Spring Greeney

Exterminating Animals: Ellen Henrietta Richards and the pestilent origins of coeducation


How do you kill 25 million houseflies? Host a citywide contest and pay the fly-swatting champion—“an eleven-year-old boy who brought into the office a forty-pound sugar-bag contained nearly half a million dead flies,” crowed editors of the 1912 Ladies’ Home Journal—a ten-dollar cash prize. What should a responsible housewife do to eliminate vermin from her new suburban home? Set traps, get cats—and buy a tub of Stearns’ Electric Rat and Roach Paste. Water bugs? Turpentine did wonders. Ants? Carbolic acid or alum mixed with hot water.

American enthusiasm for pest extermination exploded in the early decades of the twentieth century, about the same time that a moustache-sporting Teddy Roosevelt stumped his way to the presidency, a Spanish-American conflict tested US global reach, and the first electric subway system whisked titillated denizens through tunnels beneath the city of Boston. The disparate trends were not wholly unrelated, for vermin had come to symbolize the fearful urbanization that seemed to threaten American nationhood itself. Roosevelt’s presidential actions responded to urban anxieties: the federal protection of 230,000 acres of land—an area twice the size of California—as forests and game reserves for the breeding of virile, hearty Americans; jingoistic praise for muckraking photojournalist Jacob Riis as “the best American I ever knew” when the Dane, an immigrant, turned his camera to New York City’s filth and squalor; and presidential approval of the largest pest-extermination campaign in US history, a twelve-month, twenty million-dollar spraying frenzy that cleared the Panamanian tropics of disease-carrying mosquitos and allowed American engineers to build a canal where their French predecessors had failed.

Anxiety about pests arose for good reason. The American urban population doubled between 1880 and 1900, and doubled again between 1900 and 1920; by the time The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, just over half the US population—54 million people—would claim a metropolitan area as home. Vermin took up residence in cities teeming with people and their wastes: rats thrived off of kitchen scraps and wastewater cast out back windows and into rear lots, cockroaches and silverfish enjoyed the damp basements of houses built on the low-lying ground newly claimed by urban development. A half-century of bacteriological research, particularly French microbiologist Louis Pasteur’s discovery of the disease-causing microorganism called the “germ,” emphasized the public health necessity of exterminating pestilent vectors of disease. In the early twentieth century, infections like tuberculosis and influenza accounted for an estimated 10 percent of all American deaths, or a shocking 25 percent of mortality among people ages 20 to 40. So it was not just hyperbole that induced one despairing Ladies’ Home Journal contributor to opine, “Mosquitoes are more dangerous than lions”: the estimated 22,000 French workers in Panama who had been killed or hospitalized by mosquito-spread yellow fever may well have been on her mind.

If Roosevelt’s actions demonstrated popular ambivalence about American urbanization, it was not he who did the actual work of swatting and poisoning urban vermin. Instead, anxious citizens and philanthropic organizations took on the task: as a Fly-Fighting Committee with Fifth Avenue office space; as a spate of civic contests in Worcester, San Antonio, and Washington D.C. to incentivize the collective killing of houseflies. (One enthusiastic swatter, a Texas youth, brought into contest headquarters a quarter-of-a-million-fly bounty that he had “neatly pressed into … ordinary building brick, and covered with disinfectant and sugar.”) Most prominent and outspoken of the citizen-exterminators was MIT-trained chemist Ellen Henrietta Richards, founder of the discipline that her fellow advocates would come to call “Home Economics.” Richards argued that American women—more than knobby-kneed children or metropolitan philanthropists—could and must be the first line of defense against creeping, buzzing, and scuttling nature. Killing bugs, feeding families, and engineering sanitary city streets (“municipal housekeeping,” she would come to call it) required technical training: “Not through chance, but through increase of scientific knowledge … will be brought about the creation of right conditions, the control of environment.” An eye to the closed university doors she herself had pounded at in 1870—she’d graduate from MIT in 1873 as its first female degree-holder—Richards tied national progress to female scientific literacy, and female scientific literacy to women’s higher education. Coeducation and nation went hand-in-hand: home economics sat in their nested palms.

Those of us with experience stitching pillow shams in high school “home ec” class may be surprised to learn of the discipline’s scientific origins, and to learn its founder was MIT’s first female graduate. So what goals did Ellen Richards and other early home economists perceive themselves as furthering? And what legacy did they leave behind?

