Tag Archives: Home Economics

Home Production and National Defense

One hundred years ago, malnutrition was a problem that worried a nation facing war. Industrialization and urban growth had moved large populations into congested cities and away from rural communities. Both World War I and World War II would see an increase in the urbanization of the United States. The progressive reformers of the early twentieth century recognized that urbanization was leading to an unhealthy population and pushed for reform. They also pushed for vocational education, particularly in the area of what would become known as Home Economics.

One of the great misconceptions of the modern age is that the skills of the preindustrial age were easily passed from generation to generation, and that it is only modern society that struggles with the problems associated with the loss of these skills. Unlike the dissemination of information, knowledge is gained through practice. Skilled crafts and vocations require practice and often a good deal of instruction by a skilled guide. Remove proper training, and the skills are not learned and society struggles. In particular, modern society struggles with issues malnutrition and, more recently, obesity, both of which can be directly linked to a lack of basic knowledge of nutritional food consumption. It could also be argued that the conveniences of modern food production lend to the problems, especially when the issue of ‘prepared’ foods is under discussion. Despite the flood of DIY programs and videos demonstrating cooking and gardening techniques, home production and preparation of food is not as common as needed for a healthy society.

New technology in the early 1900s brought advancements in home food production and storage, but the skills needed to safely process food had to be learned. During the WWI, home canning and food storage was demonstrated and encouraged by divisions of local government and subsidized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.[1] The Smith-Lever Act and the Smith-Hughes Act are two acts which provided funding for increased training in food production and domestic skills.

According to historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan, the “decade between the end of World War I and the beginning of the depression witnessed the most drastic changes in patterns of household work.”[2] Industrialization was changing the way work was managed, not just in the factories, but also in the homes. Industrialization increased the availability of commodities, many which made household work less time consuming and arduous. Convenience is usually a commodity appreciated, especially by those tasked with managing a household and feeling the pressures of working outside the home. However, the skills that had been learned before convenient options became available were not always passed down to the next generation.  Much like the youth of today, youth of past generations seldom liked learning to do things the old-fashioned way, especially not when new technology and innovation were changing the world. In order to offset the trend and ensure a healthier society, young women in private and public schools were taught the skills that many today assume would have been handed down from mother to daughter. Books titled, Clothing and Health, Shelter and Clothing, Foods and Household Management, and Household Arts for Home and School were produced and marketed to U.S. high schools. In the words of one author, “The authors feel that household arts in high schools should not be confined to problems in cooking and sewing. They are only a part of the study of home making.” In the 1915 edition of Shelter and Clothing, an entire chapter is dedicated to “the water supply and disposal of waste,” and included diagrams of the modern flushable toilet. Technology had changed the lives of many, but progressive minds of the age could see how new technology had to be integrated in to society through education rather than simply leaving society to work through the changes without assistance. World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II jolted policy makers into action. By the mid-1950s, Home Economics, as a high school subject, was accepted as an integral part of keeping the nation healthy and ready for future war. Even as warfare became more mechanized, the nation still held on to a belief that a healthy society was a strong society, and many school systems encouraged both male and female participation in Home Economics during the early 1980s. Unfortunately, the Technological Revolution of the 1990s and 2000s shifted the mindset of many, and like the industrial revolutions of the past, this latest revolution has supplanted convenience over skill. While information is just a click away, the knowledge that comes from skilled instruction is often harder to obtain, placing the nation at risk once more.




[1] Emily Newell Blair , and United States Council of National Defense. The Woman’s Committee: United States Council of National Defense, An Interpretative Report. April 21, 1917, to February 27, 1919,  e-book  (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1920).

[2] Ruth Schwartz Cowan, “The ‘Industrial Revolution’ in the Home: Household Technology and Social Change in the 20th Century,” Technology and Culture 17, no. 1 (1976): 1–23.