Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Ellen Swallow Richards, the Founder of Home Economics

When I think of Home-Ec class, I think of sewing skirts, baking muffins, and pretending for a week that a hard-boiled egg was my infant child. The goal of the 'egg project' was to get a feeling for how fragile a baby could be, but really, coddling an omelette ingredient with a face penciled on its shell could never even remotely match the experience of trying to diaper a colicky little human who in between red-faced screams is peeing straight up in the air...but I digress. 

Essentially, however, I remember Home-Ec as being the one class my mother insisted that I take, imagining that there I would finally learn the basics of running a household, and finally learn how to read recipes as voraciously as I read Tiger Beats and Gothic novels. Unfortunately, she did not know that Home Economics, a prime target of the 1970s women's movement, was no longer a sophisticated place where a girl could learn every wifely skill under the sun, graduating with a full knowledge on nutrition, deportment, child psychology, complicated, from-scratch cookery, and the organizing of a house, from basic rooms to banquet tables. In fact, by the time I made it to high school Home-Ec, the class was pretty much considered an easy A, with all the oven- warm muffins you could eat.

Few women today know that the Home Economics movement was started by a brilliant female student at MIT.  Ironically, the very same Massachusetts Institute of Technology that graduated astronaut Buzz Aldrin from the first moon mission also developed the academia around the running of the modern home.
Ellen Swallow Richards
This student was named Ellen Swallow Richards, and her ground-breaking spirit easily fits in with MIT's alumni of distinguished thinkers in physics, electrodynamics, engineering, and mathematics. Graduating as a chemist from Ivy-League Vassar College, Ellen Richards applied to MIT in 1870 and was the FIRST female student accepted. She was passionate about using her knowledge of chemistry and systems of order to change the management of the home and family life. This was a time when infant mortality was so high it touched nearly every family, and also a time when store-bought food was often 'stretched' with chalk and other harmful products. Richards felt that science and a sense of the value and dignity of the home could alleviate some of the squalor and sickness she witnessed in the growing cities.

To Richards, the woman as homemaker was the backbone of society. Her skills were not only what kept her family cohesive, she was hugely responsible for their health and well-being. This was life and death to her, and this zeal was conveyed in the original classes she founded. Richards was also convinced that strong women at home led to the growth of healthy, morally strong communities. 

She was coming into this line of thought while first wave feminism was also beginning to get traction. According to the book "Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century", housework was already being demeaned as mindless by early suffragettes.  When someone opined to her that maintaining the house was a trivial task that took only a short time to learn, Richards famously--and sarcastically-- retorted, " If the piano or violin can be mastered in six weeks, so can housekeeping."

I outgrew my 'Teen Beat' and Gothic novel phase, and now in middle age devour everything written about domesticity that I can get my hands on.  No, it wasn't the baking of muffins that moved me here, and it certainly was not the egg baby. Instead it was decades of discovering, by trial and error, how complicated, relentless, sacrificial, and indeed inspiring it is to run a house well, to turn four walls into a haven that satisfies the needs of our loved ones, juggling the constant physical demands of food and clean clothes and orderly rooms, as well as cultivating thrift, fun, education, values, health, and a sense of peace, trying to create something stable in a world that is constantly in chaos. It is a task that has so many areas in which to excel, so many skills needed, and above all requires a well-honed sense of time management. Homemaking requires humility and it requires imagination and most of all it requires experience. It also requires making a heck of a lot of mistakes.

One of the favorite books in my collection is a Home-Ec book from the late 1960s. At this time, second wave feminism is advancing on the horizon, but this book still manages to uphold and maintain much of the lovely values of the traditional home.


Here it talks about all the details required in setting a formal table

Here it talks about deep cleaning the kitchen, including taking apart the range.

Isn't it fascinating that in this era, where celebrating women and their accomplishments has become daily discourse in media and in academia, that this scientist and engineer, a woman who believed that gracious homes made gracious societies, is unheard of today? I find it no accident, no coincidence, that as our civilization dismisses the loving and disciplined gestures once found in the home, that the streets are growing more and more violent by the day. 

It matters what we are doing, ladies. It matters enough that a distinguished scientist, with many other accolades to her credit, devoted her knowledge and wisdom to good homemaking, and all the positive things that come from it.

And on that note, I think I'll end here and go bake some muffins.

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