FCNS marks 105 years on campus

NIU students work in the Home Management House circa 1960.
NIU students work in the Home Management House circa 1960.

Exactly 105 years have passed since NIU began teaching the arts of foods and sewing.

But pinpointing the birth of home economics as an academic discipline – and not just an unpaid profession for many women – opens the history books to the years of the Civil War.

The Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862, introduced to Congress by Vermont Rep. Justin Smith Morrill and later signed into law by President Lincoln, offered more opportunities for “the industrial classes” to pursue liberal and practical education by funding the construction of more colleges.

“Their goal was to increase the number of people who went into higher education,” says Laura Smart, chair of NIU’s School of Family, Consumer and Nutrition Sciences, “but, at that time, there really was not a place in higher education for women.”

Ellen Swallow Richards changed that.

As the first American female college student of science and technology, she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Vassar College. During her post-graduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she spearheaded the founding of home economics and coined that term.

“Because women were shut out of higher education to a larger degree, there was thinking that there needed to be some programs devoted to helping women become more professional and to prepare women for life as many women lived it at that time: cooking and sewing,” Smart says.

Indeed, those were the two subjects introduced at NIU in 1905.

In 1910, a two-year program was unveiled to prepare people to teach “domestic science” in secondary schools.

Laura Smart
Laura Smart

“By that time, the discipline had expanded beyond foods and sewing to cover dietetics, sanitation, hygiene, design, chemistry of the household, household problems,” Smart says. “This was the beginning of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the home and the important things that go on inside the home. And, at this time, women couldn’t even vote.”

Soon, in 1914, NIU’s program changed its name to “Household Sciences” to reflect trends in the field.

In 1921, it grew into a four-year department called “Home Economics.” One year later, the department branched into two tracks: teaching and careers other than teaching.

Child and family studies came in the 1920s. Textiles and apparel merchandising studies broadened in the 1940s when the industry blossomed after World War II.

Housed today in the College of Health and Human Sciences, the school and its 22 faculty now encompass three academic areas:

More than 900 students were enrolled in 2009; 839 undergraduate students (220 of whom were awarded the bachelor’s of science degree last year) and 75 master’s degree students. Most are female: 89 percent of the undergraduate students and 84 percent of the graduate students.

Ironically, considering where the program started, only 15 of the 2009 graduates sought initial teacher certification.

“And that’s more than usual. Teaching is not a degree program anymore as it was years ago. It’s an add-on to any of our other programs,” Smart says.

“There is less support from the public schools for family consumer sciences, although NIU produces the most teachers of family and consumer sciences in the state. We see excellent employment of our students, and it’s a very tough program. They have to be experts in everything.”

FCNS research forms a long list that touches on everything from parental bereavement to tourism development; from child abuse to effects of poverty on children; from family play therapy to widowhood; from body image to shopping behavior of older consumers; and from media portrayal of men and fashion to social responsibility in the textiles and apparel industry.

Current interdisciplinary scholarship includes preparing the green-collar workforce; immigrant entrepreneurship; nutrition and homeless women; learning nutrition counseling through the Standardized Patient exercise; nutrition and physical activity of preschool children; employee financial distress, emotional health risk and absenteeism; and attitudes of students toward credit cards.

Such collaboration is a hallmark of the school and of the field itself, Smart says.

“Recent discussion during NIU’s strategic planning conceptualized interdisciplinary study as taking a problem and looking at it from the points of view of different disciplines. For example, you can look at water from chemistry, biology or geology, and that’s what we’ve always done with the home. I see us as the first interdisciplinary field in the United States,” she says.

“Being interdisciplinary means that we draw upon the social sciences, such as sociology and psychology. We draw on our own versions, such as family science. We draw upon the arts for design principles in our textiles, apparel and merchandising courses. We draw upon the hard sciences, such as biology and chemistry as a basis for nutrition and dietetics. In family studies, we draw upon information theory, which is originally from engineering.”

Given that pedigree, she says, FCNS graduates “really live the motto of the College of Health and Human Sciences, which is ‘Science in the service of society.’ ”

“Our students want us because we give them a way to help other people, and society needs us because we cover so much ground,” Smart says. “Our students learn to apply scientific principles to help people, and there are so many students today who want to help people. That is a characteristic of this generation.”

Fifteen students enrolled in a “Trade Show and Exhibition Management” course are planning a Saturday, Oct. 23, celebration of the school’s 105 years.

The 6 p.m. event will take place in Ellington’s, the dining room on the main floor of the Holmes Student Center where FCNS students partner with student center professionals to plan, prepare and serve meals during the fall and spring semesters.

Call (815) 753-1543 or register online.

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