The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities

By Dolores Hayden | Go to book overview

8 Public Kitchens, Social Settlements, and the Cooperative Ideal

Professional Approaches to Domesticity

Visitors who thronged the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 found their fantasies about home life in the twentieth century stimulated. Technology accomplished marvels in utopian fiction, but it was at least as persuasive to see the Rumford Kitchen feeding ten thousand people at the fair as to read Edward Bellamy on socialist Boston. It was much more convincing to leave one's children at the model kindergarten in the Children's Building than to study Marie Howland's fictional child care arrangements for a Social Palace. It was far more thrilling to stroll under the electric lights illuminating the fairgrounds in Chicago, ride the electric tramcars, and inspect the electric kitchen, than to decipher the diagrams of Henry Olerich's fictional, electrified settlements on Mars.

The scientist whose work caught the attention of many domestic reformers and housewives at the exposition was Ellen Swallow Richards (8.1), whose Rumford Kitchen was part of the Massachusetts exhibit. The public kitchen, designed as a small, white clapboard house, with a peaked roof and a broad, inviting front porch, promised to fit perfectly into any conventional neighborhood of modest single-family homes. Inside, however, was all the equipment of a scientific laboratory designed to extract the maximum amount of nutrition from food substances and the maximum heat from fuel. The public kitchen appealed to visitors' wit, with mottos and humorous quotations about food by famous authors hung on the walls; it appealed to their palates, with Boston baked beans and brown bread, among other specialties; it appealed to their pocketbooks, with low prices and complimentary analyses of the proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and calories in each portion. This exhibit excited housewives, organizers of social settlements, and faculty from universities where home economics was part of the curriculum. The members of the new National Household Economics Association, founded in Chicago at the exposition, made public kitchens in poor districts part of their platform; Jane Addams of Hull- House ordered the equipment for a public kitchen for her settlement house; Marion Talbot, Dean of Women at the University of Chicago, carried off the exhibit's equipment for her students when the fair was over. A new approach to collective domestic life seemed to be emerging, under the leadership of a small group of highly educated women trained to use the latest technological inventions.

The excitement about public kitchens centered on two new professional fields dominated by women, home economics and social work, which came into being between 1887 and 1910. Together these two fields channeled the energies of many newly educated American women into the reform projects of the Progressive Era, and had a profound influence on American homes and families, especially working- class and immigrant families. These

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