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Women's Work: The Home Demonstration Agents of Passaic County, New Jersey

The women of the Passaic County Extension Service, ca. 1925. Margaret Hartnett is pictured third from the right. Photo courtesy of The Wayne Museum.

By Hannah Rodums, Museum Attendant at The Wayne Museum and Passaic County Department of Cultural & Historic Affairs


On Tuesday, June 9th, 1925, fifteen women met for a home economics demonstration at the Mountainview Community Club in Wayne, NJ. The topic: “A review of the four units—vegetables, fruits and cereals, milk, eggs and cheese; and meat and meat substitutes.” The women in charge of the exhibit discussed various methods for preparing and serving dishes made from the four food groups; later, participants were treated with a hands-on demonstration of how the foods could be prepared in the kitchen.[1] The women in charge of the event were members of Passaic County’s Home Demonstration Unit.

This Women’s History Month, we recognize the work performed by members of the Home Demonstration Unit between 1910 and 1930. Known individually as “home demonstration agents”, they sought to teach women in rural areas “improved methods for accomplishing their household responsibilities, and encouraged them to better their families’ living conditions through home improvements and labor-saving devices.” Across the United States, home demonstration agents hosted educational presentations for the public, on topics such as home economics, nutrition, and modern technology. Their work was pivotal in improving the livelihoods of Passaic County’s rural families, while giving women in particular a space to form community friendships and pursue career opportunities beyond the farmhouse. 

The foundation of the Home Demonstration Unit can be traced back to the ideological tenets of “Progressivism”, a system of political and social beliefs that gained mainstream awareness in the early 20th century. At their core, progressive values were “a response of various groups to problems raised by the rapid industrialization and urbanization” of America, in the decades after the Civil War[2]. In the face of widespread urban poverty, poor working conditions, and corruption within local governments, progressive activists stressed the need to reign in the runaway train of laissez-faire politics—a measure that in turn would make America “a better and safer place in which to live”[3].

Alongside urban and governmental reform, progressive activists addressed the condition many farmers and their families toiled in. While grassroots home economics clubs and organizations have been documented in rural communities since 1910[4], activists felt government outreach was necessary to address the communities’ acute need for education and efficiency. In 1913, the United States Department of Agriculture partnered with the agricultural colleges of each state. Fifteen states were incorporated into the service in 1913; a year later, the Smith-Lever Act “authorized cooperative extension work in agriculture and home economics”, making Federal funds available for demonstration work across the United States[5].

For the women who populated America’s rural communities, government outreach came in the form of the county home demonstration agent. Almost exclusively female, the home demonstration agent was college-educated in home economics. Her job was to “keep[] informed regarding all matters that affect the home and bring[] the latest scientific information to rural homemakers in such form that they can readily apply it in practical daily life.”[6] This practical application was especially important. More often than not, rural homes lacked the modern conveniences and technology taken for granted in American cities. Household chores often required women to “slave all day over the kitchen fire, washing, baking, and doing the hundred tiresome tasks” required to run a home[7]. The poor layout of household kitchens[8], and reliance on outdated technology and methods of housekeeping, took a considerable physical and emotional toll on rural women’s wellbeing. As demonstration agent Margaret Hartnett lamented in February 1925,

Grandma’s kitchen may have been a pleasant place in which to stay but it was not a convenient workshop. The sink in the dark corner, the pail of water, the cupboard with all the shelves so high that a stool was required to get at the top shelf, were accepted as part of the day’s work in grandma’s time; not so any more.[9]

It’s important to note that home demonstration agents did not seek to liberate women from doing housework. Rather, the service sought to empower women within their socially expected role as a homemaker to their families. In this way, women like Margaret Hartnett aimed to cut out all the “drudgery of their grandmothers’ generation”[10] that came with maintaining a house and a family. By making the home a better and more efficient place for her to work, a rural woman could become “a better wife, [and] a more interested mother because she has not worn herself out physically”[11]; while enabling her to “find satisfaction for [herself] and [her] family in rural life[12]”.

While little is known about Hartnett’s early life, education, and career, she began making headlines in the Paterson Morning Call in 1917[13]. A year later, she headlined an exhibition held in Paterson, centered around food.  Hartnett had spoken in a “clear and interesting manner” during her talk; afterwards, the Call raved that the women who’d attended found Hartnett’s instruction “exceedingly beneficial” to their lives[14]. Seeing a demand for her work, Hartnett spearheaded the initiative for county-sponsored home demonstration services, which came to fruition in 1919[15]. By 1921, eleven communities in Passaic County had organized their own Home Demonstration Units—including “Upper and Lower Preakness”, who were jointly represented by chairman Ida Herfort on the Home Demonstration Committee[16]

Hartnett was joined by several agents in her work. In Passaic County, she seems to have frequently worked alongside Dr. Florence Powdermaker, who specialized in nutrition for adults and children[17]; and Paterson home demonstrator Cecelia Barrett Brogan[18]. She also worked with Passaic County agents Madge E. Diltz and Mrs. W. Brubaker, whose accomplishments were not as publicized in the local news. More broadly, Hartnett sometimes hosted joint exhibitions with Elizabeth Berdan and Evelyn Sly Blake, home demonstration representatives for Bergen and Essex Counties respectively[19]. Hartnett was in contact with Miss Mary M. Leaming, representative of the Home Demonstration Unit at the New Jersey Agricultural College[20]; as well as a host of local school groups, town councils, and government officials who were equally interested in demonstration work[21]. This list does not include the dozens of women across Passaic County who opened their homes as meeting places for home demonstration work, and in some instances lead demonstrations themselves[22].

