Honoring the Life and Legacy of Ellen Swallow Richards
By Antonia Demas, Ph.D.
“Schools should not teach how to make a living before they teach how to live.”
— Ellen Swallow Richards
Ellen Henrietta Swallow Richards, founder of the home economics and environmental education movements, was born in Dunstable, Massachusetts in 1842. Richards applied scientific principles to the way we live our lives and had a far-reaching influence and impact on improving conditions in society. Her story deserves to be well known. I first came across her name in 1988 while researching the history of the school lunch program while working on my Masters degree and then Ph.D. at Cornell University at the College of Human Ecology. Until I learned of the astounding accomplishment of this brilliant woman, I had no idea that the College of Human Ecology at Cornell would likely not exist if it had not been for the pioneering work done by Ms. Richards which transformed the way we live.
Ellen Swallow Richards was an only child whose parents taught school and were shopkeepers. They educated her at home until she was sixteen when she attended Westford Academy to learn classics. For a number of years she taught school, helped her father run his store, and cared for her sickly mother. At age twenty-six she enrolled in the newly opened Vassar College, where she studied science and had a special interest in chemistry.
After graduating from Vassar she felt the need for further education so that she could pursue her interest in chemistry. This was during an era when access to higher education was not readily available to women and there was no science school in the country that admitted women. Undeterred, she applied to the newly opened Institute of Science and Technology in Massachusetts, (MIT). A woman had never been admitted to MIT and it took perseverance for Ms. Richards to be admitted finally as a “special student.” She spent four years there, from 1871-1875, as a student, student assistant, and assistant in the chemical laboratories. She later became the first female professor at MIT. While at MIT, Richards met her husband, Robert Hallowell Richards, professor of mining engineering and head of the new metallurgical laboratory.
In 1869 the Massachusetts legislature passed an Act establishing a State Board of Health. This Board was instrumental in paving the way for the public health movement. Its mission was to begin to regulate sources of pollution and to make the public aware of the effect of the physical environment upon their health:
Their mission was, “No board of health, if it rightly performs its duty, can separate the physical from the moral and intellectual natures of man. These three qualities of man are really indissoluble, and mutually act and react upon each other. Any influence exerted to the injury of one, inevitably, though perhaps very indirectly, injures another. As in the physical world there is a correlation of forces, so that no force is ever lost but only interchanged with another, so do these various powers and qualities of man act upon each other, and act and are acted on by the physical forces of nature that surround him.” (Hunt 1958:48).
The concept of seeing the interrelationships between people, ethics, and disciplines became one of the hallmarks of Richards philosophy.
The Board of Health had frequent contact with MIT and hired one of MIT’s professors, Mr. Nichols, to make a chemical analysis of water in order to determine the level of pollution from sewage and industrial sources. Professor Nichols hired Richards as his assistant, and it was in this job that she learned firsthand of the negative impact on the environment of man’s careless behavior. This was one of many experiences that led her to found Oekology (ecology) as a multi-disciplinary science in 1892. After coining the word she defined it:
“For this knowledge of right living, we have sought a new name . . . As theology is the science of religious life, and biology the science of physical life . . . so let Oekology be henceforth the science of [our] normal lives . . . the worthiest of all the applied sciences which teaches the principles on which to found . . .a healthy . . and happy life” (Clarke 1973:120).
Richard’s strong opinions about how to engage people in lifelong learning influenced her approach to education at all age levels. Two experiences vividly illustrated to her the child’s natural ability to learn. She taught classes on minerals for both children and teachers at the Boston Natural History Museum. Some of the material she presented to each group was exactly the same. She observed that the children were far superior at understanding certain concepts than were the adults. She decided to test this observation by teaching the same lessons about minerals to a group of elementary school students and to a class of undergraduates at Harvard. The results showed that “The children trusted to their own observations . . . and were able much sooner than the older pupils to identify and classify minerals” (Clarke 1973:201). This indicated to Richards that something was drastically wrong with the educational system if one result was that learning became more difficult with age. The child’s natural curiosity about life should be given a full range of opportunities for active experimentation.
Richards observed in this elegant and insightful quote, “The zest of intelligent experiment will add great charm to otherwise monotonous duties” (Hunt 1958:99).
In writing about early education for girls, Richards said: “We must awaken a spirit of investigation in our girls, as it is often awakened in our boys, but always, I think, in spite of the school training. We must show to the girls who are studying science in our schools that it has a very close relation to our every-day life. We must train them by it to judge for themselves, and not to do everything just as their grandmothers did” (Hunt 1958:99).
One view that Richards held strongly was that as soon as children entered school they should be taught about their environment to enable them to live in a rapidly changing world. Education should speak to this need and address real life concerns.
Ms. Richards wrote, “Schools should be readily adapting to the new environment . . . but they aren’t . . . The family was foregoing its educational responsibility and schools are usurping it . . . But if the home is retrograding as an education center . . .schools are not advancing fast enough . . . Where will tomorrow’s leaders come from . . . Where will they lead us? Education must teach environment” (Clarke :1973:201).
