Penn Library Exhibitions

HOUSEHOLD WORDS: Women Write from and for the Kitchen

A Curriculum for Ladies

Cookbooks and cooking classes often went hand-in-hand. Schools emerged as secondary livelihoods for popular authors: courses often followed on the heels of successful books or vice versa. The first cooking schools appeared in England in the eighteenth century. Little is known about them or their students. However, notebooks and cookbooks were printed by a school in order to promote its merits, its teachers, and its particular culinary style. The books were used as texts and also as memory aids for the students once they had finished their course of study.

In America in the nineteenth century, cooking schools in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, among others, continued to offer education and training for housewives, particularly immigrants, in traditional fields of employment for women such as domestic service. The curricula were developed by well-known directors, principals, and teachers, such as Fannie Farmer and Mary Lincoln.

The desire of many nineteenth-century social reformers to elevate the status of women and to dignify domestic labor led to the development of a new academic subject, "domestic science," later "home economics." This subject was meant to provide women with an academic pursuit equivalent to those for men. Moreover, its influence soon spilled over into areas of social reform--children's nutrition and welfare, working conditions, and the education of immigrants and poor people. This curriculum simultaneously emphasized the need for efficiency and scientific expertise while it denigrated the homey qualities of kitchens past as substandard and "unscientific."

As a result, the burgeoning sciences of nutrition and home economics became vehicles for white middle-class reformers to acculturate newly immigrated women and their families to American life. In an attempt to become Americanized, immigrant women transformed their long-established customs to suit their new environment, in turn, altering the cultural identities of their families and communities. The home, like the workplace, continued to be a site for innovation and change.

Later, under the auspices of the home economics movement, the role of schools expanded to include health care as well. Nutritional programs in city schools were established to fill this need and became another field into which women were recruited as teachers and cafeteria personnel.

The reputation of the cooking schools coupled with the fame and personalities of some of its most notable teachers provided American women with domestic advice and guidance into the next phase of the well-documented, if not overly lamented, decline of American cooking and the concomitant devaluation of the housewife. The negative consequences of this curriculum for women led to the trivialization of women's work. Instead of vigilant mother, nurse, skillful cook, competent manager, and educator, women's roles had contracted to become one of an ardent and smart shopper. This new image became yet another stereotype for women to challenge.

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