Life at Simmons
Simmons and the Home Economics Movement
The Simmons College Annual Catalogue of courses for 1913-1914 describes the degree in Household Economics as intended "for women who intend to teach cookery, sewing, or kindred household arts, to direct work in domestic science or domestic art in public or private schools or in colleges, to administer an institution or a household, or to open the way for specialization in the study of problems of household economics." The curriculum was meant to stress both the theory and practice of the "domestic arts," to connect solid scientific knowledge to useful skills. To this end, all Household Economics students at Simmons took the same courses in the first year: Inorganic Chemistry, English, History, Household Management, Physics, and Physical Training. In their subsequent years, students chose one of three paths, depending on their interests: 1. The scientific study of foods and their preparation; 2. Cookery and sewing; 3. Domestic art and its teaching.
One of Olive Ruby Henty's (ORH) test papers from her Cookery class, dated January 1913, gives a good sense of how theory and practice coexisted. Some sample tasks follow:
Make a drawing of a vegetable cell, label, and state how the different parts are affected by cooking.
Explain the chemical changes which take place when bread is toasted.
State the proportion of water, cereal, and salt, and the length of time required for cooking each of the following cereals: corn meal, cream of wheat, rolled oats.
Give recipe and directions for preparing one quart of cream of tomato soup.
Describe the effect of moderate and high heat on beaten white of egg.
The home economics classes ORH took while at Simmons, which also included subjects such as sewing, design, hygiene, housebuilding, chemistry, and biology, were meant to serve her well in both private and professional life, and were part of a larger educational movement. When ORH attended Simmons, both the field of home economics and the idea that women could pursue higher education were relatively new. Since women could now attend certain universities and colleges, the question of what subjects they would study arose. The theory behind the home economics movement was that women's university studies could provide a rigorous grounding for the traditional female role, the manager of the household. With this training, women would be equipped to raise healthy families and contribute to strong communities, or to pursue professional positions outside the home that required such knowledge. While there have been more recent debates about whether this path of study was another example of the way in which women were restricted to the domestic sphere, the idea that the running of a household and the domestic arts were founded on scientific principles may also have helped to highlight the important work that women did.
The home economics movement of the early 20th century was led by Ellen Richards, the first woman to get a degree from MIT, and began with the Lake Placid conferences (1899-1907). By 1909, these conferences had resulted in the creation of the American Home Economics Association (AHEA). Home economics meant many different things at the turn on the century, and the conference attendees disagreed on what to call it: household arts implied cooking and sewing; domestic economy, derived from Catherine Beecher, focused on the housewife and her problems, especially when dealing with her servants; domestic science tied the kitchen to the chemistry lab and emphasized nutrition and sanitation; and finally home economics borrowed from the social sciences and "most clearly positioned the home in relation to the larger polity, encouraging reform and municipal housekeeping" (Stage and Vincenti, 5).
The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 provided funding for home economics training and made the education of home economics teachers for the primary and secondary schools a central part of the mission of collegiate home economics programs. Unfortunately, women who wanted to pursue careers in scientific research were often encouraged to study home economics, and this act did not further the interests of those women who wanted to pursue study or work in other scientific fields.
By the 1920s, the focus of most home economics programs had changed to the teaching of skills like cooking and sewing, rather than problem solving and theoretical topics. At the time, only three percent of women graduated from college and the majority of those women held degrees in home economics. These women were not necessarily limited to managing their own households, however. They could also find jobs in the food and consumer good industries, food testing and regulation, or in scientific research. Graduates with degrees in home economics might find themselves running cafeterias and dining halls, or working as hospital dieticians. Like ORH, many went on to teach the skills they had learned to a generation of secondary school girls, and much later, near the end of the 20th century, to boys as well.back to top
Stage, S. and Vincenti, V. (1997). Rethinking home economics: women and the history of a profession. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.