Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Reviving the Household Economy

Part Two: The Decline and Fall of Home Economics

Raspberry jam, the ostensible subject of last week’s Archdruid Report post, is only one of hundreds of goods and services that until recently were produced almost entirely in the household economy, outside the reach of the market. Nowadays, by contrast, nearly all those goods and services are either produced commercially or are not available at all. This represents an economic transformation on a massive scale, and yet it’s one that has seen remarkably little discussion by economists.

It also represents a social transformation of equally massive scope. Visit the library of an American public university that has not yet taken up the currently fashionable habit of purging its collection of “outdated” materials, wander through the stacks until you find the dingiest and most neglected shelves in the building, and odds are that you’ll be looking at the mummified remains of a field of study, a profession, and a university department as dead as the dinosaurs, and a good deal less popular nowadays: home economics.

Not all that many decades ago, an impressive network of home economists working for universities, county extension services, and private industry provided an extensive support system for the household economy. Backing that network, and the by no means negligible expenditures that supported it, was an almost universal consensus that recognized the social and economic importance of the household economy. The experience of two world wars, in which government-promoted home economics measures had played a major role in softening the impact of food rationing and enabling the United States to feed armies and allies alike, gave support to that consensus.

At the same time, the household economy had long faced steady pressure from the expansionistic habits of the market economy. Beginning around the end of the 19th century, and accelerating over the decades that followed, the market seeped into the domestic sphere with a steady stream of “convenience” products and “labor-saving” devices. Many of these were neither convenient nor labor-saving, but the massive marketing programs that backed them up made them highly fashionable, especially in the newly prosperous middle classes that emerged as the 20th century wore on and America entered on its age of empire.

These two major social forces – the broad consensus surrounding the domestic economy and the expanding pressure of a metastatic market economy – finally collided head on in the decades following the Second World War. A third force, however, played what may well have been the decisive role in the collision. Bringing up that third force at all may be problematic, for it’s remained a hot-button issue in American culture right down to the present, and very few people seem to be able to discuss it dispassionately just now. Still, what happened to the household economy is impossible to understand without taking it into account. That force, of course, is the role played by the economics of gender in launching and shaping the second wave of American feminism in the 1960s and 1970s.

Many currents of social change flowed together to launch the women’s movement of the 1960s, but one factor that has not always been given its due is the impact of the abrupt changeover from the war economy of the 1940s to the consumer economy that followed it. As the troops came home, government and industry alike did everything in their very considerable power to get Rosie the Riveter off the factory floor and turn her into Suzy Homemaker as fast as possible, in order to free up jobs for millions of demobilized soldiers. At the same time, the quest for markets to fuel the consumer economy’s expansion and employ those same millions threw the market assault on the household economy into overdrive.

Postwar propaganda – “advertising” is too mild a word for the saturation campaigns that flooded the popular media in the late 1940s and early 1950s – presented middle class families with a glittering image of affluence in which convenient, up-to-date consumer products provided by the market would replace the dowdy routine of the domestic economy with a life of elegance and leisure. The reality behind the facade turned out to be much less palatable. Denied both the place in the market economy they had occupied during the war years, and the role in the household economy their mothers had held before that, millions of middle class women across America found themselves expected to lead a purely decorative and essentially purposeless existence.

As a motor for rebellion, deprivation of meaning is even more potent than deprivation of food, and so an explosion was inevitable. Many of the forms that explosion took were altogether admirable. A great many injustices were set to rights, or at least challenged, and social roles that had become hopelessly restrictive for women and men alike came in for a much needed reassessment. Still, as the feminism of the Sixties and Seventies percolated outward into popular culture, it suffered in some measure the common fate of progressive social movements in the modern West: instead of challenging the system of male privilege, and the presuppositions that underlay it, a great many women who considered themselves feminists simply set out to seize their share of the positions of privilege within the existing system.

In the process, no small number of them embraced the manners, mores, and attitudes of those they hoped to supplant. Compare a Playboy from the 1960s with a Cosmopolitan from the 1980s, for example, and it’s impossible to miss the parallels, all the way from the shared obsession with sexual conquest, conspicuous consumption, and personal appearance, to the mutually interchangeable cover girls meant to allure potential readers. The astonishing thing is that the “Playboy man” and the “Cosmo girl,” those airbrushed icons of consumer culture, were both considered to be liberated, and liberating, in their day.

The household economy, or what was left of it, was one of the casualties of the process that made these dubious figures popular. The feminist movement might have posed hard questions about the relative social value assigned to the household and market economies, and indeed some of the subtler minds within the movement made forays in this direction, but their ideas found few listeners. Instead, many feminists – and ultimately a great many American women – simply accepted the relative values their culture assigned to the two economies, and aspired to the one that they were taught to consider more valuable. The ensuing shift in attitudes cut the ground out from under the consensus that once made home economics relevant; by the 1980s most universities had closed their home economics departments, and county extension agencies and private firms followed suit.

Still, the old social roles assigned to women carried so much emotional force in the collective imagination for so long that they had to go somewhere. To a remarkable extent, they came to be applied to the institution that supplanted the economic roles once held by women: the market itself. Look at the rhetoric applied to the market over the last few decades and you’ll find every cliché applied to women in 1950s men’s magazines present and accounted for.

