Title

Exhibit - Home Economics: Progress of a Course, 1895–2005

Origins of the women's course

When the Michigan Agricultural College was founded in 1855, its primary purpose was “to improve and teach the science and practice of agriculture.” Aimed at farm boys, the curriculum did not necessarily interest women at the time, although they were not explicitly barred from entering the college.
 

In 1870, ten women students registered for courses at Michigan Agricultural College. There was no special course for women at that time, so they took the same classes as men and participated in the daily practical applications (field work) as male students. The women's presence had an effect on the male students, which did not go unnoticed by those at the college. The Lansing State Journal printed a copy of a letter in the June 9, 1870 edition stating, “The refining influence of the ladies' society is being felt by the improved manners and personal appearance of the usually rude and uncouth Sophs...”
 

Those women who broke the barrier and enrolled at MAC in 1870 were:

  • Isabel Allen
  • Catherine C. Bacon
  • Ella Brock
  • Mary E. Daniels
  • Harriet A. Dexter
  • Gertrude Howe
  • Emma H. Hume
  • Mary L. Jones
  • Elizabeth E. Sessions
  • Catherine E. Steele


Housing shortages in the early years forced the administration to limit the number of women students to those who could find appropriate housing for themselves. The women were considered special students and not necessarily attached to the agricultural degree program. These factors led to a low graduation rate for women in their early years on campus. The first woman to graduate from MAC was Eva Diann Coryell in 1879, nine years after women first entered the college.
 

Mary A. Mayo of the State Grange became an influential leader in calling for a women's course on campus. Mayo felt that the curriculum associated with the degree for agriculture (the only one available prior to 1885 when an engineering degree was added) was a deterrent to women wanting to enter college. She felt that the courses on plowing, crop maintenance, and dairy hygiene, among others, were not suitable for farm girls, let alone city girls.
 

In 1895, Mayo's desire for a women's course became a reality. At that time, the college was struggling. Enrollment was down and the college had a terrible reputation, stemming from the rowdy behavior of the male students and several severe health scares. New faculty were leaving MAC, often for other, newly established land-grant colleges. The nationwide depression further exasperated the situation. The Board of Agriculture appointed a committee, composed of professors Howard Edwards, Clinton D. Smith, and Frank S. Kedzie, to examine the institution and report on what was needed to change the current situation. One of their seven recommendations was the creation of a women's course.
 

The women's course recommended by the committee would be complete with dormitory, teaching facilities, and proper staffing. The newly appointed MAC president, Jonathan Snyder, enthusiastically endorsed this idea, along with several others recommended by the committee. The creation of the course along with the dormitory would ensure that women would have a place at MAC and a course to study. The previous rate of graduation was 24 women graduates in their 25 years on campus.
 

Old Abbot Hall, a former men's dormitory, was remodeled and an addition built for the dining room and cooking laboratory. A room for sewing was set aside and lodging rooms for the women were ready in September 1896. With 42 women enrolling the first year, the program was an instant success.
 

Women's course

Early classes of the women's course, known as Domestic Economy, were held in Abbot Hall under the direction of Edith McDermott, professor of Domestic Economy and Household Science. McDermott stayed at MAC for two years and was succeeded by Maud Keller, the first dean of women.
 

The courses taken by the women included the typical subjects of English, history, science, and languages, with the addition of courses in sewing, cooking, calisthenics, and music. Piano lessons were offered free of charge as a credit course for freshmen and sophomores. On the advice of his wife, Clara, President Snyder offered drawing as an alternative to any students who did not wish to take music.
 

