Markets, Productivity, and Happiness in a Historical Perspective

American Home Economists' Progressive Science of Consumption and the High-Cost-of-Living Problem

Philippy David, University of Lausanne

At the turn of the 20th century, there emerged in the U.S. a field called “the economics of consumption” with the declared intention of building a “proper” theory of consumption, in opposition to the marginalists’ framework. One of the key features of this cohort was that it was essentially composed by progressive female home economists whose objective was to “fill the gap” left by male economists. Relying on a combined heritage of the home economics movement and the institutionalist movement, these home economists claimed that “Political economists had usurped the word [economics] to mean production of wealth” and declared that a theoretical and applied study of consumption belonged to their disciplinary domain. These protagonists, sometimes called “home economists,” “household economists,” or “social economists,” were located at the frontiers of the economics discipline, in an academic space distinct from that of economists. For American economics, consumption was considered to be irrelevant to the discipline for epistemological and gendered-related reasons: on one hand, studying consumption entailed studying psychological motives that would question the liberal conception of choice on which economics was grounded. On the other hand, consumption was perceived as a feminine subject of study that did not belong to the economic analysis. Although first-generation home economists in the late 19th century initially focused on household practices to improve people’s living conditions, the second-generation became known in the 1920s as the main “experts on consumption” and on “consumption theory.” This paper aims to investigate the progressive facet of these home economists in their analysis of consumption. My goal is to show how the study of household consumption was shaped by the home economics movement as a progressive response to the high cost of living by making household consumption more efficient. I argue in particular that budget studies were used by home economists as an educational apparatus that framed the consumer’s choice problem. By examining this function of budget studies, this paper wishes to contribute to a better understanding of how household consumption was developed as a progressive science by women located at the fringes of economics.


Keywords: Consumption, American Economics, Home Economics, Women Economists, Separate Spheres