I first noticed something was weird as an undergraduate looking for a place to study fashion design. Most majors had predictable names and departments. Chemistry was always in with the sciences. Writing majors went to the English Department. But fashion design could be almost anywhere, from the Fine Arts Department to the Business School. Occasionally, it would end up in departments with names like Human Ecology or Family and Consumer Sciences. These, I learned were the remains of old Home Economics departments. I’d never quite understood what was going on until I read The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Lived by Danielle Dreilinger
Disclaimer: I received an advanced digital copy of this book for free through NetGalley. All opinions are honest and my own. This post also contains affiliate links. If you purchase something through one of these links I may receive a small commission at no cost to you. See my policies page for more.
The Secret History of Home Economics traces the history of the field from its founding in the late 19th century through to its diminished state today. While today we can easily learn to cook, sew, and do other crafts through a variety of avenues, such as online courses, in many cases these classes have their roots in Home Ec. The book is organized more or less chronologically. This shows how the intersection of historical events and the people who worked in the field effected the discipline and perception of the field. This story is equally inspiring and infuriating. It also is occasionally bizarre. I’m not sure I’ll ever fully get over learning about practice babies.
While the field was founded with some promising progressive notions, I found many of the early years to be tainted by association with unsavory characters like Annie and Melvil Dewey. In addition to generally being the worst, they hobbled the field by excluding non-white participants. Most notable among these was Margaret Murray Washington, wife of Booker T. Washington and a powerhouse in her own right. Dreilinger doesn’t shy away from exposing the racism and segregation that permeated the field for far too long. At the same time, the author highlights and acknowledges contributions of women of color, which is very welcome in a book like this.
The relationship between corporations and home economists was also full of complexities. At times home economists were solidly on the side of the consumer, pushing for protections and transparency. However, a common career path was in business. In these jobs home economists were paid to educate consumers about new products and help corporations market them. While this may seem questionable today, some of the work home economists with corporations had real value. Promoting rural electrification by demonstrating electric appliances such as stoves was real, necessary work that home economists were well suited for.
The place of women in the workforce is also a prominent theme in The Secret History of Home Economics. Home Economics departments are, for some women, a backdoor into the hard sciences. Particularly during the 1950s, women who become home economists promote “traditional” homemaking culture while living as independent career women. Home Economics departments seemed to a separate world. One where women were able to do valuable work. However, being siloed from other disciplines seems to be one of the many factors in Home Economics decline.
In the final chapter, Dreilinger makes a case for how and why to revive the discipline of Home Economics. The author makes several arguments and suggestions for bringing the field into the modern era. The most persuasive in my opinion is that a modern Home Economics curriculum could be more than just learning skills. Ideally, it would also teach students to think critically about they choices they make as consumers and citizens. As a Home Ec student back in the 1990s, the sewing portion of my class involved using a sewing machine to make a simple pair of elastic-waist shorts. But what if that also was paired with a discussion about the environmental and humanitarian consequences of todays fashion production system?
Overall, I found this book a well researched and compelling read. It’s make a great case for the revitalization of Home Economics by providing a solid historical look at why the discipline existed in the first place. You can purchase a copy at Bookshop.org, Amazon.com, or wherever you buy books.
Have you read The Secret History of Home Economics? Let me know in the comments below or over on Instagram!