With every household appliance imaginable marketed in today’s world, it’s hard to deem as exciting the opportunity to test an electric kitchen against one run by gas or herald as innovative the installation of a dishwasher designed so that loading is done with limited bending.
These advances and more were greeted with great enthusiasm on the Illinois State University campus in the late 1930s, as plans for construction of a Home Management House reached fruition.
More than eight decades later, the building that became Rambo House no longer stands. Demolition work was completed during the fall semester. Plans for use of the open space are being discussed, with no decision finalized. While the structure is gone, fond memories remain of the home created to be a working laboratory for home economics students.
Illinois State needed a home management facility to comply with the federal Smith-Hughes Act, which mandated requirements for training home economics teachers. Among other requirements, the law stated that each senior girl had to live in a home management house for nine weeks.
In October 1937, the Illinois General Assembly appropriated $34,800 for construction of Illinois State’s Home Management House. The state paid $20,000, while the remainder came from federal funds. Total costs climbed to $56,000 with the addition of furnishing expenses.
Ground was broken in October 1938 for the red brick building of Georgian architecture that was occupied in September 1939 and named in honor of the woman who headed the Home Economics Department from 1922 to 1936—Jessie E. Rambo. Although university historical documents record little about Rambo herself, much was written about the house and the opportunities it provided students.
Built facing University Street on the west side of campus, Rambo House was constructed as a double home with two sections of six rooms each. The Alumni Quarterly from February 1939 revealed that the building was originally designed to include “a living room, powder room, coat room with telephone booth, dining room, sun porch, and kitchen on the first floor; with bedrooms, bathroom, and pressing room located on the second floor.” The building was most heralded, however, for the unique manner in which the two separate sections were to be furnished.
“The north house, from floor coverings and draperies to furniture, will be equipped in the traditional manner, with gas appliances in the kitchen. The south section will be furnished in the latest modern style, electric kitchen appliances being used,” The Alumni Quarterly recorded. “This arrangement was planned in order to give students experience in the use of all types of household equipment.”
The seniors preparing to teach home economics who lived in Rambo House divided their time between the two sections. A total of 48 women made Rambo their home during a given academic year, including Charlotte Talkington ’61.
Based on expenses incurred by students who were living at a leased laboratory home the University used prior to completion of Rambo House, it was estimated that students would pay 40 cents a day for meals and $20 for their entire nine-week stay.
The building became an important part of the home economics program, especially in later years as the University helped to meet a shortage in the field. The Alumni Quarterly from May 1964 reported the demand was so great that there were an average of 20 positions available for each graduate from the University’s vocational home economics program in 1963.
Illinois had the second largest number of high school vocational home economics departments in the nation at the time, with Illinois State serving as one of six universities in the state qualified to prepare future teachers. Rambo House was a key element of student training, as Talkington can attest.
“We had a lot of requirements and had to manage things, including a budget and weekly grocery shopping list,” she said. “We took equipment classes at the same time, and we cleaned when there was no dirt. We also turned mattresses every week, end to end and side to side. It was very well kept because there was no money for replacements.”
Talkington fondly remembers the rotation of cooking and cleaning during her days in Rambo House. “It was extremely practical in teaching us to be homemakers,” she said. Her memories include cleaning waffle irons, planning a dinner party, and learning how to fold a napkin to open across a lap with one gesture—all lessons required for her teaching credential.
Extensive remodeling was done in the 1960s. Although the house continued to provide separate gas and electric kitchens, both were updated with the latest conveniences to teach students important time-management tricks.
“Features of the new corridor kitchen of the north house are so numerous to mention that only a few can be mentioned,” the May 1964 Alumni Quarterly reported. “The area has a waist-high, built-in dishwasher requiring no bending to load this model. The students have been delighted to run tests of comparison on the time spent in kitchen chores when there is a dishwasher compared to times when none is used.”
In addition there were rave reviews for a new stainless steel sink “especially handy for cleaning fruits and vegetables.” 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 alumni feature noted.
The home economics program changed significantly over time. The program, now known as Family and Consumer Sciences, consolidated in Turner Hall. Rambo House transitioned to become home to Alumni Services and Development staff in 1972. The building has sat vacant in recent years and fell into such disrepair that demolition was deemed the only option.
Susan Blystone ’84, M.S. ’03, the editor of Illinois State alumni magazine, can be reached at sjblyst@IllinoisState.edu.