Early Illinois Women

Early Illinois Women at Work - Nellie Kedzie Project

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Portrait of Nellie Sawyer Kedzie, 1901 polyscope photo


An early foods laboratory, 1930s. Cooking was one of the subjects taught to the small number of female students at the Domestic Science department, created in 1897, the number gradually increasing over the next few years. Most parents were reluctant to send their daughters to an institute of higher education were it not for the homemaking skills offered.


During the World Wars, students in the Home Economics Club becamse involved in fund-raising and leadership organizations. Women had a chance to leave the household and be exposed to female role models who had achieved success.


In food laboratories, many types of stoves were used: coal, gas, kerosene, and electric attachments, among others. A large stove was placed at one side of the room, and smaller individual stoves near a worktable for each student or for pairs.


A sewing classroom. Students were offered courses in Costume Design, Textiles and Laces, added in the early 1920s. Laundry was also taught, emphasizing the chemistry of hot and cold water, soaps, and removal of stains and oil.


Besides cooking, students learned the chemistry of food, food principles and classification, as well as food marketing. One of the courses' prerequisites was Physics and Botany. Students spent 4-6 years to complete their major's requirements.


The Home Economics department suffered most from the 1963 fire in Bradley Hall. Most of Lydia Bradley's treasures that she had given to the Department were burned and lost. The Department was re-developed, new courses added to meet the requirements for the American Dietetic Association in 1967. Such courses included Nutrition, Diet and Disease, and Consumer Education.


Dorothy Holmes, great grand-niece of Lydia Moss Bradley, weaving on the loom in the Home Economics department at the Bradley Polytechnic Institute, in 1937.

Nellie Sawyer Kedzie Jones

When Lydia Moss Bradley decided to found Bradley Polytechnic Institute as an institution for the education of both young men and young women, she became destined to cross the path of another influential woman: Nellie Sawyer Kedzie Jones. Whether Mrs. Bradley tried to pursue Mrs. Kedzie to come to Bradley or whether their association was a fortuitous accident, we don't know. What we do know, is that Nellie Kedzie was a pioneer in the field of Domestic Economy, and that her few years at Bradley seem to have had a profound impact on both the institution as well as her own career. The following is a long excerpt from Dr. Nina Collins' Book: An Industrious and Useful Life: The History of Home Economics at Bradley University. [United States]: n.p., 1994.

Mrs. Nellie Sawyer Kedzie came to the new Bradley Polytechnic Institute in 1897 to become an assistant professor, and head of the newly developing Domestic Economy Department. She had graduated with the Bachelor of Science degree from the Kansas Agricultural College. Mrs. Kedzie was listed as the third faculty member in order of priority in the board of Trustees records. Hoeflin in History of a College: from Woman's Course to Home Economics to Human Ecology offers some insight into Nellie Kedzie:

A radical change occurred in 1882 when Mrs. Nellie S. Kedzie, a very young graduate of the college, who had earned a B.S. in 1876 and a M.S. in 1878 but had no special preparation for the work, was put in charge to succeed Mrs. Mary Cripps. Mrs. Kedzie was a young widow living with her parents in Topeka. She had married Robert R. Kedzie as the culmination of a courtship which began when Professor Kedzie had taught chemistry at the college during the absence of his brother, William K. Kedzie, who went on leave to Europe to study the types of chemistry laboratories. At Christmas time of 1881 Robert came from Mississippi Agricultural College, where he was professor of Chemistry, to marry Nellie Sawyer. They returned to Mississippi, where he died seven weeks later. Upset by his death, Nellie Kedzie then moved back to her parents' home in Topeka. (p. 14)

How Mrs. Kedzie became a leader in the newly developing field of domestic science/home economics was a story told be Nellie Kedzie herself, on her 86th birthday, to the Kansas State Alumni Newsletter, the K-Stater, in an article of October 1954 entitled "Pioneering in Home Economics."