According to "The First Three Decades of Home Economics at Michigan State College, 1896-1926," the Domestic Economy course consisted of the following elements:

  1. The House—site, heating, accounts, cleaning, waste
  2. Foods—composition, nutrition value, preparation, physiological effects, for the sick, children, and adults
  3. Health—preservation of, functions of the body and care of, diets, work, rest, sleep
  4. Clothing—features of, materials, construction of, children's, artistic points
  5. Emergencies—first aid, anatomy, and physiology


With an appropriation of $95,000, a new building for the women students was constructed during 1899-1900. The Women's Building, later known as Morrill Hall, was ready to be occupied for the fall term of 1900. A dedication ceremony was held on October 25 of that year. The 60 students in the course lived there, as well as the six female professors for the women's course. The building was designed not only to provide healthy, productive living spaces, but also to supply adequate classroom and laboratory space. By housing 120 students in addition to offices for teaching staff, classrooms, laboratories, a gymnasium, and meeting rooms, Morrill Hall became the home of the first small residential college in MSU's history.
 

MAC was at the forefront of a nationwide trend when it established the women's course. The early 1900s saw the home economics movement developing across the United States. The term “home economics” was coined and defined in 1902 in Lake Placid, New York. The American Home Economics Association was established in 1909. The organization was charged with continuing the early efforts begun at Lake Placid and to seek ways to apply knowledge to improving the home life of people and facilitating the pursuance of family goals. (From "The First Three Decades of Home Economics at Michigan State College, 1896-1926").
 

The early 1900s was a period of growth at MAC. The Semicentennial Celebration in 1907 gave enrollment a boost when U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt spoke at graduation. Changes in academics shortly followed. In 1909, MAC established four academic divisions, each headed by a dean: Agriculture, Engineering, Veterinary Science, and Home Economics. The establishment of the Michigan Home Economics Association in 1911 encouraged further growth in that field. The following year, Omicron Nu (the National Home Economics Honorary) was established on campus by the faculty.
 

The department continued to grow throughout the 1920s when extension became a key principle. In 1918, the Smith-Hughes Act designated MAC as one of two institutions in the state to prepare teachers for vocational home economics. This act resulted in a broadening of course offerings to include textiles, household equipment, and child nutrition. By 1922, four fields of specialization were established in the Home Economics Division: general, foods and nutrition, clothing and textiles, and vocational education.
 

After separate divisions of Applied Sciences (1921) and Liberal Arts (1924) were organized, home economics experienced a drop in enrollment as many of the female students decided to pursue other areas. The decrease in enrollment did not prevent a new Home Economics Building opening for classes in 1924. The new building, long overdue, proved timely because the Division of Home Economics was on the verge of a great expansion.
 

Maturity of the program

Marie Dye first arrived at MAC in 1922 as a nutrition researcher. She gained recognition in the university as a scholar, researcher, and competent teacher. In 1929 she became dean of the Division of Home Economics, a position she held until 1956. Dye was responsible for the division through a series of world-changing events including the Great Depression, World War II, and the postwar explosion of science and technology. She admirably led her department through those and other challenges.
 

Her time as dean marked a period of growth for the division. Enrollment increased from 440 students to 874. Graduate enrollment increased from five to 98.


The Great Depression caused enrollment to drop in the early years of her leadership and many aspects of the program had to be curtailed due to budget constraints. The Teaching and Extensions program within the division now began to focus on the economic problems of families, with an emphasis on conservation of materials through food preservation, care of clothing, and budgeting.
 

Gradually, enrollment began to increase again. In 1941, the Home Economics Division was reorganized into four new departments: Food and Nutrition; Institution Administration; Textiles, Clothing, and Related Arts; and Home Management and Child Development. Also during this time, Irma Gross and Mary Lewis, both Home Economics professors at MSC wrote the textbook, Home Management (1936). This was not only the first book authored by home economics faculty at MSC, it was the first textbook of its kind in the field.
 

When World War II erupted a few years later, new concerns were in store for the Home Economics division. Many of the programs in the early 1940s were geared toward the war effort. Extension courses focused on special problems that families face during times of war. Also, many of the faculty were granted leaves to work on war-related projects and programs.
 

