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Chemistry in Relation
to Household Economy

Winter 1879 — Women’s meeting, Poughkeepsie NY


It may interest some of your number, those who like to follow out the evolution of thought, to know how and why this idea of the application of science in general, and chemistry in particular, came to take so strong a hold upon my mind. You will see that, as is often the case, it was partly due to contrariness. We often overlook the bearing of our work until some one who does not believe in, it shows us how much we might do. One day someone said to me, ‘What good do you expect this will do in the kitchen?’ I have never succeeded in banishing the ring of that questionfrom my ears. Indeed, it has been repeated in other forms so many times since that I have had little opportunity to forget.

A few weeks since, the door of the laboratory opened to admit two women a little past middle life, though not old. They came in with wondering looks, as they saw several young women at work in the room. . . . I attempted to satisfy their curiosity by speaking of those who studied chemistry for the purpose of knowing something of its principles and applications. They did not seem to understand this motive, and I proceeded to tell them of the teachers who were now required to teach science and who must learn laboratory work in order to secure better salaries. This fact appealed to them somewhat, but one immediately asked, “What good is it going to do for domestic women?” To this question, which doubt less comes first to many when the subject of scientific teaching for girls is discussed, “What good will it  do for domestic women?’ I shall try to suggest an answer, at least in part.

Now it is often stated that our educational system unfits the girls for their work in life, which is largely that of housekeepers. It cannot be the knowledge which unfits them. One can never know too much of things which one is to handle. Can a railroad engineer know too much about the parts of his engine? Can the cotton manufacturer know too much about cotton fiber? Can a cook know too much about the composition and nutritive value of the meats and vegetables which she uses? Can a housekeeper know too much of the effect of fresh air on the human system, of the danger of sewer gas, of foul water?

It cannot be the knowledge of things which unfits the youth to handle the things themselves. It must be that some sort of false logic has crept into our schools, for the people whom I have seen doing house work or cooking know nothing of botany or chemistry, and the people who know botany and chemistry do not cook or sweep. The conclusion seems to be, if one knows chemistry she must not cook or do housework.

If we look narrowly at the teaching of botany and chemistry and the other so-called natural sciences in most of our public schools, we may wonder less that this reasoning has gained a foothold. (Then follows an arraignment of the schools for not teaching the application of the sciences.)

Scientific facts are taught, to be sure, but in just the same way and often by the same teachers as historical facts are taught. Girls, and boys too, may learn that there is such a thing as a soluble oxalate of iron, without learning that because ink contains iron, oxalic acid will therefore form a soluble compound with ink stains. The trouble lies in the lack of actual knowledge of things, and the attempt to supply this lack by certain theoretical ideas which have no more relation to every-day life than the wars of the Crusaders now have.

Girls may learn that rice is a carbohydrate, and that peas and beans are not only carbohydrates but also albuminoids, without learning the connection of these facts with every-day life. The best authorities who have studied the nutritive value of various foods state that a strong working man requires, per day, 420 grams of carbohydrates to keep up the animal heat and 120 grams of albuminoids to repair the waste of tissue. Two pounds of peas or beans will much more than furnish these constituents at a cost of about ten cents at ordinary prices. Six or seven eggs and one pound of rice will come near furnishing both, but at an average cost of fourteen cents to twenty-one cents. Three-quarters of a pound of cheese will give the albuminoids at a cost of, say eighteen cents. Four pounds of potatoes will give the starch, but twenty-five pounds of potatoes will be required for the albuminoids. Hence potatoes are very insufficient for nutrition and also very costly, from twenty-five to fifty cents’ worth giving only the value of ten cents’ worth of beans. Is this sort of science of no value to the girl who is to be a house keeper? Does it not aid in impressing on her mind all the other more abstract truths? The true value of science teaching, the knowing for certainty, the investigation for one’s self, in contrast to mere belief or blind acceptance of statements, is missed in much popular teaching.

We must awaken a spirit of investigation in our girls, as it is often awakened in our boys, but al ways, I think, in spite of the school training. We must show to the girls who are studying science in our schools that it has a very close relation to our every-day life. We must train them by it to judge for themselves, and not to do everything just as their grandmothers did, just because their grandmothers did it.. . .

But you are asking, what has all this to do with domestic economy? Everything, I answer, because if you train the young housekeeper to think, to reason, from the known facts to the unknown results,  she will not only make a better housekeeper, but she will be a more contented one; she will find a field wide enough for all her abilities and a field almost unoccupied. The zest of intelligent experiment will add a great charm to the otherwise monotonous duties of housekeeping.

So much for the educational side of the question. We must now consider the field itself. You will at once call to mind the great advance in the few years past in all mechanical devices which render travel comfortable, communication easy and rapid; also the great advance in metallurgy, which has given us Bessemer iron or steel, and rendered much possible that before seemed impossible. Chemistry has given us new fabrics, new dyes, and has been the right hand of metallurgy.

We must say that of the improvements that affect our daily life, the most result from the appli cations of mechanics and chemistry. Now let us consider how much these have contributed to household economy. We have our carpet sweepers, knife scourers, clothes wringers, too often, alas, rendered almost useless by the ignorance of those into whose hands we put them; we have sewing machines and their accessories.

