The Approximate Perfection of Domestic Engineering

By Anna Reser

While waiting for my university’s library catalog to return my search for The Business of Home Management: (The Principles of Domestic Engineering) by Mary Pattison, a crazy thought passed through my mind: would the catalog would tell me that this book was in the engineering library? This is of course absurd. This book is shelved in TX, home economics, which is where the honest part of my brain expected it to be. Despite the book’s explicit use of the state of the art in efficiency and scientific management for the home, and its use of the appropriate scientific terminology, the home remains outside the purview of “engineering proper”, and so the women of Pattison’s time remained outside the “profession”. 

Yet, when you read through Pattison's book, it is exactly the author’s point that engineering done by men and engineering in the home must be separate. If home engineering is to have any positive effect, it can only be done by women. The book was based on data collected in 1910 at an Experiment Station at Pattinson’s home in Colonia, New Jersey in connection with the New Jersey Federation of Women’s Clubs. The Station conducted experiments with new domestic technologies, studies of materials, and time motion studies to improve efficiency. The resulting book outlines a practice of domestic engineering with far-reaching social goals reflective of Pattison’s own politics. She was an active reformer and Progressive who worked for women’s suffrage and advocated for the elimination of domestic servants and child labor. Pattinson believed that women’s true calling of homemaking could benefit from the application of scientific and engineering principles to the day-to-day organization of the family home.

As I have always found to the be the case when reading about early twentieth century Progressive projects, Pattison’s program for domestic engineering is full of what appear to my modern eyes as deep paradoxes and incredibly complex, gendered social ideas. Pattinson’s prescriptions for a well-engineered home are explicitly geared toward the elevation of women’s work and the recognition that it is fundamentally different from that of men. For instance, when discussing how women should be educated in order to be better, more efficient homemakers, she says that “The course of study laid out for the average girl is a series of periods adapted to the boy mind, for the reason that instead of starting with the study of herself and life which is her instinctive care, she is made to detach herself from her center of interest, and work at separated and partial problems that only the faculty of reason can put together for proper use, and then largely for mechanical purposes; a faculty in which she does not excel, nor was it ever intended that she should.” (195) Far from further limiting her possibilities, however, Pattison insists that a girl properly educated within a framework that emphasizes women’s closeness to life (meaning reproduction) and focused on the self and the family will be more able to fulfill her ultimate potential. Pattison views the home and the family as a microcosm of society, and its efficient and ordered working will be reflected in an efficient and ordered society which mirrors the home life. Pattison confers an impressive amount of power on women, then, whose efforts in the home will be magnified into large-scale social change. She defines Domestic Engineering as “the profession of designing, producing and guiding the home and family to approximate perfection, that they may be of most use in the world’s operation.” 

When I began this essay, I was looking for women inventors, perhaps people who had, despite being cloistered in their homes, had broken through into a competitive field of technological innovation that was dominated by men. I’m a bit disappointed with myself that I didn’t consider looking for a different field altogether, especially since I spend so much time asking researchers to stop searching the haunts of men for the women who weren’t allowed to be there. Domestic engineering is of course not unfamiliar to scholars of technology, nor are many of Pattison’s specific ideas, which range from architectural design that minimizes wasted effort for women or the introduction of household machinery. And we know that some of the ideas turned out to have the opposite of the intended effect. But for some reason, the idea that there was a kind of engineering to which women, and only women, were suited, and which made no pretensions to being part of the engineering tradition with which we are typically familiar, escaped me. This is a mistake I hope not to make again because there is a great richness to be found in looking at things like Principles of Domestic Engineering in this way. It is not a way for women to participate in a male dominated sphere but rather an appropriation of what were seen as the most useful features and techniques of that sphere for a purpose that mainstream engineering did not cover. 

This approach means that we can begin to look at ideas that were common in this period, like the identification of women with the corporeal, the natural, and the process of reproduction not as a limiting idea imposed on women by a male scientific establishment, but as an idea that women themselves used to structure their lives and in Pattison’s case the management of the home. That the faculty of reason was not a strength for women was not limiting at all in Pattison’s view; in fact, her wrongful education in reason was the root cause of her inability to fulfill her natural potential. 

By theorizing these ideas in terms of what we perceive as their limiting functions, functions for which they were presumably used by a male scientific establishment politically and socially, we are reiterating these ideas and their use against women instead of listening to the women who are telling us how they used them in their own life. Domestic engineering was for women not some perversion of a more perfect male-dominated engineering or a lesser kind if engineering. It was an active appropriation of what were seen to be the best tools available for improving the labor that they understood as their special care. Of course we disagree with Pattison that a woman’s place is in the home. But if we refuse to investigate the life and work of women who held with such ideas in their own time, we render passive those who used such ideas to further their political goals, to try to eliminate what they saw as the demeaning practice of domestic servitude, to care for their families in what they saw as the most perfect way, and ultimately to try to change the world. 

Further Reading
Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (Basic Books, 1985).

Susan Strasser, Never Done: A History of American Housework (Holt, 2000).