Past Development of Home Economics in the USA


Past Development of Home Economics in the USA

There are advantages to the study of History in general. Every discipline has a history of its development, Home Economics, inclusive. History enables us to link the past actions and events with the present and offers a foundation for future plans in the development of the discipline.

In this course we shall be studying the persons, causes, and activities that had served to develop Home Economics and uplifted it to the academic and professional levels it has attained today.

We shall be studying the History of Home Economics in the United States of America (USA), where Home Economics have received the global lead in the professionalization of the discipline.

History of Domesticity in America

It is important to understand the history of domesticity (Home Economics) because its history is intertwined with the history of women in America.

Domesticity used to be a matter of fact; there was no choice regarding it for it was something that had to be done. In the Victorian period most women were responsible for clothing, feeding, educating, and sanitizing their families.

The women who were not responsible for such things were usually well off and could afford to hire servants and buy expensive appliances to reduce the labor involved in such tasks. Now, women do not have to be rich to avoid such tasks, as it is a rarity to find someone who must work fulltime in order to fulfill their household’s domestic needs.

The reasons for this change has been attributed to advances in technology, increases in scientific and professional activities and the shifting attitudes. Other women have criticized those who remain in domesticity as being weak and called domesticity a form of imprisonment, thereby rejecting domesticity.

Some women have simply extended the burdens of domesticity in ways, causing it to evolve from mere housewifery into a legitimate science.


History of Attitudes towards Domesticity

Domesticity was considered to be a necessity. This attitude would mostly be associated with Colonial America. Domesticity was just something that had to be done. This period was described as “essential and mundane”. 

If the domestic chores were not taken care of then the whole family would be endangered. The attitude that domesticity was empowering arrived in 1850 as domesticity became more elaborate and valuable. This gave the housewife new sources of self-esteem.

Women such as Catherine Beecher in 1873 believed that domesticity was empowering. She believed the rightful role for women was as the leader of a household. Catherine Beecher has often been criticized for opposing women’s suffrage but she considered that if women control the people who vote then women’s suffrage would be redundant. One term associated with this attitude is “the Cult of Domesticity”.

This belief, according the Online Dictionary of Sociological Sciences, says that family and individual life is most fulfilling when experienced in a private household where women are chief homemakers and caregivers and that woman have moral and temperamental qualities that are best expressed in the personal and domestic sphere of life.

The idea that domesticity was empowering was completely refuted in 1963 by Betty Friedan in her book. The Feminine Mystique. Friedan spoke of “the problem that has no name; basically saying that domesticity denied housewives their humanity and potential, a form of physical and mental abuse. Friedan talks of the “delusions of the feminine mystique” and how a woman cannot find her identity in her husband or children.

In this view, a woman is considered weak by living through others since developing a unique identity is considered difficult. The book helped to spark a cultural revolution and established the idea of housewifery as a disease rather than a choice any healthy woman could make. The current trend in attitude to domesticity is recreation. No longer is domesticity considered a burden.

In fact, it is considered a retreat from the harsh outside world. To understand this trend, one must understand that domestic expectations for women have also changed. 

As women began to be recognized as individuals, marriage began to evolve into a partnership with men taking on roles that were considered exclusively feminine.

The change in marriage role is not the only thing that has caused domestic expectations to change. Since more married women are now working, the family can now have more money to spend. With this extra money, women can pay others to do domestic chores such as cleaning, child care and cooking.

With the most essential tasks taken care of, women can now spend their free time doing more enjoyable, yet unnecessary, domestic tasks, or crafts as they are now called, such as basket weaving or candle making. It is somewhat ironic that the modern woman now regards some of the most dreaded tasks of the Colonial era as recreation.

Read On: Philosophy and Objectives of Home Economics II

History of Occupations Associated with Domesticity

Home washing machine According to Encyclopedia Americana, near the end of the 19th century, home washing was done manually by using a water-filled wooden tub, a corrugated washboard, and a rubber-roller wringer to extract water. By 1937 the first automatic washer was invented and this assuredly diminished the workload.

Sewing Machine

Sewing had been a typical home activity for many centuries but it was not until Issac Singer invented the first practical sewing machine in 1853 that sewing began to take on a new role. Home sewing allowed women to save money, combat the declining quality of ready-made clothes, and allowed women to express themselves artistically. Some would even say that home sewing could be a leisure activity or a form of relaxation.

According to Encyclopedia Americana, the Singer Company marketed the first electric sewing machine for home use in 1889, but home electric machines did not become popular until the 1920’s.

Dish Washer

In 1886, Josephine Cochran invented a dishwashing machine. Cochran’s machine was a hand-operated mechanical dishwasher. Cochran had expected the public to welcome the new invention, which she unveiled at the 1893, World’s Fair, but only large businesses were interested. It was not until in 1950s that dishwashers caught on with the general public. The company she founded to produce her dishwasher eventually became Kitchen Aid.


Before the availability of electricity, there were a number of alternatives for irons, however, they were tricky to set up, cumbersome and dirty, which would seem to defeat the object of their use on freshly laundered clothes.

By 1873 such iron models consists of cast iron heated on hot coals or other model types filled with hot coals. Electric irons were much faster in heating up and could therefore be used almost continuously, saving the user a lot of time.

By 1936 they could also be used in any home that already had electric lighting. It was rare for homes with electricity to have wall sockets outside the kitchen, so irons were usually plugged into light fitting adaptors, running a bulb simultaneously.

