The Norton School: A Look Back as We Prepare for a New Future

Monday, June 3, 2019
A Domestic Science course of study was opened to University of Arizona students in 1898. (UA Photograph Collection, Domestic Science Cottage, Folder 1, N-2389, courtesy of UA Libraries, Special Collections)

On June 1, CALS alumna Laura Scaramella (Family Studies and Child Development, M.S. 1991 and Ph.D. 1994) became the new director of the University of Arizona’s Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences. As we celebrate her arrival and look forward to the next chapter for the Norton School, we also have an opportunity to reflect on the beginnings of the school and the heritage of its programs.

The John and Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences’ acclaimed programs in Retailing and Consumer Science and Family Studies and Human Development have a long tradition of excellence within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The disciplines studied within these divisions prepare hundreds of University of Arizona students each year for a variety of careers. Though two seemingly disparate programs, their common origin lies in a field once known as home economics, or domestic science. Born out of the 19th-century movement to apply advances in science to domestic life, home economics was the foundation for the degrees offered today by our Department of Nutritional Sciences and Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences.

The history of home economics in the United States is in many ways the story of women’s education.

With literacy rates climbing during the nineteenth century and a growing market in inexpensive books and periodicals, Americans were busily engaged in reading to improve their standard of living. Magazines aimed at efficiency and productivity on the farm also engaged the wives of subscribers in applying science to childrearing, cooking and housekeeping.

Catharine Beecher’s Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home (1841) is widely recognized as seminal among these early publications. Like the Industrial Revolution then transforming American workplaces, Beecher noted that homemaking involved more than just carrying on skills passed down from generation to generation; it required precise training with new equipment, and efficiency and skill in managing time, resources, and household help. Beecher also advocated that young women have access to a broader education.

Through the Morrill Act (1862), the federal government fostered the development of a system of land-grant colleges and universities designed to educate American working classes in the practical application of the sciences and liberal arts. Land-grants made the ideal setting for educational programs in domestic science. Michigan State University, Iowa State University, Kansas State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: across the Midwest, public institutions introduced domestic science courses to their curricula during the 1870s.  

Home Economics at the University of Arizona

The University of Arizona followed suit in 1898, just seven years after welcoming its first students. The Arizona Board of Regents approved remodeling a gardener’s cottage for use in teaching courses in “home economics.” They also began a search for an instructor.

UA’s home economics curricula expanded over the next few years. Courses on nursing and food for the sick were added to basic sewing and cooking in 1903. Initially the curricula was meant to supplement the education that female students were pursuing in other disciplines. Even women who sought a profession outside the home were expected to manage a household, and the Progressive Era had great expectations of American homemakers. Advances in chemistry, medicine, and a better understanding of the spread of infectious disease—“germ theory”—all could have an impact on the standard of life, beginning in the home.  Surely the home could be studied and made more efficient, like any modern manufacturing operation.

Historians recognize that the home economics movement was also an outgrowth of concerns that industrialization and urbanization were denigrating traditional home life. Millions of immigrants settled in the U.S. between 1880 and 1910, many of them on the Western frontier. A well-voiced concern that these “outsiders” did not maintain sanitary homes may too have played a part in the growing popularity of educational programs in home economics.

In 1913, a Bachelor of Science in Home Economics was offered for the first time to UA’s undergraduates and included a new emphasis on dietetics. Though still administratively part of the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, the department moved into the new Agriculture Building in 1915. Larger space inspired a larger curriculum, and the department soon offered three new majors: Foods and Nutrition, Textiles and Clothing, and Vocational Home Economics.

Demand for home economics extension programs expanded during the years following World War I. Modern gas or electric appliances promised increased leisure time and an opportunity to pursue community work, education, and even paid employment, but they frequently left homemakers in need of the demonstrations and practical guidance that could make these labor-saving devices a good investment.  

University of Arizona Cooperative Extension was established when the Smith-Lever Act (1914) formalized the role that land-grant universities were already playing in the dissemination of knowledge. Home economics extension agents led programs in nutrition and health, menu planning, millinery, home improvement and efficient design of homes. Child care was also a concern. As early as 1914, home economics agents at UA were advocating school lunch programs for children whose mothers worked outside the home.

Shaped by the Times, Meeting America’s Needs

By 1922, a bachelor’s degree in one of the home economics disciplines had been awarded to 23 UA graduates. In addition to work within the home, many graduates found employment in the food and textiles industries, interior design, and restaurant or hotel management. They often pursued careers in government agencies or nonprofit organizations, working in such fields as social work, education, public health and housing reform.

President Cloyd Marvin reorganized the university that year and formally brought the home economics program into the College of Agriculture. The faculty soon introduced a master’s degree in Foods and Nutrition to the curriculum and this degree was first awarded in 1928.

During the 1930s, UA’s home economics extension agents played a key role in helping Americans face the challenges of the Great Depression. Popular programs offered throughout Arizona hint at the importance of savings generated through efficient, rational decision-making within the home: food preservation, home gardening, home poultry production, home nursing, furniture refinishing and sewing clothes from gunny or flour sacks.

These Depression-era programs became critical to the World War II defense effort as rationing and scarcity made resource conservation a necessity. Becoming a savvy consumer was no longer just a benefit to the household budget – it was patriotic. Hundreds of thousands of women were taking on war jobs, and Americans needed daycare systems quickly. UA’s home economics curriculum was adapted to meet these urgent needs as well as to incorporate the latest advances in nutrition and health and a growing interest in child development.

By the mid-1940s, space had become an issue for the School of Home Economics and administrators began making plans for a new building. Booming marriage and birthrates brought an increased demand for courses in household financial management, family relations, and care and feeding of the infant.  New extension programs focused popular postwar appliances, such as the home freezer.  University records from 1955 count more than 200 undergraduates enrolled in home economics majors. Four years later, the school moved into a new $1 million building on South Campus Drive.

These emphases shifted in the 1960s as more women sought employment outside the home and pursued a college education in such fields as child care, nutrition and dietetics, and family relations. Americans had more disposable income than ever before, and new home economics courses and extension programs were concentrated in consumer issues and advocacy, product labeling, personal credit and home business management.

Branching Out

The School of Home Economics was transformed in 1978 when faculty in food, human nutrition and dietetics joined with the faculty in agricultural biochemistry to become the Department of Nutrition and Food Science—today, the Department of Nutritional Sciences. This allowed the home economics faculty to streamline their mission and center their programs on child development and family relations, clothing, textiles and interior design, and consumer studies.  

The School of Family and Consumer Resources’ first doctoral degree program was approved in 1988 by the Arizona Board of Regents. Courses in interior design and textiles were phased out during the mid-‘90s, allowing the school’s two remaining divisions to flourish. With a name change or two over the last several years, these divisions are now known as Family Studies and Human Development, and Retailing and Consumer Science. In 2004, the school was renamed in honor of John and Doris Norton, leading Arizona agricultural producers and livestock growers who have worked with the Norton School over the years to support programs in direct marketing for the retail food industry.

Since 1898, the Norton School in Family and Consumer Sciences has been preparing graduates for careers that translate the latest advances in social sciences, medicine, marketing, merchandising and consumer studies to the classroom. Grounded in a college where the missions of teaching, research and extension are a daily priority, the Norton School takes these advances beyond the classroom and has gained international renown for bringing these advances to families, communities and industry.

Bethany Rutledge
Director of Administration and Communications, Office of the Vice President and Dean / ALVSCE Administration