Drawing of the plan for the original School of Human Ecology building in 1914 on aged, yellowish paper.

In 1900, Wisconsin Federation of Women’s Club voted to petition the state legislature to establish a chair of domestic science and art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Two years later, the Wisconsin Legislature allocated $7,500 to the Board of Regents to launch the department of Domestic Science.

Domestic Science Advocates
The Domestic Science advocates of the early 1900s – First Lady of Wisconsin Belle Case LaFollette is second from left

The spark of a new department began in 1895 when economics professor Richard T. Ely invited Helen Campbell to present a series of lectures entitled, “Household Economics: A Course of Lectures in the School of Economics of the University of Wisconsin.” Following these lectures, the Wisconsin Federation of Women’s Club began petitioning the legislature to establish a chair of domestic science and art at UW-Madison, which lead to the Regents voting to create the Domestic Science Department within the School of Letters and Science in 1903.

Caroline Hunt was appointed the first professor of Home Economics on June 16, 1903. She ardently defended home economics as a rigorous scientific education for women. Hunt insisted that students complete at least one year of college chemistry before their admission to the program and at least 47 credits of science courses for graduation. Home economics classes began in January 1904 in South Hall.

Housekeeper’s Conferences started under Hunt one year later. These conferences were for Wisconsin farm-women who were unable to attend the four-year course at UW-Madison. Classes and demonstrations covered topics relating to sewing, cooking, inexpensive and nutritious meals, remodeling houses, labor saving devices, food adulteration, and child and infant welfare.

Disenchantment with the program and the work of Hunt led to a reorganization of Home Economics at the University in 1908. Hunt was dismissed and the program was transferred from the College of Letters and Science to the College of Agriculture, which was common for other land-grant universities of the time.

SoHE Classroom in 1909
Classroom in 1909.

Reopening in the fall of 1909, the department was headed by a new professor, Abby Marlatt who broadened the scope of the program and, more specifically, defined the types students who should enroll. Some students would continue in Home Economics as a “part of a liberal education while others might want a more detailed study of the topics because they planned to teach the subject or conduct graduate research. While she continued many of the courses initially introduced by Hunt, Marlatt also expanded the curriculum to encompass subjects such as textiles, art and design, and “humanics,” a required course in which senior students studied “development of the individual from infancy to adolescence, problems of hygiene and mental development as influenced by heredity, nutrition, housing problems in homes and in institutions and habit formation.”