Home economics emerged at the turn of the twentieth century as a movement to train women to be more efficient household managers. At the same moment, American families began to consume many more goods and services than they produced. To guide women in this transition, professional home economists had two major goals: to teach women to assume their new roles as modern consumers and to communicate homemakers’ needs to manufacturers and political leaders. In Creating Consumers: Home Economists in Twentieth-Century America, Carolyn M. Goldstein charts the development of the profession from its origins as an educational movement to its identity as a source of consumer expertise in the interwar period to its virtual disappearance by the 1970s.
In the following excerpt from Creating Consumers, Goldstein discusses the professionalization of home economics and introduces one woman who used her home economics education to gain entry in the business world. (pp. 174-178)
As a girl growing up in Tennessee in the 1910s, Marye Dahnke aspired to a career that would combine her interest in food and nutrition with her attraction to the world of business. “I decided that I wanted to be, first and foremost, a business woman,” she later recalled. “And secondly, to be a factor, however small, in the food business, so that I could use the knowledge I had of foods in selling goods. This was a most worthy ambition, but the job which might fulfill my desire was still to be made.” When Dahnke’s father discouraged her from pursuing a career in business, she chose to enter a college home economics program as a way of appeasing him while still working toward her personal goal. “They thought my interests were all those of the well-trained southern lady, with no sinister desire to apply the knowledge to the bold bad world of business. I kept my ambitions to myself and went dutifully about the matters of the moment, namely, to secure all the academic knowledge of home economics as possible.”
Dahnke succeeded in leveraging her home economics education into a new kind of job being created in the food manufacturing business in the 1920s, and her narrative of her career in home economics suggests the strategies that she and her peers used to win jobs for themselves in the expanding consumer products industries. After graduating from Teachers College in 1921, she worked for a few years as an instructor of home economics at the University of Tennessee. By 1924, Dahnke moved with “conviction” to Chicago, in search of work at the heart of the nation’s burgeoning food industry. Experience gained through “several little secret sorties” into institutional home economics work in hospitals and hotels helped her convince managers at the Kraft Cheese Company to hire her as a consultant: “Strictly on a trial basis I was given a desk and a package of cheese, and told to make my own job.” Within a year, the company offered Dahnke a full-time position as director of the new Home Economics Department, which would report to both the Advertising and Sales Divisions of the company. Kraft charged Dahnke with developing educational materials about the firm’s new, processed cheese products that would encourage home cooks to use them as ingredients in meal preparation. “Miss Dahnke determined that the fear could be taken out of cheese cookery—and that her department could help to do it,” the company’s house organ later explained. Within three years she credited herself with success, claiming cheese was no longer “something to joke about.” Dahnke remained at Kraft for more than thirty years, and as director of home economics she oversaw a team of women who helped introduce an array of cheeses, cheese spreads, and salad dressings to homemakers and home economics teachers throughout the country.
Like Marye Dahnke, dozens of home economists carved out spaces for themselves in the consumer products industries in the early 1920s. While home economists in business struggled to win legitimacy within the American Home Economics Association (AHEA), they also faced challenges convincing corporate executives and managers that their expertise was necessary to effective consumer-oriented production and marketing. Many producers of consumer goods in the interwar years needed to be sold on the very idea of placing women in salaried positions within their managerial hierarchy. Even when managers took the initiative to invite home economists into their firms, they were often uncertain about what the function of a home economist should be and how to categorize or organize her work. Although no business home economist could create a job for herself without the support of male management, women like Dahnke found significant room to maneuver inside these firms. With “no cut-and-dried pattern” to follow, a pioneering generation of business home economists drew on their self-styled professional identity to invent roles for themselves in the service of consumer capitalism.
Business investment in home economics in the early 1920s was part of a series of steps by modern corporations to move closer to consumers, internalizing the market forces of demand within the firm. The publicly celebrated accomplishments of the U.S. Food Administration’s domestic conservation campaigns during World War I reinforced the construct of the female consumer and suggested to corporate managers that home economists’ expertise about food could be useful in communicating with—and influencing the behavior of—women homemakers. Business enterprises such as Kraft also saw home economics as a means of self-regulation in an era of increased government oversight of business, akin to welfare capitalism in labor management. By relying on home economists to add a dimension of integrity to advertising and marketing initiatives, producers sought to create a reputation for good corporate citizenship in the eyes of both consumers and government officials.
