In 1872, when the Board of Trustees of Iowa State College (University) decided to create a Department of Domestic Economy, there was no precedent for how to begin such a curriculum. No other land grant institution was teaching in this field, and there were no textbooks. Mary Beaumont Welch, wife of the first ISC president, Adonijah S. Welch, was suggested to head up the department.
“With fear and trembling I finally decided to try,” Mary Welch later reminisced in an essay on “The Early Days of Domestic Science at I.S.C.” for The Alumnus for June 1912, “after telling the committee frankly that I was without experience in that sort of teaching, that there were no established precedents to guide me and no classified courses for me to follow.”
In spite of her professed fear, Welch dove in to the task and forged a way ahead. Before she began teaching classes, she took a course at Juliet Corson’s School of Cookery in New York, and later on, she traveled to London to attend the South Kensington School of Cookery, from which she received a certificate.
The London school was established to train young women to go into domestic service for the English upper classes. Welch remembered:
“It was incomprehensible to the English mind that a women, apparently a lady, whose husband was, as my letters of introduction proved, at the head of an important institution of learning, should be anxious either to learn or to teach cooking. The question was often asked me what family I was engaged to work for when I received my certificate.”
On April 2, 1920, Welch answered a note from Elizabeth Storms, then a junior in Home Economics and Agriculture at Iowa State College, asking about “the early days of the Home Economics Department.” In her reply, she writes, “There was very little method of formality in my manner of conducting those early classes. My lectures were intimate talks on the ways and means I had found useful in my own home. …One thing we did to make our work practical was to cook a dinner for a table of eight in the College Dining Room, three days in each week. We were given the same materials from the kitchen that were used for all the tables, but allowed to cook and serve them as we pleased, and I can assure you each table awaited its turn for our dinner with eagerness.”
Welch wrote some of her lectures on domestic economy in a notebook. These lectures covered subjects such as ironing, management of domestic help, cooking, and household accounts. Her no-nonsense approach is apparent in this passage from one lecture: “Avoid primness in your surroundings. Be orderly and neat, but be sensible at the same time. There is nothing more disagreeable than a housekeeper who follows husband, children, and guests about with a broom and dustpan or a floor cloth.”
In 1884, she published a cookbook called Mrs. Welch’s Cookbook, which can be viewed in the Digital Collections.
Not only did Welch teach the basics of home management to ISC students, but she also lectured to women’s groups around the state. Around 1882-1883, she gave six lectures to a group of 60 women in Des Moines, in this way embarking on the first Extension activity in the area of home economics.
Wlech resigned from ISC in 1883 but continued to lecture to various women’s groups. In 1992, she was inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame.
Find out more from the Mary Beaumont Welch Papers in Special Collections.