Home Economics Textbook (1937)

The fact is, of late I’ve been doing the same old, same old historical stuff, or else things I can’t comment on.  So here’s a post about another acquisition for my pre-liberation domestic agenda collection.  (If you can think of another term for it, be my guest!)

At the flea market today I picked up Foods and Home Making by Carlotta C. Greer, revised edition, published in 1937.  Ms. Greer was the head of the department of home economics at John Jay High School in Cleveland – in other words, part of the home economics movement that has lost so much steam in recent decades.  Notice the nice Art Deco detailing on the radio cabinet in the cover picture, and the fact that Mrs. Homemaker is carrying along a book to read while Mr. Moneybags reads the paper and they both take tea.  Like most (if not all) of the home economics movement, this text is devotedly and unquestioningly middle class.  Consider, also, the picture on the inside cover:

The two teens, at least one of whom has recently been playing tennis (look to the boy’s left), do the washing-up while Mom relaxes in the living room, which features a shield and crossed swords over the mantlepiece.

Similarly, the back inside cover features a suit-wearing father either arriving or leaving (the clock reads 6:30), and the view through the window over the sink is of a very nice middle-class house.

One wonders how this went over in Branch Township, Pennsylvania, which is in a decidedly blue-collar coal mining region.  (How the book got from there to a flea market in Connecticut, I can’t imagine.)

On the other hand, the goal of the book (and the home ec movement generally) was to try to help people eat well and live more comfortable, pleasant, and bacteria-free lives.   The people who had the time and money to spend on this were, primarily, middle or upper class – so their ideas and standards got the press.  The fact that the truly poor (then and now) might have to choose between buying food and buying soap, and back then may have eaten with utensils carved out of wood by a family member, rarely figures in this early literature.

And yet, this book does contain a section of how to work with a wood-burning stove, and a “suggested time budget” for students that includes a category “Paid Work,” and notes that table runners or doilies are an “economical” substitute for tablecloths … along with detailed instructions for place settings that for a family breakfast included fork, knife, two spoons, butter knife, bread plate, and both a large and a small main plate.

On the gender angle, these remarks from the “To the Teacher” section are of interest in their reflection of role assumptions:

Much of the material of Foods and Home Making is suitable for boys as well as girls.  Knowledge of food selection is necessary for boys.  Stimulation of boys’ interest in home making contributes to their appreciation of home life.

And Unit 2 is called “Modern Housewifery.”  Apparently bachelors living on their own didn’t exist?  Or perhaps they could all afford to hire maids and cooks.

Such books are, of course, also full of useful information.  I don’t think I’ll be rinsing my hand-washed dishes in scalding water any time soon, but I’m sure I could benefit from coming up with a “time budget” as discussed in Ch. 16, but I’m more fascinated with the suggested one in the book.  4.5 hours of time in class, 2.5 hours of recreation and exercise, 2.25 hours of paid work, 8 hours of sleep, 2.5 hours of home schoolwork …

Wait, 4.5 hours of time in class?  A whole 2.5 hours of recreation?  Wow.  What slackers this generation were!  And yet somehow they grew up to win World War II and make the US even more economically dominant than it was in the 20s … at least, until the 1970s.  Hmm.  Were they making that wave or just riding it?

Anyway, that’s enough rambling on about class, gender, and economic trends.  Here, have a pretty picture of middle-class domesticity:

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