Together, home economists and business managers created a new corporate institution: the home economics department. During the 1920s and 1930s, they made a place for home economists’ science of consumption inside modern consumer products manufacturing firms and established a mediating role for home economists in the production and marketing of a wide range of household goods. The corporate embrace of home economics was most significant in the food industry, but manufacturers and retailers of household equipment such as glassware, aluminum cooking utensils, gas and electrical appliances, and textiles also brought home economists on board. By 1940, the membership of the AHEA’s Home Economics in Business (HEIB) Section included more than 600 leaders in the field, about half the total number of home economists working in business. Commercial work situated home economists directly inside the realm of production, and the open-ended nature of their jobs provided many women with opportunities to influence both the development of new consumer products and their cultural interpretation. Cooking was “in a transitional state” characterized by “the almost daily appearance of some new food or some new method which is a substitute for something now in use,” reported the authors of the Good Housekeeping Institute’s Cooking by Temperature in 1923. Often home economists’ corporate cookbooks and other types of instructional materials outlined wholly new systems of food preparation. Managers looked to home economists to both serve as their company’s public face to homemakers and represent the “average” consumer inside the firm. Home economists’ participation in product design and testing on “her” behalf helped to solidify managers’ assumptions that this average consumer was a white, middle-class woman.
Marye Dahnke and her cohort of home economists assumed varied and contested roles in the nation’s consumer product firms. In the process, they transformed their professional identities from educators, reformers, and scientists to corporate employees and spokeswomen. Like their colleagues in teaching and research, home economists working in business drew on the ideals of rational consumption to carve out and secure places for a new array of manufactured food products and other household goods in middle-class American domestic life. By helping to characterize processed foods and appliances as efficient, scientific, nutritious, or tested, home economists reinforced general messages that consumption was at the center of domesticity, and that being a modern consumer required managing a household based on these principles. The focus and resources of commercial institutions gave business home economists as much if not more influence than the federal Bureau of Home Economics to deliver these messages. At the same time, by lending their authority as educators and researchers to achieve corporate goals, business home economists also collapsed distinctions between education and sales in American consumer culture, casting instructional messages in commercial terms. This activity drew protests from colleagues in education and government, for whom the work of business home economists undermined the ideals of rational consumption that the first generation of home economists espoused so ardently. As many homemakers became accustomed to receiving practical advice about the mysteries of modern domestic life from commercial home economists, they heard confused and contradictory messages from them about what was educational and what was promotional.
From Creating Consumers: Home Economists in Twentieth-Century America, by Carolyn M. Goldstein. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.
Carolyn M. Goldstein is an independent historian and author of Do It Yourself: Home Improvement in Twentieth-Century America.
-  Marye Dahnke, “A Business Career in Home Economics,” Forecast (April 1937): 165-66. ↩
-  Dahnke, “Home Economics in the Cheese Business,” AFJ 5 (April 1927): 121-23. ↩
-  Who’s Who of American Women (1958), 301; Dahnke, “A Business Career in Home Economics,” 166; “Heads Home Economics Department,” Cheesekraft 5 (July-August 1925): 5; Marye Dahnke, “Our Home Economics Department,” Cheesekraft 6 (January 1926): 13-14; Marye Dahnke, “Our New Kitchen,” Cheesekraft 5 (Summer 1926): 8; and “To Please a Nation’s Tastes,” Kraftsman 2 (August-September 1944), all in Kraft Foods Archives; Kraft-Phenix Cheese, Cheese and Ways to Serve It. ↩
-  Eloise Davison, “Home Economics Invades Business,” Independent Woman 10 (March 1931): 106; “Report of Round Table Discussion Held Wednesday Morning, June 25, 1931,” American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences Records, Collection Numbe3r 6578, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York (formerly American Home Economics Association Archives located in Alexandria, Virginia); “MIRRO Celebrates 50 Years of Home Economics Consumer Service,” 1977, Folder: Company Histories, Home Economics in Business Section Records, Westerville, Ohio (now located in Schlesinger Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts). ↩
-  Woodhouse, Business Opportunities for the Home Economist is the best survey of corporate jobs held by home economists in the interwar period. Woodhouse began this study in 1929 under the aegis of the Institute of Women’s Professional Relations, and finished it almost a decade later with funding from the Works Progress Administration. Unfortunately, the book does not mention specific names, and the repositories for both of these institutions contain little primary material relating to the extensive survey. See Institute of Women’s Professional Relations Records, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced study, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; “Report of Progress on a Study of Home Economics Trained Women in Business,” June 14, 1932, AAFCS Records; Folder: CS-3836/99000, Box 84: Connecticut, Entry 31, PC-37, Statistical Projects, 1935-38, RG 69; Folder 4279, Box 361, Series 200S, Rockefeller Foundation Papers, Rockefeller Archive Center, North Tarrytown, New York. On Woodhouse, see “Chase Woodhouse, Ex-representative from Connecticut,” New York Times (December 13, 1984); Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism, 163-64, 238, 354n40; and Rossiter, Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940, 264-66, 387n33. ↩