The “Professional Grandma”

Drawing Source: Good Housekeeping (February, 1917)

The April, 1917 issue of Ladies Home Journal suggested that women whose children are grown may want to get a job. The magazine described a new extension program that was looking for experienced homemakers, which the magazine dubbed “professional grandmas”,  to help younger women learn the ropes of homemaking.

Here’s a few excerpts from the article:

The “Professional Grandma”

We do not generally think of a “grandma” as having a profession. But the modern grandma is still young at middle age, young enough to want a profession of her own and a wider outlet for her activities than her own family supplies.

Through a new provision of Uncle Sam, the middle-aged homemaker is now enabled to give the benefit of her large experience to women who are still grappling with the many problems of homemaking, for by the passage of the Smith-Lever Act, a “profession for grandmas” has been created.  This work was to carry into the homes of farm women better ideals, newer methods and instructions in how to manage homes, cook, and care for children so as to reduce the drudgery of farm housekeeping and raising the standard of farm home living.

Here is the story of Mrs. M___, one of the first “professional grandmothers” in Massachusetts. A woman past forty who has raised a family and therefore has twenty-odd years of practical experience in home management she is also a woman of tact and sympathy.

Once a week, in the little village library she calls together the forty or more country homemakers in the surrounding district and talks to them intimately on food nutrition and on arranging their kitchens, how to choose labor-saving devices, and other problems of the homemaker.

Then she hires a horse and buggy, and visits personally the homes of those who had been at the group meeting. Once seated in the farm kitchen she gains the confidence of its mistress, noting that the kitchen might easily be arranged to save more steps, talking to the woman about the family meals, how much those meals cost and how they were prepared.

Another “grandmother” is Mrs. L__  in Illinois. Her state agricultural station told her that she was just the woman they needed as a canning demonstrator to go from county to county.

There is another “professional grandmother” in Indiana who gives cooking demonstrations at farmers’ institutes throughout the state. Sometimes this demonstration lasts two days, but generally it is what she laughingly calls a “one-night stand.”

Last spring I talked with the supervisor of this extension work in one of the largest states, and she said to me: “If I only knew where to turn to get the right women. We have more of a demand for workers than I can supply, and in a few years when the work becomes more established, still more will be needed.”

The “Professional Grandma” by Mrs. Christine Frederick (Ladies Home Journal: April, 1917)

42 thoughts on “The “Professional Grandma”

    1. I think that the funding for this came from the same basic source as the funding for the home economists who work for the county extension service. There was a lot of interest in teaching home economics in the early part of the 20th century -both through home economics courses in schools and out in the community.

  1. I so enjoyed reading words of a new dawn. There are new Dawn’s all around us and we hear and read about them on a daily basis. A nice breath of fresh air from a century ago gives us a beautiful pause of reflection. Precious

    1. I think that this program is long gone, but that the Extension Homemakers Clubs that still exist in some rural areas had their roots in organizations started by these “professional grandmas.”

  2. Fascinating post. It made me realise how little women a hundred years ago or so learned of housekeeping except what they gathered from their mothers and other women in the family. We may think we have too much info from television, internet, print etc but how useful it is for teaching us about hygiene, food preparation, bringing up children etc. I can’t imagine having no references easily to hand to consult for household problems.

    1. I hadn’t thought about it quite this way, but you are absolutely right. In days gone by, people learned more directly from other people who passed knowledge and skills down from one generation to the next, whereas today we learn so much from the internet and media.

  3. Personally, I’m so happy I grew up when I did. It was tough to pursue an alternate career, but at least I had options. Having said that, I do think an opportunity for women to share their wisdom is a good idea. And I love how your posts put us all in touch with a not-so-distant-past.

    1. I agree! Women had so many fewer options a hundred years ago, even if times were slowly beginning to change. It’s nice to hear that you enjoy my posts. I have a lot of fun researching and preparing them.

  4. I love this idea! Have to look up the Smith-Lever Act. I wonder how long it took, in a horse & buggy, to go visit 40 farms? She probably stayed overnight with a few of her students : )

    1. I can just imagine how exhilarating and liberating it must have felt to women who’d spent most of their adult lives in the home to have the opportunity have the opportunity to serve in a leadership role and to travel out to visit the farms.

  5. This is amazing. I’ve never heard of it before. What a wonderful and useful program that was. I bet it made folks lives easier and extended their social circles too. I like this a lot. Thanks so much. 🙂

  6. I love this concept. It seems to value the contribution that women make to their families, which often goes unrecognized. I have a mother, but she never taught me how to sew, something I wish I knew how to do, or about baking bread, another desire of mine. I’d have to leave home and take a class to learn these things now.

    1. It sounds like a win-win program. The older women had an opportunity to share their knowledge and to feel needed, and participants had an opportunity to learn from an expert.

  7. These sound like lovely professional grandma’s! I’ll have to remember that as I’m teaching the grandyoungins cookie making. 😀

    1. It’s wonderful when one generation can share their knowledge and skills with younger generations. It sounds like so much fun to be teaching your grandyoungins cookie making.

  8. I’ve never heard of this program, but it did remind me of the important role home economics played in school when I was growing up, and the continuing importance of the County Extension programs. Many people don’t realize how extensive those programs are, but at least here in Texas they’re remarkably active, especially in rural areas. Home management, nutrition, budgeting, food processing — all of those are still being taught, albeit in a different way.

    So much of what I learned was from my mother and grandmother, but I think we could use a program like this for young women who haven’t profited from that kind of relationship.

    1. It’s wonderful to hear that the County Extension Programs are still very active in Texas. I have memories of wonderful home economics extension programs when I was a teen, but so many of them have been gutted across the years.

    1. Thanks for sharing the link. It’s fun to read about the history of your hometown’s County Extension Club, and sad that it eventually was disbanded. The picture is wonderful. It’s fun see to how the meetings were organized (as well as the types of clothes that women wore mid-century). The clubs provided such a wonderful opportunity for women to socialize with others in their community.

  9. It’s amazing to me… what an interesting article. It seems that the more I talk to young women today, the more it looks like the idea of this program could be useful today — in the sense of someone older, wiser, coming alongside them, teaching them, listening to them, supporting them. Especially for those who have lost their Moms & grandmas and don’t really have anyone close. There is so many expectations, demands, and responsibilities placed upon young women today – I think more than ever, since the internet makes them feel as if they don’t have it all together like others who post videos of seemingly perfect homes and tidy nurseries. I recently spoke to a young mother who felt inadequate and unsure, telling me about a friend of hers who regularly posts on her blog all her accomplishments as well as her kids’… If ever there was a time when we need to reassure and encourage these young mothers, it’s now… even more than 100 yrs ago. Thank you for sharing such an interesting article. 😊

    1. It’s nice to hear that you liked this post. Your thoughtful comment really made me think about how the internet does have a tendency to make people feel inadequate. Many could definitely use the reassurance and encouragement of those more experienced.

  10. Interesting! I had to laugh at the opening of Mrs. M…”a woman past forty”, nowadays women of this age are often still chasing after toddlers, never mind having well established careers. 🙂

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