Home Economics: Vintage Advice and Practical Science for the 21st Century Household

This is a collection of excerpts from the text books used to teach early 20th century schoolgirls home economics. The material has been uncritically repackaged and marketed to 21st century women, says Victoria Dutchman-Smith

, 2 December 2010

homeeccover.jpgHusbands! Now that Christmas is approaching, you’re no doubt wondering what to give to that special person in your life, the one who cooks, cleans, wipes the children’s noses/arses, empties the litter trays, disinfects the potties and so much more (not that you’d notice). It’s a tough one, isn’t it? What could the person who now has everything (washing machine, microwave, hot running water, horseless carriage…) actually want? A new vacuum cleaner ? Too expensive. A dustpan and brush? Already got one. Vanish Mousse? Probably not, since the Cillit Bang Value Pack didn’t go down well last year.

Well, dear men, never fear, for I (and a million publishers and TV execs) have thought of something — a cultural climate that enables your beloved to live as though Mr Muscle never existed, and as though the liberation of middle-class women had remained a mere gleam in Betty Friedan’s eye. Books and magazines which tell your dearest how to cook, clean, wipe, empty and disinfect the hard way, the way it used to be done. What better way to escape the pampered ennui that now pervades the life of a modern housewife? Forget spa days and Sex in the City boxed sets — proper, honest-to-goodness advice on “careful laundering” and “classes of cakes” will save the female soul.

Don’t worry, I’m only joking. Except I’m not. That’s the beauty of retrosexism. All that over-styled, ├╝ber-cute nostalgia that surrounds us – Mad Men fashion spreads, Dangerous Books for Boys, cupcake machines and frilly washing-up gloves — it just has to be a big joke, doesn’t it? It’s far too exaggerated and overplayed to be real?

You’re not just being told to know your place and get on with peeling the veg; you’re being initiated into a whole world of complex domestic philosophies

That’s what it feels like, but then we wait, and wait, and the punchline never comes, only more Glamorous Annuals for Girls and pastel pink kitchen gadgets and Sainsbury’s magazine spreads on whoopee pies (“the new cupcake”, apparently). And then, into this heated environment of gender stereotyping masquerading as post-feminist fun, come books like Jennifer McKnight Trontz’s Home Economics.

As a self-respecting feminist you set out to hate them, and then you read them and find that frankly, you can’t be bothered. Or maybe even that you don’t know where you stand any more. Yeah, this is all anti-feminist bile, but perhaps my kitchen worktop does need a polish…

To give the book its due (and its full name), Home Economics: Vintage advice and Practical Science for the 21st-Century Household does offer a bit more depth than your average Cath Kidston muffin pan.

First and foremost, it is not simply a whimsical paean to a time that never was; rather, it’s an anthology constructed from authentic source material, the home-economics textbooks used by US schoolgirls over the first half of the 20th century. From a feminist perspective, this has real potential as a subject for research, for instance through setting the schoolbook prescriptions for homemaking given here alongside women’s actual experiences and practices. But that is for another book, and ideally not one written by Jennifer McKnight Trontz, since, as her introduction makes perfectly clear, critical appraisals just aren’t her (Hoover) bag:

Home Economics… revisits the discipline’s textbooks and lessons dating from the 1900s to the 1940s, when homemaking was considered a profession unto itself, and a noble (if unpaid) one at that… Some lessons are quaint; others are wishful. Many are picky. But even the most basic of lessons are, seen from the distance of our times, almost clever in their simplicity.

“Simplicity”? Well, yes. “Almost clever”? Well, if by “almost”, you mean “not remotely”, then it’s a yes to that, too. A huge proportion of the ‘wisdom’ formerly bestowed on yesterday’s housewives-in-training seems to have come in the form of statements of the bleeding obvious, presented in semi-scientific language in order to create the illusion that you’re not just being told to know your place and get on with peeling the veg; you’re being initiated into a whole world of complex domestic philosophies. Take this, for instance:

The importance of good cooking cannot be overestimated. Cooking destroys many germs and that is one reason why some cooked foods are better and more wholesome than uncooked ones. Cooking has other important purposes, too; it renders food more capable of mastication and consequently of digestion. It does this by changing its actual structure and by making it more appetizing, thus stimulating the flow of the saliva and gastric juices.