In 1873, a quarter-century before house marms would roll up their collective calico sleeves to titrate water samples and poison rats, the Boston physician Edward H. Clarke published his solicitously titled Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for Girls. “Nature’s laws,” the Harvard Medical School faculty member cautioned, particularly “the management of the catamenial function,” rendered women unfit for “the mental strain commenced at school.” Clarke’s polemic went into its second printing just a week after its publication, the same year Ellen Richards obtained her B.S. in Chemistry from MIT; by 1875, the book was in its fifth print run and the physician was lecturing widely in Boston. Whether he and Richards passed each other on the brick Boston sidewalk is a matter of cinematic rather than historical concern, but Clarke’s general argument—that the strains of college taxed too heavily the fragile female constitution—provided the biological rebuttal to women’s education that period adherents were searching for. A smattering of colleges and universities had begun admitting women: Vassar College for women founded in 1865, Smith College and Wellesley College in 1875, MIT began formally accepting women in 1884, and Bryn Mawr a year after. But these institutions were predominantly small, private, and expensive; the largest and most prominent American research universities, both public and private, remained closed to the so-called gentler sex.

Women's Laboratory at MIT, 1877. Photo courtesy of the MIT Institute Archives

Ellen Richards, by contrast, was the antithesis of gentle. “People have a curiosity to know what monstrosity is to arise from my ashes, do they?” she wrote scornfully in 1869, in response to charges that an unmarried 26-year-old ought not pursue a bachelor’s degree. “Tell all such interested individuals,” the young Richards thundered, “that my aim is now, as it has been for the past ten years, to make myself a true woman, one worthy of the name.” She evidenced similar stridency in her assessment of faculty lecturers (“I expected something new and worth knowing, not to be told that rocks lay in beds”) and slung rebuttals at the Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz whom Charles Darwin and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had both seen fit to praise. Speaking at MIT on the topic of gender-integration in academia, Agassiz had reportedly declared that coeducation “introduces feelings and interests foreign to the lecture room.” Richards was miffed but unfazed by the scholar three decades her elder. “But these feelings do less harm there, than in cars and [on] street corners,” she had fired back. Men and women are “together in the family; why not in school?”

Richards would devote all four decades of her professional life to opening academic opportunities to women: as the head of the MIT Women’s Laboratory (1876-1883), in the Boston-based New England Kitchen, in the curated Rumford Kitchen Exhibit at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and as the instructor in the correspondence-based Society to Encourage Studies at Home. (Feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman would be among the Society’s thousand-plus students.) In 1881, Richards joined with mentee-turned-University of Chicago Dean Marion Talbot and Wellesley president Alice Freeman Palmer to found the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, an organization that would endure as today’s 170,000–member American Association of University Women.

Most of all, it was in Richards’ capacity as MIT Instructor of Chemistry—the institution would never offer her a full professorship—that the scientist would set about developing the Home Economics discipline she hoped could throw open university doors. The charge of womanly timidity remained ever on her mind, and the dozen-odd textbooks she authored while at MIT are exacting in their language. Cockroaches emitted “a fetid and disgusting odor;” bedbugs were armed with “a fleshy underlip or beak … [to] pierce the flesh by a sawlike movement;” fleas might reproduce “a small army of adults;” and common flies enjoyed “a favorite breeding place in horse manure” before landing on a dinner table. If anything should change for “the delicate little dolls or the silly fools who make up the bulk of American women”—Richards evinced a low opinion of the women for which she saw herself advocating—it was the violence and scientific specificity housewives should employ. “Corrosive sublimates and alcohol,” “chlorine of lime and sweetened water,” “cobalt”: chemical cocktails from knowledgeable hands were the best means to ensure the health of the home.

Home economics curriculum saw scientific training as improving more than just pest extermination. The chemically-adept housewife might also learn to detect germ-laden waters that appeared clear to the naked eye, recognize adulterated milk that did not taste of the formaldehyde it concealed, and notice spoilage amidst mass-produced tinned meats of questionable quality. “The most important service a teacher of domestic economy can render … [is] giving to the people a sense of control over their environment,” Richards would aver, thinking of the manifold technologic and economic changes—electrification, mass production, urbanization—that were making the household a foreign place. Women needed to learn to navigate these changes, just as these changes required more scientifically-minded housewives.

But the discipline was not without critics. “Nothing more disastrous for women, or for men, can be conceived than this plan for the specialized education of women as a sex,” Bryn Mawr’s female president M. Carey Thomas declared in 1908, openly disgusted at the notion of the Home Economics discipline. Richards’s own Association of Collegiate Alumnae, which she had co-founded in 1881 with Wellesley College President Alice Freeman Palmer, also voted that the domestic sciences did not belong in the university curriculum: men and women of equal intellect ought to receive identical educations. Vocational training for housekeeping and homemaking had no place on college campuses.

