“Family and Consumer Sciences teaches skills for every day living,” said Dr. Patricia Pierson, head of the Department, which is housed within the College of Science, Technology and Business. “Even though society has changed, there is still a need for knowledge and instruction in our core components of managing your home, your health, your budget and your family.”
In the early 20th century, domestic science was regarded as an important scientific discipline that required applied knowledge in chemistry, biology, physiology, engineering and other branches of science and mathematics to provide vital information on health and hygiene, nutrition, food preparation and preservation, childcare, finance and home management. Today, Northwestern State graduates of FACS – both male and female -- are prepared for careers in culinary arts, early childhood education, the travel industry, hospitality and recreation, hotel and/or restaurant management, nutrition, dietetics and, until recently, fashion and retail.
The roots of the Department are in a weaving and textiles course offered at Louisiana Normal as early as 1904, which was expanded into Domestic Science and Art in 1911 and housed in one room in Caldwell Hall. In 1917, when U.S. Congress passed the Smith-Hughes Act that provided support to educate home economics teachers for elementary, middle and high schools, students at Louisiana Normal -- primarily young women -- fulfilled that need. By 1919 Louisiana Normal students who completed the home economics course were certified to teach in Louisiana high schools. A Euthenics Club was established in the department in 1926, the precursor of Kappa Omicron Nu Fraternity chartered in 1977. Northwestern awarded its first master’s degree in home economics to Margaret Ackel in 1957 and established a master’s program in early childhood education in 1971.
Over the decades, Northwestern graduates made significant contributions to home economics in the public school system, through extension services and through their work for private businesses.
Boxes of vintage photographs, scrapbooks and mementos from the Department’s early days through the 1980s provide a glimpse of how domestic life and women’s roles changed throughout the 20th century and how the department adapted with the times.
“Weaving is pretty much a lost art,” Pierson said, but students also learned upholstery, landscaping and clothing construction with many students photographed modeling smart tailored suits, fur-trimmed dress coats, cocktail dresses and wedding gowns. The photos document decades of summer receptions, formal dinners and students presenting demonstrations on nutrition, working with preschoolers and – replete with white uniforms and hairnets – at work in the kitchen.
“In the ’50s and ‘60s, we offered specialty areas so our graduates would have employable skills. A home economics degree made women employable for food companies, or they might find work doing home demonstrations or with a cooperative extension office. Even electric companies would hire representatives to show their customers things like how to most efficiently use their energy,” Pierson said. Dieticians were qualified to work at hospitals, schools or anywhere that utilized institutional food services. There was a focus on social welfare, particularly in rural areas, and classes in child development were an extension of learning family health management.
“Before mandatory kindergarten, small children were taught in the home. Dr. [Marie Shaw] Dunn created a child development concentration and realized that students needed a laboratory experience, so in 1935 she started the nursery school that is now the Child Development Center,” Pierson said. “NSU was the first school in the state to have that. It was originally open to the children of faculty and employees. If you took child development courses, you had to do a practicum. Eventually, child development broadened into early childhood education.”
For several decades, home ec students lived in and maintained a practice cottage, constructed in 1925 for $12,000. Students were required to live in the home for one semester, planning and preparing meals, often for invited guests. When the new president’s residence was completed in 1970, the same year that Northwestern received it’s university designation, Dr. and Mrs. Arnold Kilpatrick handed over the keys to their former home to be used as the department’s home management house.
Dr. Cheryl McBride, assistant professor of FACS and advisor for undergraduates concentrating in early childhood, lived in the house as a newlywed beginning in the fall of 1978. She and her husband Bill were both pursuing graduate degrees and had been married two weeks when they moved in, occupying the downstairs while six or eight girls lived upstairs.
“My graduate assistantship was living in the house, sort of like a house mother,” she said, “They had never had a man in the house before and Bill was not allowed to go upstairs. I had to lock the house at midnight every night and make sure everybody was there. The girls prepared breakfast every morning and they would knock on the door and say ‘Breakfast is served.’”