I’m no Nigella Lawson, but I kind of knew all this already, and it doesn’t make cooking the Sunday roast any easier. But still, attempts are made to make the simplest tasks into complicated formulae that only the housewife in the know can handle. Witness this on planning your food budget:

When food-buying, the money should be divided and spent as follows:

  • One part or more for vegetables and fruit
  • One part or more for milk, cheese, and eggs
  • One part or less for meat and fish
  • One part or more for bread and cereals
  • One part or less for sugar, tea, coffee, chocolate, and flavoring

(If you’re trying this at home, don’t buy anything on buy one get one free: it messes with the whole system.)

The truth is, this kind of information is not useful today. If we are to learn anything from it, it’s that by adopting the style and pretences of a genuine academic discipline, home economics sought to dupe young women into believing that the heterosexual family hierarchy offered a wealth of intellectual and personal opportunities, something rarely borne out by the “shit and string beans” reality such women were later to encounter, as Marilyn French put it in The Women’s Room. But then, perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps we, as 21st century women, are not meant to follow the advice at all; just to respect it, and the women who used to follow it.

This book is not about saving money; it is all about thrift chic, how to be a good little recessionista, a middle-class poverty tourist

Home Economics is, McKnight Trontz writes, “not necessarily a call for a return to simpler times, but a celebration of the vast amount of critical knowledge once entrusted to our nation’s homemakers and now in need of a good dose of dusting”. So that’s alright then. It’s a nice combination, isn’t it – “critical knowledge”, complex and serious, “a good dose of dusting”, all homely and twee. Good to know that even when we’re dealing with real, hardcore knowledge, we’re not forgetting to keep the feminine touch. The implication in this — and in the title of the book, with its mention of “practical science” — is that we (and by that I mean modern society – or perhaps just us feminists?) have failed to value the serious side to age-old female knowledge. As McKnight Trontz notes in her introduction:

Technology has made life easier for billions of people, but one of its greatest benefits is

its contribution to women’s rights. Liberated from the need to have someone at home all day long, women could work in offices, flip burgers, run banks. Home economics (‘home ec’ to dwindling generations of high school students) was seen as a lowering of horizons, regressive even.

It’s easy to get distracted here by a quick game of ‘count the sexist assumptions’, but what interests me here is the suggestion that home economics has been cruelly disregarded and undervalued in the wake of female ‘liberation’. Heaven forbid that we women may have fallen for the capitalist lie that running a bank – or even, as we now know, pretending to run a bank) – might be more interesting than cleaning your own toilet. (While men work due to some innate nobility, all paid jobs for women, even “flipping burgers” for the minimum wage, are extra special treats bestowed on us by the Great God Liberation).

There is, in books such as this, a misguided yearning for some Golden Age of housewifery as empowerment, a kind of pseudo-feminism that buys into the myth of something that never was (coming from middle-class housewife stock myself, I’m particularly aware of just how “valued” she who “sits at home all day and spends my money” can really be – he who pays the piper calls the tune was a bit of a family catchphrase round our way).

It’s possible to claim that the real argument is not whether so-called ‘female’ domestic skills ever were valued, but whether, in future, they should be valued, the trouble is, it all becomes rather circular. Women must re-learn age-old skills so that age-old skills can be appreciated and we can, in some twisted way, learn to appreciate ourselves. Only not because these skills are useful or challenging in and of themselves (on the contrary, it’s vaguely ridiculous to be spending part of the day um-ing and ah-ing about what shape to cut your sandwich in — although if you’re worried, see page 38), but because they’ve been given the second-hand sheen of male approbation.

“Practical science” – a bit like proper science, only just for the girls. Because for them, cooking a potato or folding a napkin really is like splitting the atom. Stick it in a school textbook, train a generation to believe that knowing how to make stock from scratch makes you a mini-Marie Curie of the hearth, and you won’t get any trouble from the monstrous regiment. But all of this apparently “lost” knowledge is so small, and so superfluous, crumbs tossed from the table where men thought they alone could feast on all that can be known and discovered and transformed about the world around us. No wonder the stereotyped housewives of the late 20th century finally decided to leave said crumbs (although we might still be waiting for our male counterparts to do their fair share of the clearing up later).

