Wolves in sheep’s clothing: domestic science / household science / home economics

25 Nov

Another exploration of how we got from there to here.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, there arose a new form of education for women, under various names; sometimes called ‘domestic science’, at other times, ‘household science’, and also, ‘home economics’.

In each case, the idea seemed to be, that a woman learning how to be a homemaker from one’s mother, grandmothers, aunts, etc., no longer ‘cut it’; that they needed to learn a new, ‘scientific’ approach to homemaking skills; to this end, schools began offering courses of this nature, and encouraging young women to enroll in this ‘higher education’ so as to apparently become better homemakers.

One activist for this type of education was a Canadian woman named Adelaide Hoodless; a few years ago, I visited an exhibit about her at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec; I took a number of pictures of the display; each of these can be magnified to read the text more clearly, by clicking on the pics.

Incidentally, I also found an old advertisement for the Macdonald Institute referred to in the above display, in a cookbook from 1908:

Others got in on the act, too; a couple years ago, in Toronto, I stumbled on a neo-classical building whose top bore the following inscription, below:

From the coat of arms at the top of the building, I realized this ‘Department of Household Science’ had been part of the University of Toronto; researching, I found a couple of interesting articles about the building and the school, here and here.  It’s interesting to me that it was the wealthy Massey family (who made their fortunes selling the famous Massey tractors (now Massey-Ferguson)) who bankrolled this U of T program; puts me in mind of the Rockefellers in the States, spending their fortunes to promote progressivism…  But I get ahead of myself here.

On balance, were these schools of ‘home economics’ / ‘domestic science’ / ‘household science’, a good thing or a bad thing, for society?

Adelaide Hoodless and Clara Benson believed in teaching homemakers some science, particularly new (at the time) techniques like sterilization, and new knowledge about food chemistry, to help them; skills they wouldn’t likely otherwise learn from their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, etc.  And that makes some sense, certainly.  And Ms. Hoodless certainly liked to portray herself as no wild-eyed revolutionary; she even opposed women’s suffrage.

Yet did this new female education program not help set society on the course of the cult of the self-proclaimed ‘expert’?  Was it really necessary for young women to leave the home to go learn skills that, apart from some scientific advances, they had hitherto then been quite able to learn at home from their mothers and other female relatives?  It can well be argued, IMO, that this was the beginning of ‘expert worship’, that has ultimately ended up in our technocratic, managerial society of today.  And more importantly, one can argue that this was a way to get women out of the home, and on the road, ultimately, to desiring careers and full social ‘equality’ with men, etc.  Laura Grace Robins has made an excellent case for home economics ultimately being a vehicle for progressivism, here, worth reading in its entirety.  I’d also add that one might well argue that it ultimately has led to the situation today, where young women of today have generally not gotten cooking, sewing, etc. skills passed down from their own mothers – Boomer women in particular were too busy with their careers – that the transferring of the teaching of essential life skills of yesteryear to ‘experts’, has ultimately led to the actual societal loss, largely, of those skills.  Of course, one can make a similar case for government control of education dumbing down society compared to parochial education, private schools, and homeschooling, of yesteryear.


Posted by on November 25, 2011 in "science", culture, Life is stranger than fiction


14 responses to “Wolves in sheep’s clothing: domestic science / household science / home economics

  1. Saint Velvet

    November 26, 2011 at 10:51 am

    Yep, it’s why I pursued a degree in art (I know, very practical) rather than design, which at the time was in the Home Ec department, artificially under the Natural Sciences heading. I never understood that, as I was no scientist. It was interesting to me that I could not call myself an artist, technically, without proving it, even with a BFA, but that a BS in BS constituted legitimacy. Progressive, indeed.

  2. Steve Nicoloso

    November 26, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    Every road into Jerusalem is a road out of it.

  3. laceagate

    November 26, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    Hear, hear, Will!

    I was 6 years old when my mom first taught me to sew, was 10 when I started to learn to cook complex meals (not spaghetti…that doesn’t count), and throughout my life learned how to administrate a household.

    There is some science to learning domestic skills, and this is useful knowledge when applied to the correct setting. I remember in 8th grade “Home Ec.” class, in “food lab” thinking how funny it was that while many of my peers would learn the skills in the classroom setting and demonstrate competence, there wouldn’t be a transfer to the home setting. Why? Because you can’t take the teacher home. Young girls should be able to rely on mom, grandma, aunt, an older cousin, or the lady who is close to the family that they call “Aunty.” It also doesn’t do any good to give a young girl an “F” on her singed pie crust.

