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  • A Material Pedagogy:Lessons from Early-Twentieth-Century Domestic Arts Curricula
  • Liz Rohan (bio)

In 1917 Olive Elrich of the Free Sewing Machine Company wrote to the dean of the home economics department at Michigan State University, following up on a business transaction. The school had purchased some of her company's machines. As a consultant, she lectured about the machines she sold and also demonstrated how to sew effectively on them (Elrich 1917). While home economics is often associated with training women to work in the home, this curriculum, as it was developed during the first three decades of the twentieth century, actually helped women like Elrich gain the skills, ethos, and expertise to work outside it—not only as consultants but as salespeople, educators, and writers. The students themselves often funded their educations as future home economics experts by working outside the home.1 One aspiring MSU student, Edna Maguire—planning to attend the school in 1917—requested an opportunity for work while in school because her father had had a stroke. She admitted that she had to "rely entirely on [her] own resources" as a student (Maguire 1917). Female students like Maguire thus worked outside the home even when ostensibly in a program built on the assumption that women would likely work in the home, unpaid, as future wives and mothers.

Histories of sewing curricula created by home economics programs like this one at MSU during the Progressive Era are of arguable interest to contemporary scholars because this curricula launched careers like Elrich's [End Page 79] and, as a field generally, enabled educations like Maguire's. Home economics was a gateway to college, a career for many women, and was also a mainstream curriculum for them when legislation like the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 led to the creation of an extensive curricular apparatus—whereby home economics education became widely required in public junior high and high schools (Apple 1997: 81). The brief history of Progressive Era sewing pedagogy that I showcase in this article might nevertheless seem tangential to disciplinary knowledge in English studies. However, discussions among scholars in this field suggest that initiatives shaping Progressive Era sewing curricula, otherwise known as domestic arts education, are relevant to the work studied by scholars and teachers in our field. I am not alone in my interest in the domestic arts. For example, in a recent Rhetoric Review article, Maureen Goggin (2002: 316) foregrounds needlework as a rhetoric. As she puts it, "The rhetor needs to know the available means for generating a design. In the case of needlework, a stitcher needs to know the available means of creating a text(ile) via choices of stitches, threads, materials, colors, motifs, and so on." Goggin insists that we therefore expand who "counts" as rhetoricians (310).

In her essay about her history as a reader and writer, Linda Brodkey (1994: 547) likens the process of writing to that of sewing when she claims, "Writing is about following a bias that cuts against the grain because, like sewing, writing recognizes the third dimension of seemingly two-dimensional material." Brodkey asserts that she learned to write by watching her mother sew; her mother "looked at fabric and imagined clothes she could make from them. [Brodkey] looks at language and imagines essays [she] could write" (547). If scholars of English studies promote a domestic art like needlework as a rhetoric or regard sewing as a model for the writing process, it follows that we also "count" domestic arts pedagogies as relevant to our pedagogical initiatives and histories. A fact to further encourage this relationship between sewing and writing: Remington, manufacturer of sewing machines and farming equipment in the 1870s, also made one of the first typewriters, a prototype that was said to look like a sewing machine (Bliven 1954: 56–57).

Ignorance of historical domestic arts pedagogies also potentially perpetuates an anachronistic view of the past. For instance, the scholar Gunther Kress (1999: 70) promotes the curricular attention to multimodality and visual literacy as a contemporary phenomenon when discussing new directions for English studies. He claims that "the cultural and political dominance of writing over the last few centuries [has . . .] made the...


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