“House Babies” at Iowa State

"Jack" (RS 12/5/4, 1925-1936, box 7)

“Jack” (RS 12/5/4, 1925-1936, box 7)

Imagine that it’s your last year in college. Before you can graduate you have to move in with 8 or so roommates (plus a resident advisor) to a single family house on campus. You will have to keep the house spotless, host a dinner or birthday party, decorate, manage accounts, schedule leisure time, continue with your other classes, and take care of an actual baby for six weeks. You and your new roommates will take turn being cook, accountant, hostess, manager, and “child director,” and you have to do it all for a grade! For over thirty years (1924-1958) female Iowa State students and “borrowed” children formed temporary families in the Home Management houses. By the time the program was over, Iowa State students had participated in raising 257 children.

Home Management origins

The Home Management program (RS 12/5/4 and RS 12/5/5) was one of the many options available in the Home Economics Division (now Human Development and Family Studies within the College of Human Sciences). Its origins can be traced to the “Ladies Course” and it’s later variant – Domestic Economy. The Domestic Economy courses had the goal of “The training of mind and hands so that a young woman will be prepared to understand the supervision of her home with the same comprehension and confidence deemed essential to any profession.” (“Excerpts from Home Management Houses at Iowa State College 1916-1927.” Compiled by Ruth M. Lundquist. RS 12/5/4 box 1, folder 2) The university obtained an off-campus “practice cottage” near the intersection of Kellogg and Twelfth in Ames to support home management education.

The Home Management houses program grew over time from its origins in the 1916 practice house until 1958 when the house program was discontinued. There were ultimately 10 homes in use by the program, although six homes were the most in use at any one time. The homes were:

  1. The “Practice Cottage,” 1916-1920.
  2. Grace Coburn House, 1920-1952. (Also called Knapp House and Mary B. Welch House)
  3. Isabel Bevier House, 1925-1953.
  4. Alice Norton House, 1924-1926 and 1931-1952. (Also called Coover House)
  5. Ellen H. Richards House, 1924-1952. (Also called Beach House)
  6. George White Cottage, 1929-1931.
  7. Farm House, 1948-1949.
  8. Sloss House, 1938-1948.
  9. Home Management Duplexes A and B, 1952-1958.
  10. Home Management Duplexes C and D, 1956-1958.
Map of campus.

Map of campus showing the location of the first on campus “practice house.” Available in the 1921-1922 Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts General Catalog. (Call # LD2547 A2 I68x)

The need for education in child care

The original program involved six students and one instructor living together in the house for two weeks. Each student would perform various chores in cycles of two days. The program soon expanded to include more housemates and a longer stay. “House babies” joined the homes in 1924 after students from the class of 1920 approached President Pearson and urged him to consider the addition of infants to the Home Management houses. Ida Ratzlaff, one of the students on the “committee of three,” recalls making the formal request:


Page 1: Letter from Ida E. Ratzlaff to Ruth L. Bonde, 7 March 1938. (RS 12/5/4, Box 1, folder 4.)


Page 2: Letter from Ida E. Ratzlaff to Ruth L. Bonde, 7 March 1938. RS 12/5/4, Box 1, folder 4.

Meet the babies

The babies were supplied by children’s services organizations. The children had no parents who could care for them, and many were awaiting adoption. In the early years of the program, Iowa State took the babies in for a year or two when college was in session. The babies stayed at the orphanage or children’s home during breaks and returned to campus when classes started up again. Infants in home management courses were somewhat common during the early- to mid- twentieth century. Iowa State was not alone in adopting the practice, but the University is remarkable for the duration and quantity of its program. According to Glenn Hawkes, Head of the Department of Child Development, Iowa State had more infants in a home management program and for a longer period of time than any other institution in the country (Iowa State Daily 26 September 1958).

The first babies to arrive were Albert, Betty, and Gretchen (Gretchen later returned to campus as a Freshman in 1941). With their addition to the Home Management program, Iowa State joined 18 other U.S. colleges and universities who also incorporated residential babies into the curriculum.

Selections from the scrapbook for Betty (RS 12/5/4, Box 4, folder 2)

Selections from the scrapbook for Betty (RS 12/5/4, Box 4, folder 2)

The program ended in 1958 due to the demand for infants from prospective parents. In the last 10 years of the program, the University shifted to focus on babies under 3 months old and limited the babies’ participation to a single quarter. The Iowa Children’s Home Society (the agency which provided the infants from 1940-1958), found that it was able to place babies quickly and no longer had enough babies available for “lending” to the University.

Scrapbooks in the archives

The students took their jobs as temporary parents very seriously and endeavored to provide excellent physical and emotional care for the children. Many of the classes made scrapbooks for the children to document their experiences in the program. Each scrapbook is illustrative of the personalities of the temporary families and documents the activities of the house and the development and growth of the baby.

Pages from the Norton House scrapbook of 1939. (RS 12/5/4)

Pages from the Norton House scrapbook of 1939. (RS 12/5/4)


Pages from the Norton House scrapbook of 1939. (RS 12/5/4)

Other scrapbooks had letters written to the babies by their “mothers” and reveal the anxiety, anticipation, and care that the students felt as a result of their time with the children.

rs12-5-4-b3f4-babies 0001

June and friends. (RS 12/5/4, box 3, folder 4)

“When you are old enough to read this I’ll probably be miles away, but remember, I’ll still be thinking of “my baby,” (that’s what we all called you and you didn’t seem to mind.)

You were mighty swell, June, and the words you would say for us were too sweet & dear for anything” – letter to June from “Jerry,” June 1928. (RS 12/5/4, box 3, folder 4).


Letter from Elizabeth to June, undated. (RS 12/5/4, box 3, folder 4)

Letter from Elizabeth to June, undated. (RS 12/5/4, box 3, folder 4)

Learn more

You can see the scrapbooks and administrative files for the Home Management houses here in the Special Collections department. When writing this post I hard a hard time selecting images to add because there are so many interesting aspects to the collection! While we don’t have scrapbooks for all 257 babies, we do have scrapbooks and records from across the duration of the Home Management house program in records series RS 12/5/4 and RS 12/5/5. We also have a listing of Family and Consumer Sciences related collections: http://www.add.lib.iastate.edu/spcl/collections/fcs.html.

The Library holds a number of material relevant to Home Management education:

  • Ercel S. Eppright (Ercel Sherman) and Elizabeth Storm Ferguson, A Century of Home Economics at Iowa State University. A Proud Past, a Lively Present, a Future Promise. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1971. Library Call#: PARKS General Collection (TX174.I6 E6x )
  • “The Home Economics Story” film – there is a brief view of one of the house babies at 7:00
  • Education in Home Economics. Ames, IA: Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, 1917. Available via HathiTrust.

Blog posts from other institutions:

2 thoughts on ““House Babies” at Iowa State

  1. Pingback: CyPix: Late Night Get-together | Iowa State University Library Special Collections Department Blog

  2. Pingback: Notable Women of ISU: Catherine MacKay @IowaStateU | Cardinal Tales: The Blog of Special Collections and University Archives

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