Bookworm: There’s still work to do, so find ‘The Secret History of Home Economics’

And do you need a great beach-read?

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist
“The Secret History of Home Economics” author Danielle Dreilinger

“The Secret History of Home Economics”

  • By Danielle Dreilinger
  • c. 2021, Norton
  • $27.95, $36.95 Canada; 348 pages

You’ve had a lot on your plate this past year. Lock-downs, virtual classes, and stay-at-home orders weren’t all bad, though; the hunker-down was an opportunity for a new hobby.

Knitting busied your fingers. Reading engaged your mind. Newly-discovered baking skills literally added to your plate and, as in “The Secret History of Home Economics” by Danielle Dreilinger, great-grandma would be proud.

“The Secret History of Home Economics” by Danielle Dreilinger.

Our nation wasn’t but a few decades old when it became very clear that some citizens were lacking resources, to the point of “disadvantage.” Women, for example, were generally solely in charge of the home and everything about it, and that often made for a hard life. By the 1870s, though, help was coming: Ellen Swallow, a “country girl” with an astounding drive to learn insisted on studying the growing new field of science. She then made it her life’s work to use what she’d learned to better the lives of women.

Margaret Murray Washington saw the same need, but in a different way. Born just before the Civil War ended, she knew that Black women likely already possessed housekeeping skills and needed no further instruction there. Washington, wife of Booker T., instead pushed for the creation of “domestic science” classes at Tuskegee, believing that a formal degree would ensure racial equality.

The idea of domestic science (or “home economics,” as it was later called) was not without detractors but ultimately, emphasis was placed on science and economics. Women learned efficiency in daily chores, but they also learned ways to save money and fix everything from clothing to appliances; food safety, gardening, sanitizing, and healthy cooking. Professional home economists reached out to women to enhance communities. Women reached out to county professionals for tips during peacetime and war.

By the 1970s, feminism swept across the country and home-ec “seemed practically to break loose from a corset.” It became clear that such things weren’t just for women; still, by the end of the decade, home ec was becoming more quaint than quintessential.

Says Dreilinger, it’s high time we bring it back.

There’s one important thing you’ll fully understand after you’ve read “The Secret History of Home Economics”: our foremothers were not to be trifled with. They were watchful, highly desirous of education, progressive, ingenious, and humble about their ignorance. In short, as author Danielle Dreilinger shows, Great Grandma was fierce.

Home Ec, as it turns out, wasn’t originally just the homey, cooking-sewing-baby-care classes like those you had in high school. Adult women, both professionals and everyday housewives, fought hard to gain opportunities for all homemakers and to turn the job into one with esteem. Those warriors came from surprising corners to do that, and how they did it is a story complete with embedded racism, Eleanor Roosevelt, two women who were “essentially married to each other,” and practice-babies.

Readers of women’s history will love this book, as will general historians, feminists, and anyone with an interest in domestic arts. There’s still work to do, so find “The Secret History of Home Economics” and dish it up.

More:Bookworm: ‘This Summer’ is just right for your next long weekend

If these beachy books don’t feel perfect for your vacation, put yourself in the capable hands of your local bookseller or librarian.

Beach reads

  • Various authors, various prices and page counts

A big round circle marks that date. You know exactly how many days before your vacation. Not that you’re looking forward to it (you are!!) but you can hear the beach calling and you hate to disappoint the sand and sun. So why not take these great beach-reads with you … ?

For anyone who’s vacationed with a bestie, “People We Meet on Vacation” by Emily Henry (Berkley Jove) is a good pick to pack. It’s the story of Alex and Poppy, who’ve known one another since forever, but they had a really bad vacation together two years ago. You might think that’s the end of this story, but no. Poppy misses Alex and she extends the laurel branch. He accepts. That’s a big wow; now she has a week to make things right ...

Here’s an idea: suggest “The Beach House” by Rochelle Alers (Dafina) to your book club, then take it on holiday with you. It’s the story of three women united by a summer book club. One of them has been through major life-changers since the last meeting at the end of last summer, and this season is a chance to heal her heart and soul. But is she ready – really ready – to move on? Out May 25, this easy-breezy book is about friendships, romance, growing older, and (of course) a beach.

If you’ve ever enjoyed a get-away so much that you wish you could actually get away, you have to read “The Newcomer” by Mary Kay Andrews (St. Martin’s Press). When Letty Carnahan’s sister is found dead in her fancy New York City home, Letty remembers Tanya’s warning: if Tanya ever dies under mysterious circumstances, her ex-husband did it. So Letty does exactly what she knew Tanya would want: she grabs Tanya’s four-year-old daughter, a handful of items from Tanya’s house (including a stash of cash and bling), takes a new name, and splits, heading for a tiny Mom-and-Pop motel in Florida. Once there, the question remains: who really killed Letty’s sister? And is it possible to find romance with a handsome local detective when you’re on the lam?

For the reader who dreads beach season because it might mean beach body, then “Starfish” by Lisa Fipps (Nancy Paulsen Books) is the book to read. It’s quick, it’s in poem form, and it’s about a woman who’s fat-shamed, and how she learns to find her own worth, despite the jerks and bullies. Bonus: this book will also work for the teen reader who needs it.

And on that note, if a “beach body” is your concern, no worries. Grab “Two Meals a Day” by Mark Sisson (Grand Central Publishing). The good news is, it’s not a diet, it’s a habit-change that’s easy to make and easy to maintain, it’s flexible, and there’s no calorie-counting. Bonus: recipes!

If these beachy books don’t feel perfect for your vacation, put yourself in the capable hands of your local bookseller or librarian. You need a great beach-read, and they’ll know exactly what you want to have around.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.