The market, in effect, has become American society’s coquettish and curvaceous sex kitten, its June Cleaver mom complete with patriotic flags and apple pie, its nubile innocent waiting to be rescued from the lustful grasp of government regulations and tax collectors. Placed on a rhetorical pedestal as absurdly florid as anything Coventry Patmore ever said about Victorian womanhood, and abused and exploited as ruthlessly as Victorian women so often were, the market is America’s pinup girl, the focus of overheated notions every bit as detached from real life as the fantasies that filled the pages of Playboy or Cosmo in their prime.

Any attempt to rebuild the household economy in the wake of peak oil will inevitably have to contend with these issues. It’s not at all uncommon today, for example, to find couples for whom the cost of professional childcare, an extra car and commuting expenses, and the other costs of a two-salary lifestyle add up to more money than the second salary brings in. In many cases these families would come out substantially ahead if one of the adults were to stay home and provide the same services within the household economy, but in the present social climate, this option is very nearly unthinkable for many people.

As a longtime househusband, I can speak to this from a certain degree of experience. During slightly more than half of 24 years of married life, it made a great deal more economic sense for my spouse, a bookkeeper, to work in the market economy, while I tended the garden, cooked the meals, did most of the cleaning, and worked my way through the long learning curve of a career as a writer in my off hours. I came in for a fair amount of criticism for making this choice, though I have to say it was a great deal less savage than the treatment meted out, mostly by other women, to women I knew who made the same choice. Despite the pressure, though, it was unquestionably the right choice for us; it enabled us to maintain a very comfortable lifestyle on a modest income.

That choice is likely to be at least as valuable an option for a great many more people as the market economy contracts in the wake of peak oil. The abandonment of the household economy, after all, was only viable in the first place because of the temporary conjunction of American imperial expansion with the rapidly expanding fossil fuel production of the postwar years. As America’s empire frays and global energy production falters, the costs of the energy-intensive economic structure we have built over the last sixty years will fairly rapidly begin to outweigh its benefits. In that context a renewal of the household economy offers one valuable set of tools for taking up the slack and providing needed goods and services, and those dusty books in the home economics section of your local college library may turn out to be valuable once again.

Such a renewal, though, will require a reassessment of social roles and values as ambitious as anything the pioneering feminists of the 1960s envisaged. Measures of value evolved within the market, and shaped to a large degree by market-centered ideologies, fall flat when applied to nonmarket economies in which custom, reciprocity, and collective benefit govern exchanges, rather than the quest for individual profit. Money itself, that abstract fiction that has very nearly smothered the real economy of goods and services it originally evolved to support, may be a good deal less relevant as alternative forms of value become ascendant. The form that will be taken by those alternatives in the ecotechnic world of the future is probably impossible to guess at this point, but an openness to options and a willingness to look beyond the market are likely to be valuable steps just now – and a renewed household economy may just turn out to be the seed from which the economics of the future can take root and grow.


Bill Pulliam said...

Interesting and relevant development: our local Mal*Wart has 3 times as much shelf space dedicated to canning supplies this year as it did last summer. For all its problems, the Mal*Wart organization is exceedingly adept at tracking what sells and what doesn't, and responding rapidly to shifting sales patterns.

As a fellow househusband of a breadwinning wife, I have not felt any real disapproval for the choice. If anything, I find that other men are envious. But it is also a more recent development here; We were dual income with me as the larger income earner until 4 years ago. In our case, we both had easily portable and marketable skills -- I as a trucker with a good work history and driving record, she with many years experience as a database manager and GIS technician, so the choice of which of us worked for money and which worked for the household is a matter of individual skills and our collective needs, and may shift in the future.

There are still resources in print that contain much of that old household knowledge. Personally, I keep Carla Emery's wonderfully disjointed and disorganized book always at hand, and find myself consulting it almost daily this time of year..."OK, what was that recipe for pickling brine for the peppers again? And how long in the boiling water bath?" And for as long as it lasts, the internet will remain a great source for up-to-date info (like the latest safe canning guidelines, which can be lifesaving) and some of the still fairly esoteric activities like cheesemaking (which I highly recommend -- it is much easier than you think; if you can bake yeast bread, you can make cheese)

bryant said...

JMG said: As a longtime househusband...I came in for a fair amount of criticism for making this choice

Off and on over the years I have made the same choice, but I seldom came in for any criticism. In fact, all my male friends were somewhat envious and wondered how they too could manage to "stay home and cook".

One of the great sources for real home economic cooking knowledge is the French; they waste very little. It seems as though they have a tasty way of cooking every little bit of cow and pig and lamb. Good stuff and it will help Americans get over our weird hang up over organ meats.

I found Pork and Son and Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook to be helpful, but many cookbooks on authentic French country cooking will do. Compare these recipes to the typical Home Economics stuff from the 40's and 50's.

Hypatia said...

It's no surprise that shop, "home economics" (sewing & cooking) have disappeared from the high schools and jr highs around the country. (by design?..)

They don't even have a Personal Finance class in my daughter's high school...(nothing about making a budget, the cost of maintaining a home/care, saving for emergencies, how to write a check even...) which was required to graduate when I was in school.

Basic Home skills curriculum can be taught through 4-H..if you can find an active club, or an adult to mentor a club. By Jr. High other extra-curricular activites preclude such undervalued skills...(sports, music, etc.,).

Besides 4-H, I found another great source of "Home Economics" in the book "The Complete Tightwad Gazette" by Amy Dacyczyn..who "promotes Thrift as a Viable Alternative Lifestyle"...

Thomas said...

