Home Economics Education in the 1920s and 1930s

hotplate

Very likely the type of hotplate Miss Anderson used to teach home economics in 1925.

When I read that my mother, Harriette Anderson (Kaser) taught home economics her first year of teaching, and all she had in the way of equipment was a hot plate, I wondered what she taught.

Of course she was teaching a lot of stuff that had nothing to do with cooking. The newish science of home economics (in 1925) covered a good deal more than food. The objective was to turn young women into scientific home makers–able to use the latest and greatest discoveries in health and nutrition, new kinds of sewing machines, and how to be a home manager instead of just a house slave.

The fact Miss Anderson had only an electric hotplate to teach on in 1925 was not entirely unreasonable. In their homes, these girls may still have been cooking on wood stoves,  and using an ice house dug into the side of a hill to store perishables. Although ice boxes with delivery of ice would be widely used in urban areas, home refrigerators had only been introduced in 1914. There were no small electrical appliances. The first stand electric mixers were introduced in 1919. Even the simple toaster did not come along until 1926, and electric stoves were not popular until around 1930. And that did not matter to these farm families, because before the federal  Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in the 1930s, they had no electricity anyway.

Home Economics is Born

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was credited with fueling the north’s passion for the Civil War. But her sister Catharine Beecher wrote a book that may have had more lasting effects. In 1841, she published Treatise on Domestic Economy and in 1869, American Woman’s Home (co-authored by sister Harriet). According to the history of women in the kitchen, A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove,

“…she put forth a vision for the home economics movement, a movement that would not come to fruition until the turn of the twentieth century…Her most fervent cause was education for women, and she started many schools for women where ‘domestic science’ was a formal branch of study.  With education and professionalization, Catharine believed housework could be transformed from drudgery into a sacred job on equal footing with the professions of men.”

Catharine herself was never a traditional housewife because her fiancé was lost at sea and she never married. Coming from a family with servants, she may never have cooked. Her books were saturated with the Calvinistic religion of her father and the intellectual philosophy of the circle of New England literati and abolitionists and her extraordinary family members who gathered at the Beecher Hartford Connecticut home at Nook’s Farm.

Although she was a pioneer in this field, I can’t see the fundamentals of Miss Beecher’s teachings permeating the fun-loving 1920s that formed my mother. Catharine was a scold who was intent on improving women, particularly the lower classes so that they could fulfill the “great mission” of “self denial”. Food was not for enjoyment, but for character building. Furthermore, her religious background formed a philosophy where women were subservient to men and she did not believe in women voting. They should be educated–as teachers.

But the ‘get to work and stand up straight’ messages were salted with incredibly helpful hints for forward-looking home making. Move over Martha Stewart–Catharine explained that women could learn how to divide their home into rooms to best use the space, how to make their own picture frames and pant stands, organize their kitchens for maximum efficiency, and properly serve meals.

Home Economics in Ohio Schools

In 1914, a federal law required land grant colleges (including mother’s and my alma mater, Ohio State University)  to extend teaching of home economics and agriculture through county extension agents. That program was in full swing when mother started teaching in rural Ohio in 1925. In 1917, the federal government had started partially funding domestic science teaching in local schools, which probably explains why by the time mother started teaching, most Ohio schools–even a two-room school like Clark, Ohio– had home economics classes.

Harriette Anderson teacher

Clark, Ohio High School, the 1925-26 students. The 19-year-old teacher is on the far right.

But what could she teach to a class with three girls of various ages? Food was certainly going to be a challenge with only a hotplate to operate with. And I can imagine what those farm mothers thought about their girls being taught by some outsider the skills that had been passed down form mother to daughter for generations.

Home Economics for the Twenties and Thirties

In the twenties and thirties, women were being taught that cooking with commercially preserved foods was superior to using fresh or home-preserved. The newest, most modern, most economical and efficient way to cook was to use commercially prepared foods. Food manufacturers jumped on this opportunity and mother’s closet was full of brochures and cookbooks on how to use brand name products. The Singer company helped get sewing machines into classrooms. Pattern-makers catered to home economics teachers.

Since Miracle Whip was not introduced until 1933, this brochure must have come along a little later, but checking historic labels, I think this would have been very early. [Note: I had to leave out a couple of panels. The recipe that goes with the center bottom picture of food is Burgers and coleslaw. Also, the color balance is off–the mayo was just as white then as it is now.]

