Eliza Owens

Eliza Owens

Eliza Owens (1888-1896)

“The whole interest and purpose of the present instructor is to secure to the students a knowledge of practical and systematic methods of rendering home a pleasant and healthful abode.”—Eliza Owens

Eliza Owens, the third director of domestic economy at Iowa State, held her tenure at one of the lowest times in the program’s history.  As the only member of the department, Owens had to shape the curriculum, teach all of the domestic economy courses, and lobby for resources and space for her students.  She did all of this in addition to raising her daughter alone—her husband had passed away in 1880.   Owens focused the program on cooking and hygiene, and in 1894, ten years before the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, she tried to raise awareness in her students of the dangers of food adulteration. 

The college’s board of trustees during at this period was not prone to give out money willy-nilly.  The chairman of the board often told Owens that, “This is the department of Domestic ECONOMY, no large expenditures will be permitted.” 

Consequently, there were not many funds to buy supplies for cooking, and there wasn’t much space to cook anyway.  The situation caused Ercel Eppright and Elizabeth Ferguson, in their A Century of Home Economics at Iowa State University, to label Owens’s tenure as the “dark ages of domestic economy,” not through any fault of Owens.

The girls baked a lot of bread, which required few ingredients, in these years.  Seniors got more practice cooking a variety of foods, hosting socials for the senior class and faculty and one annual dinner for the board of trustees, which was the culminating display of all they had learned.

Ultimately, the board charged a laboratory fee for cooking classes, which students had to pay, but they also were able to eat what they cooked.

The domestic economy “laboratory” was set an addition to South Hall, the first president’s house.  This was not a satisfactory move according to Owens, who stated that, “The place (which had fallen into disrepair) was dreadful to look upon, but the joy of rats, mice and vermin.”

These inadequacies were a great disappointment to Owens, who firmly believed that education should include active participation and not just reading.  Her motto was, “You learn to ‘do’ by doing.”  And her students came to be known as the “Do” girls.  Despite the sparse amenities of their program, the Do girls were known throughout campus for their delicious baking.

After nearly eight years of service, Owens submitted her resignation in 1895 once she determined that the state board of trustees was not going to give home economics its own department building or equipped labs.  Many of the directors and deans to come after Owens would follow in her footsteps and demand improved facilities for the program.