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Biography - Putting the Science in Domestic Science

Home Economics emerged as an academic discipline in the United States and western
Europe starting in the 1870s, fueled by a new belief that housework could and should be
studied scientifically. Early practitioners, almost always women, argued passionately that
Home Economics was a scientific discipline with direct relevance to society, politics, and
public health. In fact, they were right. By the early twentieth century, real advances in
knowledge about nutrition, hygiene, and the spread of germs meant that home economists
had answers to real problems.

Facing resistance to the idea that women needed higher education, early home
economists argued that an education in their discipline was not a distraction from the
important work of raising children and keeping house. On the contrary, they said, women
trained in Home Economics were better mothers and housekeepers precisely because they
knew how to apply scientific knowledge in the home, and their families were healthier,
safer, and more productive as a result. By the early twentieth century, Home Economics
classes had become commonplace in American elementary schools, high schools, and
universities. For many women throughout the early and mid-twentieth century, Home
Economics remained an important route to a college education.

The terms that came to describe the discipline – Home Economics and Domestic Science
– were both crafted to emphasize academic substance. A founder of the discipline, Ellen
Richards was perhaps the strongest voice among those who insisted that Home
Economics was first and foremost a science. Richards was the first woman to get her
Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as, later, its first female
faculty member. Her Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning: A Manual for Housekeepers
(1882) is one of the earliest Home Economics texts and one of the most striking examples
of the centrality of hard science to Home Economics in its first decades. In this book,
Richards stressed her belief that doing housework well required a thorough understanding
of the chemical processes involved in domestic tasks, from cleaning a window to cooking
an egg. Thanks in part to Richards’ considerable influence on the discipline, Home
Economics students at the university level continued to take courses in chemistry,
biology, nutrition, and other sciences for decades after she wrote.

Helen Veit

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