Hands-on activities were far and away the most popular teaching method during home demonstrations. They allowed women to practice the skills and advice given by Hartnett and her colleagues, with the bonus of receiving in-person tips and feedback from specialists onsite[23]. Especially in the case of new technology, public exhibitions allowed women to see for themselves the benefits modern kitchen and home appliances could offer, resulting in less labor and more time for her own personal leisure[24]. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Morning Call reveals Hartnett was heavily involved in hands-on demonstrations throughout Passaic County—giving public instruction on topics as varied as the proper way to wax a kitchen floor, to methods of “canning chicken and eggs in water”.[25] 

Other teaching methods showcased the creativity some home demonstration agents brought to their work. The Call records at least three performances of Elizabeth Berdan’s “Come Into The Kitchen”, a play she had written which “emphasized a great many of the points stressed in the home management work as outlined by the extension service”[26]. In February 1928, the New Brunswick college clothing specialist/demonstration agent Catherine Grieble put on a fashion exhibition in Paterson for the women of Passaic County to attend. Far from a parade of “well-made dresses of the latest design”, Grieble’s exhibition included an instructional lecture where she explained how each dress was made, the accessories that could be paired with each outfit, and the “suitability” of each dress for various “types and figures” and social functions[27]. While highlighting the fashionable trends of the day, Grieble’s creative approach recognized the differences between each woman in her audience (be it in physical stature or economic status), and gave each woman the tools to work within her unique circumstances.

Unspoken within the work of the Home Demonstration Unit was the visibility and access to opportunities they provided for women in rural communities. On June 18, 1925, for instance, “two buses of women interested in extension service from Paterson city and Passaic County” drove down to the annual “Field Day” held at the New Jersey State College and experiment station. The day’s program included exhibits on food, clothing, and home management, and ample opportunities to talk to specialists from all over New Jersey. More than a public exhibition, the Field Day gave rural women who aspired towards demonstration work a chance to network with others in the field, in hopes of launching a career in helping others achieve domestic efficiency. As Hartnett aptly put it, 

This has been most remarkable in the short time since it was established…A day of this kind is fine not only for the information received but also that it brings people from all over the state who are interested in the same problems together and gives some idea of what the state college and experiment stations are doing for the people of New Jersey.[28]

By late 1924, demand for home demonstration work was so great that the Morning Call began offering an “experimental” column for its readers, titled “The Passaic County Extension Service”. Like its human counterparts, the column’s mission was to “render as many folks as much service as we possibly can”[29] through daily articles. Hartnett and her colleagues wrote extensively for the column, providing practical advice and helpful “household hints” for recipes, meal plans, and home remedies[30]. The column also published weekly schedules of the extension service’s public exhibitions, demonstrations, and field days. Readers were encouraged to submit their “problems” to the extension’s office, or pay the office at visit in Paterson. In this way, Hartnett and her colleagues were able to extend awareness of their work to a broader audience, while reaching thousands more rural women who may not have had the time, or the means, to attend a public exhibition.

Moreso than home demonstrations, the Passaic County Extension Service column focused on issues of childrearing and family health. Especially with respect to young children, Hartnett and her colleagues sought to provide their readers with advice backed by the latest scientific developments in health and nutrition, as an alternative to the many murky “traditions” they felt abounded in childrearing practices. One such tradition, noted Evelyn Sly Blake in March 1929, was the practice of “smothering” babies in layers of clothing to protect them from direct sunlight, out of the belief a baby’s skin and eyes were too “delicate” to handle the sun’s rays. Blake dispelled this notion by providing compelling evidence for the benefits of “sunlight for babies”, in citing the latest scientific research on ultraviolet light and its necessity for human health[31]. “Traditions such as these,” concluded Blake, “are founded more on hearsay than on fact”—if left unchecked, they could hinder the health of a woman’s family. Instead of relying on the conventions of previous generations, Blake encouraged the modern rural woman to discern between fact and fiction to improve her and her family’s wellbeing.

  Throughout her career, Hartnett was quick to point out she did not work alone. She “attribute[d] the success of her work to the support and co-operation of the women of the various organized communities, the press, school boards, teachers and other public-spirited residents” of Passaic County and beyond. But, even with the support of innumerable public and government groups, Hartnett went a step further in recognizing the grassroots nature of home demonstration work. “All efforts on the part of the agent,” she concluded in 1921, “Would be of no avail but for the support and co-operation of the women, who more and more are realizing that it is their work,” and through their participation had bettered the lives of women from the streets Paterson to the hills of West Milford[32].