Richards was very critical of learning by rote and of learning fragments, rather than understanding the big picture. She wrote, “The human mind learns by putting things together, not taking them apart.” (Clarke 1973:202). She knew that children were capable of putting things together if given the opportunity.
“I envy a child who rides a bicycle without learning, he just jumps on and rides. We should give children a chance to do more. They do not require much teaching . . . We teach too much. The child is far quicker than the adult to grasp what is suited to him. We present to him something he cannot grasp–the large end–and he wisely refuses it. We call him stubborn when he is only wise. We forget that the abstract is arrived at only after much experience with the concrete. . . What we do to kill learning! We put young children on hard seats, in cramped positions, force into their heads a dead book which must not be crumpled or torn and exclaim: ‘Study! Study! Recite!’ And this when human instinct demands objects to be handled and put together . . . “(Clarke 1973:202-3).
Richards believed that the senses should be engaged in learning about the environment for the learning to be effective.
“Place the child in an environment rich in suggestion . . . furnish the [natural] materials for discovery . . . [s/he] needs pleasant surroundings– color, form, flowers, music–to express [his/her] ideas and to stimulate imaginative thoughts to become master of [his/her] environment. . .It is contrary to all the laws of [human] development to allow the child to pull pieces [of learning] without putting [them] together. [Yet] Botany and Zoology are . . . taught by dissection . . . the destruction of life which has built up the delicate structure . . . Not until the cycle so evident in all [of] nature can be understood in its entirety should [the] analytical habit be formed” (Clarke 1973:203- 4).
Richards stressed the importance of early education and exposure and interaction with the environment. She wrote, “Our experience has convinced us that early and consistent progressive training of human beings, whether men or women, by means of a knowledge of the objects in [the] laws of Nature is the best means of developing the powers of the human mind to grasp the meaning of the facts of history . . . to appreciate the best and finally, [for men and women] to take their place as makers of the history of the future . . .”(Clarke 1973:204).
Richards devoted much of her effort to the field of nutrition. She lectured widely about food science urging the development of new food products for a better diet. She was appalled by some of the unsanitary practices in use at public restaurants. It wasn’t enough that food looked attractive or filled the belly — it must also provide the proper nutrients in the correct proportions to maintain health.
Richard’s chemistry background inspired her to write a book, Food Materials and Their Alterations, in 1886. Richards was highly critical of the food industry and decided to do “something for good food.” She created the New England Kitchen, whose purpose was “to provide the most nutritious food for the smallest sum of money.” In 1890 in Boston the New England Kitchen opened its doors to the public. Every aspect of meal preparation was on view to the public. A list of the nutritional content of the items on the menu was posted. A goal was to educate the public about the little understood science of nutrition. During Richards life carbohydrates and fat were studied but it should be noted that vitamins were not discovered until 1913-1948. Nutrition is an evolving science that is confounded by all of the new food products that did not exist in previous generations. The New England kitchen also served as a food lab, and products such as evaporated milk and formulated bread were developed and refined there primarily to extend the shelf life of products. This was especially important during the war years when food spoilage was a serious issue.
One purpose of the kitchen was to convince the poor that they could eat well without spending a lot of money. Because of the high quality and nutritional content of the food served, some of the best customers were wealthy but ill people. Community taste panels were organized to constantly improve the quality of the foods sold.
Soups became a popular item of the New England Kitchen and attention to test and improve their flavor from the watery version most people were used to put them in demand. The favorite soups were split pea and tomato. They sold for ten cents a quart and were popular for factory workers and workhouses. The recipes in this blog are for a summer and winter version of tomato soup and pea soup which are economical, nutritious and delicious, meeting the criteria of the New England Kitchen after extensive testing. In the spirit of refining the recipes we offer plant-based versions.
The New England Kitchen, in their desire to educate the public, invited people to observe the foods being prepared and posted quotes on their walls about healthy foods including the following:
“A man is what he eats.” -Ludwig Feuerbach
Preserve and treat your food as you would your body, remembering that in time food will be your body.”
“Nothing is so disgraceful to society and individuals as unmeaning wastefulness.” -Rumford
“The scientific aspect of food must be united in bonds of holy matrimony with a practical knowledge of the cook’s art, before a man can discourse learnedly of food.” -Fothergill
“There is no pain like the pain of a new idea.” -Bagehot
“The seat of courage is in the stomach.” -Unknown
The New England Kitchen received much attention and Richards was asked to develop similar models in other cities. The state of Massachusetts then asked her to set up an exhibit (representing Massachusetts), based on the New England Kitchen model, at the Chicago World’s Fair. In 1893 the Rumford Kitchen, (named after Count Rumford (1753-1814) an American born inventor and scientist on the centennial of his death), opened its doors at the Massachusetts Pavilion for everyone to see.
Because of the favorable response to the Rumford Kitchen, Richards was asked by a publisher to assist with the formation of a new magazine. The New England Kitchen Magazine became a regular format for Richards to present her views on foods and the food industry. She was also asked to speak about nutrition to the New England Medical Society. In that speech, Richards said,
“The science of human nutrition is to play a larger part in therapeutics than heretofore and it will be of great advantage to the physician to be able to prescribe certain food requirements with as much confidence as he [she] now prescribes medicine. At present, he [she] has less confidence in the cook than in the druggist, hence the latter has often to make good the deficiencies of the former” (Clarke: 134). Hippocrates stated in ancient times, “Let Food be Thy Medicine”. We now understand what we eat can have an impact on disease and that food can have healing properties.