    Teaching domestic skills at home is also the most effective way for families to pass down traditions, be it familial or ethnic. What comes to mind are the images of the grandma teaching her granddaughters the “secret family recipe,” and in doing so fosters the concept of a family.

    For similar reasons, that’s why I believe that sex education and learning about dating/courtship should start at home and is best left to parents and other trusted adult family members to teach.

  4. Will S.

    November 27, 2011 at 7:49 am

    @ Saint Velvet: Interesting! That does seem strange for it to be thus categorized, indeed.
    @ Steve N: I don’t quite follow; could you elaborate?
    @ Lacey: Thanks. Agree completely with you. I see no reason why what should be taught at home can’t be supplemented with a few additional lessons at school about food chemistry, etc., not meant to usurp the place of mothers, grandmothers, aunts, etc. That would be the best of both worlds, truly.

  5. laceagate

    November 27, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    I think this is a topic for men to take note on, especially if they have daughters. Encouraging one’s wife to take the teaching direction with domestic skills can set the stage for a daughter’s success in snagging a future husband.

    I imagine there would be a bit of trouble if a wife didn’t want to engage her daughter(s) in teaching these skills.

  6. Steve Nicoloso

    November 28, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    Steve N: I don’t quite follow; could you elaborate?

    Sorry… left that comment in a rush during a very rushed and long (and enjoyable) weekend. Now I’m back at work and may respond with the appropriate leisure as it were….

    Ummm well…. that’s my standard comment on just about everything… Just kidding… mostly…

    I think the scientization of just about every freaking thing over the last century has ruined whatever corresponding freaking thing that happened to get scientized. I think there were probably many women who got so gol’ darn awesome at home economics that they chucked the actual economics of actual homes and instead turned their expertise into a paying gig. Just as I think there are many women today who are conditioned into thinking that getting paid (rather poorly) to take care of other people’s kids is somehow more rewarding than taking care of her own… The professionalization of the domestic arts was and no doubt remains a juicy carrot to draw out those last remaining reticent, traditionally-minded women, out from their humble estates of early marriage and child-bearing, and into the warm, positive, affirming belly of the beast.

    A road out of Jerusalem.

    And yet…

    Because of the cataclysmic fall in general domestic competency over the past two generations (and I speak here of men as well as women), we now live in a day where, unless a woman had exceptionally good parenting (likely from parents acutely aware of and actively resisting society’s general plight), she likely will be profoundly deficient in the knowledge and skills to run a household well. Hell, she might even think slicing off pieces of ready made Pillsbury dough and popping them into the oven at 400 is tantamount to “baking”. Today, home economics as a “university” program, though couched, as everything else, in ever grander sounding, more professional nomenclature, is in reality quite distant from the core curricula of misandry and female empowerment. As such, “fields” like “home economics” or “restaurant/catering management” or “hospitality management” might be seen in a light similar to how we might see elementary education (especially early childhood) or music: I.e., areas of study which present poor (to nonexistent) financial prospects, but which plausibly, perhaps greatly, enhance a woman’s expertise to accomplish what Nature and Nature’s God intended for her, which was to please a husband, have and raise successful kids, and successfully manage the household economy. And as an added bonus, perhaps she will have actually read The Iliad.

    A road, the same road, now into Jerusalem.

  7. Will S.

    November 28, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    Ah, I see.

    I do find some dark amusement, in the fact that day care costs have risen to the point here in Canada that there are some two-income families which have found it cheaper for the wife to quit her job and stay home with the kids, than to have both working yet paying for day care for their kids.

    I suppose this is another example of your two-way Jerusalem road.

  8. Elspeth

    November 29, 2011 at 6:22 am

    I do find some dark amusement, in the fact that day care costs have risen to the point here in Canada that there are some two-income families which have found it cheaper for the wife to quit her job and stay home with the kids, than to have both working yet paying for day care for their kids.

    This in fact, is one of the reasons I became a full-time wife and mother when I did. My husband always intended for me to be at home at some point, but learning we were expecting twins moved the plan up considerably. The day care would have wrecked our finances. Even 17 years ago it was expensive. Now it’s exorbitant.

  9. Will S.

    November 29, 2011 at 7:26 am

    Interesting, Elspeth; I hadn’t appreciated that the same situation has happened in the States.

  10. Matthew

    December 3, 2011 at 12:13 am

    I’m ecstatic to learn that Terriblespeth stopped neglecting her husband and children because of financial concerns.


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