A few years ago, in the College of Home Economics archives at Cornell University, I stumbled across a cache of photographs from the late 1940s showing a disabled homemaker going about a series of household tasks. I was immediately intrigued. While I have not identified the larger study of which these images were part, I soon learned they were not unique; studies of disabled homemakers were being carried out in home economics departments across the United States by the mid-20th century. But if the images were compelling, I was initially reluctant to pursue them further. My prejudice against home economists runs deep. Like many women of my generation, I was scarred by the dreadful “home ec” classes I endured as a high school student. While we “girls” were instructed in sewing, cooking, and the finer arts of hosting (my job was to set the table conversation), the boys were released to have a wonderful time building stuff in the workshop. I can still summon up my sense of injustice at this early introduction to the gendered division of labor.
My aversion to home economics was fortified when I encountered feminist architectural histories in the mid-1990s. I was especially influenced by The Grand Domestic Revolution. Dolores Hayden’s seminal account of a “lost feminist tradition” of experiments in collective housekeeping was fascinating, as was her explanation for why these projects failed. Starting in the early 1900s, when home economics emerged as a profession, its practitioners promoted not social cooperation but scientific management. “[What] they lost in socialist ideology,” Hayden writes, “they hoped to pick up in efficiency.” Soon all traces of cooperative spirit were obliterated by the home economists’ embrace of mass consumerism and patriarchal family structures. By the 1920s, Hayden argues, the leaders of the field had become, “key ideologues of the antifeminist, pro-consumption, suburban home.” In particular she denounces the freelance journalist Christine Frederick, who coined the term “Mrs. Consumer” to describe the model housewife-manager. 1
Home economists developed a distinct mode of design education and practice characterized by cooperation, skills sharing, and a body-centered approach.
Hayden’s takedown was memorably effective, and elements of her critique remain valid as ever. Yet since my first hesitant engagement with home economics, I’ve come to view the field’s legacies as more complex. Home economics comprised not only corporate consultants like Frederick but also university-based researchers such as the ones pursuing disability studies, who had a different audience and approach. These researchers were mostly based in land-grant universities —universities dedicated to applied technical subjects — whose mandate was to ameliorate the lives of farm families by sharing the latest advances in agriculture and home management via the cooperative extension service. 2 Improving rural housing was a particular focus of home economists; by the time the photos of the disabled homemaker were taken, Cornell’s College of Home Economics had a dedicated department of housing and design in which an all-female staff of seven instructors taught subjects ranging from furniture refurbishment to farmhouse planning. Over many decades, they developed a distinct mode of design education and practice characterized by cooperation, skills sharing, and a highly customized body-centered approach.
Cornell’s College of Home Economics had a department of housing and design in which an all-female staff taught subjects ranging from furniture refurbishment to farmhouse planning.
Tracking the university-based home economists made me aware that there are broader implications for their history. Certainly, it complicates current narratives about the emergence of ergonomics and flexible design in mid 20th-century America. Architectural and design historians have generally attributed the postwar turn to flexible, open planning and ergonomic design to the rise of systems theory, computing, and cybernetics, as well as to developments of late modern capitalism, including real-estate speculation and deregulation. Implicitly, the user at the center of these new ergonomic environments is assumed to be an able-bodied male; the overall goal is to optimize his performance in war or his profit-making potential in peace. 3
The history of home economics suggests a different but parallel trajectory for the rise of flexible design, one that emerges from the domestic realm and has female bodies of all abilities and ages at its heart. Working alongside medical doctors and occupational therapists as well as public health organizations, the home economists shaped an alternative vision of flexible design in the postwar period. Its goal was not optimization but rehabilitation; it was assistive and prosthetic in nature, with an ethos of independence and adaptation. And while these postwar practitioners did not expressly challenge the structures of industrial capitalism as had the material feminists of Hayden’s domestic revolution, they were deeply invested in the revaluation of domestic work. Two projects in particular exemplify their more capacious vision: the “Heart Kitchen,” of the late 1940s, and “Homemaking for the Handicapped,” in the ’50s and ’60s.
