Home Economics: the radical roots of domestic labor

Home Economics: the radical roots of domestic labor

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Back in my day (I’ve always wanted to start a review with those words!) home economics was still part of the middle school curriculum. We learned to follow a recipe, to set a table and clean up after our classroom meals, and to sew important objects, like pillows made out of washcloths or dangerously skimpy pot holders.

I was never keen on the domestic arts and sciences, a truth made clear by my sloppy stitches and thrown-together dishes. Though had I known more about the history of the field, I might have been more willing to apply myself. Thankfully, 21st Century Home Economics, a new year-long exhibition at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, offers an opportunity to form a new relationship to the discipline. The show explores the way women used the science of domesticity to escape their confinement in the home and carve out public roles for themselves. In doing so, they were able to fight for and secure a number of social reforms, from better working conditions to safer food.

History of Milk reform, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (WBEZ/Alison Cuddy)
At first it’s hard to see that history. There is so much clutter crowded into the small second-story exhibition space – tea cups, books, sewing machines and more –  that entering feels like stepping into ye olde curiosity shoppe. What does stand out is a pair of large, stunning photographs of important figures from the early days of home economics.

One is of Ellen Swallow Richards, a chemist and the first woman admitted to MIT. She helped integrate germ theory into an emerging discipline:  linking bacteria in food to illness in people. Her work inspired various reform efforts at Hull House, including a political campaign for sanitary milk (a history cleverly told through text printed on old-fashioned glass milk bottles).

In fact, most home reformers had broad agendas.  Utopian writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman (best known for her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”) imagined a world of collective rather than private kitchens and laundries, a social arrangement she hoped would free women from the drudgery of what we now call the “second shift.” That’s a remarkable vision, especially since women continue to do the bulk of childcare and housework.

The exhibition taps into the radical heart of home economics by connecting these 19th century histories and ambitions to present struggles. Beneath a large portrait of a Hull House servant named Mary Keyser, you’ll find narratives and artifacts from current domestic workers. A sponge sits in a glass case next to a text describing the efforts required to bathe a morbidly obese client. These contemporary testimonials make visible the enormous labor and care involved in domestic work. And a different sort of representation is also in the works. The Chicago Coalition of Household Workers (formerly known as the Latino Union), who partnered with Hull-House on the exhibition, is currently working to get a domestic workers bill of rights through the Illinois state legislature.

Curator Heather Radke says that was an important goal of the show’s collaborators (which range from labor organizers to individual artists): to make sure this kind of work is not just well-paid  but well understood, especially as a labor of love.There are critical views of contemporary politics as well. A chalkboard inviting ideas about food justice contrasts the collective organizing of early reformers against contemporary desires to “buy our way to social change” by frequenting farmers’ markets or selecting fair trade products.

All of the elements that make 21st Century Home Economics so inviting and successful – its busy, inquisitive, interactive, and community-focused approach – are hallmarks of every exhibition put on by the staff at Hull House. That the museum isn’t content just to be a repository for the good deeds and material possessions of Jane Addams, but functions as a lively, of-the-moment community space, is thanks to the vision and leadership of Lisa Yun Lee. 

Lisa Yun Lee

Lee became director at the museum in late 2006, after founding The Public Square event series at the Illinois Humanities Council. And in just six short years, she’s led a radical make-over of the museum. For Lee that mission was almost a historical imperative.

“In this 21st century moment, if you want to know historic facts or figures there’s really no reason why you’d need to go to a physical space,” she said. “The Internet has that kind of information for you.”

Instead Lee thinks a museum needs to be “about the cultural, social and political relationships you have or want to have not just with history but with other people, and yourself.”

So at Hull House, people come together not just to preserve history but to preserve jam, hold pot lucks, or debate politics. The museum has convened public discussions of trending topics like the cultural phenomenon of sports star Jeremy Lin (full disclosure: I moderated the event), conducted workshops on how to interact with law enforcement, and invited artists to invent alternative histories for some of the museum’s artifacts. They also run a farm and an art lending library.

Lee said the diverse programming reflects a shared sense among her staff that “museum making is an artistic practice.”

But now Lee is moving on. This month she steps down as director at Hull House Museum to lead UIC’s School of Art and Art History. There she’ll lead a year-long reorganization of the school. But she’ll also continue her efforts to create a “vibrant public sphere.” Lee noted that “art, art history, museums, are rarified elitist things historically. But they’ve also been sites of revolution and subversion. It’s just a matter of finding new ways of talking about and communicating that to people.”

‘Unfinished Business: 21 Century Home Economics’ is at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum through November 2013.