In a book called A History of Vocational and Career Education in Ohio 1828-2000, I learned that the first state coordinator of Home Economics was appointed in 1918.  I do not know for sure what the teaching guidelines were for home economics teachers in 1925, but by 1930, Ohio had a detailed curriculum guide, Home Economics: Course Study for High Schools in Vocational Home Economics Education.  If you want to see what was expected of women in 1930, check the digital version on this page.

Food teaching centered on nutrition–not fancy food.  The vitamin value of vegetables was not even realized until World War I–not even a decade before mother started teaching.  The recommended reading section of the study guide includes two books by the Boston Cooking School teacher and author, Fannie Farmer. Recipes are plain and seasonings are few.

The study guide is earnest and for the most part probably very helpful to a beginning teacher at a city school, but I doubt that the farm girls of Clark had any need for the etiquette of serving dinner–both with and without a maid; nor would Miss Anderson’s hotplate have accommodated the instructions to have each girl take responsibility for “planning, preparing and serving (with the aid of another member of the class) at least one luncheon of each type for a group of five or six people.” And “planning, preparation and serving a series of suppers (10-14) for the family. Two or three meals a week may be prepared if the project is covered while school is in session.”

The “types” of luncheons to be discussed, with focus for each day underlined were:

  • Vegetable plate luncheon, bread, beverage.
  • Cheese dish, vegetable salad, gelatin dessert, bread.
  • Meat or fish salad, parkerhouse rolls, fruit compote.
  • Croquettes, green vegetables, fruit salad, bread.
  • Meat, or meat extender, vegetable salad, bread, beverage, dessert.

Mother was learning her own ideas of what made the proper meal as she taught her classes. To the end of her life, she complained about any meal that did not include bread. She expected meat, vegetable, starch (potato or rice for instance), bread and coffee and dessert. If these farm families wanted bread, mother had to bake it. There were no bakeries, and commerical sliced bread was not yet available.

In the classroom, she could have boiled potatoes on the simple hotplate like she reported doing on a campfire on her summer road trips during this period. I can imagine her borrowing an iron skillet from Aunt Rhema, in whose house she was staying while she taught at Clark, and frying potatoes, or perhaps she made an omelet. Of course the girls could make a salad, but there was no refrigeration for leftovers, and anyway, fresh salads might have been a hard sell in those days of boiling  vegetables to death. That vegetable plate luncheon would have been an oddity for these meat-loving farm families. And fish? Probably not. In one way, they would have been extremely modern. All produce would have been locally grown and organic.

Teaching home economics in a rural two-room school in 1925 would have been quite a challenge– even if  teacher had more than a hotplate in the classroom.

Will you try any of the recipes in the Kraft  booklet?  For that matter, which side of the divide do you fall on–Miracle Whip dressing or Kraft mayonnaise?

4 thoughts on “Home Economics Education in the 1920s and 1930s

  1. Deborah Harrison

    Miracle Whip all the way! Unfortunately, I can’t eat it any more because I can’t eat high fructose corn syrup. There are generic brands that I can eat which contain sugar, but the spices aren’t quite right. Our potato salad is very similar to the one in the brochure, except ours has celery seed, but no chives. People are always surprised at how good it is with such simple ingredients. I could eat a whole plateful.

    Reply
    1. Vera Marie BadertscherVera Marie Badertscher Post author

      Deborah: I ran a recipe for potato salad earlier on this site, and while I use Miracle Whip (which my grandchildren despise!) I agree with you about the celery seed, and think that pre marinating in vinegar and oil or an Italian dressing while the potatoes are warm, improves this basic recipe immensely.

      Reply
  2. Joanne Barnard

    Vera, as a former home economics teacher myself, I thoroughly enjoyed your story about your mother just as much as the one you did about your father! I appreciated how you delved into the history of how the subject came to be taught.

    Reply
    1. Vera Marie BadertscherVera Marie Badertscher Post author

      Thanks, teach. I guess I passed. 🙂 Home Ec has a very different history than most of the subjects in school, all wrapped up with the self-improvement movements of the late 1800s, women’s rights, technological changes in the home—I get all geeked out about it.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge