Home economics gets a very bad rap. It’s honestly unfair, given that, ideally, these are the skills which everyone needs in order to be self-sufficient. From personal finance and budgeting to cleaning and cooking, home economics is a useful and important class. While it’s sometimes looked down on today, to the point of being re-branded “life skills,” home economics has had a very weird and fascinating history, and the author Fannie Merritt Farmer had an instrumental impact on the development of the field.
The History of Home Economics
Over the course of the first half of the 19th Century, economic forces and increasing mechanization, especially in textile manufacture, shifted the center of production out of the home and into factories. In tandem with this shift, a social movement toward centering the life of (middle class) women in the home resulted in a burgeoning market in literature aimed at these very middle class women, intended to teach them how to be a housewife. If something has to be taught, it’s new.
The separation of homemaking from production was never complete for women of lower socioeconomic status, and even well into the 20th Century, girls were educated in needlework, crochet, and knitting, not just to make decorative pieces for their own homes, but also as a backup plan, in case they had to earn money for themselves. (A backup plan that my own great-grandmother took advantage of.) Doing fancy work for egg money was commonplace. Looking at vintage needlework, crochet, and knitting patterns and comparing them to modern books in the same genre gives a real sense of just how common these skills were, and just how high the standards of average achievement in them. For reference, here’s a book on filet crochet, from 1914. Just a couple of pages of definitions and basic instructions, and you’re off into the incredibly complicated patterns with absolutely no hand-holding. If it looks like computer code to you, you’re not wrong. It’s effectively code for printing pixel art with thread. This kissing-cousins relationship of the needle arts and early intelligence and computer applications is exactly why women predominated in early calculating, code-cracking, and computer software development.
By the close of the century, the old-school Progressive push to optimize labor resulted in formal education in homemaking, now termed home economics in a bid to add the gravitas of rationality to the field. This is where Fannie Merritt Farmer comes in, as headmaster of the Boston Cooking School, and author of one of the most influential cookbooks ever written.
The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book
If you measure your ingredients by cups and teaspoons, this book is why. Responsible for the standardization of American cooking measures that we all know and love, this book was a breakout hit and shaped every subsequent cook book in the United States. How does it hold up? Well… not so good. As it turns out, there’s a huge section on nutrition, which has very much failed to age well, not the least because the information here predates the discovery of vitamins. What do the food groups look like in 1906? There’s protein, fat, carbohydrates, and water (five pints a day!). The nutritional section doesn’t even mention veggies, and gives a passing nod to fruits, but only if you’re careful to only eat the ripe ones. You might get away with preserves, but watch yourself. Veggies are either poverty food like beets and turnips, or seasonal luxuries like asparagus. Fresh and preserved fruits are firmly in the rare treat category. It’s no wonder everyone was teetering on the edge of scurvy, rickets, and pellagra back then. The recommended ratio of carbs to protein to fat is 36:9:2 by the way. I imagine that a healthy plate in 1906 looks like a gargantuan heap of mashed potato with some meaty gravy and a pat of butter. Yikes.
Here’s a quote from page 3, so you can see the general tone of the nutrition section:
For school children the diet should be varied and abundant, constantly bearing in mind that this is a period of great mental and physical growth. Where children have broken down, supposedly from over-work, the cause has often been traced to impoverished diet.
Mmmm. Yes. Supposedly from over-work. Nothing to do with being a 10 year old coal miner or sweated labor in a sock factory. Cool.
There’s definite reasons that child labor laws exist. To cheer yourself up after all that, here’s some modern cranberry harvesting. With lots of labor-saving devices.
After that ghastly interlude, here’s some more Fannie Merritt Farmer. So much for the information, how about the recipes? Are there heaps o’ carbs? Boy howdy are there ever.
Here’s a good rough estimate of the place that veggies and fruits have in the diet espoused by Fannie Merritt Farmer: vegetable recipes take up 29 pages, fruits 19 pages, but desserts (counting from the iced ones because puddings weren’t universally dessert back then) take up 122 pages.
I know what you’re really here for, though: weird recipes! Here’s a few that are very achievable:
Baked Bananas II (p. 571)
Arrange bananas in shallow pan, cover, and bake until skins become very dark in color. Remove from skins, and serve hot sprinkled with sugar.
It’s like baked potatoes, but it’s bananas. If I were to hazard a guess, it would be that the bananas in question are a different strain than our modern Cavendish bananas, more starchy and not as sweet, hence the added sugar. Maybe they were more plantain-ish.
Raspberry Whip (p. 414)
1 1/4 Cup Raspberries, 1 Cup Powdered Sugar, White 1 Egg
Put ingredients in bowl and beat with wire whisk until stiff enough to hold in shape ; about thirty minutes will be required for beating. Pile lightly on dish, chill, surround with lady fingers, and serve with Boiled Custard. Strawberry Whip may be prepared in same way.
Thirty minutes of beating that egg white, and if there’s any butter or grease anywhere near it, it won’t work. Have fun. When she says to chill it, she means in a literal icebox, or terrifying first-generation refrigerator, both of which were pretty expensive options. This is why anything served chilled in hot weather, anything that involved whipped cream or egg whites, like meringue, and anything jelly-like was automatically fancy. All of these relied on expensive technology, lots of labor, or lots of time. The explosion of jelly recipes in the coming decades was a response to convenience gelatin and refrigeration: now, everyone could serve aspics and molded salads! Now that we have all sorts of kitchen gadgets to make the mincing, pureeing, whipping, and chilling easier, the pendulum has swung the other way, and super-smooth consistencies, jellies, and cold are no longer high-prestige. Our fancy artisan whole grain bread would have been peasant food in the past, and a fresh mango salsa in Winter would have been an inconceivable luxury.
Turkey Soup (p. 120)
Break turkey carcass in pieces, removing all stuffing ; put in kettle with any bits of meat that may have been left over. Cover with cold water, bring slowly to boiling-point, and simmer two hours. Strain, remove fat, and season with salt and pepper. One or two outer stalks of celery may be cooked with carcass to give additional flavor.
This, however, is a perfectly sensible thing to do with a leftover turkey, or any other whole bird, really. I’d use a slow cooker, to make it easier, and just let it go on low for eight hours. I’d probably also add noodles or rice. Some things don’t change that fast.
Go read it!
— Article by Katherine, Shawnee