Blue Books, Baby Bottles, and Baked Alaska

This article from the September/October 1996 Penn Stater details how Penn State’s home management houses in the early to mid-1900s taught the fine points of raising a family.  

cover of the Sept/Oct 1996 issue of Penn Stater Magazine with a baby wearing yellow


black and white photo of a woman sitting in a rocking chair feeding a bottle to a baby with article title in a pink circle, photo by Penn State University Archives“Ever hear of a baby having eight ‘mamas’?” queried John Bonnell ’49 Com in the Feb. 5, 1949, Collegian. “That’s the happy privilege of three little tots living here at Penn State—and all twenty-four of the mamas are charming coeds.”

This “lopsided family setup” to which Bonnell referred was part of Penn State’s home management program, conducted by the School of Home Economics, for all seniors majoring in “that gentle curriculum.” And real, live babies, “borrowed” from orphanages, were a key component.

Penn State’s home management program—in its heyday, among the nation’s best—began in response to criticism that a home economics education was impractical.

“Lack of correlation seemed to be the chief fault,” wrote A. Pauline Sanders ’20, ’37 PhD H&HD in the January 1920 edition of the Penn State Farmer. Students may have been taught in one class to prepare a roast, in another to slip­cover a chair, and in a third, to administer cod-liver oil to a tantrum-throwing toddler; but they never learned how the modern homemaker combined these skills to “keep house.”

Something was missing from the study of home economics—and that something was the home.

“We do not do one task and consider that our homes are well kept,” reasoned Sanders. “So we should show the children that home making is something bigger than cookery .... We learn to do by doing.”

To that end, Penn State opened the Hillcrest practice house in 1919. Primly perched atop a hill on the north end of campus, the refurbished faculty cottage was the ideal place for home economics majors to practice their craft, but they soon grew out of it. As enrollment in home economics increased, additional cottages were refitted, until, in September 1956, these older houses were replaced by four new ones—Florence Benedict, Amy Gardner, Myra Dock, and Catherine Beecher—designed and built for the express purpose of training home economists.

While the venues changed over the 50-year history of the home management program, the basic premise remained the same: to give students real-life experience running a home, from balancing a budget to burping a baby. Students were required to live in a home management house for eight weeks during either their junior or senior year. While there, eight students, a resident faculty adviser, and baby lived as a family. With minimal guidance, the students ran the home. Duties rotated on a weekly basis and, at the discretion of the students, were generally divided into the following categories: manager, or hostess; laundress; cook; assistant cook; housekeeper; assistant housekeeper; child director, or nurse; and assistant child director.

From Hillcrest, with its “fireless cooker” (“almost a necessity for the busy housewife”) to the later houses, the homes were outfitted with all the tools necessary for the modern “housewife­-in-training.”

“Contrasts are provided within each house unit of such factors as floor and counter surfaces, giving the girls an opportunity to compare, in this instance, the serviceability and care of rubber tile, asphalt tile, linoleum, hardwood, Formica, and stainless steel,” reported the May 1957 issue of News and Views, a publication of the home economics department. “The wide variety of small kitchen equipment allows the girls to evaluate such items as blenders and fryer-cookers in terms of their real worth and versatility.”

Presumably, the students were making mental notes about what they might want in their own homes one day. The experience no doubt also proved handy when putting together one’s bridal registry—a plus, since it wasn’t uncommon for women to marry as soon as the week after graduation.

But homemaking involved more than the care and handling of gadgets and gizmos. As noted in New and Views, “A successful homemaker must be more than chief cook and bottle washer, for she is responsible for the home’s atmosphere and her family’s happiness.”

To help foster that family atmosphere, students were required to share three daily meals—not an easy feat, considering the family included eight students, each carrying a full course load. But, according to a 1950 press release put out by the home economics department, the situation was no different from that of “the housewife who attends a PTA meeting or spends the afternoon shopping and is able to hurry home and have dinner ready for her family at the usual time.”


black and white photo of a group of women sitting around a table enjoying a meal
MEALTIME IN THE MODERN AMY GARDNER HOUSE, 1957: Eating together was intended to strengthen family-style ties among the students in the home. Penn State University Archives.


Often served by candlelight, with new table settings and centerpieces daily (a course requirement), meals in the home management house were no macaroni-and-cheese­in-front-of-the-TV affairs. “It was lovely, lovely family dining,” recalls Nancy Gruber Simaitis ’52, ’57 MS H&HD, who lived in Hillcrest in the spring of 1951.

In addition to everyday tableware, students had at their disposal Waterford crystal and Wedgwood china, silver flatware (polished weekly by the student housekeeper or her assistant), and fine table linens, all of which came in handy for entertaining—another requirement of the course.