I think as long as people are watching and in a certain way being controlled by television that people will resist returning to the household economy. Men however may make the transition easier. Perhaps it is just me but then again perhaps not. I cannot sit an watch television for more than an hour. I live in a Spanish speaking country as an expat. I can speak Spanish but I can also easily turn it off in my head. This seems to make more immune to commercials and advertising in general. My wife being a native Spanish speaker cannot turn it off in her head. The commercials have an effect on her. She enjoys reading the ads in the Sunday paper to see what is new. I can't be bothered. It seems like such a waste of time. My wife enjoys going away on vacation. I am far more confortable being home on vacation. Although she does plenty of work around the house she would really prefer not to. So she hires someone to do some of the cleaning and straightening up. I am kind of an orderly person. I like having things in a place where I can always find them. I hate wasting time searching for stuff. I handle the laundry, dish washing and some of the food preparation. I have an interest in making my own bread, preserving fruits and vegetables, gardening, mending (not really sewing) and all the other normal maintenence that goes into having a home. I feel productive doing it so it feels better than watching TV. Maybe men will take over the household economy duties that women had done in the past. There seems to be less social stigma associated that way.

Danby said...

Bravo, John, Bravo!

I especially like the bit about the market taking the place of womanhood in the mythology of the age. I'm currently engaged in a rather rambling discussion of economics on another blog. The two sides are Distributist vs Libertarian/Laissez-faire capitalist. The amazing thing about the Libertarian side is their inability to see any flaws or problems in the current system, except in so far as it includes regulation or taxation.

I can just see the post: "The delicate invisible hand of The Market caresses the fevered brow of the child, bringing more than Healing, bringing Hope." etc etc ad nauseam.

One effect of this whole manufactured situation I find appalling is the effect it has had on attitude toward jobs and work, among both men and women. Most men have known, ever since the industrial economy started, that a job is a only place where he makes money. It is a distraction from his real life, which is his family, his home and his community. Now, thanks to the rhetoric of the (corporately co-opted) feminist movement, women are taught from an early age to expect to find fulfillment and meaning in the workplace. Far too many women have accepted this view, as have far too many men.

While this is quite advantageous to the corporate employers, it is ultimately destructive to the people who take this view. It's quite sad to see what happens when they get laid off, retire or otherwise lose their jobs. Suddenly they lose the community where they have invested themselves so completely. The life they have outside their job is devoid of meaning because they have not invested themselves there. They may have a spouse, whom they hardly know anymore,but very few friends and even their children seem strangers.

I've been laid off 7 times, and had companies I've worked for collapse twice. It never seemed a big deal to me, except in so far as I needed another way to get money to pay our expenses. I know at least one person who committed suicide due to a job layoff.

Christine Lydon said...

One thing you haven't discussed, which is closely related, is the economics of childcare. It used to be that a mother would look after her 2 or 3 children almost until their teens. But with an expanding market economy fuelled by cheap oil, there was a need for more labour in the marketplace. Capitalism sucked the women away from their homes, taking advantage of the "cover" provided by feminism, and the children have been pooled into childcare arrangements with 5 or 10 or more children per woman, or simply left to fend for themselves outside the hours of the state-provided workers' childcare system (i.e. school). As the economy contracts, the 'expensive' employees, mostly men, will be the first to join the dole queues, and the work will shift to women and teenagers who are cheaper to hire. I am finding this in my everyday contact with large organisations - the workforce is increasingly less skilled, less knowledgable, and less able to make the incredibly complex system function, which is advanced post-industrial society. Hopefully in the long term there will again be more adults outside the employer-based economy to give the children the time and attention they need.

Steve said...

Another good one, JMG. Of course, so was the one before, and the one before that, and...

I, too, am sort of a househusband - underemployed, with a partner who makes probably twice what I do (though she's not all that pleased with the arrangement).

But I clean, cook, do the garden, take care of the livestock, cut the firewood, etc. I don't think she completely understands the value to our household of what I do. In any case, as others have said, the reaction I get from my friends is mostly envy, or at least, curiosity.

Thomas, I think you are right on about TV. Bill Pulliam - I'm off to make brine right now for pickles from the cukes I picked from our garden an hour ago :-)

Seaweed Shark said...

Another fine essay, though a few words towards the end, like "ecotechnic" suggest that the Archdruid can't quite shake the hope that in the energy-poor future, all those fat complacent suburbanites will get their comeuppance and learn to behave themselves. Unfortunately the capacity of people to behave badly under any circumstance seems limitless.

If I might suggest a future topic that would illuminate this theme, it would be the history and future of the sewing machine. I was thinking as I read your article that perhaps no other device epitomizes as many of the themes you mention--and yet I know very little about it. Is home sewing ready for a comeback? If that happens, anything is possible.

Isis said...

One thing I have discovered about household chores is that they feel a lot more like 'chores' when I'm doing them on my own than when I'm doing them with someone else. I don't mind cooking or even doing the dishes, but I just hate cleaning the apartment; unless, that is, I'm doing it with one of my roommates, so that we can chat while we're doing it. Basically, 'chores' done communally can be almost fun; done alone, they're a gigantic pain.
And of course, after the end of WWII, with nuclear families being the norm, women found themselves alone in the house, doing all these chores by themselves. If feminists considered it mind-numbing and even degrading, that's because it was (at least in my opinion). But bring back the community (even a 'community' of two people), and all of that changes.

Dwig said...

The phrase nonmarket economies in which custom, reciprocity, and collective benefit govern exchanges, rather than the quest for individual profit triggered a thought: beyond the household economy, that phrase could describe an extended family economy, and even a small community economy. Even in larger communities (at least where something like a real community exists), there's a balance between collective and individual benefit in the economy. Can I look forward to a post or two on this subject?

