Plains Folk

Professional Homemakers

In lectures across the country I’ve been saying that if we want farming and ranching on the plains to make a comeback and operate in a well-adjusted way, then we need to encourage women to be owners and operators. I started thinking along these lines years ago while studying the bison industry, as I realized two things: first, that college women of my acquaintance were intensely interested in animal husbandry; and second, that in dealing with bison, a 120-pound woman and a 220-pound man were on equal terms. You don’t get physical with bison.

I came to think in general, if women ran more farms, we would have more livestock, more high value crops, and less big iron.

We made the turn onto this road where young women were expected to be not farmers, but rather farm wives, about 90 years ago. That was when we—and when I say “we,” I mean in particular our land-grant colleges—decided that farmers should be professional husbandmen, and their wives be professional homemakers.

There was much good in this. We wanted to lift farm women out of the drudgery of endless house-cleaning and chicken-killing and all that. To elevate women’s work into professional homemaking was a good thing. It’s only now it has come to seem quaint.

This is what I was thinking when I ran across a wonderful extension circular of 1924 entitled, That Kitchen! The author was Ruth K. Willard, State Agent in Home Management, one of several home economists at North Dakota Agricultural College who took an interest in making kitchens work in that progressive generation.

Willard writes of a study wherein women in one county were given pedometers and asked to keep track of their walking mileage for a week. They walked, on average, five miles a day, which was regarded as a problem. “Efficiency principles applied in the kitchen will save miles of walking and much stooping and stretching,” insists Willard, “not to mention nervous energy wasted in useless motion.”

The first thing to determine, Willard writes, is that the kitchen is for preparation of food. “Other types of work should be kept out of the kitchen,” she admonishes, and most especially, “The old-fashioned idea of combing the hair and shaving in the kitchen has long passed.”

This was the time when wood floors (either oiled softwood or varnished hardwood) were giving way to a wonderful new surface. “Linoleum is very satisfactory for the kitchen floor, as it is attractive, easy to keep clean, and little work is required to keep it in condition,” observes the home economist with satisfaction. If running water, hot and cold, cannot be provided, then at least there must be a hot water reservoir attached to the range, and, “A well-built refrigerator is an essential piece of equipment for keeping perishable food during the hot months.”

Efficiency was the watchword most of all when it came to the arrangement of elements within the kitchen. “Do your tracks zig-zag back and forth across your kitchen?” Willard asks. “Many kitchens simply ‘happened.’” Willard counsels women to get some squared paper and chart out where things are, and where they should be.
Perhaps the most neglected necessity in the kitchen was “height of the working surface.” Willard says, “Frequently a woman feels all tired out at end of a day and can’t find any apparent cause. She has become so accustomed to the bent position she does not realize that it is sapping her energy.”

To women accustomed to pumping and heating water, sweeping and oiling floors, and working with bent backs—not to mention cleaning hair and whiskers out of the kitchen sink—I’ll venture a little professionalization of homemaking sounded darned good.

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