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We Lived In The Cottage: Home Economics Practical Experience in the 1950s

Home Economics was a vibrant and integral part of the University of Maine at Farmington’s long history. Initiated in 1911, the program trained teachers of the domestic arts for the public schools of Maine. It began as a two year course and soon added a third year of advance coursework to prepare students to work as supervisors and special teachers of household arts.

The first Cottage Baby, Leo, and Miss Gates, 1927

The Home Ec faculty and students were good record keepers so quite a bit is known about the history of the program, its facilities, the faculty and the long succession of “Cottage Babies.”

In the beginning, the students had some of their lessons in the first house that served as the Home Economics “Cottage.” Much of the hands-on practice work was conducted in the cooking and sewing laboratories in the converted barn near the house. In 1927, two students lived in the Cottage and cared for the first baby, Leo, while another four students lived in the dormitories and spent their days in the Cottage. The first full use of the Cottage as a “practice house” was in 1930.

The Duties of Cottage Life

Home Ec students provided a glimpse into life in the Cottage in the 1950s through a series of diary-like documents. The first, entitled We Lived In The Cottage, was written by a senior and describes the start of the new semester in September 1950. The six students drew numbers for their room assignments and ate their meals in Mallett Hall dining room for the first few days before they could begin preparing their own at the cottage.

The students filled the roles of cook, assistant cook, upstairs housekeeper, downstairs housekeeper, laundress, and nurse. The cook was responsible for menu planning, shopping for food, preparing meals and washing cooking utensils. The assistant cook helped with cooking, set the table and waitressed. The upstairs housekeeper cleaned the rooms on the upper level and helped with dishes. The downstairs housekeeper cleaned the lower level of the house, did flower arranging and hostessing, said grace at table, and shopped for supplies downtown. The laundress did laundry and also helped with dishes. The nurse was responsible for the care of the baby. The duties rotated during the group’s ten week stay in the cottage, giving each student a chance for a range of experiences.

Formal Dinner Party at Home Economics Cottage, 1941

The students entertained six times so each student could practice hostessing a social affair. These events included formal dinners, Canasta parties, buffet luncheons, and afternoon teas. The guests were often faculty and their spouses or other students. At the end of their stay, the current residents hosted a welcome tea or a meal for the next group of students assigned to live in the Cottage.

In addition to their assigned duties, the Cottage students in fall 1950 also had special projects to work on. These included making curtains for the nursery, larger housecleaning tasks, and writing the first “chapter” in the Cottage history. Most of the students and the Cottage housemother, Evelyn Benjamin, also knitted in their spare time, often making items for the baby.

The students soon decided being the cook and the nurse were the most time-consuming and challenging tasks. The cook had to provide meals within a budget of 70 cents per person per day. However, the Cottage was fortunate to receive free fresh vegetables from the garden of Mr. Whittier, who owned the downtown drug store. Being the nurse had its own challenges as the infants were often very young when they arrived at the Cottage and had yet to settle into a regular routine.

Caring For Baby

Like many of the previous babies, the infant living at the Cottage in 1950-1951 came from the state children’s home in Bangor. John had reddish blonde hair and blue eyes and quickly won the hearts of the students caring for him. While he was awake and ready for his first bottle at 5a.m., the early start each day proved tough on some of the students. Several were prone to oversleeping toward the end of their 10-day shift as nurse! Regardless of the sleep deprivation, the students agreed the experience of caring for a baby was invaluable. They were all sad to see John go in June, but were glad to know he was going to a new home.

Cottage baby Gail with F.S.T.C. student Marion Minot, 1952

The students who lived in the Cottage in the fall of 1952 divided up the duties a bit differently and had a hostess role instead of a laundress. The upstairs housekeeper was the one who could go home on weekends, as those duties could easily be filled by the others. The students also decided to have their Sunday dinner at Mallett Hall dining room instead of preparing it themselves in the Cottage.

The baby did not arrive until two weeks into the semester -- a month-old redhead named Gail. Although this group also had a "nurse" role for baby care, the students all took turns doing the night feedings. Although exhausted, they agreed they had truly gained an understanding of what is involved in caring for an infant. They also knew the next group of Cottage students would have it easy -- the first time Gail slept through the night was the day they moved out of the Cottage!

While this group hosted teas and small dinner parties for faculty and other guests, their highlight event was a Halloween party in the candle-lit basement with fortune telling and games, ending with toasting marshmallows in the livingroom fireplace. The students who would be living in the Cottage in spring of 1953 were welcomed with a “backwards” party. The guests entered through the back door, were escorted to the kitchen where they dined on upside down cake and cocoa, then played party games. They ended their visit by drawing names to get their roommate and room assignments for their upcoming stay in the Cottage.

F.S.T.C. students Jean Grave and Louise Watson with Cottage baby Debbie, 1954

The fall of 1954 started with one Cottage senior missing the first house meeting (the others teased her it might have been due to Hurricane Edna). The baby was also late to arrive, so students worked on cleaning and other tasks to fill their unexpected free time.

In May 1954, the Cottage record keeper’s diary entry was written from the prospective of the Cottage’s baby, Deborah. Observations included excitement about the inauguration of President Scott, preparations for the annual Arbor Day Exercises, and various luncheon guests and visitors to the Cottage.

In fall 1954, the students had a Halloween party for the incoming Cottage group with homemade raised doughnuts and cider. The Cottage baby, Donna, was left under the care of Mrs. Miller for a day while Miss Hastie, Miss Benjamin, and the students attended a Teachers Convention at a Lincoln Junior High in Portland.

Opportunities To Share and Learn

While Cottage life was an essential part of Home Ec training, there were other annual events that provided students with the opportunity to showcase their work and to practice new skills. The Style Show and Mother’s Day Luncheon were the highlights of the spring semester. Senior students attended the state Home Economics Association meeting in Augusta, giving them a chance to get to network with others working in their field. There was also an active Home Economics Club, which hosted guest speakers and held a banquet.

Sources: We Lived In The Cottage, 1950; Dear Diary, 1951; Cottage Life, 1952; Dear Diary, September 12-23, 1954; Dear Cottage Kids of the Future, May 1954, The Cottage Courier (undated); Back in the Good Old Days (undated); Home Economics Department scrapbooks; campus newspaper