- Creating Consumers: Home Economics in Twentieth-Century America by Carolyn M. Goldstein
Carolyn Goldstein’s thoughtful study of the early development of home economics reassesses the significance of this often maligned discipline. In uncovering the pivotal role of home economists in the creation of our consumer economy, the author adroitly draws out the philosophies that shaped the field and the goals of the leaders who envisioned a new role for women [End Page 259] in the twentieth century. Goldstein addresses two critical aspects of home economics. First: in previous eras, the home was considered a site of production, but by the end of the nineteenth century, the emergence of new products, technologies, and markets transformed the domestic sphere into a site of consumption. Women inhabited and controlled this arena and reformers, many of whom were home economists, believed that women needed instruction in their new role as consumer—education in rational consumption. Second, and frequently overlooked: home economics opened new, acceptable careers for the increasing numbers of women graduating from college. Building on the work of Margaret Rossiter, historians have been teasing out the ways in which home economics enabled women to pursue scientific research. Goldstein’s study enlarges our appreciation of home economics as an employment path for women in other areas of science and technology. Creating Consumers investigates these two complementary elements of home economics: education and professionalism.
The majority of home economics graduates became homemakers, educators, and extension workers. Yet a significant number also entered governmental agencies, such as the federal Bureau of Home Economics, or found opportunities in business as consumer representatives, product testers, and the like. It is this critical “mediating role” of home economists of the first half of the twentieth century that Goldstein has studied. The book opens with a chapter on college educators in the century’s first two decades and Herbert Hoover’s employment of home economists during World War I to teach housewives about efficiency in the household, especially the efficient use of foodstuffs in aid of the war effort.
The wartime experience demonstrated the necessity and utility of the scientific and technological expertise of home economics. These positive experiences led to the establishment of the Bureau of Home Economics in 1923, the focus of two well-developed chapters that illustrate the expanding scope and influence of home economics. During its first two decades, the bureau employed the largest number of women scientists in the federal government, opening up authoritative positions for them in science and technology on a wide array of household issues, including “cooking methods, sewing techniques, fiber and fabric properties, consumption habits, nutrition guidelines, measuring cup tolerances, meat palatability, childrearing practices, and family accounting systems” (p. 79). The staff of the bureau, in Goldstein’s analysis, helped define “rational consumption” as a “civic duty” (p. 102).
Home economics graduates also found employment in the corporate world, including utility companies; manufacturers of food, other household products, and electrical appliances; women’s magazines; and retail companies. Three central chapters detail the conflicts they faced as professionals in the commercial market. Probably the best-known activities of home [End Page 260] economists in business were the development of recipes to popularize a manufacturer’s products and the creating and testing of new products. Yet, beyond these functions, they too envisioned themselves as advocates of rational consumption, though this goal could, and did, clash with companies’ imperatives to sell products and services. For many years, home economists in the commercial arena fought for recognition as professionals within the discipline of home economics, arguing that because of their academic training, they were different from their profit-minded employers.
By the last half of the twentieth century, as Goldstein’s astute analysis demonstrates, home economists were less visible in both the government and the commercial spheres, as social forces such as second-wave feminism attacked the field, as the values home economists sought to instill became normalized, and, most significantly, as consumerism was increasingly challenged in United States society. But the issues...