Elevating Home Economics

Article excerpt

For historian Megan Elias, the inspiration for her graduate dissertation--and, eventually, her first book--was partly uncovered in the clearance bin at a library book sale in Ithaca. Browsing an assortment of books "no one would ever read," Elias said, she was struck by a collection of 20th-century extension pamphlets issued by Cornell home economists to homemakers.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

She bought the book and toted it back to New York City, where she was a graduate student in American history at the City University of New York. She could hardly put it down. "It was intriguing to mc; I hadn't really known the full extent of the conversations going on between home economists and women around New York," she recalled. "From that little green book, I had found my dissertation topic."

Elias was studying the evolution of home economics in higher education from the late 1800s to the present. Cornell was the ideal location for two reasons: its rich archives, but also its legacy as an early leader in women's education following the arrival of Martha Van Rensselaer in 1900 to begin a reading course for farmers' wives. By 1919, the university had founded a Department of Home Economics, with the College of Home Economics--the precursor to the College of Human Ecology--to follow in 1925.

Already a budding expert in the topic of home economics, it wasn't until receiving the college-sponsored Dean's Fellowship in the History of Home Economics, reading letters by Van Rensselaer, Flora Rose, and other matriarchs of the home economics movement, that "the story of these women came to life," Elias said.

Elias relied on the Archives' original documents to piece together her account of the rise of home economics as a field in higher education, including how classes at Cornell and elsewhere quietly defied traditional gender roles to become a force for women's progress. The research led to her book, Stir it Up: Home Economics in American Culture, published in 2008 by University of Pennsylvania Press.

"The Archives helped me to see who these women really were and allowed the story to unfold," Elias said. "It was as if I was finally really getting to know the characters, the home economists at Cornell, in much greater detail. I could look deeper than an administrative history of the field to see the relationships and networks--whom Martha and Flora were corresponding with and who came over to dinner and how that was reflected in teaching and ideas."

For more than 20 years, an impressive roster of historians, economists, and other researchers have used the fellowship to explore the university's rich records--original photographs, correspondence, course curricula, faculty biographies and oral histories, and more--to discover and assemble, like Elias, new insights on the field of home economics, as well as on such specific topics as food and nutrition, child development, ergonomics, and consumer behavior. Established in 1991, the fellowship, awarded annually in a competitive process, has supported research for books and papers on everything from wartime food rationing to rural development to child rearing.

Their body of work has also led scholars to rethink the importance of home economics to women's progress in the 20th century and to acknowledge how the field has improved living standards for millions thanks to scientific advancements in matters of the home: food and diet, clothing and textiles, home design, cleaning and sanitation, consumer economics and policy, and parenting and youth development.

This newfound respect for home economics--castigated by many feminists of the 1960s and 1970s as shackling women to traditional gender roles--is no accident.

More than 'simple homemaking'

For generations of Americans, the term home economics called to mind such perceived trivialities as sewing quilts and baking cakes. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Cornell professor emerita of human development, once counted herself--and many other feminists--among that group. …