As the war wound to a close, a milestone event occurred for the division. The name was changed in 1944 to the School of Home Economics. Just a few years later, the 1946-47 school year marked the 50th anniversary of Home Economics at MSC. In her annual report for that year, Marie Dye remarked:

"This year marks the close of the first 50 years of Home Economics at Michigan State College. Many developments have taken place in these years, from a beginning of one faculty member and 42 undergraduate students taking one curriculum to the present with a staff of 80, four departments, 10 undergraduate curricula, Master's degrees offered in each field and Doctor's in one, a broad research program, and Extension programs for rural and urban girls and women in all areas of the state."
 

Although the celebration of 50 years of Home Economics at MSU had been a success, it was clear that the postwar curriculum needed revision. Dye called for a review of the goals and objectives of the School of Home Economics. The resulting curriculum emphasized specialization and professional training. This type of curriculum was a trend throughout the 1940s and 1950s and was not limited to the area of home economics.
 

Following Dye's retirement as dean in 1956, a period of constant change and reassessment followed for the next few years. In the 1960s, under the leadership of Dean Jeanette Lee, the department formed a committee to study the role and future direction of home economics. The committee's report stated that in the future, the focus of the curricula should be not only on the elements in close proximity to the environment (food, clothing, shelter), but also on the interaction between and among people and those elements.
 

A major change for the college came in 1970. That year, the name of the college changed to the College of Human Ecology. It was also reorganized into four new departments: Human Nutrition and Foods; Human Environment and Design; Family and Child Services; and Family Ecology. The reorganization of the college was met with an increase in enrollment. Between 1970 and 1974 enrollment in the College of Human Ecology increased by 40 percent.
 

The 100th anniversary of the creation of the women's course was celebrated in 1996. That year the College of Human Ecology published a book documenting their history over those one hundred years. The book, Home Economics to Human Ecology: 100 Years at Michigan State University, was a collaborative project by Margaret M. Bubolz, Dorothy Mitsifer, and Stephanie Perentesis. The book was dedicated to the memory of Jeanette Lee, the former dean who had passed away two years before the book's release.

In 2005, the College of Human Ecology underwent its biggest and final reorganization. The university's administration decided to eliminate the college and realign its academic programs with other programs and departments on campus.

Pioneers of the women's course

Mary Mayo

Born Mary Anne Bryant on May 25, 1845, Mary Mayo grew up on a farm near Battle Creek, Michigan. Her family believed in the value of a good education, so she studied in a private school taught by two of her aunts. She became a teacher following her graduation from high school. She left the teaching profession after a couple of years to marry Perry Mayo, a veteran of the Civil War.

Mayo became active in the Grange, known officially as the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry. In the Grange, women were admitted as equals to men and therefore became a salvation and outlet of companionship for many farm women. Mayo worked hard for the organization and was a good speaker, with the ability to hold her audience’s attention. Through her speeches, Mayo began to advocate for a creation of a women's course and the building of a women's dormitory at the Michigan Agricultural College. She was critical of the current curriculum, saying that it offered little to farm women and less to city women. She prodded the Grange members to support a resolution advocating courses for women at the college.

Mayo's dream became a reality in 1896, when the Women's course was officially created. In 1900, at the dedication of the Women's Building (Morrill Hall), the young women present honored Mayo with a standing ovation.

Edith McDermott

Edith Florence McDermott was the first professor of Domestic Economy and Household Science at Michigan Agricultural College. Appointed in 1896, she taught all of the courses for the women's course and was matron of Abbot Hall, the dormitory assigned to the women. Prior to MAC, McDermott had been a teacher of domestic science in Allegheny's Fifth Ward Manual Training and Domestic Science School. During the second year of the women's course, Harriet Bacon relieved McDermott as matron, which allowed her more time to focus on academics. McDermott left MAC the next year.

