Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 22.1 (2001) 51-73
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"Better Homes on Better Farms":
Domestic Reform in Rural Tennessee
Mary S. Hoffschwelle
In 1928, Lillian Keller reflected on her experiences in domestic reform among rural Tennessee women. She noted that farm women had only recently begun to adopt modern concepts of home decoration, observing that "until comparatively recent times most women measured their own homes by the homes of their neighbors, or the homes of their mothers and grandmothers, rather than by any abstract standards of convenience and beauty." Now, she declared, rural women "realize[d] that their homes must be modern, convenient and comfortable if their boys and girls . . . are to be kept satisfied on the farm." 1 Keller's words echoed the claim made almost a decade and a half earlier by Thomas Peck, then Tennessee commissioner of education. "Give the farm women a chance to make their homes what they desire," Peck had urged, "and they will do much toward solving the problem of keeping the boys and girls permanently on the farm." 2
This essay traces Tennessee's rural home improvement campaigns from 1914 through the 1920s, exploring the processes that shaped efforts at reforming rural domestic material culture. Despite Keller's and Peck's claims, rural domestic reform elicited little response from Tennessee women until the extension service meshed home improvement with the expansion of consumer culture into rural areas and farm women's own interests. Their experiences suggest that the history of progressive reform in the rural South is a more complex story than the imposition of middle-class standards on rural households, the absorption of the rural South into a national mainstream, or farm women's resistance to reform. Rural women who participated in extension programs refashioned domestic material culture according to their own resources, opportunities, and racial sensibilities. In so doing, rural women in the South shaped the extension programs that sought to reform them, and southern country women negotiated their own entry into the middle-class consumer culture of 1920s America. [End Page 51]
At the beginning of the twentieth century, progressive urban, middle-class women were redesigning their households as models for community uplift. 3 Reformers in the Country Life movement and the federal Cooperative Extension Service recruited farm women for the same sort of domestic reform. Country Life reformers were a diffuse group of professionals, academics, public officials, and private citizens who believed in a strong rural America as the source of important traditional values as well as the nation's food supply. 4 They feared that urban, industrial centers drew the best and brightest young people from rural communities that failed to meet their material, social, and even spiritual needs. The result, reformers predicted, would be a nation cut loose from its moorings as an idealized agrarian republic and unable to feed its rapidly growing population.
Country Life activists urged a broad array of changes that they believed would reinvigorate rural life and increase farm production and income. These changes ranged from better public schools and adult education programs to the latest advances in agricultural science. Seaman A. Knapp's demonstration programs, in which selected farmers proved to their peers the efficacy of new methods of combating the boll weevil and the profitability of crops other than cotton, appealed to Country Life reformers. 5 Knapp's methodology combined education, agricultural science, economic productivity and profitability, and community action. Especially in the South, state departments of agriculture joined forces with educational reformers and philanthropic foundations such as the General Education Board, a Rockefeller philanthropy interested in southern education, to implement Knapp's vision in extension programs and clubs for farm boys and girls. 6
Like many Country Life reformers, Seaman Knapp sought a female solution to what he called "this home problem on the farm." 7 As arbiters of the domestic sphere, women seemed uniquely positioned to rescue country life. By raising the standard of living in their homes, reformers believed that rural women would make domestic life more comfortable and healthy...