The concern for homemaker rehabilitation took hold in postwar America when the federal government began sponsoring programs and workshops to train disabled men and women to re-enter the workplace. These initiatives challenged the glamorized notions of housekeeping then in broad circulation. In an era when it was being widely promised that “miracle kitchens” of push-button appliances and automated gadgets would “liberate” women from household drudgery, these programs insisted on treating housework as work — and more, work that was vital to the economic well-being of the nation. As the historian Laura Micheletti Puaca emphasizes, in her lucid contribution to the recent anthology Disabling Domesticity, these programs were rooted in the tradition of “vocational rehabilitation … which had long been associated with increasing the employability of disabled people.” 4
The most influential of these early efforts was the Disabled Homemakers Research Project, launched in 1948 at the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at New York University-Bellevue Medical Center under the leadership of Howard Rusk, a medical doctor and rehabilitation pioneer who recognized the importance of treating not only the wounded military veteran but also the impaired civilian — what he called “the forgotten casualty.” 5 What is especially notable is that his approach to the handicapped female homemaker was directly inspired by another pioneer: the influential home economist and industrial engineer Lillian Moller Gilbreth. Gilbreth was by then in the fifth decade of an extraordinary career, and she had a longstanding interest in efficiency, domesticity, and disability. The same year Rusk started his research, Gilbreth was creating a demonstration kitchen for female cardiac patients for the New York Heart Association. Gilbreth’s “Heart Kitchen” was subsequently moved to Rusk’s institute, thus placing it at the heart of the nascent homemaker rehabilitation movement.
Gilbreth brought to the Heart Kitchen decades of innovative research and practice. Starting in the 1910s, in partnership with her husband, Frank, she had conducted influential time-and-motion studies that sought to apply the principles of industrial engineering to the workplace in order to enhance productivity and reduce fatigue — and thereby to maximize the opportunity for personal pursuits, or what Lillian called “happiness minutes.” 6 The Gilbreths promoted their methods with the slogan “the one best way to do work.” (Famously, the couple applied their management techniques to their own household, as chronicled in the best-selling memoir Cheaper by the Dozen, written by two of their eleven surviving children.) After Frank’s death, in 1924, Lillian popularized the gospel of domestic efficiency in her 1927 book The Home-maker and Her Job. A couple of years later she created the “Kitchen Practical,” a model workspace sponsored by the Brooklyn Borough Gas Company and displayed at the 1929 Women’s Arts and Industries Exposition in New York City; it was this project that introduced the concept of the “work triangle,” which dictated that the triangle between stove, sink, and refrigerator should be no greater than 26 feet to reduce needless trips.
Gilbreth began to conceive of flexibility as a pathway to freedom and creativity and as a liberating approach to housework.
On first glance the Heart Kitchen seems a continuation of this zealous focus on efficiency. Gilbreth’s 1954 book, Management in the Home: Happier Living Through Saving Time and Energy, which incorporates many of the studies done for the project, features flow process and string charts that demonstrate, among other things, how rationalizing the placement of kitchen equipment would reduce the number of motions required to prepare a meatloaf from 57 to 39. Yet by this period Gilbreth was rethinking her earlier ideas; she was moving away from the optimizing concept of the “one best way” and instead championing the virtues of flexibility. Flexibility for Gilbreth meant many things. It had always been a guiding principle of her designs, many of which promoted height adjustability and moveable furnishings — a signature feature of her kitchens was a serving table on casters. Gilbreth, who was on the faculty at Purdue, was here in sync with the prevailing ethos of university-based home economists who had long emphasized physical adaptability and customization; for them, the “dream kitchen” was never a standardized space but a tailored one, designed around a specific homemaker’s body, needs, and budget, and ideally built by a “home” carpenter. 7
But in the late 1940s Gilbreth began to conceive of flexibility less literally and more broadly as a pathway to freedom and creativity and as a liberating approach to housework. In Management in the Home, she admonished readers: “The person who clings too closely to his standards becomes rigid. … You must keep the ability to change when it becomes necessary. This is being flexible.” And a few pages later: “[Flexibility] means freedom from hidebound tradition. It means you can use your imagination and your creative ability … to meet changing situations.” 8 Ultimately Gilbreth understood flexibility as a means to increase personal satisfaction and to rethink the gendered division of labor. Being flexible meant having the freedom to distribute domestic tasks across all members of the family, according to inclination and aptitude rather than “hidebound tradition.” As she wrote in the early 1930s: “A shared industrial burden must mean a shared home burden …” 9
Strikingly, in the booklet presenting the Heart Kitchen’s research to the public, its flexible aspects are given not a remedial but rather a preventative role in warding off future incapacity. The heroine, Catherine Landis, is an attractive but otherwise ordinary homemaker with a defective heart (not a visible disability) who had been ordered by her doctor to “take it easy.” Everywhere it is stressed that the project’s proposals will benefit everyone, disabled or not — a staple stance of rehabilitation literature which would later be adopted as the mantra of universal design in the 1970s. 10 But once the project transferred to Rusk’s institute, its scope enlarged to encompass physically disabled housewives, including hemiplegics and paraplegics who over the course of several months relearned everyday tasks associated with preparing meals and cleaning up, with reportedly excellent results. One paraplegic relearned how to do her own cooking and, according to an admiring article in The New York Times, from 1950, “often entertains as many as four dinner guests.” 11
Homemaking for the Handicapped
The Heart Kitchen proved immensely influential. The project was exhibited at the Museum of Natural History during “National Employ the Handicapped Week,” and soon it was being taken up as a model across the country. As Puaca notes, “Throughout the 1950s, state heart associations widely adopted their own heart kitchens, while graduate students and professors connected to home economics departments undertook lengthy studies.” 12 The most ambitious of these studies was the “Homemaking for the Handicapped” project at the University of Connecticut, which ran from 1955 until 1960. 13 Co-sponsored by the School of Home Economics and the U.S. Vocational Rehabilitation Administration, this multidisciplinary study brought together teams of public health workers and doctors with industrial designers, engineers, architects, and home management specialists — highlighting the increasingly key role of environmental design in rehabilitation.
