Heroines of Home Economics: Lydia Maria Child

Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) was a prolific writer and abolitionist. While there have been numerous scholarly biographies about Child’s political activities, the discussion of Child continues to have a hard time reconciling her role as a writer of domestic advice manuals, and her role as a political activist.

In 1828, at a time when the genres of sentimental fiction and the cookbook were enjoying enormous success, Lydia Maria Child published the first domestic-advice manual, The American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those who are Not Ashamed of Economy. By 1832, the popular tract was already in its 12th edition. Thus began a long tradition of domestic advice manuals written by and for American women.

The American Frugal Housewife is a true gem of literary history, and I strongly encourage you to peruse it yourself on google books. The book, like a lot of the first domestic advice manuals, aims to teach women how to organize a home in the most efficient manner possible. Though I am not in the habit of eating Mutton, I especially enjoy this page, which explains, in simple terms, where various cuts of meat come from:

Butchering aside, Child’s analysis is that most young girls head into marriage ill-prepared for the realities of household life. They imagine married life will be all butterflies and romance, and then when confronted with the banality of everyday life find themselves sad and lonely. Lydia Maria Child’s advice is to stop exaggerating the importance of getting married, and teach young women to be useful. Life, she reminds us, is mostly unromantic, and the sooner we teach that to young women, the better.

My favorite section of this little book begins on page 89, and is titled “Hints to Persons of Moderate Fortune.” This section is written to the selection of Child’s audience who may have the money to consider which furniture to buy, or how to educate daughters. There, she writes:

That a mother should wish to see her daughters happily married, is natural and proper; that a young lady should be pleased with polite attentions is likewise natural and innocent; but this undue anxiety, this foolish excitement about showing off the attentions of somebody, no matter whom, is attended with consequences seriously injurious. It promotes envy and rivalship; it leads our young girls to spend their time between the public streets, the ball room, and the toilet; and, worst of all, it leads them to contract engagements, without any knowledge of their own hearts, merely for the sake of being married as soon as their companions. When married, they find themselves ignorant of the important duties of domestic life; and its quiet pleasures soon grow tiresome to minds worn out by frivolous excitements. If they remain unmarried, their disappointment and discontent are, of course, in proportion to their exaggerated idea of the éclat attendant upon having a lover. The evil increases in a startling ratio; for these girls so injudiciously educated, will, nine times out of ten, make injudicious mothers, aunts, and friends; thus follies will be accumulated unto the third and fourth generation. Young ladies should be taught that usefulness is happiness, and that all other things are but incidental. With regard to matrimonial speculations, they should be taught nothing! Leave the affectations to nature and to truth, and all will end well. (92)

Isn’t that a lovely bit of writing? When she talks about the injudicious mothers, and the accumulation of follies, all I see in my head is that perfectly depicted character, Mrs. Bennett, the mother about whom Jane Austen wrote those incredible first lines, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” And then it goes on

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, the truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice in 1813, so it’s possible that Lydia Maria Child was thinking of Mrs. Bennett when she wrote those lines about the silly mothers and daughters. But why, the question is, is any of this worth thinking about now. We twenty-first century women are not in need of advice books reminding us that “usefulness is happiness,” or are we?

I cannot speak for all people, but I know that for me, the heavy dose of New England thrift and prudence that is The American Frugal Housewife is quite welcome. It seems that I am not the only one. The amazon review page is full of praise for the way that Child discourages materialism, envy, and all of those negative emotions that define our consumer society.

But it is not simply Child’s practicality that appeals to me, it’s the fact that her persona, as domestic advisor, is one we still see represented today. She is the precursor to Ann Landers, Dear Abby, and most recently, Slate’s Dear Prudence. And like each of these other women, she embodies the contradictory role of domestic guru. It is easy to read someone like Lydia Maria Child as a simple enactment of eighteenth century values of domesticity, via the cult of true womanhood. But the historical record shows us that Child was both a domestic guru and a radical political thinker.

The example of Lydia Maria Child makes it clear that domesticity, the making of a home, and politics, the realm of the public sphere, are not mutually exclusive. For Child, the values one expresses in the home are indicative of the kind of world one is trying to build outside of the home. What’s more, Child sees these two spaces as constitutive of each other. She does not let us off the hook. What would she say to the liberated ladies of 2014? We can only guess. I think she would be happy to see that women had more educational opportunities than ever before, but I think she would be appalled at the value our society places on things, especially when so many people are just scraping by. Reading someone like Child challenges us to think about the household as a reflection of the world. She challenges us to live everyday life not in terms of aspiration, but in terms of usefulness. She doesn’t care what you want, but how you can make yourself useful. And that is a powerful thing.

new home economics, part 1.

In my writing and research this week, I’ve been developing a thesis about the strange relationship between the disciplines of women’s studies and home economics. This is not, I realize, a topic that will sound sexy to the average layperson. And yet, I am fascinated by the possibility that Home Economics, the science of household efficiency and sanitation, can be understood not as the opposite, but as a precursor to Women’s Studies, broadly defined as the study of gender and culture.

I am being reductive here, any academic will understand immediately that the scope of knowledge defined by a given discipline is always contested. The way disciplines are structured is a political endeavor that has consequences for how (and what sorts of) knowledge are transmitted. Additionally, the structure of an academic department is determined by resources available for funding, which is sometimes determined by state governments, and other times, by boards of directors. The question of what department gets to expand, which department gets eliminated, and which two are smashed together to form a new one with a new name is highly contentious. The respective histories of home economics departments (which were largely folded into departments of Human Resources, Human Services, and Human Ecology), and women’s studies departments (most of which are now called by other names– Gender Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, etc.) are a case in point.

It is because of all of the above mentioned reasons that I myself am interested in the institutionalization of academic disciplines, what one of my teacher refers to alternatively as field formation and institutional history. On top of all of that, I am an inter-disciplinary scholar, which means that my work does not fit squarely in any one place. What I research certainly fits within the realm of women’s studies, but since I am working on a project that considers femininity, home economics is also part of the story.

Home Economics was institutionalized around the year 1900, a fact which was codified by the formation of a scholarly journal (The Journal of Home Economics) and a professional association, The American Home Economics Association. Before I started researching this project, I associated home economics with a class I took in middle school, where I learned to sew a pillow that sat atop the stool I made in shop class. I also vaguely remember baking brownies and learning how to write a check. Mostly, I remember a kindly young teacher whom I would often visit during my lunch period, since her classroom was a much more desirable place to hang out than the cafeteria.

Home Economics, sometimes known as Domestic Science, is actually much more interesting than the curriculum of your average “home ec.” class would suggest. Home Economists were trailblazers in nutrition science, water sanitation, design, and countless other incredibly useful fields of knowledge. They brought scientific knowledge to bear on the home, and taught their students how to apply the skills they learned in the classroom to everyday life.

What is most interesting (to me) about this field of study is that it was the first place where women originally found a place in higher education. Home Economics pioneers like Lydia Maria Child, Charlotte Perkins Gillman, and Ellen H. Richards were proto-feminists. In Home Economics Departments they found institutional support to do research that they deemed vital to their communities. At stake, for these women, was how to organize the home in a way that promoted the health and general welfare of families (and especially children).

The great irony I see here is that home economics faded into obscurity around the same time as the arrival of second wave feminism (and academic programs in women’s studies). It was not a matter of simple cause and effect, but it is true that as women’s studies found a place in major universities, home economics departments were being eliminated and/or submerged into other disciplines.

Have I peaked your interest? I’ll continue posting about this as I work through the questions in my writing.