One major change in domesticity over the last few centuries is the occupations that are associated with it. Originally domesticity mostly referred to cooking and cleaning, though that aspect still remains, it has also expanded and evolved to include more professional and scientific occupations.

This evolution started with the idea of home economics, a progressive discipline that sought to modernize domestic ideas.

Domestic Servants

From the beginning of the nineteenth century to the beginning of World War I, domestic service was the single largest employer of women in England. The large number of domestic servants was due to the lack of opportunities available for unskilled women. Because of the lack of skills and options, it comes as no surprise that domestic servants were often stigmatized and mistreated.

Domestic service was enticing for several reasons, it hired people of young age (typically twelve), required no previous experience, it provided room and board, and most importantly it gave women an opportunity to learn the domestic skills that would be required when they entered into marriage.

As time went on it became rare for one to find an Anglo-American domestic servant, however that is not to say that domestic service has disappeared. Domestic service still exists and it is still performed by unskilled women with no opportunities.

Technology and Domesticity

Technology has a tremendous role in the way domesticity has changed in the last two centuries. There have been great advances in sciences that, through their application, have greatly reduced the amount of time and the extent of labor required for many domestic tasks.

Read On: Definition and 4 Main Branches of Philosophy

Development of the Discipline of Home Economics

Past Development of Home Economics in the USA

Home economics covers both the influence of science and technology on women’s work in the home and the development of the discipline of Home Economics (known initially alternatively as Domestic Science, Family Resources, Consumer Sciences, and other names). The home economics movement attempted to apply scientific principles and discoveries to domestic labor.


Founding of Home Economics Home

Economics was created in Lake Placid, New York on September, 19, 1899 near the beginning of the Progressive Era by women like Ellen Swallow Richards and Maria Panoa, and men like Melvil Dewey. Programmes were popularly started at agricultural colleges. 

Such programmes were very basic, consisting mainly of reading lessons for farmers’ wives. The founders had envisioned Home Economics to be a way for women breakthrough into the scientific field.

However the women once gone into home economics found it difficult to expand into anything else. Women have usually been excluded from most of the scientific world. However, women were considered to be responsible for the nutritional needs of the family.

In the past what this meant for women was that they provided nourishment by cooking. Nutrition has come to mean more than just feeding, but providing nutritionally adequate diets that would support health. 

Nutrition science has its roots in the 1840s when Catherine Beecher in her “Treatise on Domestic Economy” advised women to acquire the knowledge that could lead to informed decisions on how to feed their families instead of memorization of cookbooks (Kamminga and Cunningham 1995).

Thus nutrition knowledge allowed women to both strengthen their domestic position and also enter the scientific arena. Cornell’s College of Home Economics was founded at the beginning of the 20th century with her original Charter stating its goals in a very ambiguous way, such as “domestic sciences and art”. 

In 1909 Ellen Swallow Richards, the first president of the American Home Economics Association had considered the name “human ecology” but this move was vetoed by Melvin Dewey.

Home Economics and the Progressive Era

Home Economics in early 20th century America had a major role in the Progressive Era, a period of development of the welfare state, the triumph of modern hygiene and scientific medicine, the application of scientific research in a number of industries, and the popularization of important research on child development, family health, and family economics.

Women trained in Home Economics in the first quarter of the 20th century worked hard to find and develop new roles and new jobs for themselves, not just in the educational system but also in the private sector – working in the food and consumer goods industries.

Between 1900 and 1930 they were found to be working as hospital dietitians, thereby creating for themselves a place within the hierarchy of the hospital community.


Home Economics in Mid and Late 20th Century

According to Margaret Rossiter, men moved into Home Economics in the 1960s during which Home Economics gained funding and legitimacy in getting grants and institutional support. By this time (the 1960s) the name “home economics” was thought to suggest gender stereotypes that many women were struggling to overcome (Cornell).

To combat this many colleges began to change the names of their home economics departments to “home ecology” as first suggested back in 1909 by Ellen Swallow Richards. The shift from home economics to human ecology went fare more than a change in name – Cornell’s College of Home Economics changed to the College of Human Ecology spelling out more specific goals of its programmes to include: human development, consumer economics, family relationships, human nutrition, household design etc.

Steven Clarke of the University of Texas Human Ecology Department was said to have described the difference between the two nomenclatures by saying that although the elements of Human Ecology evolved from the programmes encompassed by Home Economics.

Human Ecology is much more far-reaching. This permitted women to pursue careers in areas that were simply extension of domesticity.

Conclusion on Past Development of Home Economics in the USA

Women will apparently always be associated with domesticity, although the time and labour associated with many tasks have greatly decreased as a result of advance in domestic technology. This situation has risen due to the reforms by women, and other men who felt that domesticity was damaging.

The scope of training and practice of domesticity, whatever name it assumes, has expanded and evolved to include professional and scientific occupations.

We have studied the historical development of home economics with reference to the United States of America by reviewing history of persons, causes, and activities that had served to develop Home Economics from mere domesticity of women in the past to its upliftment to the academic and professional levels it has attained through the beginning of the 20th century to date.

Specifically we have examined the history of domesticity in America, the history of attitudes towards domesticity, the history of occupations associated with domesticity, the development of contents of home economics in the early 20th century America to the mid and late parts of the century.

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