The field’s efforts at reinvention don’t inspire optimism. In the 1950s, Dreilinger writes, “home economists refocused on managing not the physical structure of the household but the people and relationships within it.” Instead of emphasizing what homemakers did, she observes, the new emphasis on “family life” focused on who they were, replacing skills with endless emotional labor.
But Dreilinger glosses over how much easier it was to manage a ’50s tract house than a 1930s farm or urban apartment. Keeping a homemaker occupied required new, absurdly high standards of cleanliness, child rearing and personal presentation. Alternatively, the housewife could get a job and pay others for child care, housecleaning and meals — which is what eventually happened. The pioneers of home economics respected the division of labor.
But the discipline’s origins lie in homemaking. In the 19th century, cooking, cleaning and provisioning constituted a laborious full-time job. A homemaker was, in effect, running a small factory. Laundry alone required a whole day of strenuous effort. “Modern conveniences,” from electrical appliances to packaged foods, changed the economics of home ec, moving production from the generalist housewife to the specialist business.
So subjects that used to live harmoniously under the domestic roof — nutrition, consumer research, textiles, child psychology — have grown apart. Cornell’s College of Human Ecology is still a research powerhouse. But a scientist using nanotechnology to develop fabric finishes isn’t working on household problems, and the research has nothing to do with nutrition or child development.
The one place that home economics still makes sense is where I first encountered it: in middle school. As it turns out, I loved the class, despite a paucity of academic content. We made aprons and, yes, blueberry muffins. It was home ec as the “stirring and stitching” that Dreilinger and her sources disdain.
But learning how to cook and sew — to make useful physical objects with sensory appeal — was deeply satisfying for a 12-year-old bookworm. It’s the same satisfaction that animates the contemporary maker movement. It powers innumerable YouTube videos and much of the Discovery Channel’s lineup. People crave control over their immediate physical environment. And they’re obsessed with food. Integrate some electronics and carpentry and you’ll have a hit — even if you call it home ec.