|Domestic Science Class at |
Robinson Female Seminary (circa 1904)
Located: Exeter, New Hampshire, USA
Robinson Female Seminary was one of those educational experiments for women that started with the best of intentions. At first it provided a great alternative for middle-class girls whose families could not afford the elite Exeter Female Academy, but were "deterred" by the "crowded classrooms" and "coed environment" (i.e. male domination) of the town high school. It emphasized academic rigor in safe, stimulating, female-only environent.
It was not to last. Within a short 25 years, academic rigor was sacrificed to a curriculum emphasizing the "domestic sciences"--i.e. skills that directly supported the care and feeding of men.
When Exeter's Robinson Female Seminary was created in 1867, it was intended to be an academic school similar to Phillips Exeter Academy. William Robinson's will, which funded the teachers, stated; "In my poor opinion there is altogether too much partaking of the fancy in the education that females obtain, and I would most respectfully suggest such a course of instruction as will tend to make female scholars equal to all the practical duties of life; such a course of education as will enable them to compete, and successfully too, with their brothers throughout the world, when they have to take their part in the actual of life."
|Robinson Female Seminary|
Schools for young women tended to focus on needlework and deportment. In Exeter, the girls were welcome to attend the town high school, but most did not stay long — the crowded classrooms and coed environment seemed to deter them. Wealthier families sent their daughters to the Exeter Female Academy, where they could obtain an education that included many of the same subjects the boys at Phillips Exeter studied, but not well enough to prepare them for college. And, of course, it had a needlework department.
For the first 25 years of the Robinson Seminary's existence, the directors were careful to avoid the finishing school model of "soft arts" for the students. Girls were taught academic subjects only, including arithmetic, mathematics, history, English grammar, botany, physiology, algebra, rhetoric, geometry, chemistry, philosophy and astronomy. Those working to prepare for college would add Greek and Latin to their studies.
|Robinson Female Seminary Basketball Team (1923)|
But by the late 1880s, it had become evident that the majority of girls attending school did not go on to college and that perhaps the school should also offer more of what Robinson referred to as "the practical duties of life." The curriculum was re-evaluate in 1890 and cooking and sewing — rechristened as "domestic science" — would be offered.
The new department was created at just the time when there was a revolution in the way homemaking was viewed by society. As more scientists began to endorse the germ theory, sanitary cooking and kitchen management was seen as a frontline defense against disease. The domestic science department at the Robinson Female Seminary was designed to teach girls this new method of clean, scientific cooking. It wasn't your mother's cooking with its inexact measurements and unsanitary food handling.
Principal George Cross wrote in his 1891 school report that domestic science would "help our young ladies in preparing for their future responsibility of home making, teaching them to apply the principles of chemistry, physics and physiology to the affairs of the household and giving them some manual practice in the household arts."
Teachers were hired from the prestigious Boston Cooking School, including the nationally renowned Anna Barrows. Born in Fryeburg, Maine, Barrows reached national audiences through her demonstration teaching methods and writing. She was the author, along with Mary J. Lincoln, of the "Home Science Cook Book" and editor of the American Kitchen Magazine. But before she began writing in earnest, she split her time teaching between Exeter's Robinson Female Seminary and Auburndale's Lasell Seminary.
In her classes, girls were taught to cook with gas burners, not on wood or coal stoves. Burrows enthusiasm for gas cooking was reflected in a pamphlet she drafted about the new technology: "You can arrange your cooking with mathematical precision if you use gas. The old way was certainly not conducive to comfort. Splitting kindling and carrying coal upstairs is wearying work for a woman, and a coal or wood fire often has a way of its own of refusing to burn." Food was treated with great care and the use of new cooking equipment — such as the double boiler, to avoid scorching and uneven heat — was used.
Classes stressed cleanliness and safety. The course was broken into 15 segments, beginning with a lesson on fire and progressing through water, canning fruit, milk, vegetables, cereals, fish, meats, bread, quick doughs, cake and pastry, invalid cookery, breakfast, luncheon and dinner. The final session was a reception for the trustees of the school, a sample menu for which might include cream of green peas, scalloped salmon, potato marbles and harlequin cream.
Barrows taught at the school through 1906, but the program she devised continued to be utilized with only a few changes until the school closed in 1954. Barrows spent her later years writing and teaching in New York and developing the Cooperative Extension domestic arts program. Her papers are now located in the Maine Women's Writers Collection at the University of New England in Portland, Maine. Her influence on the cooking techniques of Exeter's women still resonates in town.
Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society.