OSWEGO — The field once known as home economics is alive, well and informing many other branches of knowledge, according to a new book co-edited by SUNY Oswego history professor and Honors Program Director Gwen Kay.
“Remaking Home Economics: Resourcefulness and Innovation in Changing Times,” co-edited by Sharon Y. Nickols, professor emerita and former dean of family and consumer sciences at the University of Georgia, looks at how the subject has evolved and expanded into “a multidisciplinary field” addressing “issues related to daily living by applying concepts from the physical and social sciences, the arts and humanities, and its own specialized areas of study,” they write in the introduction.
Now known more commonly as family and consumer sciences, with an umbrella American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences bringing together educators and professionals in many areas, “the field is neither well understood nor widely recognized by the public,” despite its importance to daily lives, the authors wrote.
“The book features a mix of historians and practitioners in the field,” Kay explained, noting it is the first book in nearly two decades to examine the subject through those dual lenses.
Kay wrote a chapter on “Changing Names, Keeping Identity” and co-authored the book’s introduction and final chapter, titled “Looking Around, Thinking Ahead.”
“Remaking Home Economics” features 14 chapters in four subsections: home economics philosophy, social responsibility and outreach; achieving well-being through food and clothing; race and gender in home economics careers; and home economics identity and continuity.
Published by the University of Georgia Press, the book stems from a landmark 2012 conference celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Land Grant Act, which chartered land-grant colleges and agricultural schools.
“Selected conference papers became chapters of this book,” Kay said.
Continuity and change
“My current research is looking at how women learn and think about science at the college level post-1960s,” Kay explained. “Home economics is actually a great place to look at that.”
With new national goals that include getting more women into STEM fields, home economics provides a look back that can help inform the future — and it is by no means a dusty old field, the book finds.
The text spans analysis of classic course content (“How Home Economists Taught American Women to Dress, 1910-1950”), transitional trends (“From the War on Hunger to the Fight Against Obesity”) and current teaching emphases (“Science Matters: Home Economics and STEM Fields of Study”).
Modern AAFCS membership includes scientists, professors, K-12 teachers, nutritionists, counselors, researchers, designers and many other professionals, and the book reflects this diversity.
Chapter authors include deans and professors, professionals in fields from food science to food safety, the director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Division of Family Services and the national executive director of Cooperative Extension.
As a result, Kay sees potential interest in the book crossing many disciplines including “historians, people in gender and women’s studies and people thinking about issues in professionalization,” Kay said.
Some of the authors discussed the topic further during a “Reclaiming History/Advancing the Profession” panel at AAFCS’ recent 106th annual conference and expo in Florida, which drew more attention to the book and the dialogue on how the field continues to evolve, Kay said.
Presenting throughout the country on the topic has made Kay realize how much interest there is in home economics and its related fields, which have influenced so much of what people learned and their personal histories for more than a century.
“People think that their stories are just their stories,” Kay said. “To be able to place their stories in a larger context is exciting.”