BigDoug1053 said...

Michael - you make some interesting and thoughtful points - as always, but I would attribute the erosion of home economics more to the increasing number of 2 family incomes and a relentless erosion of living standards since the 1970s. This erosion of living standards is (interestingly) coincidental to the peaking of oil production in the US.

I have to agree with the anthropologist Marvin Harris, who often pointed out that social attitudes and religious taboos often have a solid economic causality (economic materialism). For example, meat eating taboos stem from the energy intensity of meat relative to the animal's value as a labor and energy source.

He attributed the rise of feminism to the erosion of middle class living standards since the 1970s, and feminism was a response calling for economic justice and gender role re-evaluation in the face of increasing numbers of 2-income families required to buy a home and send children to college - and to keep up with a culture of consumption.

Clearly, culture is complex, and there will be feedback effects from popular attitudes, opinions, and propaganda. But I still think the economic variables - like energy peaking or declining standards of living - will have a much bigger effect on mores and behavior.

And the global market economy did to home economics what it has done to all small businesses - ran them out by providing products cheaper than the house spouse could.
Higher energy costs will restore some of the economic fundamentals that made home economics, and real community interdependence a viable and indeed valuable activity.

Best wishes, Michael! Doug

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, I'm also a fan of Emery's Encyclopedia of Country Living. Interesting that you haven't gotten any flak for being a househusband; Tennessee may be more enlightened than its reputation suggests. ;-)

Bryant, thanks for the tips! Having been raised in a part-Issei household, I tend toward Japanese country cooking rather than the French variety, but peasant cooking is peasant cooking, and well worth studying.

Hypatia, I don't know that it's so much a matter of design as the inevitable result of using the universities as a template for the education system; the result is a flood of high school graduates who are suited for American public universities, and for very little else in life.

Thomas, TV is simply the drug of choice for the masses; it would be something else if the tube wasn't there.

Dan, I've seen the same thing -- work transformed into a surrogate for community, or even religion. It seems bizarre to me, but there it is.

Christine, childcare is certainly a major part of the household economy, not least because children raised in a working household start being able to help out at a fairly early age, and become an economic asset to the household. Childcare has also become, as you've pointed out, one of the most dysfunctional aspects of contemporary culture, so change can be expected.

Steve, interesting that so many other househusbands have gotten positive responses. The negative ones I received were admittedly a while back.

Shark, if you'll glance through the archives you'll find that in my view, the ecotechnic age is still several centuries in our future -- long after the age of scarcity industrialism dawning around us now, and after the salvage societies of the dark age that will follow. The decline and fall of a civilization is a long process.

Isis, an interesting point. To some extent, though, the role of solitude and community is a personal one; I prefer solitude for chores, not least because that way I can do them in my own way and spend the time thinking.

Dwig, in most human societies the market accounts for a very small fraction of economic activity. I'll have a few things to say about that shortly.

Doug, I'm familiar with Harris, but there's a huge amount of circular logic in his cultural materialism -- his assumption seems to be that if a material explanation can be found (or manufactured), the material explanation must be the cause. I find that logic less than compelling.

As I pointed out in my post, furthermore, for many people two incomes aren't actually an advantage, if you factor in the additional costs that have to be borne by a two-salary family -- childcare alone can eat an entire salary unless you're well up in the ranks of the middle class. Nor do the economic benefits of owning an SUV, for example, cover more than a small fraction of the additional cost, if that.

(BTW, I go by "John Michael" or "JMG," rather than by my middle name alone.)

Stephen Heyer said...

Yes, I too saw feminism has having been diverted from initially worthy and just aims by a takeover by some less than wholesome forces. That made me rather unhappy as I was an enthusiastic fellow traveler with women’s lib long before the Womens Weekly (THE Australian women’s magazine) ever discovered it.

And ditto for the comment from Thomas about the effects of TV. I think the modeling of expectations and social roles that cradle till grave television exposure has had is entirely underrated.

Worse, at least according to David Grossman ( and it has at least partially caused a vast social change that has been carefully ignored: That is the move from a society where few people would deliberately kill another, even an enemy soldier, to one where most can and will.

As a final thought, while I’m fairly convinced the next decades will be “interesting” (in the sense of the Chinese curse) I doubt it will follow any of the simple models (Peak Oil, et al.). Nevertheless, I expect the disruptions to be as intense, or even more so than, say, the pure Peak Oil model.

I realized this when thinking of the effects other possible energy sources and adaptations to scarce resources and global warming would have on economies and societies with vast existing investments of all sorts, not so much in cheap energy per se, as in the control of, and enrichment from, particular energy sources (Oil for the USA, coal for Australia).

I think the trick is to stay flexible and keep as many options open as possible. That said, much of what John Greer, Sharon Astyk and others of like mind advocate should at least add to that flexibility, could be crucial to getting through tough times, and is at worst unlikely to do any harm.

And yes, home economics is a good place to start.

MoonRaven said...

