Home News and Features The Rise and Fall and (Maybe) the Rise Again of Home Economics

The Rise and Fall and (Maybe) the Rise Again of Home Economics

Marilyn Maisonneuve, champion baker and Spaulding High School student, 1952. Image courtesy Mary Cole Mello.
The girl in Spaulding High School’s student newspaper is described as a sophomore, but her shirtwaist dress doesn’t look like anything from the shelves at Old Navy. Her name is Marilyn Maisonneuve, and the 1952 photo in that issue of Spaulding’s “Sentinel” shows her enjoying a moment of fame as the winner of the district pie-baking contest. 

Marilyn was headed to Chicago to compete with other pie-baking winners; the competition could ultimately lead to a national title and a chance to meet with then-President Truman. We don’t know how she did nationally, but it’s nice to imagine Marilyn returning home to Barre’s version of a ticker tape parade and, perhaps, becoming the pride of Spaulding High School’s Future Homemakers of America Club. 

Future Homemakers of America belonged to an era in which high school women routinely studied the principles of home economics. With the rise of the feminist movement, it became an often-maligned field, but it was in itself a feminist movement. 

The American Home Economics Association was founded in 1908 with Ellen Swallow Richards as its first president. Richards was also the first woman accepted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1870 and the first woman to lecture there. The home economics movement was created “to elevate and enlarge womens’ role in the home and in society.” Using science to reduce the drudgery of housekeeping would allow women more time to participate in the improvement of society. 

Richards’ movement was aided by the Morrill Act of 1862, which established land grant colleges to teach technical skills to both male and female students. While the men were learning about scientific agricultural practices, women were learning to apply scientific principles to domestic chores, and this gave women an entry into the sciences. Men who might have rejected a woman’s interest in the study of chemistry were mollified by the notion that the women, bless their little hearts, were only trying to become better cooks. 

Danielle Dreilinger, in her book, “The Secret History of Home Economics,” points out that this new field gave rise to the study of ecology, nutrition, food purity, safe working conditions, labels on clothing, women’s studies, and the Rice Krispies treat. 

A woman who received her college degree in home economics could teach at the high-school level or even go into industry or government, perhaps as part of the new Bureau of Home Economics founded in 1923. 

Raising children according to the latest scientific knowledge was also valued, and this led to one of the stranger features of the curriculum at schools such as Cornell. Practice homes for students were set up and “ practice babies” were included. The babies were obtained from orphanages, lived in their practice homes, and were given up for adoption afterwards. It’s hoped that the babies were not shelved at night like the students’ textbooks. 

Some historians feel that the original goals were weakened during the post-war years. Although subjects such as child care, sewing, and cooking were still taught in the schools, there appeared to be a new emphasis on appearances, grooming, and home decoration. According to another “Sentinel” article from 1952, “A home economist will fit into family groups better, with her friends, and her clubs.” 

In the late fifties, fewer applicants were interested in home economics degrees even with generous tuition grants. Women were drawn to other fields of study. The appeal of processed foods such as cake mixes and frozen foods made the kitchen less of a laboratory for application of scientific principles and more of a place to thaw out dinner. 

The rising women’s movement further diminished the status of the field, and it was often relegated to middle schools only. In 1994, the name was changed to family and consumer sciences. 

But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the demise of interest in home economics. In the first decades of the new millennium, an interest in sustainability and fears about processed food began to inspire greater interest in self sufficiency. Keeping chickens, milking goats, and creating backyard gardens drew middle class families who may have been brought up on Kraft dinners and Betty Crocker’s brownies. In 2020, the pandemic fostered an interest in baking that cleaned grocery store shelves out of flour, sugar, and yeast. Baking bread was calming and fostered a feeling of independence. 

Lissa Knauss, guidance counselor at Montpelier High School notes that, “This year we offered several enrichment courses in cooking and one is sewing. They were very popular, so I would say these skills are definitely valued and enjoyed by our students.” 

Recently, the mother of two teenagers was asked about her memories of home economics. “Home economics?… Oh, you mean the cooking and sewing we did in middle school. I loved that!”