Advocates of Home Economics insisted that the discipline could open higher education to women by tying baccalaureate degrees to topics of traditional “feminine” concern—health, cleanliness, nutrition, and the care of children—and further argued that sex-differentiated education was necessary because scientifically-minded housekeeping was of national and political importance. “No state can thrive while its citizens are wasting health, bodily energy, time and brain power any more than a nation which wastes its natural resources,” declared attendees of the 1908 Conference on Home Economics that would yield a professional society and an academic journal. Nothing less than the nation’s future, in other words, depended on the scientific literacy and university training in the nation’s homemakers.

For the first decades of the twentieth century, Richards and her peer home economists seemed to have gambled correctly on an advocacy strategy. By 1922, all but five of the nation’s public land-grant universities had introduced either a formal Department of Home Economics or coursework in the subject, and private research institutions like the University of Chicago, Cornell University, Teachers College at Columbia University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had done the same. Women donning the mantle of social reformer and social scientist—Jane Addams at Hull House in Chicago, Sara Josephine Baker in the New York Bureau of Child Hygiene, Marion Talbot at the University of Chicago—tied professional interests to home economics concerns. Meanwhile, a cadre of lesser-known female university graduates moved into careers in journalism, municipal administration, academia, and teaching.

But for most home economists, women returning to the house deserved as much celebration as those working elsewhere, for home management was as respectable a vocation as managing the shop floor—vermin and recurrent urban epidemic had demonstrated that. When University of Wisconsin-Madison president Charles Van Hise declared in a 1907 that “[t]he woman who has studied the fundamental sciences … and becomes trained in their application to the home, is educated in a profession as dignified as other professions,” he was adopting language that home economists had coined to defend the sanctity of the home. Declining infant mortality, increased maternal weight gain, decreased incidence of previously epidemic diseases—these early twentieth-century shifts seemed to demonstrate the efficacy of focusing institutional attention on the household. Of equal importance, women were graduating from universities by the hundreds, the thousands, the tens of thousands. Home economics had opened those doors.

By the mid-1920s, however, a decade after Richards’ 1911 passing, the first wave of Home Economics departmental cuts suggested the discipline could not weather a change in political mood. Fears of urban pests had been replaced by fears of Bolshevism and economic downturn; first-wave American feminism had taken up the banner of women’s suffrage and legal protections for working women rather than the home economics banner of the newly politicized house. When Ellen Richards fantasized that “The college woman in 1950 … [will] be a center—the pin of a concretion around which will grow all society,” she would not have anticipated the vitriol these 1950s and 1960s college women, channeling second-wave feminism, would dismiss the Home Economics they perceived as once again confining them to the domestic sphere.

So where does this leave us? For one, reviving a history to which we college-educated women (and men) are in part indebted. Coeducation, history reminds us, was in part won by a generation of home economists, whether or not we would choose that discipline to guide our own studies today. Today’s 170,000-member American Association of University Women, at 133 years of age, remains one enduring emblem of Ellen Richards’ organizing efforts that sprang from her 1881 Association of Collegiate Alumnae.

More importantly, we’d do well to notice the changing political ends to which the home can be tied. “Reclaiming the joys of homemaking,” writes Stanford historian Estelle Freedman movingly, “would be less problematic if the ideal that women ‘naturally’ worked in the home for love, not money, did not have such profound implications for their identities. Historically, homemaking has been set in contrast to full citizenship.” This is true, and vital. A century of feminism has won important victories by decoupling the domestic-feminine through political gain and workplace protection. But these legal victories should not be seen as discrediting domesticity the cultural institution tout court. Domesticity can change; homemaking and citizenship need not always function antithetically. History tells us this. History repeats itself, too, as a small but notable collection of contemporary mix-gender “new domestics”—to borrow a term from journalist Emily Matchar—once again tie ecological and political goals to the homes they inhabit: faddish builders of tiny houses, foodie adherents of a “locavore” movement, Bible-Belt proselytizers for family values, homeschoolers and “unschoolers,” microbiologist citizen-scientists experimenting with fewer antibacterial wipes and more household dirt. These movements make strange bedfellows, of course, but if their goals vary widely, their means—the recognition that the home can be a site of political engagement—are nonetheless shared.

Will these modest and contradictory domestic rejoinders to a resume-building, identity-branding generation endure? Or will they go the way of the Ellen Richards strand of home economics? Silverfish and cockroaches, as any apartment-dweller can tell you, inspire all manner of jumping and contorting. Sometimes that agitation is exactly what slow-moving cultural change requires.