Adventures in Home Economics

My memories of home economics class are not the fond, nostalgic kind from which Norman Rockwell found fodder for those Saturday Evening Post covers. Rather, I remember a year of seemingly unending tedium, relieved only by the tasty treats we dished up during the cooking unit. I made possibly the ugliest t-shirt ever sewn (sort of a cream color with -- please don't hold this against me -- rosebuds and olive green trim) , which when completed remained at the bottom of my drawer, only to be thrown away, unworn, several years later. There was a section on babysitting and child care that I stoically faced with complete and utter boredom (although I did enjoy making a stuffed elephant out of some leftover blue floral upholstery fabric). And then there was the ultimate mortification -- think of those medieval paintings of St. Sebastian shot through with arrows, only replace the figure of the saint with that of an ungainly adolescent in clogs -- the unit on beauty and hygiene.The pinnacle of this martyrdom was reached the day that a John Robert Powers girl (John Robert Powers Model and Career School for those of you not in the loop. I was astounded to discover that, in 1996, it still existed) in came to class to talk to us about "charm" -- an elusive quality that apparently involved posture as well as personality. Anyway, there I was, faced with a perky young woman who assumed that I actually cared whether or not my non-existent boyfriend pulled out my chair for me at restaurants. In fact, she assumed that I cared so much about ladylike deportment that she chose me to help demonstrate the "How to Properly Seat Oneself" portion of the lecture. This, despite my refusal to make any eye contact with the front of the room after her call for volunteers. The nerve of her!Then again, maybe she chose me to provide comedy relief for the rest of the class. "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 -- for example, my love of Rusty "Bounce Your Boobies" Warren, my fascination with pinup girl June "The Bosom" Wilkinson, and my desperate need to find the perfect 50s bra that will make my tits look like the tail lights of a 1960 Chrysler Le Baron. Oh yes, and my collection of home ec textbooks.After that hideous moment in front of the class, I put all thoughts of home economics behind me, until that day in the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store when 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," as well as sections on sewing and food preparation and (shudder) grooming.And 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 IÊlove 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. And, above all, the gender role indoctrination is as humorous as it is unsettling. Home economics books come in several formats. First there are the traditional all around home ec texts, like Homemaking for Teen-agers, that present units on cooking, sewing, child-care and social skills/hygiene. Then there are specialized books devoted to individual subjects, like Manners Made Easy, Experiences with Foods, or How You Dress and Look or my personal favorite, Being Married (a text for those planning to be married as soon as they graduate from high school, if not sooner).Before we look at some examples, you should understand that all home ec books seem to 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 felt compelled to bill themselves as some sort of "authority" -- such as "Director of Social Conduct at South High School, Lima, Ohio" or the succinct yet magisterial "Family Life Consultant." Then, with a zeal to proselytize matched only by proponents of certain outre pseudoscientific theories (imagine being trapped on public transportation with a drunken flat-earther), every home ec text contains a chapter on "Career Opportunities in home Economics." These "careers," for the most part consist of minimum wage drudge work, although I personally have to admire a test 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. Call me cynical, but taste-testing at Gerber's does not seem to present a lot of opportunity for upward mobility for anybody over the age of 12 months.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 one can presumably discover any personality flaws that later in life might keep one out of the local chapter of the PTA. My favorite question here is "(12) Do you resent authority and abide by customary rules?" All I can think is that the authors' subconscious desire to chuck their careers in home economics and join Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin as Hollywood biker chicks got the better of them when writing this question. 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.

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