Maud Keller

Maud Ryland Keller succeeded Edith McDermott as dean of women. Keller came to MAC with an AB and an AM from Wellesley College. She had been a teacher at a girls' school out east prior to her appointment at MAC. When she accepted the position as dean of qomen, it was a quite a promotion for Keller. In addition to supervising life at the hall, she taught English and ethics several hours each week. When the women's course moved into Morrill Hall in 1900, Keller was in charge of equipping the new building. Although moving into a new building involved a great deal of work, she believed that having a new facility would be a great improvement for the women's program. She resigned in 1901 to return to work in private schools in Rhode Island and Connecticut. She died in 1935 after a long illness at her home in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Maude Gilchrist

Maude Gilchrist became the dean of women in the summer of 1901. She brought with her a wide educational background and vast teaching experience. She received a Bachelor of Science from Iowa State Teachers College; spent three years at Wellesley College, where she tutored freshmen in mathematics; spent a year in Germany at the University of Goettingen; and received a MA from the University of Michigan. She also spent a summer at Iowa Agricultural College studying prairie plants under Charles Bessey; a summer at the Woods Hole Marine Biology Laboratory; and took two winter courses in economic botany at Harvard University under George Goodale. Prior to MAC, she spent three years as an instructor at Iowa State Teachers College, 10 years teaching botany at Wellesley, and four years as dean at the Illinois Women's College. She taught ethics and the history of education, as well as the occasional section on botany, when needed. During her 12 years at MAC, enrollment in the women's course increased more than 125 percent and the curriculum was advanced to a higher level.

Marie Dye

In 1922, Marie Dye became the first woman with a PhD to be appointed to the faculty at Michigan State University. When Dye became dean of the Division of Home Economics in 1930, there was only one department under her supervision. When she retired in 1956, the College of Home Economics had four departments and 14 female faculty members with PhDs.

Goal oriented and visionary, Dye brought national and international recognition to MSU. She advanced multidisciplinary and integrative teaching, research, and outreach to numerous individuals and families in communities through Michigan and the nation.

A nationally known leader in home economics, she served as president of both the American and Michigan Home Economics Associations. She was active in the American Dietetic Association, the Institute of Nutrition, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, among others. She also received a number of honors including election to Phi Beta Kappa and an honorary doctor of laws degree from Michigan State University.

Beatrice Paolucci

Though not involved in the administration of the College of Human Ecology, Beatrice Paolucci contributed much to the profession. Paolucci first arrived at MSU in 1951 as a professor of home economics. She left for a few years to pursue positions at other institutions, but returned to MSU in 1953 and spent more than 25 years as a faculty member in the College of Human Ecology.

Paolucci served as acting chairperson of the Department of Family and Child Services from 1967 to 1969 and again from 1970 to 1973. She was a prolific writer of books and articles. Paolucci identified what she thought the mission and scope of the home economics profession should be in her writings.

Paolucci was a dedicated teacher as well as renowned scholar. She was twice named MSU distinguished faculty member. She was also recognized by her peers when she was awarded the Distinguished Services Award from the American Home Economics Association. Paolucci died of cancer in 1983.

Jeanette Lee

Jeanette Lee arrived at MSU in 1937 as an instructor of foods and nutrition. She was named assistant dean in 1956, acting dean in 1963, and dean in 1964. She retired in 1971. Her tenure covered a period of great transition. Lee recognized that the field of home economics should respond to the evolving needs of society. Consequently, she led the faculty to conduct an intense study of the college's role and future directions. The results of that study reaffirmed the ecological conceptualization of the field. The college then adopted the name, College of Human Ecology and the undergraduate curriculum was revised to reflect this new approach.

Lee was known as a forward-looking leader. In addition to the outstanding work she did at MSU, Lee served on a national advisory committee for the White House Conference on Aging. She chaired a national study on "Concepts in Home Economics," and directed a study of the relationship of liberal arts to home economics for the Institute of Higher Education at Columbia University.

Finding aid for the College of Human Ecology records (UA 15.3).


Written by MSU Archives staff.
Exhibit created by Megan Badgley Malone.

Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections

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