In addition to breakfast, the McBrides had to eat at least one other meal in the house per day. They lived in the home for a year while Cheryl worked in the half-day program for infants.
“We started with three bed babies and the students would observe the infants. You know how much a baby can change in a year. We were very attached to the children,” she said.
The home management house eventually became too cost prohibitive to maintain and in 1983 it was turned over to its current occupants, Alumni and Development.
In 1946, the Department of Home Economics requested funds for a new building, which was dedicated in 1950 when undergraduate programs included dietetics, general home economics, home economics education and early childhood education. The new building featured a formal living room that was used for receptions, luncheons, club meetings and other social functions. Those events gave students experience in planning, preparation and presentation for an event, from the meal management and food science aspect down to the flower arrangements.
Just as families hand down serving pieces through generations, many items housed in the Department were used by young women nearly a century ago.
“We still have that punch bowl,” Pierson noted, sifting through photos. “I also found some silver flatware upstairs that is engraved ‘LSN’ for Louisiana State Normal.”
In 1986, the department commemorated its 75th anniversary by unveiling portraits of long-time administrators Ruby Dunckelman and Minnie Lee Odom. Those portraits still hang in the Family and Consumer Sciences building, which was renovated and reopened in 2003. That same year, the early childhood degree program was redesigned to certify teachers for pre-kindergarten through third grade.
A capable, can-do spirit is common among students in Family and Consumer Sciences.
“Our students do tend to be practical, good managers and pay attention to detail,” said Pierson, who described her high school economics teacher as a great mentor and influenced her decision to pursue the degree. “I liked the management side of it, consumer education, making good decisions. Those skills are applicable to your personal life and career.”
In the 1990s, the focus of home economics broadened, along with a name change when the profession officially became Family and Consumer Sciences. In 1994, Northwestern State introduced a new bachelor’s program in hospitality management and tourism (HMT), a field that drew more male students to the department. One of those was Todd Barrios, who was the first and only male student to earn Northwestern State’s Esther Cooley Award presented annually to an outstanding graduate based on academics, involvement and leadership. Barrios, a professional chef, returned to NSU as an instructor to launch the culinary arts concentration in 2005.
Departmental photos from the last 10 years depict culinary arts students in garde-manger classes and costumed HMT students presenting the International Festival of Cuisines and Cultures for the community.
In recent years, budget cuts have negatively affected Family and Consumer Science programs across the country. Many FACS professionals lament that home economics courses have been eliminated from schools and that many youngsters never learn basic nutrition and meal preparation. Public health experts believe this is reflected in America’s alarming obesity crisis. Meanwhile, some graduates enter the job market with little practical knowledge of social and business etiquette, budgeting, managing credit or paying bills.
At Northwestern, administrators were forced to eliminate the fashion merchandising concentration and in January 2011. Associate Professor of Family and Consumer Sciences Bette Howell-Maroney accompanied the last group of fashion merchandising students to New York, a study experience she had coordinated since 1990. The tours consisted of several days of meetings with professionals in the fashion industry, including appointments at Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, Geoffrey Beene, Kenneth Cole, Jessica McClintock, Ellen Tracy, Guess and Carol Little, as well as behind the scenes at retailers such as Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Saks 5th Avenue, Prada, Sephora and more. In addition to the industry appointments, the students experienced Broadway plays and were in studio audiences at The Late Show with David Letterman, Montell Williams and the Martha Stewart show.
Programs currently offered include Family and Consumer Sciences with concentrations in consumer services and child development and family relations; hospitality management and tourism with concentrations in culinary arts, hospitality services and travel and tourism; and early childhood education.
A mid-century brochure describes the scope of home economics to prospective students, stating “Home economics is so closely related to patterns of living that it is always a timely field and a permanent one.”
Pierson echoed those sentiments.
“Family and Consumer Science addresses the needs of people throughout their lifespan,” she said. “It begins with care of infants, addresses family needs and now there is a large interest in geriatric care. It’s a field that teaches skills for managing many aspects of a person’s life.”