Mary Beaumont Welch (1841-1923)

Mary Welch

“…I recognize the fact that the same class of people who sneer at ‘book farming’ and a scientific education for the agriculturalist and mechanic, will sneer also at any attempt to teach cooking, and the other household arts, in a systematic way.  It remains for this Department to teach them better, and to prove conclusively and experimentally that science is the hand-maid of practice, and underlies all the processes that raise the laboring man and woman from the drudgery of mere manual toil into the intelligent and skillful and intellectual plane of systematic and progressive labor.”—Mary B. Welch


When Mary Beaumont Welch moved to Ames in 1869, she had only recently wed the former U.S. Senator from Florida and incoming first president of Iowa State Agricultural College, Adonijah Welch.  Although Adonijah was twenty years older than Mary, the couple had much in common.  They were both born on the east coast, lived in Michigan, been involved in education, and they were widowed with children.  At Iowa State the couple would share their dedication and love of the school. 

The Welches and their five children—two from her and three from him—moved into the Old Main Building, followed by the Farm House and South Hall, until they built their new home, the Gables, in 1881.  Mary Welch lost two children in infancy in their first years at the college.  Despite these hardships, she was renowned throughout the school as a woman of manners and grace, as well as a first-class homemaker. 

In addition to being a mother and fulfilling her duties as the wife of a college president, Welch helped wherever she was needed on campus.  In 1875, when the Board of Trustees asked her to head up a new department of domestic economy, Welch declined because of her lack of experience.  The committee chair responded, “If you will tell these girls how to keep house as you keep it, Mrs. Welch, it will be all we ask of you.”  Welch accepted the position with a salary of $400 that first year.

The department was the first of its kind in the nation, so there was no example to follow. Welch got ready for her course by attending cooking schools in New York and London.  Neither school was geared towards teaching college students, and the London school, especially, seemed to focus on material most useful to poorer, less educated women, who were training to be domestic servants.  Welch’s fellow students couldn’t imagine what the wife of a college president was doing at the school, and she was often asked what family she was going to work for after she graduated from the course.  There were no books appropriate to such a domestic economics plan of study, either, so Welch wrote her own cookbook and used that as the class’s text.

Welch taught domestic economy to the “junior ladies” with a weekly lecture and practice in the kitchen. Lecture topics included:  furnishing and care of a home, how to plan the week’s work, caring for the sick, management of domestic help, training of children and sewing.

The president’s wife always sought to be an example to her students of the importance and worth of being a homemaker.  She thought it was unfortunate that most girls only wanted to marry a wealthy enough man that would allow them to “hire an Irish girl, or a Norwegian, or a Swede, to do her housework, while she gives her time to loftier pursuits.  Before she can be interested in the study of domestic economy she must be impressed with its value and its dignity.”

Initially, freshman and sophomores were to focus more on general courses and the domestic economy courses in laundry and sewing, but by 1881, Welch decided to add the much more popular cooking to the girls’ classes from the start of their schooling.  By 1882, freshman girls were learning to make “roast beef, beef stew, beefsteak, boiled beef, potatoes, succotash, beans, tomatoes, asparagus, biscuits, dumplings for meat stew, and a variety of puddings and pies.”  The domestic economy freshmen would cook meals for one table of ten students every day. 

Welch worked hard to prove the value and relevance of her program.  Iowa State was committed to educating young women from the start, but many felt that cooking and housekeeping ought to be taught at home.  Welch, however, believed in the important role of the wife, who, “As the mistress of a home … may touch the springs that set in motion any social, business, or even political factor at work in the world.”   Additionally, she believed that an academic education in domestic economics would significantly improve the outlook and situation of homemakers, thus bettering the lives of most women.  As the land grant college was also supposed to supply farmers with an academic education, which could be applied to their work, domestic economy went well with the goals of the school.

In her “Report of Department of Domestic Economy,” Welch stated, “That a false idea of the value of housework is almost universally prevalent is proven by the fact that it is regarded by most housewives as simple drudgery, and that they are always looking forward to the time when they may escape its demands and rest from its duties.  The fact too that of all work it commands as a rule the lowest wages, and that any one is considered capable of doing it, no matter how ignorant or stupid, if only she possesses muscular strength, and still farther the social position in general accorded to such workers, are all proofs of the low rank occupied by the household arts.  It is very much with housework as it has been with agriculture.  Muscular ability was thought to be the only ability needed by the farmer.  Robust health and a strong right arm have been considered the chief essential in a cook.  And just as the boys on the farm have looked with longing eyes toward the professions, so have the daughters aspired to be teachers, dress-makers, milliners, anything rather than workers in the home kitchen.  The world is just beginning to acknowledge that a successful farmer must at the very least equal any professional man in mental acuteness, business ability and general intelligence.  And so too a change in the popular opinion respecting housework is slowly but surely coming about.”

Welch resigned in 1883 after Adonijah was asked to resign as president.  During her tenure, she pioneered the field of home economics at an academic institution, graduated 65 students; taught hundreds of others; attained better facilities for the program, including an experimental kitchen; and did a great deal to teach others the dignity and importance of a homemaker’s work.