Today, much of the work done by the Home Demonstration Unit now fall under the jurisdiction of 4-H clubs, a youth-based organization which seeks to “facilitate learning and engage youth in the work of their community”[33]. However, the time and effort Hartnett and her colleagues put into the Passaic County Home Demonstration Unit resulted in the betterment of countless lives across the county. While results were slow to materialize, Hartnett had the prescience to predict the long-lasting benefits of a modern, efficient home on the rural family—“in years to come, when the recipient is enjoying life’s greatest blessing.”[34]

 



Endnotes:

[1] “Home Economics Notes”, Margaret H. Hartnett, in The Morning Call. Paterson, NJ, June 09, 1925. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 from Newspapers.com 

[2] “The Progressive Era: United States – Reforms, Immigration, Industrialization”. Britannica. Accessed March 20, 2024 from www.britannica.com

[3]  “Overview: Progressive Era to New Era, 1900 – 1929”, published for the U.S. History Primary Source Timeline, Library of Congress. Accessed March 20, 2024 from loc.gov.

[4] “Picturing the Past: Home Demonstration Clubs Preceded 4-H”, published by the Transylvania Times. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 via transylvaniatimes.com

[5] “What is A Home Demonstration Agent?”, originally published by the US Department of Agriculture 1933 and “The Farmer’s Wife Magazine—A Magazine For Farm Women”, October 1921, Page 568; Webb Publishing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 from farmerswifemagazine.com

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Why Do You Still Drudge?”, in The News. Paterson, NJ, Nov 18, 1927. Accessed Mar 22, 2024 from Newspapers.com.

[8] “Passaic County Home Demonstration Notes”, Margaret H. Hartnett, in The Morning Call. Paterson, NJ, Feb 16, 1925. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 from Newspapers.com 

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11]  “Passaic County Home Demonstration Notes”, Margaret H. Hartnett, in The Morning Call. Paterson, NJ, Feb 16, 1925. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 from Newspapers.com

[12]“What is A Home Demonstration Agent?”, originally published by the US Department of Agriculture 1933 and “The Farmer’s Wife Magazine—A Magazine For Farm Women”, October 1921, Page 568; Webb Publishing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 from farmerswifemagazine.com 

[13] “Miss Hartnett to Give Food Demonstration”, in The Morning Call. Paterson, NJ, Dec 05, 1917. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 from Newspapers.com 

[14] “Girls Witness Food Demonstration”, in The Morning Call. Paterson, NJ, May 17, 1918. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 from Newspapers.com 

[15] “Miss Hartnett Renders Report – Reviews Work of Home Demonstration Agents in County During Year”, in The Morning Call. Paterson, NJ, Dec 20, 1921. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 from Newspapers.com 

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Demonstration Agents Announce Meetings”, in The News. Paterson, NJ, June 20, 1921. Accessed March 6, 2024 from Newspapers.com 

[18] “3,000 Attend Poultry Day”, in The Morning Call. Paterson, NJ, Aug 20, 1923. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 from Newspapers.com 

[19] Ibid.

[20] “Home Economics Notes”, Margaret H. Hartnett, in The Morning Call. Paterson, NJ, June 22 1925. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 from Newspapers.com 

[21] “Miss Hartnett Renders Report – Reviews Work of Home Demonstration Agents in County During Year”, in The Morning Call. Paterson, NJ, Dec 20, 1921. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 from Newspapers.com 

[22] Ibid.

[23] “Home Economics Notes”, Margaret H. Hartnett, in The Morning Call. Paterson, NJ, June 09 1925. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 from Newspapers.com

[24] “Passaic County Home Demonstration Notes”, Margaret H. Hartnett, in The Morning Call. Paterson, NJ, Feb 16, 1925. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 from Newspapers.com

[26] “Home Economics Notes”, Margaret H. Hartnett, in The Morning Call. Paterson, NJ, June 22 1925. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 from Newspapers.com

[27] “Home Economics Notes”, Madge E. Diltz, in The Morning Call. Paterson, NJ, Feb 06, 1928. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 from Newspapers.com

[28] “Home Economics Notes”, Margaret H. Hartnett, in The Morning Call. Paterson, NJ, June 22 1925. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 from Newspapers.com

[29] “Sod Buster’s Section”, Harold Wettyen, in The Morning Call. Paterson, NJ, Dec 15, 1924. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 from Newspapers.com

[30]“Home Economics Notes”, Margaret H. Hartnett, in The Morning Call. Paterson, NJ, June 22 1925. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 from Newspapers.com

[31] “Home Economics Notes”, Mrs. Evelyn Sly Blake, in The Morning Call. Paterson, NJ, Mar 21, 1929. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 from Newspapers.com

[32] Ibid.

[33] “What Is A 4-H Club?”, published by the National 4-H Headquarters, 2016. Accessed March 21, 2024 from nces.edu.

[34] “Miss Hartnett Renders Report – Reviews Work of Home Demonstration Agents in County During Year”, in The Morning Call. Paterson, NJ, Dec 20, 1921. Accessed Feb 24, 2024 from Newspapers.com

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