My memories of home economics class are not the fond, nostalgic kind Norman Rockwell used as fodder for Saturday Evening Post covers. Rather, I remember a year of seemingly unending tedium, relieved only by the tasty treats dished up during the cooking unit. I made possibly the ugliest T-shirt ever sewn. It was sort of a cream color withplease don’t hold this against merosebuds and olive-green trim. There was a section on babysitting and child care that I faced with utter boredom (although I did enjoy making a stuffed elephant out of some leftover blue floral upholstery fabric).
The pinnacle of this martyrdom was reached the day that a “John Robert Powers girl” arrived to talk to us about “charm.” (That’s the John Robert Powers Model and Career School, for those of you not in the loop. I was astounded to discover it still exists.) I found myself faced by a perky young woman who thought I actually cared whether or not my nonexistent boyfriend pulled out my chair for me at restaurants. She assumed, in fact, that I cared so much about ladylike deportment that she chose me to help demonstrate “How to Properly Seat Oneself,” despite my best efforts to avoid eye contact.
“Go ahead,” she said, “and sit down.” I obliged her, seating myself at the table the teacher had helpfully provided at the front of the room. “Now,” she chortled triumphantly, “if you lean forward like that, he’ll see everything!”
At the time, I wanted to die. In retrospect, however, I think several current obsessions can be traced to this traumatic moment in my adolescence. My love of Rusty “Bounce Your Boobies” Warren. My fascination with pinup girl June “The Bosom” Wilkinson. My desperate need to find the perfect ’50s bra that would make my breasts protrude like the taillights of a 1960 Chrysler Le Baron. And, oh yesmy collection of home-ec textbooks.
One day, in a thrift store, I found a copy of Homemaking for Teen-Agers, by Irene E. McDermott and Florence W. Nicholas. Paging through the table of contents, it all came back to me. Chapters with titles like “Why Children Act Like Children,” and “Organization for Manageable Living.” Sections on sewing and food preparation and (shudder) grooming.
That’s when it started in earnest. I now have well over a dozen different home-ec texts from the 1940s to the 1970s, and I love them all. And why shouldn’t I? They’re available in all the best thrift stores. They’re cheap. (If you pay more than a few bucks, you’ve paid too much.) They have great pictures and provide indispensable information about living in a past that never existed.
All shapes and sizes
All home-ec books share a few basic elements. First, as if they realized the tenuous connection of their field with any real academic or vocational skill, the authors of most home-ec texts feel compelled to bill themselves as some sort of “authority”“Director of Social Conduct at South High School, Lima, Ohio,” perhaps, or the succinct yet magisterial “Family Life Consultant.” Then, zealous to proselytize, every home-ec text contains a chapter on “Career Opportunities in Home Economics.” These “careers,” for the most part, consist of minimum-wage drudgery, although I personally have to admire a text that stands up proudly and suggests “Baby Food Specialist” as a career option. “Tests nutritional value, taste, and appearance of baby food” is the job description provided by the 1972 edition of Teen Guide to Homemaking.
Finally, most of the texts provide some sort of checklist or quiz for the student to measure his or her “progress.” For example, Homemaking for Teenagers contains a fully fledged “Personality Check List,” by which, presumably, you will be able to detect any personality flaws that later in life might keep you out of the local PTA. My favorite question here is, “(12) Do you resent authority and abide by customary rules?” All I can think is that, when writing this question, the authors were succumbing to their subconscious desire to chuck their careers in home economics and join a gang of biker chicks.
In a similar vein, the books provide “Questions for Further Study” or “Activities” at the end of each chapter, presumably to help ram home the message to recalcitrant students. Thus, after the chapter on Clothing Care in How You Look and Dress, the reader is entreated to “Discuss effective ways of removing lint or keeping it from appearing on your dark clothing.”
Young Living by Nanalee Clayton is a good example of the all-around home-ec textbook. It offers chapters on all the necessary subjects and was written by the “Director of Homemaking Education, Houston Independent Schools.” It has a self-evaluation page entitled “Things I Should Learn About Homemaking,” which actually includes space for “What Mother thinks I should learn.”
Among the texts in my collection, Young Living is the most blatant in its “home and country” propagandizing. Its stated intention is to help the student “develop the right attitude toward sharing the responsibilities as well as the pleasures of the home.” And what is the “right attitude”? Clues can be found in the chapter entitled “What Homemaking Means to Everyone”:
“Homemaking” has a lot of meanings. It means learning about yourself so that you can make your home more pleasant, attract more friends, add something special to your home lifejust as important as your study, in other classes, of mathematics, your native language and your beloved America and its place in the world. We must all learn the skills of working together to keep our way of living in America that way we want to be.