Where are the fruits of chemical science? In self-raising flour, in bread powders, in washing powders, in glove cleaners, and in a hundred patentnostrums; but where are the substantial advantages commensurate with the improvements in manufacturing establishments and metallurgicalworks? Is housekeeping any easier, any more scientific, than it was thirty years ago? Our cooking is proverbially bad. The ventilation and drainage of many of our houses could not well be worse. Why is it? Why do not our housekeepers keep pace with our machine shops? Why do we notice such a pleasant contrast when we enter the wards of a well-ordered hospital? Why has not the knowledge of sanitary laws filtered down through the community as rapidly as the knowledge of mechanical laws? Go where you will into the country and you will find the sewing machine universal, but alas! just as poor bread, just as much fried pork, just the same open sink drain under the kitchen window, just the same damp, dark cellar, just as much fear of fresh air, as you would have found thirty years ago. And in the cities, how much better is it; rather, how much worse? The architects have learned to build houses with fewer cracks to let in air, with furnaces and no open fires, with a sort of plumbing system peculiarly sensitive to use.

If, then, we grant, as we must, that chemical and sanitary science has not borne its due fruits in household economy, we must also grant that it must be because women have not, as yet, availed themselves of its possibilities.

There is no place into which chemistry might not be profitably introduced. Let us consider in what respects there is an opening for improvement.

Three reasons occur to me why science should be brought into household affairs. 1st. It would benefit health. 2d. It would save labor and the wear of material. 3d. It would show us how to obtain the most for our money of the staple articles of daily consumption.

In the first case, a few words will suffice. The housekeeper is the one person who visits all parts of the house daily. She alone is in a position to detect the first trace of the escape of sewer gas, to notice the neglected corner of the cellar, to test the cream of tartar if the biscuits come to the table yellow and alkaline, and she should know enough of science to do all this and more.

In the second case, the saving of labor and wear of material. The management of washing is the best illustration. If we go into any grocery and ask for a cleaning soap or washing powder, an array of perhaps a dozen different kinds is spread before us, each kind claiming perfection. The cleaning soap may be eighty per cent fine sand pressed into a cake with sal-soda (washing soda). The washing powders are either crude soda with sometimes a pinch of borax, or a mixture of hard soap and washing soda. Some of the latter articles are very white hard soap with the soda, and are really very nice. But if the laundress reads the label of her washing powder and finds on it an emphasized caution against the use of sal-soda, as it injures the clothing, she naturally concludes that this powder is innocent of any such harmful property. Hence she uses it with unsparing hand, to the detriment of her washing.

The third case, that of economy, will be most readily appreciated. If the housekeeper knows that she is paying twelve or fourteen cents a pound for brown soap and sal-soda, when she might purchase the same things for four or five cents, will she go on paying double price, rather than take a little pains to instruct her servants in the use and abuse of sal-soda?

Perhaps the day will come when an association of housekeepers will be formed in each large town or city, with one of their number as a chemist. Some similar arrangement would be far more effective in checking adulteration than a dozen acts passed by Congress.

The power of chemical knowledge is appreciated by manufacturers. They take advantage of every new step in science. The housekeeper must know something of chemistry in self-defense. If the dealer knows that his articles are subjected to even the simple tests possible to every woman at the head of her house, he would be far more careful to secure the best articles. Then the housekeeper should know when to be frightened.

What an economy it would be if we could have our houses built and our utensils made on scientific principles. If women in general understood mechanical and physical laws, would they long endure the present style of architecture found even in the suburbs of Boston, which requires the coal to be shoveled down cellar only for the servants to bring up again to the kitchen range, and necessitates the carrying of the ashes down, only for somebody to bring up again? Other examples will occur to you, of ways in which labor is wasted about a house in a manner which would ruin any business or workshop. No wonder that living is so expensive. Men do not often think about these things, and it is for women to institute reforms.

If, then, science introduced into our houses will enable us to live comfortably, if it will enable us to save in the wear and tear of furniture, to avoid great outlay of time or money in the repair of inevitable damages, to save cost on the various materials of daily use, the sum of these savings will be an amount worth considering in household economy, to say nothing of the improvement in the comfort and temper of both mistress and maids.

The first question that will occur to any one will be, how can all this saving be accomplished? My answer is the proverbial Yankee one, another question. How have the many economies in the machine shops and metallurgical works been accomplished? I think the answer to the last question will be: first, by the introduction of systematic manage ment of every detail; second, by the employment of skilled labor.

An English writer recently made the statement that the chief reason why the American inventions were coming upon the world with such startling rapidity and perfection was that a better class of workmen are at command here. If American men have been able by their perseverance, energy, and ingenuity to outstrip the world in the management of their shops, shall American women be less successful in the management of their houses?

It is not an easy task that we have before us. We have been making great improvements in our front halls, drawing rooms, and dining rooms within the past few years, but we have not yet invaded the kitchen and pantry. We must have the careful system and the skilled labor of the shop in our kitchens before we can have the beneficial results which the shops produce.

So long as we are content with ignorance in our kitchens, so long we shall have ignorance; but when we follow in the footsteps of our brothers and demand knowledge, because we know the value of knowledge, then we shall succeed in obtaining skilled labor as they have succeeded; and let it not be said that American women have less energy and perseverance in their department than American men have shown in their business.



Source: The Life of Ellen H. Richards, by Caroline L. Hunt (Boston: Whitcomb & Barrows), 1912, pp. 178-187.