I want to repeat something important from your (JMG) post: "...instead of challenging the system of male privilege, and the presuppositions that underlay it, a great many women who considered themselves feminists simply set out to seize their share of the positions of privilege within the existing system." Second wave feminism (as with a lot of social activism) was not a monolithic movement. One of the currents within it is what I refer to as 'corporate feminism'--a stream that, rather than taking on the tenets of the market and capitalism, embraced them. There were also a great many feminists (particularly of the more radical varieties) that didn't buy into the consumer vision and continue to challenge, not only male privilege, but all manner of privilege--including the class privileges their corporate sisters bought into. While you seem clear on this, I'm pointing it out so others don't try to blame feminism for the death of home economics. A true feminism would have all of us, men and women learning this stuff so we can rebuild the society. (And, yes, there are feminists now attempting that reassessment of roles outside the market economy.)

I also appreciated your point that the advertising of the '40's and '50's was more accurately described as propaganda. I think that's still true today. Not watching TV may still be one of the more radical acts you can do to pull yourself out of the industrial strength brainwashing.

Bill Pulliam said...

Re: reactions to stay-at-home husbands. Part of it may be that where we live is more hard-core rural and economically disadvantaged than the Ashland-Medford area is (or at least was when I used to frequent it back around the turn of the Millennium). Market employment is bleak; when you include those on disability, and those who have simply dropped out of the work force, unemployment might be over 20%. Between us and the neighbors on both sides, none of the three men work for salary. Plus in an area like this, there's a blurry line between unemployment and agriculture. If you sell a few eggs, some coonhound pups, or the occasional bales of hay, tend a garden or some fruit trees, and have the right kinds of equipment and junk laying around your place, you get seen as a farmer more than a househusband. That's actually the label I use and the job I put on my 1040. Never mind the fact that last year I made more money watching birds than selling produce. But that is part of your whole point; we are out of the market economy, "not gainfully employed," yet we work well over 40 hrs a week maintaining and improving infrastructure, growing and preparing food, tending animals, etc., all essential household tasks. It is in fact possible that in more "backwards" and old-fashioned areas like this, these household and farmstead economic activities are still valued in ways they are not in more "sophisticated" mainstream places. It also helps in my case that I am (sloooowly...) restoring a much-beloved landmark 19th Century farmhouse that everyone in the county seems to have a connection to, but no one else had the time, inclination, and patience to rescue from the ravages of age and neglect.

John Michael Greer said...

Stephen, I don't see what happened to American feminism, at least, as any sort of "takeover" -- rather, it underwent the usual changes that happen as a radical movement matures and loses momentum. It will be interesting to see if the next great wave of feminism (the third, counting the suffrage movement as the first) manages to avoid some of the common mistakes.

Moonraven, well put. Every other radical movement has had to face the same issues when its leadership and its more privileged members found they could cash in their ideals for perks and a share in power, too; on the whole, feminism has done no worse than most, and better than many.

Bill, my guess is that the poorer and more inland areas of the US will actually do a good deal better in the decades ahead than the erstwhile boomtowns of the coasts. Those who know how to deal with poverty will be better equipped to face what's coming than those whose experience centers on easy wealth.

RAS said...

JMG, here's an example for you of the childcare problem in this country and it's problem with economics: one of my friend's starts back to work full-time next week after the birth of her son last year. Her husband is an executive and makes almost six figures, while she makes about 30k. They are putting their son into one of the best preschool's around here, it costs over 25,000 a year. So that alone accounts for her entire after-tax income. Add in the significant amount of gas to get to her job from their house, her professional clothing, etc, and her job will also eat up a significant portion of her husband's income.

And get this -she admits she'd rather stay home. But, she "has" to work. How could she not work? The brainwashing of corporatism has gotten deep into the minds of most people, and I doubt many people are going to willingly return home.

Lili said...


I agree with everything you've written in this post, with a small caveat. The pioneers of home economics were front and center in the effort to rationalize the household economy according to sound business principles, leading off with the shift from domestic production to consumption, which didn't turn out to be very sound. In the end, it meant that by the time I took home economics in the 1960s, it was mostly concerned with how to open a box of Duncan Hines without chipping your nail polish. And I recall we were given a number of interesting pamphlets about feminine hygiene products that the boys in shop were spared, presumably because making driftwood lamps didn't generate odors. On the other hand, Mrs. Sullivan did teach us to sew and for that I am forever grateful.

Susan Strasser has written a couple of very interesting books on the subject of household economy, which I recommend to anyone who doesn't think home economics as a field was part of the consumer culture from its inception. The first and more pertinent is Never Done: A History of American Housework. The second is Waste and Want: a Social History of Trash. Both show in detail how actual household economics got derailed in favor of, as you say, the market, to the manifest disadvantage of everyone's budget, health and wellbeing. And while I'm at it, The Taste of America, by John and Karen Hess, is a brilliant account of how purveyors America's "gourmet cookery" mined the same profitable seam, to the detriment of our nation's food supply and what was apparently a magnificent and authentic 18th century cuisine.

But thank you for pushing on this button. You're right; of all the things any of us can do right now to undermine the current pattern of market consumption, real household economics is by far the most subversive and frankly, rewarding.

Danby said...

Ras said:
The brainwashing of corporatism has gotten deep into the minds of most people, and I doubt many people are going to willingly return home.

Well, it's the willingly part that will wind up not mattering very much. In an economic depression (which we are on the verge of), you stay home because there's no reason to go out, since you don't have a job. You go out when you can find work or another way to make money. You have no real choice in the matter. When you're home, you find ways to reduce your expenditures, again, no real choice. You do it or you go hungry.

green with a gun said...

MoonRaven, definitely feminism isn't responsible for the death of home economics. Home economics went away along with the local shoemaker, carpenter, milkman or electrical repair person - when resources are so cheap that you can afford to just chuck things out, then all these things based on thirft and efficiency disappear.

