The idea of home economics is unfamiliar to today’s students. For years, it was a staple of the curriculum in nearly every school. It went far beyond housekeeping.
Students learned how to can food and make preserves, how to sew, how to host a guest and how to maintain clothing. These skills became significant during the Great Depression and on into the 1940s. Knowing how to run a household efficiently, help save money and perhaps even sell small homemade goods was meaningful work.
The coursework was first offered in 1898 and called Domestic Science, and it was required of all female students, even those majoring in another topic. Initially, the focus was dressmaking and sewing and included the study of cloth, seams, hems, patches, drafting patterns, constructing dresses, embroidery, millinery (hat making) and interior design. In 1909, cooking was added.
Students were taught the science of proteins, starch, carbohydrates and digestion, in addition to ventilation, drainage, plumbing and waitressing standards. These women were able to find careers, and in some cases bring in a second income for their families. The class of 1900 was the first to include female graduates.
This article first appeared in Impressions, 2015