“As to bringing guests home for dinner, it’s all right,” reported the department press release. “Should one of the girls meet an old friend in town ... the girl brings the guest to the house with her, just as ‘hubby’ might bring an old friend with him when he returns from a day at the office.”

Twice weekly, the students were required to host more formal affairs—a dinner, bridge party, or tea, perhaps—often welcoming faculty members as honored guests. It was on such an occasion, recalls Simaitis warmly, that she prepared her first Baked Alaska. (Apparently the elaborate, baked ice-cream dessert was something every young woman could expect to do more than once in a lifetime!) The faculty guests evaluated their student hostesses not only on the palatability of their food, the artfulness of their table decorations, and cleanliness of their kitchen, but on the sparkle of their conversation as well.

A household budget of eighty cents per person per day in 1949 ( up from fifty cents in 1919) financed this gracious lifestyle. (Groceries, cleaning supplies, and other daily necessities were covered by the per diem allowance; the college picked up the tab for utilities and other household-related expenses.) The difficult task of balancing the budget fell upon the household manager, who worked in concert with the assistant manager and cook to determine the weekly shopping list.

Helen “Hap” Weber Diehl ’47 H&HD recalls the week it was her turn to plan the menus. She sent the designated shopper out with instructions to purchase enough liver and onions for one meal. Unfortunately, when the shopper returned, the grocery wagon (a Radio Flyer-type wagon was the house’s only official set of wheels) contained twice as much liver as necessary. Bound by the budget, Diehl had no choice but to summon all her culinary creativity to deplete the surplus. “I had to go through the cookbooks and find out how to make liver meatloaf,” says Diehl.

Any money left over was spent by the students on “other little items that a housewife might purchase,” such as “measuring spoons, or a bottle of ink, or some flowers,” reported a department press release. “Maybe the budget will enable the girls to buy an album of records.”

Or, perhaps, a treat for the baby.

Just when babies came to live in the home management houses is unclear; different sources point to 1923 or 1938, but by the mid-’40s at least, they had become a regular fixture.

“Healthy babies are procured ... when they are between six and eight weeks of age, so that by the end of the school year, they will not exceed ten or eleven months of age,” reported the home economics department in 1950. Florence Crittenden Home for unmarried mothers in Clearfield and Catholic Charities in Ebensburg provided most of the babies, who for a variety of reasons were unavailable for immediate adoption.

“It was a big deal the day the baby came,” recalls Joyce Harkins Harvey ’52 H&HD. In Harvey’s case, the baby was a brown-eyed, dark-haired charmer named Tony, whom she remembers with great fondness to this day. Like all of her counterparts, Harvey put in a weeklong stint as nurse, during which time she roomed with Tony and was responsible for most of his care. However, the students were not given as much freedom to make decisions when it came to the child.

The resident faculty adviser, considered the stabilizing influence in the child’s life, had the final word. After all, reasoned a department release, “an error in caring for the baby would be more serious than a mistake made mixing an omelet or using a vacuum cleaner.”

A typical daily schedule for a home management house baby may have included a 6 a.m. bottle, followed by a bath and morning play period. After a nap in fresh air, there came another bottle at 2 p.m., more playtime, a sun bath, supper, and bedtime at 6 p.m.

All the while, the student nurse had to maintain her regular course schedule. “You had at least fifteen credits,” recalls Harvey. “And they gave you no quarter. There had to be somebody in the house at all times to baby-sit this child, and we worked that out with our schedules. I don’t remember how. The nurse always had to make sure that somebody was there for the child.” Given regular medical checkups by local doctors, food, clothing, toys, and plenty of loving care by their surrogate families, many of the children flourished.

One such baby was Janie “Gardner.” (As a way of preserving anonymity, children adopted the name of the home management house in which they lived.) Janie came to Amy Gardner House from Catholic Charities during the time when Janice Chennault George ’55 MS H&HD served as the home’s faculty adviser.

“We got her when she was six months old,” recalls George. “She was very pretty, but very tiny, and never cried.” Since crying was the primary means of gaining attention in a ward full of babies, Janie had grown accustomed to receiving little attention. “She hadn’t been held a lot at the orphanage,” says George. “She would lie on her back, waving her fists randomly in front of her eyes.” Unlike most children, she showed little interest in the faces of others. After three terms in Amy Gardner House, Janie had blossomed into a very different baby. “She walked and played,” says George. “But she still didn’t cry for attention—she laughed.”

Ironically, the surfeit of care enjoyed by Penn State’s tiny charges was one reason why many other schools chose not to include babies in their home management programs.

