STIR IT UP: Home Economics in American Culture

Cooking and sewing play a surprisingly minor part in this smart examination of the shifting role that home ec has played in American culture.

“Home ec” may typically conjure up images of Donna Reed–style women in aprons, but cooking and sewing play a surprisingly minor part in this smart examination of the shifting role that home ec has played in American culture. According to Elias, home ec has its roots in a late–19th century social movement to professionalize and legitimize domestic work—particularly through the physical and social sciences. In fact, writes Elias, when a prominent University of Illinois home economist was asked how many credits her students received for “bread making,” she bit back, “Not much, because we are not baking much bread.” Rather, in their coursework, students were studying it—right alongside subjects like bacteriology and sanitation, nutrition, textiles, and, yes, economics. Over the ensuing decades, however, home ec faced two debilitating hurdles: in the 1920s, corporations began to claim the “domestic expertise” that had previously been the domain of home economists; and in the 1950s, home ec acquired its current stigma of being a cop-out, sexist high-school class where students learn little more than to bake casseroles. It goes without saying that the movement never recovered from these blows to its cultural authority and was ultimately ineffective at changing society’s valuation of “women’s work”—though it can be lauded for providing at least a handful of women with professional experiences. At a time when we’re still grappling with questions about gender, domesticity, and consumerism, Elias’ history of home ec provides a thought-provoking glimpse into a movement that has helped to shape our understanding of these very issues.