Aprons and omelets, whip stitches and patterns. All were basics in Illinois State Normal University’s domestic science curriculum at its start in the 1900s. The program later became known as home economics and today is the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS).

Despite the metamorphosis in name and rigor, degrees under the FCS umbrella are often associated with antiquated training offered more than 100 years ago.

“It’s not your grandmother’s home ec class,” Ani Yazedjian said. With a doctorate in human and community development, she joined ISU as the department chair in 2013.

“The idea that all we do is cook and sew is still out there. People who had home economics classes think that, but we are so much more. We are preparing students for today’s global marketplace.”

Training of the nearly 600 now enrolled in the department occurs in one of five majors: apparel merchandising and design; food, nutrition and dietetics; human development and family resources; interior and environmental design; and teacher education.

Students graduate ready for challenges in varied roles such as corporate buyers for international retailers, registered dietitians combating childhood obesity while overseeing school district cafeterias, and commercial designers looking beyond decorating to emphasize sustainability.

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The professional and academic focus has shifted gradually, coinciding with the transition of women to the workplace and keeping pace with technology. The American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences changed the field’s name from home economics in 1994. The action reflected the profession’s complexity and recognized the changing educational mission to instill 21st century global skills, according to the national organization.

Fashion design student at work

Apparel merchandising and design students prepare for fashion industry jobs by working in laboratories where they evaluate stitches and analyze fabric.

College of Applied Science and Technology Dean Jeff Wood has seen the transition firsthand. He joined the college as an agriculture professor before home economics was renamed. Now as dean, he works to dispel lingering misperceptions about the department that remains one of the University’s best-kept secrets despite its national draw of faculty and students.

“The breadth, depth and scope of what we call FCS today is not understood, especially the scientific basis and alignment with allied disciplines” such as chemistry, math, economics, social sciences, political science, education and more.

“Home economics was very focused on homemakers, with an emphasis on the residential setting. We are now more focused on institutional settings,” Wood said, noting the former curriculum fit the era in U.S. history when women prepared to be teachers or housewives.

The initial curriculum provided training for both paths. With a manual art building completed in 1908, the domestic science program began a year later. Five courses in cookery and three in household management were offered, each running a full semester.

Cooking instruction ranged from dietetic value to correct methods of serving, planning menus and invalid care. The home sequence was study of the housekeeper’s duties. Topics included sanitation, household accounts and laundry work. Advanced classes covered digestibility, food cost and home nursing, as well as caring for lamps and preparing fruit.

Federal law impacted the department in the 1930s, as the Smith-Hughes Act mandated requirements for training home economics teachers. Each senior had to live in a home management house nine weeks. ISU consequently constructed Rambo House for $34,800. Costs climbed to $56,000 with furnishings. Completed in 1939, the building was named for Jessie Rambo, department head from 1922 to 1936.

Charlotte Talkington ’61 fondly remembers her days as a student in Rambo, which was constructed as a double home with two sections of six rooms each. The Alumni Quarterly from 1939 described the north area with traditional gas appliances. A modern electric kitchen was in the south section. A total of 48 women made Rambo their home during a given academic year, dividing their time between the two sections to gain experience with varied household equipment.

Women inside Rambo House

Once a living laboratory for home economics teacher majors, Rambo House will be demolished this year. Among the women who studied there are, front row, from left, Charlotte (Peterson) Talkington ’61, Janet (Cobble) Haskins ’61, and Betty (Ross) Petrusak ’61. Back row, from left, Nancy (Crump) Sedarat ’61, Grayselda (Frederick) Clark ’61, and faculty member Jacqueline Karch ’43.

The building became an important part of the home economics program, especially in later years as the University helped meet a shortage in the field. The demand was so great that there were an average of 20 positions available for each graduate in 1963.

The home underwent extensive remodeling in the 1960s with the addition of a stainless steel sink and waist-high dishwasher. “The students have been delighted to run tests of comparison on the time spent on kitchen chores when there is a dishwasher compared to times when none is used,” a 1964 Alumni Quarterly article stated.