I mean, heaps of people I know can't tell me how much they spend on groceries, how much electricity they use daily, how much food they throw away, or anything like that. Most people don't get things repaired, they just buy a new one.

Our wealth has made us careless. Home economics is about the thrifty management of a household for the good of all its members; but thrift is unnecessary in times of prosperity. Buy now, pay later.

For obvious reasons, thrift will return.

dragonfly said...

ras- looks like they're going to have to. I can't imagine what she could possibly do that would make the hassle worth it. At that salary I can only guess arts, education, social work.
The problem with household economies reviving isn't just that people don't have skills, or time, or motivation. A seriously large portion of the population is looking at not having households in the near future. Tough to make jam from a tent under the overpass. Not to mention storage.

AK said...

I'm so glad to have you bring up the point that home economics has been devalued while second wave feminism was used to pave the way for women to have their piece of the pie. As a housedyke with a female partner who makes three times what I do as a corporate middle manager, I often wonder if I'm pulling my weight. If I wasn't charging such a high hourly rate as a part time home organizer, I would be still be wondering if my work providing handholding, yes companionship, for people overwhelmed by their own households, was indeed of such high value. Ironically it is often their very high consumerism, no time, no community lifestyle that makes hiring an organizer necessary.

The same devaluation happened with the developing world. Traditional local economies and skills of self-sufficiency that produced everyday goods were considered of poorer quality compared to foreign imports, especially those with designer labels indicating high market value in the global economy. Imported American TV shows and movies drove this desire to join the global market. My own Bangkok family in Thailand succumbed to this high tech, high style life whole hog. Luckily there were still enough rural skills left outside of Bangkok for the urban poor and some middle class to go back to during the economic collapse of 1998. At this time the Santi Asoke Buddhists group with its philosophy of self-sufficiency was the only group left thriving and they offered a lifeline to many a poor debt ridden farmer, paying the high cost of chemical farming, by teaching them to farm organically and also reduce their expenses by showing them how to make their own shampoo, eat vegetarian food and use herbal medicines and save their money to buy land instead of motorcycles and gameboys. Visiting this group helped me to affirm my own choices of self-sufficiency over consumerism.

Goat Yoda said...

Wally World is finalizing the last of its' shut down of their fabric dept. Pity. If there is a dry goods store in the nearest town, however, it bodes well for the local economy, as does the springing up of farmer's markets. The less stuff on Wally World's shelves, the better off we all are.....

John Michael Greer said...

Ras, that's an excellent example of the sort of thing you were talking about. If your friend were to leave the market economy, she would not only save a good deal more than she currently makes, she could produce a great deal of value in the household economy, while still giving her son a better upbringing. Yet that's unthinkable in today's American society. So much for economic determinism.

Lili, granted, the home economics profession -- as shown by Danby's telling example -- very often had a colonizing agenda directed toward the household economy. The books in that dusty section of the library will need to be mined with care.

Dan, one of the reasons I'm bringing up this whole set of points for discussion is that a very large number of people will be short a job or two in the next few years. Some suggestions for their newfound and unwanted free time might not be out of place!

Green, one of the central themes of this blog is that what we've all grown up thinking of as normal is wildly abnormal, the result of a set of highly unusual circumstances that are going away soon. The points you make are good evidence for this. Thrift is normal; wildly extravagant wastefulness is not, and happens nowadays only because we've gotten used to burning through preposterous amounts of fossil fuel energy.

Dragonfly, you need to look into the household economy of hobo communities in the 1920s and 1930s, or of people in Third World favelas today. As for skills, time, and motivation, poverty will take care of the latter two; it's the former that concerns me -- thus this post, among others.

Ak, thanks for the good points. One of the things that most needs doing as we transition away from a wholly market-centered economy -- more on this in next week's post -- is a radical revaluation of the value of the household economy. If you're doing the housework and your partner isn't, you're pulling your weight -- the fact that the value you create can't be adequately measured in terms of the social abstraction we call "money" is irrelevant to that. Thanks for the link to the Buddhist group, too.

Yoda, I expect the big box stores to crash and burn on a grand scale as the import economy collapses under the burden of energy costs and American economic decline. Out here in the West, it's the general-purpose hardware stores that are best positioned to pick up the slack -- our little local hardware store, for example, now carries small kitchen appliances and art supplies as well as more ordinary hardware goods, and is doing quite well. Elsewhere, other local stores will be better placed to thrive in the emerging economy of scarcity industrialism. More on this in a future post.

Noah Scales said...

Mr. Greer, you describe a change in economic activities based on a connection you draw between available lifestyle choices and energy consumption. How do you conclude that an energy-stability scenario, a scenario in which fossil fuel consumption is replaced by renewable energy consumption, will not become reality?

At this point of talking about reviving the household economy, I feel it is more likely that energy consumption will continue unabated for the next century than that men will participate in an egalitarian way (for example, assigning work to those skilled to do it) to share household duties with women once an energy-descent scenario becomes reality.

You're fantasizing about some happy future of energy descent if you think a return to household duties will increase egalitarian living. Why not fantasize about smart conservation and recycling technologies and renewable energy helping us live without forcing us to return to a pre-motor and pre-computer lifestyle? Without computers and motors and the lifestyles that they allow, men will hoard resources of all kinds and abuse women to dominate them.

John Michael Greer said...

