Creating Consumers: Envisioning the Rational Consumer, 1900–1920

The following is an excerpt from Carolyn M. Goldstein’s Creating Consumers: Home Economists in Twentieth-Century America. 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. 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.

Goldstein’s Creating Consumers was featured recently on our National Technology Day reading list.

“The consumer who desires to be economical,” Teachers College professor Mary Schenck Woolman and Ellen Beers McGowan advised in Textiles: A Handbook for the Student and the Consumer, a textbook they coauthored in 1913, “should not make a practice of wandering about the shops to get ideas, for in that way her desires increase and are apt to become confused in her mind with her needs.” A mother should consider her family’s needs from all angles “before she does any shopping at all.” She should obtain samples of materials and take them home for testing before purchasing them. Only the most informed shoppers should shop for bargains, as “the thoughtless shopper is apt to buy more than she needs.” Building on the efforts of Ellen Swallow Richards and other first-generation home economists, who in the 1890s founded their educational movement around principles of wise consumption, Woolman and McGowan’s book taught women to be careful consumers of fabrics and ready-made garments. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, home economists developed dozens of textbooks like these, as well as courses and academic programs, to teach female students to appreciate their economic power and use it responsibly.

Because home economics emerged at a moment when women’s work in the home was changing from making things to buying them, many women in the field, including Mary Schenck Woolman, began their careers emphasizing household production and gradually shifted to a focus on consumption. Woolman entered home economics with an interest in vocational education and manual work, devoting her early years as a teacher to providing working-class women with skills for their roles as factory workers or domestic servants. Born in 1860, she received a diploma from Teachers College in 1895 and a B.S. degree in 1897. As a member of the Teachers College faculty beginning in 1892, Woolman taught household arts, sewing, and domestic science and introduced the study of textiles in the school’s Department of Domestic Arts. In 1902, she helped organize the Manhattan Trade School for Girls, an institution that taught sewing and clothing construction as part of an industrial education program to prepare girls for work in the garment trades.

In 1910, when the trade school was absorbed into the city’s public school system, Woolman returned to Teachers College’s newly reorganized School of Household Arts. As a textile professor and director of the Domestic Arts Department, she developed courses for the school’s growing body of middle-class students, instructing would-be homemakers and teachers in how to make purchasing decisions about ready-to-wear garments and household furnishings. The school’s uniquely outfitted textile laboratory enabled students to conduct “chemical and microscopic studies of textile fibers and fabrics” and to carry out experimental work in dyeing. Two years later, Woolman moved to Boston to become the acting head of the Home Economics Department at Simmons College and president of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union, an organization devoted to assisting women workers throughout the city. During World War I, Woolman put all of her teachings into action in her capacity as textile specialist for Massachusetts under the War Emergency Fund of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Although most home economists spent the war years promoting food conservation on behalf of the U.S. Food Administration (USFA), Woolman organized a Clothing Information Bureau to encourage homemakers to consider the “economic, social, and industrial connections” involved in choices about textiles and clothing. From a temporary structure located on Boston Common, Woolman worked to “increase intelligence” in the making of new clothing and the renovating of old garments, by emphasizing the selection of textiles and clothing, “clothing economy,” and more “efficient” and “healthful” manners of dress. Woolman’s Clothing Information Bureau was devoted to “training” the consumer to make “intelligent” choices in the selection of clothing based on such criteria as health and thrift. The ideal trained consumer’s civic duty, according to Woolman, was not only to be knowledgeable about the goods she purchased but also to live on a budget and within her family’s means.

Woolman’s notion of the trained consumer who had a thorough understanding of both commercial goods and the priorities of her family’s budget typified home economists’ educational initiatives launched between 1900 and 1920. Like many women in the field, Woolman shifted to a new focus. By 1920, she was directing her energies toward educating middle-class women in university programs about their identity as consumers, reflecting the changing thrust of home economics toward the education of the “rational consumer.” In the course of these two decades, Woolman and her home economics colleagues transformed a series of disparate ideas and exponents, college programs, and publications into a full-fledged academic discipline and national community of practitioners. Through the formation of a professional association, the development of educational programs for disseminating their messages, and the application of their expertise to domestic food conservation during World War I, these early home economists placed themselves at the center of public discussions about the meaning of consumption in twentieth-century American culture and framed these discussions in terms that compelled would-be modern homemakers to interact with a new group of women experts.

Carolyn M. Goldstein is Public History and Community Archives Program Manager at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She is also the author of Do It Yourself: Home Improvement in Twentieth-Century America