The students also appreciated the change to acrylic carpeting, ceramic tile, and fabric wallpaper. “This is what we mean when we say the students are having a chance to study and work with the latest trends in home furnishings,” the article continued.

Talkington fondly recalls the rotation of cooking and cleaning. “We had a lot of requirements and had to manage things, including a budget and weekly grocery shopping,” she said. “We took equipment classes at the same time, and we cleaned when there was no dirt. We also turned the mattresses every week, end to end and side to side. It was very well kept because there was no money for replacements.

“Rambo was a good experience. It was extremely practical in teaching us to be homemakers,” said Talkington, who remembers comical moments. She confesses adding a bottom layer of lima beans to her macaroni and cheese dish when noodles ran short. The meal was fortunately served on a night the dean did not come for dinner. She also tells of cleaning the waffle irons, planning a dinner party and learning to fold a napkin to open across a lap with one gesture—all lessons required for her teaching credential.

Talkington taught high school home economics courses until returning to ISU in 1968 as a supervisor of student teachers in the department. She became a leader in the field at the state and national levels, retiring in 1994 prior to the name change and shift in academic emphasis.

A recipient of the ISU Alumni Achievement Award and a member of CAST’s Hall of Fame, Talkington created a scholarship for an FCS teacher education student. She joined the FCS Professionals of McLean County’s efforts to create a second scholarship to support the program, which she too believes exceeds what most envision.

“Our field has never been credited for how broad it is,” she said. “We are the only profession that promotes the family, which is a very complex organization.”

Talkington is amazed by the department’s programs. Today’s courses include CAD for apparel design, dynamics of U.S. contemporary health issues, drafting for interior design, and study of the physiological and biochemical basis for nutritional needs.

She finds the scholarly work done by students with professors especially impressive. “Research wasn’t heard of or talked about when I was on the faculty,” Talkington said. The examination of possible links between a high-fat diet and cancer is just one example of ongoing studies.

Yazedjian knows that expanding scientific endeavors will further elevate the department, as will continuing the professional practice requirement. The experience allows students to apply their knowledge before entering the workplace and often results in job offers.

Educating students about career possibilities is another strategy for going forward, as Yazedjian noted the degree programs are still often overlooked by incoming students.

“We are the ‘discovered major,’” she said. Many transfer in as upper classmen after completing general education classes that spark an awareness and interest in FCS. One step to help better explain what options exist is to eliminate the broad FCS degree, which the department will do beginning with 2016 graduates. Diplomas will be tied to specific majors.

Significant change is also underway with a $750,000 renovation to the culinary lab, which has not been updated since Turner Hall opened in 1963. When completed in the fall, students will appreciate a commercial kitchen design and equipment, with areas for culinary research.

The space will be on par with the textiles and sewing lab, where students work on both residential and commercial machines to master and evaluate quality stitching while completing scientific analysis of fabrics. Work is also underway to create space for the Lois Jett costume collection. Some of the more than 2,000 items collected since its start in 1962 will be showcased in a new exhibit area.

It is a significant piece of history that remains, even as demolition of Rambo House is set to begin this spring. The fact it no longer meets the needs of any university program is another indication of the change that has occurred within FCS. And yet, Wood assures alumni that one core department element from yesteryear is firmly in place.

“Our physical plant is changing and our programs are upgraded, but our focus on the student remains,” Wood said. “It is just as sharp as it was for those who graduated decades ago.”

ulinary lab in Turner Hall

Renovation work is modernizing the culinary lab in Turner Hall.

More to the story

Go to FCS.IllinoisState.edu to learn about the department’s programs and excellence. There are many options for supporting the department financially, including through the Charlotte E. Talkington Scholarship in Family and Consumer Sciences Education Fund.

Go to IllinoisState.edu/Giving or call (309) 438-8041 to make a gift.