The rationale for homemaker rehabilitation and prosthetic environments was laid out in stark terms, mixing economic factors with emotional and social costs.
By now something of a patron saint to the field, Gilbreth served as chief consultant; and the program’s principles and methods were largely drawn from those of the Heart Kitchen. But unlike the earlier project, which had handled the subject of illness circumspectly, the Connecticut study had a much sharper central message. The rationale for homemaker rehabilitation and prosthetic environments was laid out in starker terms, mixing economic factors with emotional and social costs. Citing the statistic that more than four million homemakers — or twelve percent of the total — had disabilities such as faulty vision, arthritis, paralysis or circulatory disease, the project report put it plainly: “When a housewife in unable to perform her duties, an economic benefit to the nation is lost. Far worse, the family upon which she has focused all her efforts will suffer or even disintegrate.” 14
Fears about the disintegration of the family were widespread in the postwar period and help explain why home economists, with decades of experience in studying homes and home lives, became so sought after as partners in housing and rehabilitation studies and in efforts to reintegrate veterans, war workers, and civilians. The perceived urgency of bolstering the family — to ensure that not a single homemaker’s energy or skills was “wasted” (in the deeply objectionable phrase of efficiency experts) — underpinned the whole project of rehabilitation. It ultimately led the Connecticut program to embrace the ethos of customization and flexibility, replacing the goal of “the one best way” with another of Gilbreth’s mantras: “When there’s a will there’s a way.” This change acknowledged that researchers were now engaged with a full spectrum of users of varied abilities whose movements and activities could not be standardized. Home engineering techniques were not discarded, but they were now principally used to help individual disabled homemakers figure out which elements of a task, tool, or space might need adapting.
The resulting work spaces were not rule-free. Everything in them had a logical place thanks to the well-established home engineering “rule of first use,” which dictated that a tool should be located in the work area where it will be initially used. Yet the spaces had an improvisational quality precisely because they were adapted to the requirements and abilities of a specific person. The aesthetic was unashamedly homespun: pegboard, which allowed cooking implements to be hung at various heights, featured prominently. Homemaking for the Handicapped, the 1966 book that presented the University of Connecticut’s research to the public, featured numerous images of people with visible disabilities independently navigating their adapted kitchens. Photo after photo showed handicapped homemakers doing tasks with the aid of devices, from reach extenders to stable flat-bottomed mixing bowls, or wheelchair-bound users comfortably performing domestic jobs in their height-adjusted environs. Homemakers were shown creatively misusing common domestic elements; in one photo, a one-armed woman is opening a bottle cap with a hinged door. Several chapters were devoted to childcare, showing parents of both sexes bathing, holding, and tending to children; one section included images of children wearing clothing that permitted them to dress themselves despite severe disabilities. 15
The aesthetic was unashamedly homespun: pegboard, which allowed cooking implements to be hung at various heights, featured prominently.
These spaces and tools were deliberately unlike their streamlined commercial counterparts, reflecting both the relative paucity of mass-market products for disabled people at the time as well as the home economists’ concern for affordability and their strong belief in tinkering and self-help. It was common for manuals for disabled people to provide detailed instructions about how to make assistance devices at home and to assume that readers had a certain level of making skills. “A handyman-around-the-house could build a tailor-made [task chair] to your proportions for five dollars or less,” wrote one journalist encouragingly. 16 Aesthetic appeal was not the aim of these designs; rather, the message was that this improvised approach to domesticity would enable disabled homemakers to perform the work upon which their families and communities depended.
