Home Economics Extension Bulletins: Science to Alleviate Rural Women’s Drudgery

Kathleen McHugh, Oregon State University

Kathleen McHugh is a master’s student at Oregon State University studying History and Philosophy of Science. Her research focuses on home economics education.

In 1911, the magazine Popular Science published an article on scientific food preparation, which highlighted a new way for women to receive scientific knowledge on how to improve their homes: extension bulletins. The article claimed these bulletins served as a “crusade of enlightenment” to improve the living conditions and food of rural Americans by providing scientific advice previously not available to these rural women.[1] Home economics extension bulletins would now allow rural women to improve their homes through science, a method they had not had access to before. Ava B. Milam, a professor of Domestic Science at Oregon Agricultural College (OAC), embodied this idea of providing rural women with scientific advice through two of her extension bulletins on cake and jelly making, both published in 1913 by the OAC Federal Cooperative Extension Service. Through these bulletins she provided a path for women to alleviate their drudgery through the application of science to mundane daily tasks.

Milam’s first published extension bulletin was Principles of Cake Making. Her application of science to improving cake baking techniques illustrates how she used subjects familiar to rural women to introduce them to scientific management of the home. Her master’s thesis for the University of Chicago, completed in 1911, also approached the topic of using science to bake a superior cake. Her bulletin pulled ideas directly from her thesis and offered a six-page condensed form of her earlier research. Her thesis, “Factors Affecting the Economic and Dietetic Value of Foods. No. 1. A Study of Cakes” consisted of fifty-seven pages of highly scientific and detailed graphs and tables discussing different cake ingredients, comparing the economic value of a particular ingredient with its effect on the cake. The audience for this thesis was college-educated home economists and dieticians (many of whom held an advanced degree, such as a master’s or doctorate in their respective field). To translate the ideas from her thesis to an extension audience, Milam removed the graphs and tables and replaced them with paragraphs detailing how a certain ingredient affected the cake in a simpler manner, omitting any technical language. For example, in her thesis, Milam discusses what proteins form in different types of flour, analyzing how those proteins affect the cake.[2] However, in her bulletin, Milam simply tells the reader pastry flour is superior without an explanation of why.[3] Milam only presented the conclusions from her thesis research, leaving out her methods for how she conducted experiments. The simplicity of the bulletin compared to her thesis indicates that since the audience was not specialists in home economics, Milam believe they would benefit more from the results of the study than from the study itself.

The organization of this bulletin illustrates its purpose in providing scientific advice on cake baking to women who already knew how to bake a cake and were seeking to improve their methods using modern scientific ideas. While Milam wrote these bulletins for an audience lacking a formal education as rural schools were inconsistent (although rural women were overall highly literate), their comprehension still required a basic knowledge of domesticity.[4]  She divided the bulletin by the ingredients needed for a cake (flour, sugar, liquid, eggs, and fats), then baking, finally ending with the recipe. By making the recipe the final piece of information rather than the first, Milam signified that this bulletin is not a cookbook meant to provide recipes but a tool to teach rural women how to improve their own cake recipes, likely handed down generation to generation. This bulletin is a scientific document, advising rural women with limited scientific training how to adapt their kitchen methods to create a scientifically proven better result. Milam stated in the beginning of the bulletin that she is not trying to replace traditional knowledge that has been passed down regarding cooking, only providing new techniques for cake making to save time, energy, and money: “This method is one that has been used for many years. It has been handed down from generation to generation…At present, when time and energy are considered important factors in economy, the question arises, why not simplify the process of cake making, decreasing its cost from this standpoint.”[5]

Soon after her first bulletin, Milam published Principles of Jelly Making. The structure of this bulletin closely mirrored Principles of Cake Making. Both outlined similar purposes for their publication: to provide additional knowledge to a cooking task that many rural women were already familiar with and to improve its efficiency. While in her bulletin on cakes, Milam focused on each individual ingredient, in this bulletin her writing is almost solely on the process for making jelly, with a short paragraph on what fruit should be used. Her advice is slightly more scientific than her previous bulletin. Milam writes “jelly cannot be made ‘by rule of thumb,’ yet there are some essential points which, when recognized by the housewife, enable her to work more intelligently with fruit juice,” emphasizing that new scientific advice will assist women in making better jellies.[6] She also incorporated science through her discussion on the need for acid and pectin in choosing a fruit to use for jelly, although she omitted a scientific explanation of the two. She also encouraged her reader to analyze what went wrong when the jelly does not turn out correctly. She provided a list of issues and their causes with instructions on how to improve the next time, such as cooking for less time or using additional sugar based on the level of pectin.[7] This bulletin does not contain a recipe for any type of jelly. Like the other on cake making, this shows that the primary purpose of this bulletin was not to serve as a cookbook, but to present new scientific information to improve existing processes in rural households. Milam intended for this bulletin to aid in the making of jelly by experienced farmwives, not introduce the concept to a new audience.

While no recorded response to Milam’s extension bulletins exists, I believe they were successful in providing rural women with new tools to improve drudgery of their non-scientific infused lives by allowing them to utilize tools they already had to eliminate sources of drudgery from their everyday lives through scientific methods.

While today Americans in rural areas are increasingly rejecting scientific ideas such as masking and the Covid-19 vaccine, the rural women of Milam’s time cherished the scientific knowledge they received via her extension bulletins. For example, through presenting this work, I learned a rural Oregonian’s neighbor treasured Milam’s extension bulletins, keeping them enclosed in protective coverings and passing them down to her daughter upon her death.

Editor’s Note:

Many of the themes in this post also appear in the Rural Women’s Studies Association’s “academic cookbook,” Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook, edited by Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson:

  • On economics in recipes, see Backstories chapter 8.
  • For early-20th-century Oregon cake recipes, see Backstories chapter 18.
  • On the evolution of recipes and cookbooks, see Backstories chapters 3 and 21.
  • On cake recipes across generations, see Backstories chapter 36.
  • On new techniques for cake baking, see Backstories chapters 40-41.
  • For heritage jelly recipes, see Backstories chapters 16 and 32.
  • On acceptance of and resistance to later Extension programs, see Backstories chapter 44.

Backstories is available as a free E-book download. Paperback copies are available for $20 plus shipping & handling within the US with proceeds benefitting RWSA, and worldwide from Amazon.


[1] Laura Clarke Rockwood, “Food Preparation and Its Relation to the Development of Efficient Personality in the Home,” Popular Science 79 (September 1911): 277.

[2] Ava B. Milam, “Factors Affecting the Economic and Dietetic Value of Foods. No. 1. A Study of Cakes” (Master of Arts, Chicago, The University of Chicago, 1911), 11–12.

[3] Ava B. Milam, Principles of Cake Making (Corvallis: Oregon Agricultural College Extension Division, 1913), 4.

[4] Marilyn Irvin Holt, Linoleum, Better Babies, and the Modern Farm Woman, 1890-1930 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995), 32, 158; Katherine Jellison, Entitled to Power: Farm Women and Technology, 1913-1963 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 10–11.

[5] Milam, Principles of Cake Making, 3.

[6] Ava B. Milam, Principles of Jelly Making (Corvallis: Oregon Agricultural College Extension Division, 1913), 3.

[7] Milam, Principles of Jelly Making, 6.

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