years after her and who founded the field of home economics have a really complicated vision of the house…that is, they wanted, on the one hand, to bring in the science at home, so you can get the job done efficiently and go out and do other things. Because the house was uninteresting, the house was no longer economically productive.

But at the same time, they found power in the lower status of women and [in creating] a range of careers where women would be accepted and could create their own business world, because they were connected at home. Women were considered authorities in raising children, so they could become teachers or preschool teachers. They were considered authorities in the kitchen, so they could become caterers. They could manage hotels because they managed houses. So it was a really fascinating project – instead of completely turning your back on the house, redefining it and expanding it.

“The possibilities for schooling were really limited,” explains Danielle Dreilinger. Part of what drove home economics was an explosion of education in the 20th century. Photo by Kathleen Flynn.

Wasn’t it that they were interested in “sending the women back to the kitchen?”

“Absolutely not. A lot of people asked me, ‘Oh, all these people started making sourdough bread, isn’t it so homemade ec?’ And it’s no. Home economists believed in takeout food. They thought you should test whether homemade breads without commercial yeast or leaven are better than what you could buy in the store. They believed in having pure food and drug laws in place so that you could buy bread at the store and know that the flour hadn’t been bleached with lead. And they believed in looking at the value of home bakers’ time. … They had this really analytical view and sometimes , quite coldly objective about the value of spending time in the kitchen.

Who were the founders of the domain?

“The first generation of women to go to university are the ones who became these founders of the domestic economy. Many of them were single. Ellen Richards was the first woman to enter MIT, which was not accepting women at the time. But she managed to convince them to basically let her audit the classes, although they eventually gave her a diploma. And she was a chemist, she was a public health scientist, and she was into home science.

You also have Margaret Murray Washington, who grew up in Mississippi at the end of the Civil War. She was a black woman who earned a bachelor’s degree, began running home economics in Tuskegee, where she married Booker T. Washington, and became a hugely influential advocate for African-American home improvement and of the political, moral and economic value it had. They raced on parallel tracks due to the racism of the time. Ellen Swallow Richards has drawn around her an array of women who have all been truly invested in creating the curricula, laws and academic programs that for a long time most women who have taught in colleges have taught in home economics colleges.


Born in Mississippi during the Civil War, Margaret Murray Washington rose from laundry girl to college dean and advanced ideas about domestic work in the black home. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-B2-3673-8.

Where did the majors of the national economy of the past go? Was this some kind of back door to get women into science?

“Oh, absolutely. It was a backdoor to get women into science and also into business. It was really funny to watch, because those women weren’t allowed in chemistry labs, for example. But if you decided to study meat protein development, you might get a job in the home economics lab.When the Bureau of Home Economics opened in the United States Department of Agriculture in the 1920, it became the largest employer of female scientists in the country.

What does the field of home economics look like today? And what is his name?

“The home economy is still there. It is best known as “family and consumer science”. The domain changed its name in an effort to shake up the associations people have with the ec house. It could sometimes be called “human ecology”, “human development”. You can still graduate from over 100 colleges in the United States. At last count – the statistics are a bit old – more than 3 million middle and high school students were taking home economics classes each year in the United States. In other countries of the world where it is still necessary, all the children take it.

And these courses are really interesting because they are really linked to contemporary concerns. There is a fairly recent Family and Consumer Science Teacher of the Year who focused on the fight against bullying. You have so much about personal finance, and kids are learning how credit cards work, how student loans work, which is obviously a really big topic when you’re in high school and making those big decisions about your future.

But then you have courses that are ones that I’d like to see even more of that use this great strength of the home economics movement, which is this combined way of looking at the world both macro and micro. And they link learning to sew a button to the life cycle of a cotton t-shirt. A teacher named Angela DeHart in Virginia did. So students know not only how to sew on a button, but also why it is important. Like why you can get a pair of pants for $10 at Walmart, what is the ecological and human cost and labor issues and so on behind those pants.

So I thought this could be a really innovative and fun course that also teaches job skills. You can get your ProStart Certificationyour ServSafe Certification in high school cooking class here. It’s not just about making muffins, it’s how do you get a job in the restaurant business? So it’s still part of the original vision of home appliances.


“The Secret History of Home Economics” traces the journeys of women who were chemists, shopkeepers and educators, in a field both denigrated and embraced. Photo courtesy of WW Norton & Company.

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