- Creating Consumers: Home Economists in Twentieth-Century America by Carolyn M. Goldstein
Today’s baby boomers might snicker when recalling the junior high Home Ec teacher who taught them how to deep fry donuts and make pancakes from Bisquick. Home Ec could be fun and modestly informative, but it wasn’twhere serious learning—or serious critiques of consumer products—occurred. In their heyday during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, however, home economists enjoyed broad respect for their consumer expertise and consumer advocacy. Creating Consumers persuasively argues that home economists played a central role in the development of modern consumer society by serving as “mediators” between consumers and manufacturers. They told corporations what consumers needed and wanted, taught homemakers how to use the new products, and encouraged them to choose value over false bargains. As mediators, home economists warred with their desire to reform consumer capitalism even as they championed its contributions to the American standard of living. The end result, not surprisingly, was a contradictory legacy. Their advocacy on behalf of consumers, particularly during the 1930s and World War II, helped to sow the seeds of the modern consumer movement, but their work on behalf of consumer products firms and power companies did much to empower corporate interests.
Carolyn Goldstein’s narrative begins in the early 1900s, when the first generation of college-educated home economists launched their mission to elevate homemaking into a scientific endeavor that required knowledge of nutrition, bacteriology, and the mechanics of operating new labor-saving devices. In teaching American homemakers to be intelligent consumers, Goldstein argues, home economists also helped to define the parameters of the middle-class standard of living—one centered on products and technologies that improved the family’s health and nutrition, the household’s sanitation, and the homemaker’s efficiency.
Goldstein effectively highlights how the federal government both hindered and advanced home economists’ broader agenda of reform. Home economists first gained a foothold in the federal government during World War I, when they aided the U.S. Food Administration’s efforts to promote food conservation by teaching homemakers how to can foods and make healthy substitutions for foods in short supply. In 1923, policymakers established the Bureau of Home Economics (BHE) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to enlist the aid of home economists in expanding markets for farm products and [End Page 452] modernizing rural life. Home economists seized their new institutional platform to promote a broader reform agenda. The BHE published buying guides, promoted accurate labeling, tested consumer products, and used this knowledge to help manufacturers design better foods, clothes, and appliances. Home economists’ political clout continued to rise during World War II—they organized state nutrition councils, wrote recipe booklets to help homemakers cope with shortages, established appliance performance standards, and instituted Recommended Daily Allowances of vitamins, calories, and carbohydrates. Ironically, even as the war solidified home economists’ reputation as consumer experts, home economics became more firmly identified with a narrower scope of issues (food and nutrition). By the 1950s their authority as consumer experts within the government had begun to wane as the USDA became more invested in managing overproduction than in reforming the marketplace.
Home economists also lost credibility as consumer advocates because their work within corporate home economics departments increasingly blurred the distinction between consumer education and sales. Home economists in the government and universities questioned whether business home economists could serve corporations without undermining their broader commitment to promoting rational consumption and their claims to unbiased expertise. Manufacturers and utility companies eagerly hired home economists to help them gain the housewife’s trust and enhance the effectiveness of corporate marketing. Not only did home economists lend credibility to advertising claims, but they also provided valuable contacts with magazine writers, schoolteachers, and agricultural extension agents. By making courtesy calls to disgruntled customers and conducting live demonstrations of electric appliances, home economists helped to put a friendly face on private power companies and fend off mounting pressure to create publicly-owned utilities.
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