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Technology and Culture 43.4 (2002) 728-754

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Equipped for Life
Gendered Technical Training and Consumerism in Home Economics, 1920-1980

Amy Sue Bix


In tracing the development of technical education in American colleges and universities, historians have tended, perhaps inevitably, to concentrate on engineering departments. Those programs tell an important story: the evolution of specialized disciplines from practical, shop-oriented learning to theoretical science. Also, engineering schools were (as many still are) dominated by male students and faculty, who often connected technical expertise to masculinity. 1 [End Page 728]

Yet, shifting our focus across campus, we find another center of technical training in the history of higher education: departments of home economics. Professors there cooperated with and modeled their outlook and teaching after science and engineering programs. At the same time, home economics was defined by and for women, explicitly addressing females' presumed sphere of interest, domestic life. In that fashion, these programs created an alternate vision of gendered knowledge, asserting a link between technical mastery and femininity—at least in the domain of the kitchen.

This construction of female technical awareness appears most clearly in the emergence of programs specifically aimed at teaching students about domestic equipment. As the twentieth century proceeded, American families adopted appliances of growing sophistication in increasing numbers, from electric refrigerators and ranges to waffle makers, microwaves, and food processors. Rapid changes in tools of cooking and housekeeping could prove confusing; home economists aimed to ease the transition by giving women systematic instruction in modern technology. As the appliance industry grew in size and economic significance, the notion of cultivating appliance consumers acquired particular potency. 2

This article illustrates that history by analyzing the department at Iowa State College (later University) that pioneered equipment training. Iowa State led the way in the nineteenth century toward inaugurating "domestic economy" as a field of female education; for many years in the twentieth century it surpassed all other American schools in home economics enrollment. More specifically, starting in 1929 Iowa State became the first (and for several decades remained the only) U.S. institution offering an undergraduate major in the study of household equipment. Over the twenty-five years between 1930 and 1955, the equipment department granted 308 bachelor of science degrees. Through the 1940s, Iowa State also remained the sole program granting a master of science in household equipment; by [End Page 729] 1955, it had awarded sixty-one such graduate degrees. By then other schools (including Purdue University, the University of Minnesota, Ohio State University, Washington State University, and Teacher's College of Columbia University) had started their own equipment courses, yet Iowa State remained preeminent. One graduate student of the era remarked, "Iowa State College and Household Equipment are almost synonymous." 3

From the beginning, Iowa State's program was built around a fundamental assumption that women could and should acquire a practical yet scientifically based understanding of household technologies. Faculty created a context in which coeds were not only permitted but required to take apart and reassemble machinery in order to appreciate details of its construction, operation, and repair. Iowa State aimed to educate self-reliant homemakers who would confidently accept active responsibility for their kitchen equipment rather than cultivate attitudes of feminine helplessness. Other graduates would professionalize that knowledge, parlaying their education into employment with appliance companies, utilities, and publishing. Through extension-service publications, radio programs, and demonstrations, Iowa State faculty reached thousands of women outside the college each year with lessons about equipment. Such efforts bridged the production and consumption of new home appliances, attempting to ease the introduction of unfamiliar technologies while analyzing their value. 4

As leaders in the academic analysis of new kitchen technology, Iowa State faculty conducted systematic research and wrote numerous books setting out parameters and principles of this emerging discipline. Such textbooks filled an important niche; Household Equipment, written by Louise Peet and fellow faculty and alumnae, went through nine editions between 1934 and 1986, shaping the field for decades. These treatments embedded lessons in physics and engineering squarely...


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