You might justifiably say that, for most people, going out to earn money isn’t that great, either. Furthermore, haven’t recent times more than adequately exposed the cracks in our apparently great capitalist system, a system into which middle-class feminism has unwittingly (or maybe even wittingly) bought?

You can glean tips on the more creative activities: baking rather than washing dishes, doing embroidery rather than darning socks, using brushes to paint rather than sweep

Given our current economic climate, aren’t there valuable lessons to be learned from the advice doled out to yesterday’s happy housewives? Alas, probably not. In the social context of the 21st century household, this book is not about saving money; it is all about thrift chic, how to be a good little recessionista, a middle-class poverty tourist who, to misquote Jarvis Cocker, doesn’t just think but knows that poor is cool. The genuinely poor woman – or not even that poor, since I’m also speaking for myself – buys her tights at Primark, her food at Tesco and Lidl, lacks the resources to do anything more meaningful for environment or economy when there is money to be earned and children to feed.

The recessionista, meanwhile, can afford to pretend it is still the 1940s, darns the holes in her tights, buys the cheapest cuts of meat from her local butcher, ostentatiously purchases the moral high ground at not too high a price, but just high enough so it’s out of reach for you and I. Post-globalisation, the recipe for “Successful Economical Living” is far more complex than anything early 20th century schoolbooks have to offer.

What women like me do may be a cop-out, a way of surviving financially by transferring the true cost of living onto the rest of the world, but the self-satisfied self-sufficiency of those who can buy their way out of trouble, reinforced by books such as this, is surely no better. Perhaps it is even worse; while others pay the price for the pennies I save, the pounds that buy the retro housewife the time to cook and clean and primp drift by unaccounted for (but at least you can rely on The Onion to see the funny side of it).

It might not offer true post-feminist, post-capitalist salvation, but there are elements of the world uncovered by Home Economics which are still attractive. There is a simplicity to some of the advice which is not just charming, but imbued with a real moral authority. For instance, the extract on childcare states the following:

During infancy and the preschool period, a child makes his or her most rapid growth and forms habits of character and health. Since a baby or little child is too young to realise what is best, guidance is necessary. Remember to teach that the only way, as well as the easiest, to appear good is to be good.

And that’s pretty much it. As the mother of two small children, I’d much rather read this than get embroiled in a Supernanny-vs-Penelope Leach-vs-Gina Ford face-off, and have my children’s home environment transformed on the basis of which guru’s tome happened to be in Waterstone’s on the day I went in. The advice on nutrition is similarly straightforward:

In many ways, the body is like a machine, with food as its source of motive energy. The body differs from the machine, however, in that the food or fuel assists in building up as well as in supplying energy. Further, if more fuel is taken into the body than is necessary, it can be stored as reserve material, usually in the form of fat.

Explanations such as this miss out on central aspects of our relationship with food – most specifically the cultural and social – but I’d much prefer it if this was all that we were ever told, instead of being force-fed a diet of confusing, contradictory guidance about blood types, glycaemic indexes, BMIs, good and bad fats, five-a-day, ‘super foods’, Atkins, Slimfast, Special K, the next ‘no-diet diet’, etc, etc, until we feel sick and overfed, and yet always hungry, too.

The most useful advice reproduced in Home Economics doesn’t need catchphrases, tag lines or Unique Selling Propositions, doesn’t try to hide the fact that there might be nothing original and modern about it as long as it’s advice worth sharing. The key point is that no one is trying to sell you anything.

Commercial home crafts are a kind of opium of the people – and once you start sharing [embroidery] needles, there’s no going back

Home Economics itself may form part of a whole mountain of retrosexist merchandise, but the extracts it uses come from an era when advice about how to manage your home, family and indeed entire life wasn’t entirely driven by the urge to make money; it didn’t just appear in advertising-laden magazines or on heavily-sponsored TV programmes, but was there on the pages of your school text book and, at its very best, could be no more political or exploitative than claiming 1 + 1 = 2. To want aspects of something like this again – to recapture the spirit of homemaking simply because it is good and valuable in and of itself, not in pounds and pence — is surely noble and worthy of admiration, or at least it is if you get rid of the usual sexism, plus the kind of moral fascism that implies you shouldn’t have children if you can’t afford to stay at home all day knitting them an organic lasagne.