These projects and the photographs that illustrate them are compelling; yet we need to resist the tendency to idealize them or to view them as what disability scholars call “inspiration porn.” Indeed, scholars are careful to highlight the practical and conceptual limitations of the early rehabilitation projects. In Building Access, a landmark contribution to the history and politics of disability, the historian Aimi Hamraie gives a forceful critique of their emphasis on normalcy, performance, and productivity as a default condition of citizenship:
Despite claims that accessibility benefits all users … barrier-free design was firmly situated in 20th-century notions of productive citizenship, which defined liberal belonging through the capacity for productive labor, as well as through the evident fruits of that labor: wealth accumulation, home ownership, and consumerism. 17
It is undeniable that the mid-century studies accepted and supported the hetero-normative ideal of the nuclear family. While the research often centered on families of modest means, and the resulting designs were low-budget and DIY, this was not always the case. Some did adopt a more recognizably middle-class suburban style, such as the streamlined Madison Heart Kitchen of 1952, whose only obvious energy-saving features were a waist-high oven and range with horizontal burners (to prevent women from excessive reaching). Or the 1960 “Functional Home for Easier Living” a popular demonstration and training house next to the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, which externally resembled any other suburban house of the period, down to the expansive green lawn. This more “typical appearing” look likely reflected the influence of funders: The “Functional Home” was constructed by the mass house builder Rosati and Sons. 18 Possibly the more mainstream aesthetic would have been welcomed by some disabled people themselves, although this is difficult to say. Even as they were acknowledged as participants and as (co)inventors of many self-help devices, disabled people remained largely in the background of rehabilitation studies; their voices, preferences, and embodied experiences would only be explicitly foregrounded with the later Independent Living movement. 19
It is undeniable that the mid-century studies accepted the hetero-normative ideal of the nuclear family.
The way in which the rehabilitationists assumed the desirability of certain things — their pursuit of normalcy and assimilation — explains why there was never any serious consideration of cooperative alternatives (apart from care homes) that might require less work and maintenance. This was precisely the point: the home rehabilitationists were all about tinkering, adapting normal spaces and routines to the special needs of disabled people, with the help of prosthetic or assistive devices. And while this can seem a commonsense response, historian David Serlin warns that an overemphasis upon self-reliance and technical devices can never substitute for the human exchanges that remain fundamental to care. “The privileging of independence,” he writes, “may underestimate the social and ethical values that accompany dependence: reciprocity, caring, and cooperation.” 20
I admit it: I remain ambivalent about many aspects of home economics. All those exhaustive studies to reduce the time spent preparing meatloaf or the number of steps from the fridge to the stove can seem straight out of some Foucauldian bio-political farce. It’s hardly surprising that a later generation of feminists would extravagantly break free of such techniques, as did Martha Rosler in her brilliant, deadpan parody of television cooking shows, “Semiotics of the Kitchen,” from 1975, or Liz Diller and Ric Scofidio, with “Bad Press” and its instructions for “dissident” ironing, from the mid ‘90s. Yet Gilbreth was hardly an advocate of highly prescriptive housekeeping either. She was clear that unrealistic domestic standards oppressed women. For her, being flexible meant reassessing routines, delegating tasks, and even electing not to do others at all — perhaps one reason why the formidable creator of model kitchens never did much cooking herself. 21
But the point is not to recuperate Gilbreth per se. Rather, it is to bring her work and that of the mid-century home rehabilitationists back into dialogue with the mainstream of mid-century architectural history. For too long the issues of gender, disability, and user-centeredness have been relegated to the far margins of this history; and even now most narratives of the period assume the unquestioned primacy and influence of the European avant-garde or of celebrated research projects like the Case Study Houses. In the typical telling, the rise of interest in flexible domestic design, in open planning and modular furnishings, is credited to a handful of progressive designers — Charles and Ray Eames loom large — and their desire to adapt wartime technologies to civilian settings. With a few important exceptions, the work and research of the home economists is almost never mentioned by architectural historians, not even in footnotes. 22
Decades ago home engineers argued for the need to accommodate what we now call ‘non-conforming’ bodies.
Yet by the late 1940s and early ’50s, through such nationally prominent projects and studies as the Heart Kitchen, home economists were also actively promoting the flexible domestic environment as a way of mitigating risk and future-proofing the home in a fast-changing and uncertain world. At its most affirmative, the flexible home was presented as a space of creativity and personal empowerment. And if this vision of domestic space was not necessarily at odds with the industrialized aesthetics or self-consciously contemporary lifestyle of (again) the Case Study houses, it arose from different concerns — for female domestic labor and for disabled or aging bodies — and from a different design tradition — the functional design tradition of university-based home economists and home engineers like Gilbreth. Even more significantly, the latter consistently argued for the need to accommodate what we now call “non-conforming” bodies; and more, they were asserting that it is these bodies — and not the able-bodied norm that underpins so much modernist thinking — that should set the standards to which we design. Their call to accommodate non-standard bodies, and the claim that doing so would benefit all users, served to lay the foundation for the Independent Living and universal design movements. While the legacy of the rehabilitationists is not unproblematic, their work nonetheless deserves recognition as a vital and distinct strand in the genealogy of postwar design.