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Nonfiction November: Nonfiction Read in 2021 & A Review: The Secret History of Home Economics…

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I look forward to Nonfiction November–do you? I enjoy it so much when a nonfiction book reads like a novel but still presents worthwhile information and scholarship. For week one of Nonfiction November, we tell what we’ve read this year–here is the link to the hosting blog for this week, What’s a Nonfiction. I’ve done that at the bottom of this post, but first a review of my most recently read nonfiction book.

Review of The Secret History of Home Economics

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Who knew that home economics developed not as a way to teach bored middle school girls to cook creamed chipped beef (Se used the wrong animal in the Gilbreth’s chipped beef quote–it’s CVOT, “Cat’s vomit on toast” not dog’s) and put zippers into garments made of woven fabric, but to sneak well-educated women into STEM and business careers? The “Snowy Bleach” persona was of the public’s imagination.

I occasionally got irritated with the woke/glib tone. It takes some large you-know-what’s to complain about someone in history judging when that’s what you are doing at that very moment in your book! She really struggled, but did succeed, in NOT blaming religion for all things bad at least. And, the 21st Century’s “That Man in the White House” just escape notice or blame for everything else. Catty stuff like that aside, it was a really interesting read.

By insisting that students master chemistry and other hard sciences and look at the ways things were done, what they were composed of and how it all affected society, the pioneers of home economics truly invented an academic discipline. And no one had to rip woven fabric to straighten the edge. They looked at ways to improve life. Malnutrition is a great example. In the US and UK in World War I many (almost too many in the UK) men were rejected for military service due to the effects of malnutrition. Back in the day women lost teeth due to childbearing. The pioneers of home ec brought us the research that developed the fabled four food groups. They fought for pure food and safe medications with full disclosure of the ingredients.

Another thing they championed was freeing women for more important or more interesting work. Early on carry-out dinner schemes were mooted, household help was approved since it took care of such low-level work.

One thing I will speak up about as done badly–her research on the Gilbreth’s. Why were others mentioned as “sadly” (something like that) going into eugenics, but nothing was said about the Gilbreth’s being eugenicists? Why did they have 12 children and continuously educate them? Because of eugenics. You cannot just read the nice Cheaper By the Dozen books (which I love and have read and re-read countless times–all of them, not just the first one). My grandfather knew Lilian when she worked at Purdue. Certain segments of their generation was pretty sold on eugenics so its no use just pointing out one or two. It was easier at the time to find those who did not. Then the Nazi version was revealed and ended it. We cannot let history be forgotten. It was a big deal in this country. There is an excellent American Experience documentary about the movement. The author should at least have watched that.

But back to those pioneering women of home ec. We can thank these women for standardized measurements in recipes and we can thank or curse them for supposedly standardizing women’s clothing sizes. If you’ve ever tried on pants or undies you know they didn’t exactly excel at the latter task. Never mind, they made their way to positions of authority some overcoming deeply racist limits to careers

Sadly, like my career–librarianship, home economics was hampered by stereotypes the public bought into. I’ve never personally known a librarian to dance on the desks with a charlatan band leader but that, and reading all day, are what the public thinks we do in libraries. It’s much the same for home ec–learning to run the vacuum cleaner or make CVOT. Nor are they Betty White as Sue Anne Nivens! [See the bottom of this post]. Except that isn’t what they do. It’s time we give them the credit they deserve.

The Secret History of Home Economics…. by Danielle Drielinger

My 2021 Nonfiction Reading

How about you? Are you doing Nonfiction November? Leave me a link to your post or a comment on something good that you’ve read in nonfiction this year.

9 thoughts on “Nonfiction November: Nonfiction Read in 2021 & A Review: The Secret History of Home Economics…

      1. I went to a selective school where you had to pass the 11 Plus exam to get in – but it was a state school so free, not fee-paying. They were very academic and really pushed us towards STEM subjects – really didn’t like the fact I wanted to be a librarian, even!!

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  1. I loved home ec and considered being a county extension agent for a while — home ec was my growing-up life with 4-H, etc. I’m bummed that the book has a woke take on things, because the subject matter sounds really interesting to me!

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  2. Thank you for such a thought-provoking post. I had two years of home-ec, my freshman and sophomore high school years. This was in the mid-1950’s. I learned so much, from sewing to cooking. The teacher even answered our questions about the “facts of life.” Back then, women were expected to be housewives and if they went to college, to be either a teacher or a nurse. That’s just how it was. Most of us didn’t like it, but it was a hard thing to fight. Young women are so lucky now, they have no idea what it was like for us back then. I do enjoy non-fiction occasionally and this sounds like an interesting book.

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