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Forging New Frontiers in Home Economics

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Alumna Sharon Nickols (photo courtesy of Sharon Nickols)

Alumna Sharon Nickols (photo courtesy of Sharon Nickols)

By Joe Levine

Drivers’ education and home economics were once fixtures in the American high school curriculum, but nowadays they’ve disappeared almost entirely. That trend is part of the broader story of home economics, a field many people associate with cooking and sewing, but which in its heyday provided young people with a range of skills related to parenting, financial management, job skills and other basic aspects of daily life.

For TC alumna Sharon Nickols, the Janette M. Barber Distinguished Professor at the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Georgia, home economics offers a fascinating window onto the can-do mentality of American frontier families, the birth of land grant universities, the origins of Teachers College, the field of consumer marketing, and the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s.  She and a growing number of other scholars believe the time is ripe for a major reconsideration of the field – both as an area of historical interest and as a much-need source of preparation for life in the 21st century.

To that end, on February 27th and 28th, Nickols will chair a major conference, “Home Economics: Classroom, Corporate and Cultural Interpretations Revisited,” which will bring together historians of family and consumer sciences, authorities in women’s studies, and scholars on other cultural influences that have shaped the field. 

“This is a milestone event that not only will take an important look back at home economics, but also marks a growing enthusiasm about reviving core concepts of the field and recasting it for the present day,” Nickols says. 

The roots of home economics extend back to the early 19th century, when women such as Catharine Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe) first talked of “scientific housekeeping.” But the movement really got its start in 1862 with the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act, which enabled states to create co-educational public colleges and universities in the then-western states that combined traditional academic studies with education in agriculture and “the mechanical arts.” Among the new generation of college-educated women in New England were many interested in science, including Ellen Swallow Richards, the first woman to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and also the first woman in the United States to receive a degree in chemistry; Richards’ protégé, Marion Talbot, with whom she founded the forerunner of the American Association of University Women, and who later headed the new Department of Household Administration at the University of Chicago (where she also became the nation’s first dean of women); and Isabel Bevier, an expert on the chemistry of foods who founded and led the Household Science Department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

In the summer of 1899, Richards convened what would become an annual working group in Lake Placid, New York, to hammer out standards for teacher training and certification in the new field. The effort culminated a decade later with the formation of the American Home Economics Association. In 1914, Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act, which created the Cooperative Extension Service at land grant institutions with regional or county offices from which university faculty members distributed research-based information and programs on agriculture, nutrition, sanitation, and other topics for the general public. And at Teachers College, -- which itself had grown out of the Kitchen Garden Association founded by Grace Hoadley Dodge -- faculty member Benjamin Andrews, known for his 10 rules of family earning, spending and saving, brought domestic science and household arts together to form a school that became one of the nation’s two preeminent places of study for home economics (the University of Chicago was the other).

In the 1930s, home economics took a new direction, focusing on consumer education and, increasingly, consumer marketing. The shift brought women into the business world, helped spur the standardization of consumer products and created a consumer population better equipped to make informed purchases based on knowledge of products’ impact on health and safety. But there was a downside, too, especially in the’50s when popular culture created the idealized American family. 

“In the ‘60s and ‘70s, when there was so much awareness of social issues, the field kind of shot itself in the foot by focusing on increased consumption rather than leading the way on social issues as it had in the past,” Nickols says. “As a result, home economics got stigmatized by feminists as something that had reinforced traditional women’s roles rather than changed them, which was both unfortunate and unfair.”

Today, though – as the University of Georgia conference suggests -- there is a growing awareness, at least among scholars, of home economics’ feminist roots and, more importantly, its current-day potential. 

“People need life skills,” Nickols says. “How many stories do we read about young people graduating from college who don’t feel ready to go out on their own because they don’t know how to prepare a meal or keep track of what they spent with their debit cards?” People of all ages also need “preparation for their own transitions through the life course and an ever-changing marketplace,” Nickols says, and in its new incarnation, home economics is a gateway to a wide range of careers.  For example, the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, which Nickols headed as Dean from 1991 to 2006,  comprises departments of Foods and Nutrition; Housing and Consumer Economics; Child and Family Development; and Textiles, Merchandising and Interiors. Graduates work as financial counselors, wealth managers, real estate agents and residential property managers, consumer affairs and consumer relations specialists, day care managers, marriage and family counselors, entrepreneurs, market analysts, dietitians and nutrition researchers. Many also go to medical school to become physicians and dentists.

As for Nickols herself, home economics has also been a road to great accomplishment. She has been widely honored for her work, receiving the 2012 Distinguished Service Award from the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences; the Family Service Award from the University of Georgia Alumni Association in 2009; the Distinguished Research Award from the College of Human Ecology at Kansas State University in 2009; and the Nellie Kedzie Jones Lifetime Achievement Award from the Board on Human Sciences in 201. Yet it all grew out of an interest that began when she was a girl growing up on a farm outside of tiny Rossville, Kansas. She describes her own mother as “a farm wife,” but also as “a major influence on my own interest in doing things for community.” Thanks to her mother who was active in the homemakers Extension program, Nickols participated in 4-H club projects and leadership. Through 4-H, she was introduced to the College of Home Economics at Kansas State University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree. “Because of the Depression, neither of my parents had the opportunity to go to college, but they really valued higher education,” she says.  Another strong influence was Dean Doretta Hoffman at Kansas State who encouraged the women in home economics to go to graduate school, “which was a bit of a stretch for a farm girl in the mid-1960s,” Nickols recalls.

At TC, for her interdisciplinary M.A. degree, Nickols took research methods courses with Hope Leichter, family life education with Arlene Otto, sociology of the family with Rose Somerville, and an ethics course with Roger Shinn of Union Theological Seminary. Among other things, her TC experience left her with an appreciation for big picture thinking about small details.

“Home economics has become a collection of very specialized professions and areas of focus,” she says. “But it’s how those different facets influence the whole lives of people that really interests me. That’s where the story lies.”


Nickols has endowed The Sharon Y. Nickols Scholarships to support a master's or doctoral student at TC’s Elbenwood Center who is focusing on the study of families, schools and communities 


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