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Review: 'The Secret History of Home Economics,' by Danielle Dreilinger

Review: 'The Secret History of Home Economics,' by Danielle Dreilinger

"The Secret History of Home Economics" by: Danielle Dreilinger; W.W. Norton (348 pages, $27.95). (W. W. Norton & Company/TNS)

"The Secret History of Home Economics" by: Danielle Dreilinger; W.W. Norton (348 pages, $27.95)


Danielle Dreilinger's "The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live" is a fascinating history of the field and of the contributions of some very determined women. It is also a revealing account of the title's reverse: how changes in the way women lived affected home economics. Further, it explores an issue generally ignored: Home economics, as an organized field, was as permeated by racism as the society around it.

By the later years of the 19th century, as American society became preoccupied with science and systemization, the home presented itself as requiring a scientific approach. Science would bring dignity and respect to women's work and highlight its fundamental importance to a healthy, prosperous nation. The field was promoted by a number of forceful women, including Ellen Swallow Richards and Margaret Murray Washington, both of whom ran college programs in versions of the discipline.

The American Home Economics Association (AHEA) — which settled on the name "home economics" — was formed by a group of 10 white people in 1899. The organization was not fully integrated, nationally and regionally, until 1960. Indeed, Washington — who is African American — continued to call the field "domestic science" for another 10 years. While the AHEA had encouraged teaching home economics to nonwhite people, it saw its purpose as training Blacks to be servants, teaching Native Americans to live like whites, and weaning immigrants and Hispanics from their un-American diets.

For both whites and Blacks — the latter creating their own organizations — home economics became an academic discipline and a field in which women could work outside the home, not only as teachers, but in developing textiles, domestic products, nutritional guidelines, and as business and marketing professionals. An Office of Home Economics was established in 1915 under the Department of Agriculture and Dreilinger shows how home economists, as experts in nutrition and domestic frugality, played crucial roles in both World Wars and the Depression. Their work both furthered and was furthered by the increasing role played by women outside the home.

The rot set in as the 1950s brought an emphasis on consumerism, especially in the home, and home economics increasingly concerned itself with fashion, beauty and "likability," the goal being to shape the ideal wife who drudged with a smile amid modern appliances. Hard science was no longer required for a degree in the field. In the 1960s and 1970s, home economics, like so much of America, began turning toward a therapeutic approach to the home. According to the AHEA, the purpose of home economics was to teach homemakers to manage "personal relationships."

The Bureau of Home Economics was abolished in 1962 and in 1993 the AHEA became the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences, the soporific new name doing nothing to advance the field. Dreilinger concludes this stimulating book with suggestions for resuscitating home economics, among them, restoring its name, emphasizing science and practical skills, and making it mandatory in school for everyone.


Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, also reviews for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.

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