Noah, I've discussed the problems with a stable-energy scenario many times here and elsewhere. The short form is that the levels of energy we've gotten used to using came from burning through hundreds of millions of years of concentrated sunlight (in the form of fossil fuels) in three short centuries, and no energy source in this end of the cosmos shows any sign of allowing us to continue that level of extravagant waste much longer. I'm aware that techno-optimists disagree with that assessment, but every proposed replacement for fossil fuels suffers from crippling problems with net energy and/or massive diseconomies of scale.

Thus it's very comforting to believe that we can continue to throw around today's levels of energy, but as far as I can tell, the hard facts don't support that fantasy. Instead, we need to downshift to a less wasteful economy -- and reviving the household economy is one way that can be done. Furthermore, it's something we can do ourselves -- rather than waiting for someone else to come up with a technofix to save us from the consequences of our own bad decisions.

Noah Scales said...

Mmm, sure our use of energy is wasteful, but that is not the same as saying we use too much. Removing the waste does not imply removing the technologies that use energy. The idea of energy decline does not require a corresponding decline in technology use or advance.

The level of cooperation and initiative required to radically reduce energy consumption with ordinary technologies still in play (electricity lines, internet connections, cars, transport trucks) is less than the cooperation and initiative required to achieve equality of the sexes (in housework, raising children, doing menial labor) while our lives are disrupted by radical energy shortages.

Who will manufacture the birth-control, for example, when uncontrolled energy descent begins? Who will protect women against domestic violence? Who will enforce the educational and political rights of women? Those are just rhetorical questions.

Of course egalitarian participation in a revived household economy is a good idea, but a sudden requirement for people to return to sewing clothes, handwashing laundry, and growing food (and possibly educating their own children) will mean a return of men physically dominating women, and the enslavement of women and children (and men) for their labor.

In fact, I have been a virtual houseslave more than once. The lack of economic choice involved was just a glimmer of what your scenario entails for women and children and men enslaved by other men.

I see the pretty reflections of your proposals as idealizations of how to live more lightly on the Earth. Take away those elements of my life that serve me now (for example, the public goods that my government provides me), though, and your mirror will show me nothing.

Without energy stability, your wife will not be the breadwinner, your home will be a decaying pain in the back, your social network will not support gender equality, and the political system that you (have to) support will be the one that best consolidates manpower using greed and physical coercion.

Women have barely made it out of the household. Things like birth control, equal rights for women, fair divorce laws, and many other things your wife might take for granted are only possible through the power of our improbable government applied while technology development and historical accidents churned Americans through climax after climax of economic and social change.

Women need computers, they need motors, they need the social conventions and political structures that gave us freedom to exert our energies toward better things than our own survival, whether or not women use the internet or drive. Motors and computers support the social, political, and economic systems that are developing gender equality in this country.

Your lifestyle as a househusband has no existence outside current circumstances of government, infrastructure, and technology use, much like a doomer's best-laid plans have little purpose if things really fall apart. However, I'll wear the pom-poms for returning men to household work.

Now is a great time for men to return to household duties, even if they never left them. Lets reduce our energy use, move away from consumerism, learn how to raise children, and develop a sense of ecology. Lets us men do that proactively. Women don't need the frustration and uncertainty of a possible return to their roles as home-bound, defenseless caretakers and laborers.

Our current economic circumstances are a necessary support for women in our transition to gender equality. Becoming part of the household economy is a required transition for men going over the peak oil hump.

Actually, my peak oil (and self-sufficiency) preparations include learning how to use a washboard for handwashing towels and clothes. Too bad I'm a bachelor. My wife would really respect me right now.

Geoff said...

This post and the commentary highlights an issue my DW faces, which seems to be the opposite experience of the househusbands who have posted here.

She has chosen to take up the challenge of managing the household economy, and is learning many of the outdated skills her grandmother (and father!) would have possessed and used daily.

The problem she faces is the massive inertia of the rest of our town, and even society I guess. The first question people seem to ask is along the lines of "the kids are all off to school soon, so are you going back to a career?" Her answer to this is invariably met with a sneer and condescension. She is for now a stranger in a strange land.

That the future will soon demand the same from many more people is cold comfort at this point, as you might imagine. The trouble seems to be that it's a sort of self-reinforcing peer pressure. Many of the women who sneer don't really want to be working, and most likely logically shouldn't, economically speaking, but they do it because they are driven to it by social pressures.

Perhaps part of it is that the current stereotype of a housewife is someone who sits watching daytime soaps whilst all the labour saving gadgets take care of the heavy lifting with the press of a button? The visions of the future had an effect on the collective mind even though they did not turn out to be true mechanically speaking.

There really needs to be a re-casting of the concept of housewife/husband within the context of low energy lifestyles within this collective mind. Somehow this stigma associated with it needs to be overcome. If there was some way to get past it then a lot of people would happily give up careers for career's sake and return to the household as the primary way of life.

Thanks for all the insightful posts!

FARfetched said...

Sitting back & reading until I had something to say…

The first step will have to be the negation (or at least universal neglect) of HOA or rental agreements that forbid people from having gardens in their yards, or container gardens on their balconies. Food sovereignty, quite literally, begins at home. I expect HOAnality will go away as the housing market continues to implode… what's the point of worrying about property values when everybody's property is losing value? Landlords may have to be forced to get with the program, although the smart ones will be extolling their south-facing balconies and so forth.

Declining fuel availability (with prices going stratospheric as a backbeat) will actually help people get into gardening: lots of people out of work will need something productive to do, and those who continue to hold down jobs will probably be working 4-day/36-hour weeks, so even they will have 3 days to maintain the garden.