While working at the Rumford Kitchen, Richards was asked to consult with Julia Lathrop who worked at Jane Addams’ Hull House, which was an experimental living venture at the University of Chicago which advocated for early education for children and day care for working mothers. Richards introduced a nutrition program with the Hull House staff and worked to ensure its success. The success of the Rumford Kitchen as a means of educating the public about the science of nutrition and sanitary procedures for food handlers, led Richards to tackle new ventures which are still in effect today.
Richards was concerned about the diet of young children, especially when schooling became mandatory in the mid 1800s. She knew that many children arrived at school hungry, often malnourished, without hope for a nourishing midday meal. As any teacher knows, a hungry child is not ready to learn. Until Richards became involved, janitors were the people responsible for selling school lunches. The janitors knew nothing about nutrition but found they could increase their income by selling food to school children. Often they prepared meals in a dingy closet or basement with no regard to food value or sense of hygiene. Richards argued that the meals should be prepared by trained personnel, that careful attention be given to nutritional content, that meals be prepared in a central location for distribution, and that schools provide proper facilities. Once they saw their income threatened, the janitors tried to organize a protest. They convinced store owners and restaurateurs to display signs in their windows saying, “Don’t Let Anyone Tell You What You Should Eat,” and, “I’d Rather Eat What I Want Than What Someone Says I Should” (Clarke 1973:136).
In 1894 Richards convinced the Boston School Committee of the value of having professionals produce the meals and she was put in charge of running a pilot lunch program. The city provided the space, equipment, and utilities. Through lunch money collected from students, the program was to be self-sufficient. Private donations provided for start-up funds and Richards operated out of the New England Kitchen. Typical foods served were pea soup with crackers; potato chowder; sandwiches made with peanut butter or jam and one-half pint of milk (Bryant 1913:165). Because of her leadership and the support she gained, Richards expanded the Boston school lunch program so that it was soon feeding 4,000 children a day (Clarke 1973:136). The program continued to expand at a dramatic rate and was taken over by the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union after Richard’s death. Richards said, “I believe it will be held a crime in the twentieth century to lure young bodies and minds to college [school] under the pretense of education only to poison them slowly with bad . . . food” (Clarke 1973:137).
Richards reported in the Journal of Home Economics about an experimental program set up at the Winthrop grammar school in Boston, from January 1 to June 30, 1910 (Cronan 1962:13). This school had a kitchen to be used in cookery classes. The Home Economics class would prepare lunch for the entire school three times a week, with sandwiches and milk offered on the other two days. An assistant was hired to help in the preparation. Running the program in this manner made economic sense as well as providing the students with an educational opportunity. A penny per meal was more than adequate to cover the expense. Care was taken in selecting foods for nutritional as well as economic value. For example, skim milk was used since it was less expensive than whole milk and the only nutrient sacrificed was fat. By 1911 there were twenty-two schools in Boston with kitchens for cooking classes preparing school lunches based on this model. One objective was to provide a third of the caloric requirement for the day in the lunch. The students who prepared the meals learned not just cooking skills, but also how to order the foods, how to plan cost-effective menus, nutritional concepts, and organizational skills.
Ellen Richards influenced many aspects of the way we live today. Her contributions to the fields of education, ecology, science, health, and nutrition cannot be underestimated. She saw knowledge about foods as an excellent means of educating people in skills they would need for a healthy life.
We know that multi-dimensional experience with foods can increase dietary acceptance of new foods and promote acceptance of diverse people and cultures. Our children deserve to be served safely prepared food that reflects contemporary nutritional knowledge and learn at a young age the how and why this is so important to their future. Ms. Richards understood children’s natural curiosity about the world and saw this as a unique starting point and opportunity for education. She valued the impact of the home environment including the natural world and thought applying scientific principles to air, water, and food quality could elevate the human spirit. Her contributions to a vast array of disciplines deserve to be known by all and cannot be understated.
Ellen Richards should be a household name, a title she would be proud to own. Her legacy and pioneering efforts have had a profound effect on the way we live our lives. Let’ celebrate her legacy during Women’s History Month!
Bryant, Louise Stevens, School Feeding, Its history and Practice at Home and Abroad, J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia and London, 1913.
Clarke, Robert, Ellen Swallow, The Woman Who Founded Ecology, Follett Publishing Company, Chicago, IL, 1973.
Cronan, Marion, The School Lunch, Chas. A Bennett Company, Inc., Peoria, IL, 1962.
Farnsworth, Nellie, Wing, The Rural School Lunch, WEB Publishing Company, St. Paul, MN, 1919.
Hunt, Carolyn L, The Life of Ellen H. Richards, American Home Economics Association, Washington, D.C., 1958.
Smedley, Emma, The School Lunch, Innes & Son, Philadelphia, PA, 1920.