Those readers whose memories of home economics class are dominated by muffin tins and sewing machines might be surprised to learn about Caroline Hunt, an early innovator in the field. Hunt had no patience for the time-consuming household tasks “home ec” became associated with. “The woman who today makes her own soap instead of taking advantage of machinery for its production enslaves herself to ignorance by limiting her time for study,” she declared. In 1908, she resigned from her position as the University of Wisconsin’s first home economics professor with a letter bemoaning the department’s emphasis on cooking and sewing.
Not all educators were as forward-thinking, as Danielle Dreilinger demonstrates in her captivating debut, “The Secret History of Home Economics.” Some saw home ec’s purpose as training women to be better housewives. Her spirited account suggests the often maligned field has always had both repressive and liberating impulses. Its roots, however, are unexpectedly radical. Chemist Ellen Swallow Richards, one of the founders of home economics, was the first woman to attend MIT and, in the 1870s, became the university’s first female instructor. Richards, Ms. Dreilinger writes, “believed fervently in the power of science to free women from ‘drudgery.’ ” In 1899, she and other pioneers in what was then called domestic science organized the Lake Placid Conference. They renamed their specialty “home economics,” seeking to create an academic discipline that could generate professional opportunities for the very women they hoped to free from household labor. At a time when women were blocked from many professions, home economics became, in Ms. Dreilinger’s words, a “jobs engine” for those who “cloaked their ambitions in suitably feminine garb.” Take Lillian Gilbreth: The efficiency expert and widowed mother of 12, unable to find work as an engineer, instead applied time-saving industrial processes to the household. Her 1927 book, “The Home-Maker and Her Job,” envisioned the home as a factory, with children as the labor and mother as the foreman. “If the only way to enter a man’s field was through the kitchen door, that’s the way she’d enter,” two of her children, the authors of “Cheaper by the Dozen,” later wrote. Early home economists found positions not only in classrooms but in labs, corporations and government agencies. They traveled the heartland as part of the Rural Electrification Administration, led scientific studies on nutrition and marketed new appliances, including refrigerators and stoves. The 1920s saw a spate of popular homemaking radio programs hosted by professional women assuming a just-folks manner. Though the Lake Placid Conference excluded black women and the American Home Economics Association did not integrate until 1963, black home economists also achieved success. Flemmie Pansy Kittrell, who chaired the home economics department at Howard University, saw the field as training black women to be leaders, not to work in other women’s homes. “For decades, there was always a job for a home economist,” Ms. Dreilinger observes. “For decades, the profession was even respected.” Home economics thrived in times of crisis. During World War I, its practitioners led food conservation efforts at home and developed meals for soldiers on the front, while home ec classes were devoted to sewing and mending for the Red Cross. When sugar was rationed duringWorld War II, scientists at the Bureau of Home Economics developed dessert recipes using substitute sweeteners. But during the prosperous ’50s, in a country weary of rationing, thrift and efficiency no longer resonated. Moreover, as women were pressured to abandon their wartime jobs to make room for returning veterans, the postwar American dream imagined a happy suburban housewife cooking, cleaning, and raising children. Home economics, Ms. Dreilinger laments, became “boring.” While women could yet find jobs teaching home ec, the lesson now being taught was that women’s place was in the home. Ms. Dreilinger notes that “in 1954, US colleges had almost sixty-seven thousand home economics majors but granted only eight thousand home economics bachelor degrees” because so many women married and dropped out before graduation. In 1971, women’s liberationist Robin Morgan addressed the annual American Home Economics Association convention and stunned the crowd by accusing home ec classes of turning their charges into “a limp, jabbering mass of jelly waiting for marriage.” Despite the field’s ups and downs, Ms. Dreilinger, a former education reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, maintains an upbeat tone. She’s equally cheerful discussing the odd recipes home economists concocted in the ’50s (the most appalling: a pie shell filled with frozen vegetables, cottage cheese, tomato sauce and lemon Jell-O) as she is describing the creepy existence of campus “practice babies,” actual infants loaned by orphanages and adoption agencies to colleges, where home ec students would care for them in model homes for months at a time. Home ec today, the author insists, is diminished but not quite dead. She sees its traces everywhere, from the Food Network to “Project Runway.” Still, Ms. Dreilinger concludes her book by calling for the discipline’s full-scale revival: She wants home ec—rebranded in the 1990s as “family and consumer sciences”—to be mandatory in secondary schools. Is that necessary? Home economics once afforded women stealthy pathways into business and science. Thankfully, they can now pursue their chosen careers openly. As for middle- and high-school students, my teenage daughter has learned far more about cooking from TikTok videos than I learned in my home ec class in the ’80s. Ms. Dreilinger charmed me with her account of home ec’s fascinating past. She didn’t quite sell me on the need for its future. Ms. Spindel’s book reviews appear in the Christian Science Monitor, the San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.