In other words, proper homemaking is the only thing standing between Our Way of Life and Godless Communism. What if Nikita Khrushchev came to dinner, and you couldn’t whip up a batch of Glamour Dogs or a Baked Noodle Ring? Would you want to be responsible for our losing the Cold War?
Boys need not apply
And that’s another thing about these texts. While they nominally include boys in their targeted audience, it’s clear that this homemaking training is really for girls only. For example, the preface to the 1967 edition of Teen Guide to Homemaking notes that “since it is generally agreed that experiences in homemaking education should be made available to both boys and girls, this book was prepared for both.” Yet only girls’ clothing appears in the sewing-section photographs, and the diagram called “Hair Arrangements for Different Shaped Faces” presents outlines of only girls’ heads and faces. Sewing, cooking, and “good grooming” chapters often drop the pretense, apparent in other chapters, of using masculine pronouns.
Sex segregation was one of the hallmarks of home-economics classes in the ’50s and ’60s; it wasn’t until the ’70s, when federal legislation outlawed sex discrimination in public education, that the traditional girls-only home-ec course disappeared. In fact, I was in one of the last classes of sex-segregated home ec in my junior high school. The next year home ec and its sibling, shop, were coed.
This is not to say that classes in “Family Living” (or some other such euphemism for “middle-class morality”) were not sometimes coed in the ’50s and ’60s. Boys were admitted, as evidenced by my copy of Hazel Thompson Craig’s Thresholds to Adult Livingwhich belonged to Dick Grimine, who wrote his name and graduation year (“64”) inside the front cover. (Some bored, bored, bored adolescentcertainly not Dick!drew an executioner’s hood and axe on one of the All-American males on the cover.) As far as I can tell, “Family Living” classes were basically home economics with stripped-down or nonexistent sections on food and clothing balanced out by expanded units on dating, marriage, and family finance. I might have defaced this book too, since Hazel Craig’s worldview is strictly Squaresville:
The importance of being a good wife cannot be emphasized too greatly. For instance, the Air Force has found ‘a direct correlation’ between aircraft mishaps and unsettled home life. The husbands get to thinking about rows with the little woman while they are up there, and the first thing you know, they press the wrong button.
And, hey, guys, according to Thresholds to Adult Living, you’ll be asking yourself, “Shall I volunteer right after high school or wait to be drafted?” So don’t think you’re off the Hazel Thompson Craig gender-role hook either.
But perhaps I’m being too hard on Hazel Thompson Craig. I think she may have been just a wee bit naive about things. In the Activities section at the end of Chapter Nine (“Marriage Miracles and Mirages”), she suggests that students “learn something about the childhood, courtship and marriage of some of the writers you are studying at present. Discuss your findings in relation to marriage predictions in this chapter. For instance, Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde had very unhappy childhoods. Were their marriages affected by these experiences?” Um, Hazel, ol’ girl, I think something other than his childhood experiences had an effect on Oscar Wilde’s marriage.
In the face of a manifesto like Thresholds to Adult Living, it shouldn’t be overlooked that seemingly innocuous textbooks like Experiences With Foods or Mealtime could be just as dogmatic. Mealtime, for example, starts out reiterating the link between home, family, and country: “Family mealtime, with all its associations, is an American tradition that must not be lost.” Nor does author Bess Oerke waste any valuable indoctrination time pretending that boys might use this text. Oh, no. Mealtime is for girls only and starts with a philosophic chapter entitled, “The Meaning of Mealtime”:
This chapter is different from the usual first chapter in a foods textbook. It begins with personal feelings and attitudesso important to any homemaking success. It continues with the subject of “snacks” and their place in today’s social plan.
And you thought I was being facetious about the connection between Baked Noodle Ring and Cold War politics. When it comes right down to it, though, I think what both fascinates and repels about these books is this concern with “proper” attitudes. They describe a simplistic world where gender roles were rigid and biologically determined, a world where students could assume at least a middle-class future.
We laugh at these booksat least I dobut it’s not because they are quaint reminders of an idyllic past; it’s because they try so hard to create a world that never existed. It’s the assumption that we all should be stay-at-home Communist-fighting housewives and office-working daddies that sends a chill down the spine, even while I’m laughing at the disparity between what the textbooks preached and what the real world taught.
As I mentioned earlier, in the seventh grade I wasn’t laughing. However, in spite of my embarrassment that day in front of the classroom, I lived through the rest of my home-ec classand the rest of junior high, for that matter. In fact, the last time I looked, the Cold War was allegedly overand you know what? I still don’t know how to sit like a lady.
And, as we all know, Jim is a self-appointed expert on everything!
Well, best of luck.
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