Engines of Our Ingenuity


by Andrew Boyd

Today, a different kind of economics. The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I was caught off guard during career day as a student in middle school. People from different professions came to explain what they did for a living. I’d always wondered about economics, so signed up to hear what economists did. To my horror, when I entered the room it was filled to capacity with girls. I’d failed to distinguish between economics and home economics.

b&w photograph of female students at lecture

Home economics conjures up images of women learning to cook, sew, and clean. It’s easy to imagine the rise of home economics as a means of indoctrinating young women. Female activists of the sixties and seventies saw it as just that. But the reality’s far more nuanced.

In the late nineteenth century universities were beginning to open their doors to women. Land grant colleges were tasked with “the liberal and practical education” of all members of society. That mission included the education of women.

class black and white photograph

The turn of the century saw women making inroads into the educational system. In 1899 a group of women and men met in Lake Placid, New York, to discuss the use of science in the home. The meeting was led by Ellen Richards, the first female graduate of MIT who at the time was working as an instructor of sanitary education. Participants began outlining a framework for domestic science, an outline including educational reforms spanning kindergarten through college. They called their new science “home economics.” And in the years that followed, their ideas permeated the educational system.

Were these well-educated attendees contriving to teach young women their place was in the home? Of course not. They were seeking to elevate domestic work to the level of other professions. A banker had to understand finance. A home economist had to understand finance, interior design, how to raise children, and how to set a proper table. Further, young women could learn only so much at home. A formal education would expose them to new and better ways of running their own homes — homes with balanced diets and immunized children.

baking cupcakes black and white photograph

Today, the remnants of home economics programs can still be found at many universities. Cornell’s College of Home Economics was renamed the College of Human Ecology in 1969. Florida State’s School of Home Economics became the College of Human Sciences in 1989. These changes were inevitable, but it’s still a little sad to see this part of our history being rewritten.

Of course, I learned none of this during my middle school introduction to home economics. To be honest, all I remember is puzzled stares and fear that my baseball teammates would find out where I’d been. In the years since, like many men of my generation, I’ve come to realize that maybe a little training in home economics wouldn’t have been such a bad thing after all.

I’m Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Notes and references:

For a related episode, see ELLEN SWALLOW RICHARDS.

About Home Economics. From the Hearth Website of Cornell University’s Mann Library: http://hearth.library.cornell.edu/h/hearth/about.html. Accessed September 27, 2011.

CHS History. From the College of Human Sciences Website of Florida State University: http://www.chs.fsu.edu/history. Accessed September 27, 2011.

Cornell University College of Human Ecology. From the Wikipedia Website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornell_University_College_of_Human_Ecology. Accessed September 27, 2011.

B. Cox. A Synopsis of the First Lake Placid Conference. From the University of Georgia Website: http://jschell.myweb.uga.edu/history/event/lakeplacid.htm. Accessed September 27, 2011.

The picture of the girls sitting at desks is from the author’s high school yearbook. The picture of the girls in a cooking class is from Wikimedia Commons. The picture of the women studying cupcakes is from the San Jose Library and is taken from the flickr Web site: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sanjoselibrary/4026217861/.


This episode was first aired on September 29, 2011

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2011 by John H. Lienhard.