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Whatever Happened to Home Economics?

I miss Home Economics. The Bachelor of Science diploma that hangs on my wall is from The Ohio State University’s College of Agriculture and Home Economics. Today it’s known as the College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. But at the time I graduated in 1978, Home Economics was a noble enough term to be one of the pillars holding up a whole college.

Source: Smather’s Archives.

At some point, Home Ec became “uncool,” a term associated with Betty Crocker cake mixes and public schools where boys took shop and girls learned to sew. But labeling Home Economics antiquated and sexist I think says more about society’s outdated perceptions of the home than it does about the theory behind it.

When the term “Home Economics” was first coined in 1899, it stood for a wide range of progressive ideas that apply to men, women and children alike and across communities and society as a whole. Chief among those ideas were self-sufficiency and the importance of improved food safety, health and nutrition, home maintenance and sanitation, financial management and child development. Far from being “women’s work,” these were issues that would be tackled by the whole family together, applying the latest scientific research developed at land-grant universities, and delivered through the Cooperative Extension Service.

When you talk about innovations like canned food, pasteurized milk, home plumbing and electricity, food groups, balancing your checkbook, school lunches and sending your kids to summer camp, these all came from the study of Home Economics.

Source: Smather’s Archives.

Family and Consumer Science” (FCS) is the preferred term today. I guess it sounds more professional, scientific and gender-neutral. It represents a broader suite of activities than homely old Home Economics. But sometimes I fear that the underlying principles — and the skills that go with them — have been obscured by the new name.

We’ve become consumers instead of homemakers. Who needs to learn how to buy food or understand how to cook it? Just go to a restaurant. Why sew on a button? Recycle it and buy something new. An appliance breaks? Head to the store again. Who needs to know how to manage money? I have a plastic card and it can buy me anything I want. Why do I need to know how to grow a backyard garden? The grocery store is right down the street, and it’s open 24 hours.

However, Home Economics has had somewhat of a renaissance during the pandemic. Suddenly, our lives became almost entirely centered around the home, and the economics part of the equation took on a new, more urgent meaning. More people wanted to know how to shop, cook, preserve, garden. And Extension was in prime position to help. FCS and home horticulture agents have been working hard to meet the demand for hands-on education about everything from growing a victory garden, to stress management, to getting the best use out of those stimmy checks.

Erin Merten and Phil Shirk working in a backyard victory vegetable garden. Photo taken 06-01-20.

Now as we emerge from the pandemic, those desires for self-sufficiency might begin to wane. Has our old hangout restaurant reopened yet? But I hope that the benefits of being a do-it-yourselfer at home aren’t lost on our population. As many of us learned, being proficient at Home Ec saves money, and just as importantly, it gives one a sense of pride. We can look back and say, I grew that… I fixed that… I got myself out of debt.

To those of you who have tasted that sense of satisfaction and who want more, consider reaching out to your local UF/IFAS Extension office.

Our FCS agents and Home Horticulture agents are there to teach families how to solve problems and improve their lives—even if we don’t call it Home Ec anymore.

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Reading suggestion:

The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live – Danielle Dreilinger, WW Norton & Co., 2021.