Family and consumer science is an academic discipline that combines aspects of social and natural science, and deals with the relationship between individuals, families, and communities, and the environment in which they live. The field represents many disciplines including consumer science, nutrition, parenting, human development, interior design, textiles, apparel design, family economics as well as other related subjects. Family and consumer science is also known as home economics.
One of the first to champion the economics of running a home was Catherine Beecher (sister to Harriet Beecher Stowe). Catherine and Harriet both were leaders in the mid 1800s in talking about domestic science. They came from a very religious family that valued education especially for women. The Morrill Act of 1862 propelled domestic science further ahead as land grant colleges sought to educate farm wives in running their households as their husbands were being educated in agricultural methods and processes. Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan were early leaders in offering programs for women. There were women graduates of these institutions several years before the Lake Placid Conferences which gave birth to home economics movement.
The home economics movement started with Ellen Swallow Richards, who was the first woman to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later became the first female instructor. Through her chemistry research she became an expert in water quality and later began to focus on applying scientific principles to domestic situations. At the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, she designed the Rumford Kitchen, which was a tiny kitchen that served nutritious meals to thousands of fair goers, along with a healthy dose of nutrition education. She shunned an invitation to participate in the Women's Building as she said none of her research was just women's work, but rather information for all.
Late in the 19th Century, Ellen convened a group of contemporaries to discuss the essence of domestic science and how the elements of this discipline would ultimately improve the quality of life for many individuals and families. They met at pristine Lake Placid, New York at the invitation of Melvil Dewey. Over the course of the next 10 years, these educators worked tirelessly to elevate the discipline, which was to become home economics, to a legitimate profession. Ellen wanted to call this oekology or the science of right living. Euthenics, the science of controllable environment, was also a name of her choice, but home economics was finally selected.
Over the years, many academic settings have adopted other names for the study of home economics such as Human Sciences, Human Ecology, and Family and Consumer Sciences. The new names sought to better position the profession within the academic communities and to further illustrate the actual majors in the profession.
Today family and consumer sciences professionals continue to practice in many venues including secondary teaching, college and university teaching and research and outreach through cooperative extension programs. Many practice in the human services areas working with children and elderly and all in between. Nutritionists, consumer specialists and housing and textiles specialists continue to provide for a better quality of life for individuals, families and communities.