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Creating Consumers

Creating Consumers: Home Economists in Twentieth-Century America

Carolyn M. Goldstein
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  • Book Info
    Creating Consumers
    Book Description:

    Home economics emerged at the turn of the twentieth century as a movement to train women to be more efficient household managers. At the same moment, American families began to consume many more goods and services than they produced. To guide women in this transition, professional home economists had two major goals: to teach women to assume their new roles as modern consumers and to communicate homemakers' needs to manufacturers and political leaders. Carolyn M. Goldstein charts the development of the profession from its origins as an educational movement to its identity as a source of consumer expertise in the interwar period to its virtual disappearance by the 1970s.Working for both business and government, home economists walked a fine line between educating and representing consumers while they shaped cultural expectations about consumer goods as well as the goods themselves. Goldstein looks beyond 1970s feminist scholarship that dismissed home economics for its emphasis on domesticity to reveal the movement's complexities, including the extent of its public impact and debates about home economists' relationship to the commercial marketplace.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0170-0
    Subjects: Business, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    In the late nineteenth century, as the economic function of American homes shifted from producing goods and services to consuming them, a group of middle-class women—and a few men—launched an educational reform movement to guide homemakers in this transition. Widely known as “domestic scientists,” they organized a meeting in Lake Placid, New York, in 1899 to propose a new field of study that would promote “the betterment of the home.” For almost ten years, a diverse group of educators, writers, and scientists—totaling about 700 in all—gathered annually to outline a curriculum for the nation’s schools and...

  5. 1 Envisioning the Rational Consumer, 1900–1920
    (pp. 21-61)

    “The consumer who desires to be economical,” Teachers College professor Mary Schenck Woolman and Ellen Beers McGowan advised inTextiles: A Handbook for the Student and the Consumer, a textbook they coauthored in 1913, “should not make a practice of wandering about the shops to get ideas, for in that way her desires increase and are apt to become confused in her mind with her needs.” A mother should consider her family’s needs from all angles “before she does any shopping at all.” She should obtain samples of materials and take them home for testing before purchasing them. Only the...

  6. 2 Creating a Science of Consumption at the Bureau of Home Economics, 1920–1940
    (pp. 62-97)

    When Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace decided to create a Bureau of Home Economics (BHE) in 1923, he chose as its director Louise Stanley, a prominent home economist at midcareer with a broad vision of the field’s potential and a commitment to using research into the quality of household goods to serve consumers. Born in 1883, Stanley had attended the Lake Placid conferences as a young graduate student and shared Ellen Swallow Richards’s commitment to education as the basis of reform and to scientific expertise as a means of creating opportunities for professional women. Raised on a Tennessee farm,...

  7. 3 Reforming the Marketplace at the Bureau of Home Economics, 1923–1940
    (pp. 98-135)

    In late 1927, Frederick J. Schlink, consumer activist and assistant secretary of the American Engineering Standards Committee, wrote to Ruth O’Brien, who directed the Division of Textiles and Clothing in the Bureau of Home Economics (BHE), inquiring about the existence of the old-time “thrifty buyer.” He wanted to know if a recent study had determined “to what extent the individual housewife is buying for value rather than for ephemeral appeals of vogue or sales pressure.” Earlier that year, Schlink had coauthored the bestsellingYour Money’s Worth, a polemical critique of consumer capitalism, and participated, with O’Brien and many other home...

  8. 4 Selling Home Economics: The Professional Ideals of Businesswomen, 1920–1940
    (pp. 136-173)

    In June 1936, a group of home economists performed a play at an afternoon meeting during the convention week of the American Home Economics Association (AHEA). Representatives of the AHEA’s Business Department and Student Club Department took time from a busy annual meeting to attend a dramatic work titledExperiment 63. Commissioned by these two departments, written by journalist Charles Dillon, and directed by Marye Dahnke (the home economics director for the Kraft Cheese Company), the play was intended to instruct home economics students about opportunities for employment in the corporate world. Since the early 1920s, this vocational path had...

  9. 5 Product Testing, Development, and Promotion: Corporate Investment in Home Economics, 1920–1940
    (pp. 174-207)

    As a girl growing up in Tennessee in the 1910s, Marye Dahnke aspired to a career that would combine her interest in food and nutrition with her attraction to the world of business. “I decided that I wanted to be, first and foremost, a business woman,” she later recalled. “And secondly, to be a factor, however small, in the food business, so that I could use the knowledge I had of foods in selling goods. This was a most worthy ambition, but the job which might fulfill my desire was still to be made.” When Dahnke’s father discouraged her from...

  10. 6 From Service to Sales: Utility Home Service Departments, 1920–1940
    (pp. 208-241)

    In 1917 the Public Service Electric and Gas Company of New Jersey hired Ada Bessie Swann to develop an ambitious program to educate homemakers about the benefits of gas and electricity. In less than a decade, Swann—playing a dramatic translating role between utility companies and consumers—transformed a set of simple cooking demonstrations into a full-blown “home service department” offering instruction in all aspects of modern housekeeping. Aimed primarily at adult homemakers who did not have the opportunity to learn home economics in high school or college, Swann’s program covered topics ranging from cooking and canning to laundry, lighting,...

  11. 7 Mediation Marginalized: Home Economics in Government and Business, 1940–1970
    (pp. 242-281)

    “What [home economists] are called on to do today is what they have been doing for years, but now they have a flag to carry,” declared Jessie McQueen, home economist at the American Gas Association, in 1942. With the entry of the United States into World War II, concern for the strength of the defense industries and the morale of the civilian population boosted the importance of nutrition in the public eye. As government agencies sought to make information about healthy eating available through every possible channel, they relied on home economists—established experts working in relatively secure positions in...

  12. 8 Identity Crisis and Confusion: Home Economics and Social Change, 1950–1975
    (pp. 282-294)

    As home economists’ institutional bases in the public and private sectors eroded in the decades after World War II, the rise of second-wave feminism and the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s placed home economists’ field under harsh public scrutiny and criticism. Betty Friedan’s landmark bookThe Feminine Mystique(1963) catalyzed this critique. Railing against the status quo of middle-class women trapped in suburbia, Friedan’s best seller proposed a new definition of womanhood that looked beyond their roles as wives, mothers, and homemakers. Friedan aimed her critique largely at the media, suggesting that women were encouraged to stay at home...

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 295-302)

    Last summer my eleven-year-old son, a passionate gardener and avid early-twenty-first-century “foodie,” wanted to learn to can fruits and vegetables. He was preparing to submit a number of projects for the local 4-H fair. The fair’s premium book stipulated that all entries had to follow the guidelines of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for safe water-bath canning. From researching the history of home economics, I knew that the required canning methods were pioneered by Louise Stanley and her colleagues at the Bureau of Home Economics decades ago. I had never done any canning myself, however, and after a couple...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 303-362)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 363-390)
  16. Index
    (pp. 391-412)