There are books you can buy that treat this issue with a relatively serious, anti-capitalist edge; Shannon Hayes’s Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture makes a good stab at it, revolutionary rolling pin aloft. Home Economics, meanwhile, doesn’t really reflect a political positioning; more the absence of one, which has its pluses, but also its minuses.

Another worthwhile aspect of Home Ecomonics is that, here and there, you can still glean tips on the more frivolous/creative activities that can be pursued in the home – baking rather than washing dishes, doing embroidery rather than darning socks, using brushes to paint rather than sweep.

It’s precisely the sort of thing I love, although it’s also the sort of thing that has, in recent years, been reclaimed as inherently feminist on the basis that it brings the domestic creativity women have always possessed back to the fore (witness Stitch & Bitch). I’m a little unsure of all this; it’s not just that I’m still reeling from the disappointment that was my first ever visit to Hobbycraft (I expected the means to express the human condition in silk paints, not a dull pre-packaged ‘creativity’ of which even Mr Maker would be ashamed. This, combined with QVC crafting specials, is increasingly convincing me that everything commercial to do with home crafts is a conspiracy to administer occupational therapy to unsuspecting house-bound women, a kind of opium of the people – and once you start sharing [embroidery] needles, there’s no going back).

To me, there is a distinct line between housework and creative domestic activity, and it’s clear that the textbooks quoted in Home Economics deliberately seek to blur the line between menial, repetitive work and actually making things, as a way of marketing the former to young women so that they (in theory) won’t question being the only ones who have to do it.

In a poem titled ‘Why shouldn’t she?’ taken from The Fat Black Woman’s Poetry Book, Grace Nichols writes of how “My mother loved cooking / but hated washing up”:

Why shouldn’t she?

cooking was an art

she could move her lips to

then the pleasure

feeding the proverbial

multitude (us)

on less than a loaf

and two fishes

Me, I just carry on with cooking and making stuff for the hell of it: not because it’s cheaper (it isn’t), or because home-made trifles make my loved ones feel more loved (Mummy can’t cuddle you now, she’s busy painting personalised ties for all her relatives, ties which they neither want nor need but will politely wear at all family gatherings because at least then the embarrassment is equally dispersed), but as a form of self-indulgence. Don’t we all need that from time to time?

Home Economics might be ‘authentic’, but what it does with authentic materials is unquestioningly legitimise them through the selection and the packaging

Of course we do. But then indulging in the fetishisation of a culture which was, for most women, extremely unpleasant and restrictive, seems to me a step too far. Home Economics uncritically repackages a world in which it was assumed that all young girls were heterosexual, all would marry, all would want and be able to have children and all would have to manage household finances without ever being able to influence income.

Passive servitude and lack of choice is aggressively marketed as control because, as long as you use the right metaphor, being a housewife can be just like sitting alongside the middle-class businessman at the pinnacle of western civilisation:

Housekeeping of today takes its place among the professions. The modern woman plans, directs, and guides the work of the home. She grasps the responsibilities of her position, puts forth all her energy and ability in directing the home life as a business. Housekeeping is becoming more and more a matter of science, and the laurels are bound to fall to the woman who conducts her household in a business-like way.

Okay, maybe none of this is any more bogus that what one might now read in the pages of Good Housekeeping or Practical Parenting, except that this was in your school textbook. This was, ultimately, your life (if you were lucky, that is). Home Economics might be ‘authentic’, but what it does with authentic materials is unquestioningly legitimise them through the selection and the packaging. It resells the lie, exploiting the fact that in an era of supposed liberation, we’ve forgotten it was a lie in the first place.

Perhaps if I could only buy into all the messages of the retrosexist age, I wouldn’t care about any of this. I’d treasure this trove of homely nuggets (especially the cake-making table on page 81, since it’s one thing I will actually use). I’d keep calm and carry on, breathe deeply, keep serene. I wouldn’t write reviews like this, because as every good retro homemaker knows, “Even if things do seem wrong, smile.”

Victoria Dutchman-Smith lives in Cheltenham, somewhere on the no-man’s land between healthy, immune system-boosting untidiness, and complete and utter squalor. She does, however, know how to darn socks, having learned it years ago from an article in FHM titled “How to be just like the little lady”

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