From the Homestead Kitchen: The Home Economics Movement and Women’s Magazines

by Gennie Truelock

When I was in middle school, one elective class I remember taking was Home EC. For some, the term home economics might invoke a socially conservative image of a young girl learning how to “keep house.” While I don’t really remember too much of the ins and outs of that semester, beyond learning how to use a sewing machine and cook a basic recipe, I do recall the class was required of all students, male and female. Although classes such as these are no longer offered at the majority of middle and high schools across the United States, the purpose behind the development of these courses actually had more to do with empowering women at a time when few opportunities presented themselves.

Women’s education and the Morill Act

Home economics as a formalized field of study didn’t occur until the early 1900s, however, efforts to teach women the scientific principles behind running a healthy household go back to the mid-1800s. One early article was the Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home written in 1841 by educator and social reformer Catharine Beecher, half-sister of the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Beecher encouraged the application of scientific principles to childrearing, cooking, and housekeeping, as well as access to education for young women.

In 1862, Congress passed the Morill Act, which provided land grants to states for the establishment of colleges specializing in “agriculture and the mechanic arts.” Until that time, American colleges and universities focused largely on teaching the classics and on preparing white males for professions in medicine, law, and the ministry. But these schools, with their focus on agriculture and applied mechanics were open to women who it was thought would also benefit from the application of scientific theories and techniques in the management of their household. Activities such as cooking, housecleaning, sewing, laundry, care of the sick, and sanitation were modernized by scientific innovations. In the last decades of the 19th century, the land-grant schools, along with a few private institutions, established courses in what was called “domestic science.”

The rise of home economics

Ellen Swallow Richards was one of the major figures in the emergence of home economics as a profession. Born in Massachusetts, she attended Vassar College, earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. She then went on to be the first woman to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where she earned a bachelor’s in chemistry, but was denied a master’s degree in the field.

Richards believed that all women would benefit from an education in the sciences. In 1882, she wrote The Chemistry of Cooking and Cleaning, and in 1885, her book Food Materials and Their Adulterations led to the passing of the first Pure Food and Drug Act in Massachusetts.

According to the Chemical Heritage Foundation, “Richards was very concerned to apply scientific principles to domestic topics — good nutrition, pure foods, proper clothing, physical fitness, sanitation, and efficient practices that would allow women more time for pursuits other than cooking and cleaning.”

In 1899, Richards, along with other female educators and activists, organized a series of annual gatherings at Lake Placid, New York. Out of these conferences, the home economics movement began to take shape. At the first conference, participants agreed on the term home economics, believing that it covered a wide range of concerns involving home life, and they began to promote the teaching of home economics in secondary schools as well as in colleges and universities.

In 1908, conference participants formed the American Home Economics Association, now known as American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences. This organization lobbied federal and state governments to provide funding for home economics research and education. Over the following decades, home economists contributed heavily to public debate on a variety of policy issues, including social welfare, nutrition, child development, housing, and consumer protections. New employment opportunities also opened up for women who went into the field. Many pursued careers in the food industry, hotel and restaurant management, and interior design. Home economists also found jobs in areas such as public health, journalism, social work, housing, and, of course, education.

The rise of home economics as a research field also coincided with the growth of another area of female interests: women’s magazines.

Women’s magazines

The history of women’s magazines in the US begins with Godey’s Lady Book. First published in Philadelphia in 1830 by Louis Antoine Godey and edited for 40 years by Sarah Josepha Hale, the magazine provided a platform for women’s interests, promoted the works and skills of female writers and artists, and popularized many US traditions like wearing a white wedding dress, celebrating Thanksgiving, and decorating a tree inside your home for Christmas. Over the ensuing years many publications such as Good Housekeeping, Better Homes & Gardens, and Redbook, all found a foothold within the industry in the later half of the 1800s.

By the 20th century, the number of women purchasing magazines soared. Providing generations of women with new and modern tips and tricks to properly clean their home, prepare a holiday meal, or learn a new skill. I decided to take a look at a magazine to find a Halloween recipe for this post that was once popular, but has since faded from memory…Modern Priscilla.

Modern Priscilla, October 1929. From the Homestead Museum collection.

Modern Priscilla began in 1887 as a 16-page publication devoted to what was then called fancy work or embroidery, dress patterns, china painting, and needlework in general. It eventually grew in scope to cover many other aspects of women’s home life. Cooking, health and beauty tips, fashion, short stories, and home decorating became popular features, but patterns for needlework of all kinds were constant highlights. It was published until 1930 when it was bought by another women’s magazine, Needlecraft.

While looking through the October 1929 issue, I came across a series of recipes under the title “Cakes for Hallowe’en” and what immediately jumped out at me was this line under the title “Recipes from the Priscilla Proving Plant.” The Proving Plant, it seems was part test kitchen, part laboratory where staff home economists tried new recipes, cooking techniques, and products, and let their readers know their results. I selected two recipes from the article to recreate for this post.

Cakes for Hallowe’en article from Modern Priscilla, October 1929. The goodies included in this image are the items I baked for this post, soft molasses cookies and the sponge gingerbread.

I started with the soft molasses cookie.

Recipe for the soft molasses cookie from Modern Priscilla, October 1929.

The texture of the cookie was great! Soft and chewy, which I think is attributed to the sour cream that is added to this recipe (for a recipe on another sour cream cookie, click here). But the overall flavor was meh. I have now learned that when I bake a historic recipe, when possible, I only bake half the amount at a time. That way if I need to adjust flavors, I can do so without wasting the entire batch. This cookie definitely needed more flavor. I added clove and nutmeg, and increased the ginger (but I really like the taste of ginger). The second batch made for a decent molasses spice cookie.

The second recipe I made was the sponge gingerbread.

Sponge gingerbread recipe from Modern Priscilla, October 1929. This one is a keeper!

I really like this sponge. Light, moist, and the molasses flavor was on point. I topped the cakes with a little candy-coating chocolate and made orange discs from vanilla flavored coating chocolate to make the jack-o-lantern decoration on top.

Here’s how they turned out.   

A ghostly pumpkin patch is perfect for Halloween.

If you decide to give these recipes a try, let us know how they turn out by tagging us @homesteadmuseum.

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