Spotlight on the NUT donation: two papers on domestic science education.

As you may already be aware, in late 2016 we received a wonderful donation from the National Union of Teachers (NUT) which included 380 pamphlet boxes containing material published by the NUT itself and many other organisations operating in the areas of education, children and families.

We have checked and sorted these publications, discovering many interesting items during the process. In February 2018 we created a LibGuide and also published a series of blog posts looking in more detail at a selection of these NUT resources. The focus of this blog is two early twentieth century documents about domestic science education for girls and housewives.

The first one “Training for Girls in Domestic Subjects”, is a paper read by Miss S.Dix at the NUT Hull Conference, 1912. Selina Dix (1859-1942) made a major contribution over thirty-five years to the welfare and education of girls and women in Hillfields, Coventry. Amongst other roles she was the first woman president of the Warwickshire County Teachers Association and a member of the executive of the National Union of Teachers.

Miss Dix’s opening statement that the value of an occupation should be determined rather by the manner of accomplishment than by its nature leads to a discussion about the nature and value of domestic tasks.

Miss Dix argued that Housework involves long, uncertain hours, small or no pay, and requires patience and endurance. It is often seen as an inferior occupation that does not require skill or intelligence to perform well. This lack of appreciation can lead to people being content to employ a badly trained general servant because not having to do menial tasks themselves is seen as ‘an addition to the dignity of their station in life.’ Girls at primary school may be unwilling to do their share of the menial tasks involved in domestic science lessons. Their mothers may assert ‘my daughter does not wash dishes at home, and I object to her doing so at the cookery class’.

However Miss Dix goes on to discuss that the knowledge and skills needed to provide a happy and health home life in as thrifty (both monetary and in terms of usage of time) manner as possible should be regarded as an admirable goal. Ideally those daughters who remain at home should earn recognition for the skill and effort they put into providing a comfortable base for their family members who earn a wage outside the home. Unfortunately complaints when things go wrong are often the only recognition given. Running a household must be seen as an attractive alternative to earning a wage in the increasing number of jobs available to women.

Miss Dix stated that girls at primary school need to be taught the skills they may not have the opportunity to learn from observing or helping their own mothers. Even if they find themselves in the future position of being able to employ their own servant it is always a good idea to know how that servant should be performing their work.

However practical classes should not be started at too early an age (nine was mentioned) because girls may not be able to lift full size saucepans, spell the names of utensils used or write well enough to quickly take notes in class. Also there is a danger of snippets of domestic science classes being taught which could lead to repetition, boredom and a growing dislike of domestic science subjects.

Instead it was suggested that at thirteen girls start a year, usually the last of formal education, devoted to domestic subjects. For six months classes in cookery, laundry and housecraft should be continuously taught in properly sized and equipped rooms. The final six months should include lessons in needlework (especially making and repairing clothes and bed linen), in household budgets and accounts, theoretical lessons in baby care, physical exercise (especially swimming) and in reading good literature. It is proposed that these lessons should be given in specially constructed and staffed centres which would alleviate interruptions to lower classes in schools. The nation as a whole would benefit from reduced infant mortality and healthier and happier households.

Twenty- six years later, in 1938, another NUT document was published, ‘Educating the Housewife’ by Miss K.M. Halpin. (An Address delivered to the Meeting of Domestic Science Teachers at the Margate Conference of the N.U. T.). Once again the idea was to promote the value of domestic science education although for women this time rather than school girls. Miss Halpin was the then Organising Secretary of the Women’s Gas Council which was a national organisation with 44 branches and over 9,000 members. Any woman who used gas in her home or was interested in home management could join a branch. Subjects discussed at regular meetings included interior decoration, hygiene, child welfare and dietetics.

Miss Halpin stated that it was not until the 1914-1918 World War that many women were able to make practical use of the better opportunities for education that had occurred. As a worker in an office, in a factory or in a shop women were used to being taught the job. Running a home is also a skilled occupation but many women did not have the opportunity to learn the necessary skills at home or at school.

In 1935 the Sixth International Congress of Scientific Management was held in England with, for the first time, a Home Section. Thirteen different countries contributed papers to the discussion on ‘How far can Scientific Management contribute to the raising of the Standard of Life’. The Australian Housewives’ Association, the National Norwegian Housewife’s Association and in America, the U.S.A. Bureau of Home Economics are examples of organisations of housewives. In 1935 the Women’s Gas Council came into being for the express purpose of uniting the housewives who use gas in their homes, to organise a common platform on which the architects, manufacturers and the housewives can meet and together help to solve the problem of how to introduce the same efficiency and ease into running of a house as is to be found elsewhere.

The Women’s Gas Council produced education films, four of which are discussed by Miss Halpin. The first was about the kitchen, sometimes described as ‘the nerve centre of the home’. The second film was about some simple methods of cooking which reflected the Council’s desire to get better cooking into British homes. The council organised cookery classes for engaged girls, business girls, unemployed women and the wives of unemployed men. The third film was about ‘Smoke abatement’, and was concerned with how to reduce the amount of air pollution caused by smoke and soot from coal fires. The subject of the last film was Kensal House built by the Gas Light and Coke Company “as a demonstration of the effect on working class life, and of the cost to landlord and tenant, of installing a “model” gas and coke fuel system” through its subsidiary the Capital Housing Association. It housed 380 slum dwellers from the over-crowded areas of North Kensington.

These two documents are illustrative of what a fascinating resource the donation of items from the NUT has proven to be. If you would like to find out more about these items, or any others in the collection, do get in touch.


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