Home Management Houses (1918-1954)


“When we teach cooking where do we teach it?  In a kitchen.  When we teach farming where do we teach it?  On a farm.  When we teach horticulture where do we teach it?  In a green-house.  If we teach Child Care and Training where shall we teach it?  The answer is just as easy—in a home.” –Letter from the Home Economics faculty to President Pearson, asking for permission to bring babies into the home management houses


In 1918, the Iowa State Home Economics Department added the Home Management House Program to its curriculum.  By this time, students within the program were focusing their studies on the application of home economics outside the home in the fields of business, journalism, teaching and art.  Once married, most women did not continue their careers, but the training helped the students find positions during the two years or so between graduation and marriage.  Although students did learn things like time management and how to budget, as well as relationship skills, administrators feared that the program focused too much on life outside the home. 

In the home management houses, six or seven students lived, learned and worked together, dividing up responsibilities and running the household, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and doing laundry.  From 1918 to 1925, stays in the two “home management cottages,” as they were called, lasted for two weeks and cost the students $8 in room and board fees. 

During this time, students would also be exposed to new technologies.  Most Iowa State students had come from rural homes.  Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the federal government had been worried that too many rural youths were moving to the cities instead of staying to help their farming communities.  Consequently, federal money was pumped into programs like home economics and agricultural vocational education in order to bring modern, scientific living to the countryside in hopes of making rural life more appealing to the young women and men.   

1926 Practice House Laundry Room

Students doing laundry in the Practice House Laundry Room in 1926. The women sent their own clothes out but did some of the university's laundry.

Although Iowa State had been a pioneer in home economics, starting the first program in the country, it was behind the times with the home management houses.  Nearly fifty other schools already had their own version by the time ISC got theirs.  In 1923, when Home Economics Dean Anna Richardson and the rest of the department’s faculty sought to add a childcare element to the program, it was the success of programs at other schools which helped them to persuade President Raymond Pearson. 

J. Tigart, of the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Education, sent a letter* to President Pearson, urging him to allow the Home Economics Department to bring babies for the girls to take care of in their home management houses.    

Girls Playing in Home Management House

Girls Playing in the Home Management House, circa 1930s

President Pearson and the board of trustees agreed to the request in early 1924, and the experience became a senior year requirement for home economics students. The department obtained the babies through hospitals, orphanages and juvenile courts.  Some parents had already given up rights to their children, but others just needed someone to temporarily take care of the youngsters until they became more financially secure or passed through a sickness or other difficult situation in their lives.  The program expanded to six weeks and now cost $12 for room and board for the whole stay.  Unlike the old program, where residents could live their normal lives outside the house, participants now had to devote themselves more fully to the experience.  They were still able to participate in other activities, but their lives now involved all the responsibilities that a baby entailed.  Many had never had younger brothers and sisters, so caring for a child was a completely new experience.  The students rotated every four or five days to one of the different positions required in the home:  cook, assistant cook, housekeeper, assistant housekeeper, child director, assistant child director, social director and manager. 

Gretchen and Albert were the first two children in the cottages.  By the fall, another baby, Betty, arrived, and the children and home economics caretakers moved into three new home management houses with more room and better lighting, ventilation and flooring.  The students raised the children, not by instinct or traditional methods, but using the scientific methods they had learned in their home economics studies.  They observed, weighed, measured and tended to them with the same modern ideals that their male counterparts were learning to apply to agriculture.  There was a propensity among the young women to spoil the babies, but they made a concerted effort to put their studies into practice.

Student having tea

Fun and Games at Tea Time, 1935

By the end of the 1930s, the program reached its peak with five practice houses.  The supremacy of the scientific method had lost some of its credibility after World War II.  People were becoming more skeptical of scientific experts.  The belief in practical applications of scientific thinking had been one of the hallmarks of the Home Management Houses and the Home Economics Program.  Additionally, unprecedented affluence had taken the place of the frugal years of the Great Depression, so the young women no longer needed to learn how to “make do.”  Finally, the monumental growth of packaged consumer goods made many of the old skills of home economics obsolete. 

There was another reason for the end of the Home Management Programs.  After the war, fewer students who intended to marry stayed at Iowa State long enough to complete their degrees.  They did not feel an education was a prerequisite to being a homemaker.  In order to stay relevant for the students who remained, as well as to the needs of the university and society, the program shifted its focus from the home to the world.  In 1958, the home management houses closed their doors after forty years of teaching Iowa State home economic students how to make family life better. 

1953 Home Management House Gathering

1953 Home Management House Students having a nightime social.



*Here are the reasons J. Tigart gave in support of bringing children into the home management houses in a letter dated Nov 17, 1923:

“First, the foundling is infinitely better off, in spite of some of the objection, in the modern college practice cottage than in the present day orphanage….”

“Second, the scientific training of children received in the cottages is far superior to the haphazard method.”

“Third, it is strongly recommended that the instructor or the professor in charge of the supervision of the young women in the cottage have not only excellent training in the subject of home economics and related work but also training in modern child psychology plus infant hygiene, both physical and mental, and some kindergarten training.”

“Fourth, child psychology should be a prerequisite for all students responsible for the care of the child in the cottage.”

“Fifth, in the course on childcare required of all such students emphasis should be placed on the mental hygiene of the baby, so well as instruction in methods of amusement for the baby.  Perhaps one of the dangers of the cottage baby is that his correct mental development has been more or less sacrificed to his physical development.” 

“Sixth, there should be ample facilities for such practice work.  One baby ought not to be subjected to too many students.  This is one of the serious weaknesses in the present system.” 

“Finally, ample provision under adequately equipped supervision, with students trained in baby lore, as well as home economics, will make this educational undertaking justifiable, reasonable, sensible, and desirable.”