Creating Consumers: Home Economists in Twentieth-Century America

Creating Consumers: Home Economists in Twentieth-Century America

Creating Consumers: Home Economists in Twentieth-Century America

Creating Consumers: Home Economists in Twentieth-Century America

Synopsis

Home economics emerged at the turn of the twentieth century as a movement to train women to be more efficient household managers. At the same moment, American families began to consume many more goods and services than they produced. To guide women in this transition, professional home economists had two major goals: to teach women to assume their new roles as modern consumers and to communicate homemakers' needs to manufacturers and political leaders. Carolyn M. Goldstein charts the development of the profession from its origins as an educational movement to its identity as a source of consumer expertise in the interwar period to its virtual disappearance by the 1970s.
Working for both business and government, home economists walked a fine line between educating and representing consumers while they shaped cultural expectations about consumer goods as well as the goods themselves. Goldstein looks beyond 1970s feminist scholarship that dismissed home economics for its emphasis on domesticity to reveal the movement's complexities, including the extent of its public impact and debates about home economists' relationship to the commercial marketplace.

Excerpt

In the late nineteenth century, as the economic function of American homes shifted from producing goods and services to consuming them, a group of middle-class women—and a few men—launched an educational reform movement to guide homemakers in this transition. Widely known as “domestic scientists,” they organized a meeting in Lake Placid, New York, in 1899 to propose a new field of study that would promote “the betterment of the home.” For almost ten years, a diverse group of educators, writers, and scientists — totaling about 700 in all—gathered annually to outline a curriculum for the nation’s schools and universities that would prepare women to perform domestic work more efficiently and manage household budgets more economically. They called their field “home economics.” In December 1908, the Lake Placid attendees formed the American Home Economics Association (AHEA), which was dedicated to “the improvement of living conditions in the home, the institutional household, and the community.”

For women of my generation, who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, home economics was about learning to sew aprons and to cook “pigs in a blanket.” Our experiences in secondary school home economics classes made it easy for many of us to dismiss the whole field as trivial. Raised in a political era that characterized domesticity as insignificant and consumption as wasteful, we ridiculed home economics as a silly—or sinister—vestige of our mothers’ and grandmothers’ pasts. For feminist historians seeking to understand the forces and factors that conspired to limit women’s opportunities in the public sphere, home economics was an easy target. In blaming home economists for confining women to the domestic sphere, this type of analysis reinforced assumptions that home economics was concerned only with private matters of the home. In addition, scholars of consumer capitalism, influenced by the Frankfurt school, characterized women as passive in relationship to historical change. For several decades, these trends in popular culture and in academic circles combined to render invisible the role that many women, including . . .

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