Euthenics at Vassar 1800’s Style & Mother Studies Today
As with most colleges, the buildings of my alma mater carried the namesakes of whoever had donated the money for their construction. During undergrad, I would pass by these buildings on campus with no real consideration for their benefactors or how they came to be on campus. The only real associations I made were what classes I had in each, or which friends I knew that lived in them. Running from class to the dining hall to my dorm and back to class, the names “Lathrop” and “Blodgett” didn’t hold any real significance to me, other than the former was the dorm next to mine freshman and sophomore years and the latter housed a lot of my classes. Okay, Blodgett Hall did play a more important role in my college years, than, say, Lathrop House, as it housed the department that I majored in. So for the last two years of college, I spent a good amount of time in there, taking classes and visiting professors’ office hours. But other than how it looked, or how downright confusing it was to navigate inside, I didn’t think much into the history of the building.
A gorgeous old stone structured tucked away on campus, Blodgett Hall looks (and sounds) like it is better suited for Hogwarts than Vassar College. The expansive academic building, complete with a beautiful neo-Gothic archway that opens to a lawn surrounded by the back of three wings of the building, is home to the sociology, anthropology, education, economics, psychology, and religion departments. The building has its own auditorium, as well as lab space for psych and anthro experiments. Outside, Blodgett looks like a well-designed boarding school but inside, it is…a mess. It is a labyrinth of tiers, halls, pseudo-floors, and staircases that is any freshman anthropology lecture student’s worst nightmare.
Now, the reason I say that I had not spent time thinking about the buildings’ namesakes is because, had I actually done so, I would have known that Lathrop House and, more importantly, Blodgett Hall were associated with two of the biggest names in the euthenics movement in America. Being that I was in and out of Blodgett during my junior and senior years of college, I had seen the plaque outside the auditorium that read: “This building dedicated to the study of euthenics is given to Vassar College by Minnie Cumnock Blodgett, Class of 1884, John Wood Blodgett to encourage the application of the arts and sciences to the betterment of human living” …but I didn’t really have a sense of what this meant. Messages like these were plastered everywhere on a campus that boasted progressive reform and critical thought. But euthenics, which per the definition conferred by its founder, Ellen Swallow Richards (a Vassar grad), is “the study of the betterment of living conditions through conscious endeavor, for the purpose of securing efficient human beings” took this trend in a new direction, with Vassar at the forefront.
Euthenics, of course, is not to be confused with eugenics, the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics. Though, make no mistake – eugenics seems to have reared its ugly head within the walls of Vassar College, too. Upon registering for a course called “Fundamentals of Conditioning,” the department administrative assistant, herself a Vassar grad, informed me that she, too, had taken the course when she was a student. She then let me in on this gruesome detail: in her day, the course was required for all students, which included a mandatory nude photo shoot at the beginning. This was reportedly used to evaluate their application of the skills garnered in the class, but actually may have been used for a study rooted in the eugenics movement that linked body type to racial superiority (https://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/student-organizations/athletics/posture-and-photographs.html).
Back to euthenics — Good ‘ol Minnie Blodgett, a trustee with a lot of money and an urge to put it to use at her alma mater, decided to invest in dedicating a building (and course of study along with it) to euthenics with a keen focus on the American family as a way to achieve the desired betterment of society. After disclosing that she had almost lost her first baby due to her lack of awareness around infant feeding, Minnie Blodgett asserted that young women – college grads included – lacked awareness around child nurturing and family welfare (Daniels, “The Disappointing First Thrust of Euthenics”). Blodgett said, “Although I had a classical education and was a college graduate, I had no information whatever along the lines of motherhood and training.” So she established the Minnie Cumnock Blodgett Hall of Euthenics, with its very own new major to accompany its shiny new headquarters. This is where young Seven Sisters-trained women could come to learn the arts of domesticity and child rearing alongside their classmates studying classics, economics, or astronomy. This, perhaps, is why the building was crafted so strangely, as it had once been comprised of laboratory kitchens and bathrooms where Vassar girls could practice things like child-bathing and recipe
Perhaps the endowment of several staff members’ salaries with Mrs. Blodgett’s generous donation helped spur the euthenics movement along on campus despite being seemingly at odds with Matthew Vassar’s intention for the college, but Minnie Cumnock Blodgett was not the sole voice pushing euthenics at Vassar (or in the world, for that matter). I mentioned before that the founder of euthenics, Ellen Swallow Richards, had, in fact, been a Vassar grad. Lathrop House was named after the father of Julia Lathrop, a Vassar graduate and the first female bureau chief of the Children’s Bureau of the US Department of Labor. Lathrop’s practice of euthenics was less about changing diapers and washing floors for the betterment of society, and more about public health and child welfare concerns. Under her leadership, birth certificates were established and stricter laws around child labor came to exist.
Despite a backing from some of its most influential alumnae at the end of the nineteenth century, the euthenics program didn’t have the staying power that Minnie Cumnock Blodgett or Julia Lathrop perhaps had hoped. After transforming its image and intent several times, it was eventually abandoned. The last vestiges of the program exist in pockets spread out over an array of majors and course studies at Vassar…and of course in those buildings in which their benefactors envisioned a space for praxis. As I think back on this moment in history and how it relates to the scholarship promoted by the Museum of Motherhood, I think it’s an easy connection to make. After all, “alma mater” translates most closely to “kind/nourishing mother.”
(*Note: when I started writing this piece, I didn’t wholly have a grasp on what the concept of euthenics entailed, thinking it to be only the narrow study of household economics. However, further reading/insight into Ellen Swallow Richards scholarship suggest that her vision of euthenics was much broader than just domestic studies and certainly less controversial than merely a home economics program in an educational institution that was intended to offer women the same education as men. I hope to further explore and highlight the potential social merits of Richards’ movement in a future post.) Jenny Nigro – MOM Social Media Intern ’15