The more successful gardeners will either already know about food preservation, or will learn quickly. They will also revive that other bugbear of the money economy that has been all but stamped out: the barter economy. I'm sure you'll have some thoughts on that in a couple of weeks.

John Michael Greer said...

Noah, it's all very well to insist that people (male or female) need high technology, but the energy resources needed to maintain it simply aren't there, and no amount of rhetoric will change that fact. We will have to get used to living with a great deal less energy, and that means a notable shortage of motors, computers, etc. (Mind you, I find the technological determinism that treats these as the sine qua non of sane gender relationships hopelessly unconvincing, but that's another argument.)

The crucial question we face now is whether we can face the coming steep decline in energy availability, and energy-wasting technology, with our humanity intact. I don't have an answer to that question, but you know, I think it's worth a try.

Geoff, one of the reasons I'm hammering on this particular issue is precisely the need to redefine the household economy, to counter the distorted ideas you've pointed out. Change is always possible if people are willing to question their assumptions (and thumb their nose at peer pressure -- a crucial skill in the decades to come).

Farfetched, good points. I think that homeowners associations will be about as lively as the dodo in the near future; they drew a lot of their force from the habit of treating real estate as a fungible investment, and as prices drop and disposable income runs short, my guess is that you'll see a lot of them vote to disband, or turn toothless.

Noah Scales said...

Mr. Greer, for every man wanting to dominate a woman, there's a job for the both of them that involves motors and computers. Their jobs keep that man from dominating that woman, and children are educated from age 3 onward to grow into those jobs. Those children, whether male or female, are protected to enable their access to those jobs. The jobs themselves might not be social work,legal work, police work, or government work. However, the jobs require separation from the duties of house life, division of labor. The jobs support the current political and economic system. The current system allows and encourages division of labor. Division of labor requires motors and computers to sustain itself. Motors and computers require the energy used to drive them. Whether that energy comes from oil is more of a question than you seem to think, but either way the energy has to be there or the motors and computers won't work.

What feminists accomplished in the last 100 years is reified in our laws of government, tied up in our technology-driven, energy-dependent economic and political systems. Take away the energy, the system crashes, the government loses power, and 100 years of effort becomes irrelevant.

In the energy-decline scenario, reinstitution of slavery will likely occur. What must be done to avoid that?

Or, rather than consider that question, take a different path.

Nuclear war (that isn't averted), terrorism (that isn't stopped), corrupt governments (that aren't purged), epidemics (that have no cure), Earth-bound asteroids (that can't be diverted), greedy corporations (that remain uncontrolled) and oil shortages (that are not substituted for) have always been possibilities for how we could suffer energy descent. Can you show me, in your mirror, something else than my society headed for inevitable decline?

If you decline, then I would like to make a suggestion. My suggestion is that you take responsibility for your recorded and self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, what does your country living guide propose for post-peak oil birth control? Does it work? If it works, can women control the method, without it requiring male cooperation or assistance? That's the kind of birth control women are going to need, in this declining future you pull others toward.

RAS said...

Noah, I don't know whether to be offended or amused at your comments and assumptions. First, I don't *need* high technology to assure my freedom. Second, your assumption that all low-energy societies make women and children into slaves or little better is a heavy insult to all the indigenous cultures throughout the world that have been fairly egalitarian.

JMG, I'm not sure HOA and such are going to go away that easily. There's a huge psychological investment in these things and the ideas behind them, and people don't give up cherished ideas that easily. I'm inclined to agree with Sharon Astyk that we may be arguing over whether people should be able to keep chickens in their backyards while some of them are starving to death.

John Michael Greer said...

Noah, at this point you're arguing with your own preconceptions, not with me. When you talk about "this declining future you pull others toward," either you're missing the point of everything I've said or you're deliberately ignoring it to score rhetorical points. If you were on a sinking ship, and somebody tried to tell you where the lifeboats and life jackets are, would you accuse that person of sinking the ship?

Ras, I suspect the survival of homeowner's associations will vary a great deal from place to place and from income level to income level. Out here in Oregon, at least, they're far from universal -- you only find them in fairly new subdivisions, and then only above a certain price level.

RAS said...

JMG, I was referring to zoning boards and such as much as HOAs. The zoning laws out here, for instance, often won't allow clotheslines, chickens, or front yard gardens because it makes the town "look poor".

Deleted said...

I realize that this post is several years old, but since Cosmopolitan Magazine was mentioned, I wanted to post a link to a recent article about "The Ambition Gap" between men and women today. Here's an excerpt:

"The rules around who makes what and does what in relationships are changing so rapidly, that Dawn DeLavallade, a physician in Florida, recently started an online community called, to give people a forum to talk about what she calls the new normal.

"She came up with the idea when, at the beach with some friends, they all realized that until that point, none of them had divulged the fact that they were the main breadwinners in their families. "There's a lot of shame and secrecy around this topic," she says. "We felt this huge sense of relief that we could bounce ideas off each other and openly discuss the challenges.""

Complete article link:

Christine said...

Darn it, I got all excited there for a minute! Being a librarian, I promptly checked our catalogue for Home Economics items, and found that the subject is still taught at high school here. Smug feelings ensued. Until I borrowed the study guide and had a look at what is being taught. Cooking, nutrition and sewing, sure, but absolutely nothing about budgets, resource management ... where do they (the curriculum setters) think the "economics" in the course title comes from?! Sigh.