"By reading Danielle Dreilinger's biography of this long overlooked and deeply influential field, we come to understand not only the secret history of home economics but the secret history of American feminism. Dreilinger's case for continuing to reinvent this too-oft maligned discipline for the 21st century provides a thoughtful—and spot on—road map for how and why schools can teach children not only to manage homes efficiently but to become lifelong advocates for racial, gender and social equality."
"A fascinating history of the field and of the contributions of some very determined women…[S]timulating."
"Dreilinger's lively account offers a thorough look at a profession that allowed women to participate in public life even as they were barred from most jobs and areas of study…We can thank home economics for a number of taken-for-granted features of contemporary life."
"[A] captivating debut…Dreilinger charmed me with her account of home ec's fascinating past."
"This book tells the unexpected story of how home economics began as an intellectual haven for smart women—Black as well as white—who were otherwise blocked from studying science, but ended up as a field less rigorous and more conforming. Black women were at the forefront of this history, and their role is a revelation. Dreilinger makes a convincing case for bringing back the skills that home economics alone could teach."
"[An] eye-opening history…[A] great reminder of the value of the field, and the importance of these skills for anyone at any age."
"I took home economics by choice in seventh grade, and I always assumed it was an outdated way to train budding Stepford housewives. This book made me realize that everything I thought I knew about home economics was wrong. It’s a career that provided vital scientific and economic inroads for women, and a history that is so relevant today."
"Finally, someone has written a social history of American home economists that is neither patronizing nor hostile. Generations of remarkable women created and sustained a scientific profession in the face of what was, until very recently, unremitting gender bias. Kudos to Danielle Dreilinger for this very readable and very sophisticated account of the women who had such an enormous impact on American society and culture."
"Home economics turns out to be relevant, important, in some ways revolutionary. Dreilinger tells all in this entertaining journey that shows us that almost all of what we thought we knew on the subject is wrong. Stimulating and fun!"
"This is an extremely interesting and engaging page-turner book…It will stimulate important dialogue among those within and outside the profession about our past and present, and what the future of the profession, education, and society should be."
"I grew up in the 1960s when Home Economics was required for all ninth-grade girls and meant two things: cooking and sewing. We baked cookies and served them on silver trays to the boys in Wood Shop. We sewed wraparound skirts. Some of us complained, a lot. Danielle Dreilinger’s The Secret History of Home Economics is a revelation. That secret history is rich with gender and race issues, and opened the eyes of this former home ec student. It will open yours too."
"Deeply researched and crisply written."
"Home ec…may conjure up lessons in baking blueberry muffins and sewing dresses, but in her detail-filled and fascinating book, Danielle Dreilinger dynamites that cliché with glee."
"A pathbreaking book that unearths and presents part of the 'hidden' history of economics, in this case as practiced largely by women, and often black women at that. Think of it as the science and craft of Beckerian household production but with a managerial emphasis. If you like books on paths not taken, this one is for you."
"A fascinating work of history, extensively researched, on a subject long ignored: how home economics helped shaped American life. Full of delicious anecdotes, The Secret History of Home Economics makes the case that home ec, often maligned and misunderstood, always provided students regardless of gender with skills that make life better, and should be revived."
"In an important new work revealing a surprising history, Danielle Dreilinger has rescued women home-economists from the past. Her well-written history gives us a new group of women to admire and learn from. She ends The Secret History of Home Economics with a timely call to bring back home-economics courses as a mandatory part of education. Her book will convince you that this field of study should be restored to its proper place in STEAM education for all."
Journalist Dreilinger debuts with an eye-opening history of the field of home economics. Created in the late 19th century as a progressive, reform-minded discipline that sought to “change the world through the household,” home economics was viewed by its founders, MIT chemist Ellen Swallow Richards (1842–1911) among them, as a natural subfield of economics that had the potential to eliminate both poverty and drudgery. Universities established home economics departments and the government sought out the expertise of leading home economists during both world wars and the Great Depression. Noting that African Americans were often excluded from professional organizations and opportunities, Dreilinger gives full consideration to the work of Black home economists including Flemmie Kittrell (1904–1980), whose career spanned academia, government service, and domestic and international civil rights activism. Detailing changes in American education that have largely marginalized the field since the 1980s, Dreilinger outlines steps for its revitalization, including diversification and a renewed emphasis on the life skills and transformative social and ecological vision the discipline at its best has espoused. With lively prose and engrossing portraits of dynamic and accomplished women, this is a vital and inspiring reassessment of an oft-caricatured field. (May)
A study about how home economics has reflected changing attitudes about women’s lives in the past 150 years.
Education journalist Dreilinger makes a spirited book debut with a well-researched history of home economics, founded in the late 19th century by women who believed that improving the home through science would improve society. Through the years, the field, branding itself as domestic science, enlarged its scope. Home economists, writes the author, “originated the food groups, the federal poverty level, the consumer protection movement, clothing care labels, school lunch, the discipline of women’s studies, and the Rice Krispies Treat.” The author offers adroit portraits of women who shaped the field. These include Ellen Swallow Richards, for example, a chemist who became MIT’s first female instructor and wrote books about adulterated food and the chemistry involved in housework; and her contemporary Margaret Murray Washington (wife of Booker T.), who wrote Work for the Colored Women of the South, a household manual for impoverished Black rural women, hoping that improving the home would hasten racial equality. For much of its history, the field was blighted by racism and xenophobia. Still, home economists found opportunities in business, laboratories, and academia that might otherwise have been closed to them. In 1923, the field gained status when President Warren Harding created the Bureau of Home Economics, whose purpose was to research “the scientific basis for the mechanics of living.” World War II saw a surge of respect for Bureau scientists, who “figured out how to sterilize wool, treat cotton against mildew, and improve the flavor and nutrient retention of dehydrated food.” After the war, though, when women were enjoined to leave jobs and stay home, the field, Dreilinger writes ruefully, became “repressive, boring,” and trivialized. The Bureau ended in the early 1960s, and home economics turned from its scientific roots to emphasize the delights of homemaking and women’s responsibilities to nurture strong, happy families.
A fresh contribution to women’s history and a resurrection of contributions too often overlooked.