“Many colleges of home economics did not think that it was a good idea, and they would not do it,” says Jeanne Riebel Lord ’50 MS H&HD, a faculty adviser for Penn State’s program during the 1950s. “They felt that the child got too much attention and then might go to none. In some ways, that was justified ... but we always felt that it was better for that baby than lying in a crib in an orphanage.” Lord surmises that some children may have found permanent homes more quickly upon returning to the orphanage, precisely because the attention they received at Penn State made them stand out to prospective parents as healthy, well-adjusted children.

Indeed, several children were adopted because of contacts made at Penn State, and some found permanent homes with faculty families. While Penn State never arranged such adoptions—everything was handled by the orphanages or state agencies—residents of the home management houses did facilitate some of them.

Janie Gardner became eligible for adoption during her stay at Amy Gardner House. George recalls the day the baby’s new parents came to take her home. “The students juggled their schedules to see the baby off,” recalls George. “They met the parents and told them about all of Janie’s favorite foods, her favorite toys, everything. They wanted to be sure those parents knew how to make her happy.” But while everyone was happy that Janie would have a real home, they were heartbroken to see her go.

“Oh, there were tears everywhere,” says George. “From all of us, not just the students.”


black and white portrait of a woman holding a baby from Penn State University Archives
HILLCREST HOUSE: Eleanor Pomeroy Byrem '28 H&HD with a Hillcrest baby. Penn State University Archives.


Such emotional entanglements were one reason why Penn State gradually phased out the use of orphans in the home management houses. The rigors of round-the-clock baby care were another. “I remember clearly being the nurse and having exams [to study for], and that baby crying,” says Barbara Woodward Andrews ’55 H&HD. “Truly, I have to tell you that I did not enjoy it.” Woodward doesn’t doubt that the children received adequate care, or that the home management house fit neatly into the context of the major. But touch off her maternal instincts, it did not.

“Probably there were many women in the houses in those days who looked forward to being married and being mothers. I did not,” says Andrews, a home economics and journalism major who went on to marry and have four children. “My idea [then] was to take on Better Homes and Gardens.”

By the late 1950s, life in the home management house as Woodward knew it had ceased to exist. No longer were orphans a part of the home management “family.” Instead, the home management houses functioned more like daycare centers. Students or local families dropped off their children weekday mornings and picked them up after class or work. Babies spent two nights a week at the home management house, in order to give the students at least a limited knowledge of round­the-clock care. But, says George, “we certainly didn’t want to keep them away from their families.”

Back in 1948, the Collegian reported that graduates of the home management program “should make better housewives than ever appeared on a radio quiz show.” But by the ’60s, producing exemplary homemakers was no longer a priority of most universities. Neither was home economics, for that matter. In 1965, the College of Home Economics was renamed the College of Human Development, and over the next several years, the home management houses were phased out along with the old curriculum. Today, the buildings house offices and research facilities.

But in the minds and hearts of those who lived there, the home management house remains far more than an outdated educational exercise.

“It was a home, it was a real home,” says Nancy Sirnaitis. “I look back on my home management experience as one of the best parts of my college life. It was a very happy time.”

Nevertheless, times have changed, and that change has not gone unnoticed—or unappreciated—by home management house alumni.

“I’m sure [the home management house] would probably not have any great value for people now,” says Diehl. “Families are so different now. In most cases, it’s necessary for both people to work. Unfortunately, they don’t even have meals together.”

Such changes trouble Lord. As she sees it, the very shifts in American family life and education that make the home management house seem a quaint anachronism, make the lessons learned there more important than ever—and harder to come by.

While high schools and colleges seem to be talking a lot about “relationships,” notes Lord, “they don’t get into the kinds of things that it seems to me often cause problems in those relationships, like the management of time and money and energy.” And these days, a young woman with limited experience with younger siblings, and insurance company pressure to shorten hospital stays to twenty-four hours after delivery, mean that a young woman may never learn how to hold, bathe, or feed an infant before she has to do it for real. And, since extended families are often scattered, says Lord, “You can’t call in Grandma or Aunt Marie, because they aren’t there.”

To illustrate the need for such training in what she calls “day-to-day things,” and the value of Penn State’s home management program, Lord shares the story of a friend who benefited from neither:

The friend, an old Temple University classmate, visited Lord at Hillcrest. Temple did not include childcare in its program, and the classmate was “intrigued.” Shortly thereafter, she gave birth to her first child, and called Lord with the news: “They brought my baby and put it in my arms and I didn’t know what to do with it,” said the classmate. “You tell those girls how lucky they are to have had that experience. You tell them how lucky they are.”