President Fairchild of KSAC, who was calling on alumnae of the College, called on her in the summer of 1881. She invited him to eat supper with her with her family. At the end of the meal, the president said to her, "Do you think you can teach Kansas girls to make such biscuits as these we have been eating?" Her surprise answer to the surprise question was "I can try." That fall she went to KSAC to try to help college girls to become efficient homemakers with less effort than many women were exerting." (ibid, p. 14)

The socially acceptable overt agenda of teaching young women to become better homemakers in the setting of higher education was obviously operating here. Even the development of the curriculum would need "manly help," which would of course, give more credibility to the project of educating young women in colleges. Nellie Kedzie (Jones) remembered:

"The Regents and the President helped me make a list of what knowledge might be valuable to girls. We believed that every girl ought to have some knowledge of hygiene to keep herself in the best of health. Also, that she should be thinking of what foods she will want to learn to cook and serve to a family and she should be able to make garments needed by herself and by anybody dependent upon her." And according to Mrs. Kedzie Jones, that is the way that the program to teach hygiene, sewing, and cooking was decided. (ibid, p. 14)

Most scholars would place Kansas (state university) among the pioneers in the development of home economics. As a pioneer in the discipline, Mrs. Kedzie was faced not only with developing a curriculum and appropriate textbooks, but also with the development of a philosophy of this new discipline. Mrs. Kedzie, in speaking about this challenge, stated:

"The main goal was to elevate home standards and to lessen labor, the constant quest to discover an easier way" . . . . Until 1884 Mrs. Kedzie was the only woman on the faculty . . . . In 1887, Mrs. Kedzie was given the rank of professor, the first woman to hold that title at KSAC . . . . Handwritten notes dated October, 1889, of Mrs. Nellie Kedzie . . . . discussed how few women in history had assumed positions of leadership. She wrote that most were like her mother and grandmother who had been pioneers and had to struggle hard to keep their homes going . . . . Because of the personal work of Mrs. Kedzie the legislature appropriated $16,000 in 1897 to erect Domestic Science Hall . . . . In 1902, Domestic Science Hall was renamed Kedzie Hall in honor of Mrs. Nellie Sawyer Kedzie (Jones), former professor of Domestic Science and head of the department, in recognition of her early work in organizing the field of home economics. It is believed that this is the first home economics building in the nation and the world that was named for a woman . . . ." (ibid, p. 16)

Bradley was able to secure the services of Mrs. Nellie Kedzie because of disastrous events at Kansas State University.

In 1897, radical changes were made in courses and the administration at KSAC. All of the faculty were asked to resign. Later when some were given the opportunity to return, neither Mrs. Nellie Kedzie nor Mrs. Winchip [who was to come to Bradley in 1898] chose to remain . . . . For the next five years after Mrs. Kedzie left, the Department of Domestic Economy was in a most unsettled condition. (ibid, p. 16)

Mrs. Kedzie must have felt some vindication after the naming of the first building in domestic science in her honor. She receives another great honor when she returned to Kansas for a special event. In 1925 at the golden anniversary celebration of the beginning of home economics at Kansas State, Mrs. Kedzie (Jones), who was at that time the State Leader of Home Economics Extension in Wisconsin, became one of the first three women to ever receive an honorary degree from KSAC -- a Doctor of Law. (ibid, p. 29)

Nellie Kedzie was obviously a very persuasive and socially adept woman. Not only was she able to persuade the Kansas legislature to build a building exclusively for domestic science at that university, but she demanded and expected the very best in equipment and curriculum at the newly developing Bradley Polytechnic Institute.

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The early curriculum [at Bradley] was most surely shaped by Mrs. Kedzie, Mrs. Coburn and Mrs. Feuling, all of whom had had full administrative experience in land grant universities, with a founder's perspective. Their experiences were important as part of the contributions they made in shaping early curricula. These three women were well-traveled and had an excellent sense of the overt, societal-accepted agenda; as the early curriculum clearly states, a young BPI domestic science student would surely become a skilled homemaker. On the other hand, as is apparent in early course descriptions, textbooks used and recruitment material for domestic science, the subversive agenda of teaching of teaching women science, technology and mathematics was very important to these early leaders.

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Certainly Nellie Kedzie and the curriculum she had shaped at Kansas State before coming to Bradley had an important part to play in the shaping of the early curriculum. According to Virginia Railsback Gunn, in Educating Strong Womanly Women: Kansas Shapes the Western Home Economics Movement, 1860-1914, Kansas State adopted the "manual-training approach to education in 1873, offer[ing] all students a program emphasizing a balance between sciences, general culture subjects, and technical courses, called industrials. . . .designed to prepare both males and females for paid vocations"(p.iii). Mrs. Kedzie must have felt most comfortable with the philosophy of Bradley Polytechnic Institute and Mrs. Bradley's reason for the founding of the institute.

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Teaching young women to be skilled in housework was certainly acceptable to most of society, which believed that doing housework would keep women "in their place." Nevertheless, the subversive agenda is working here. The study of chemistry, sanitation and geometry, as part of the discipline that supposedly offered only training in housework, allowed young women to become educated, with their families' blessing, in a field that was acceptable by almost all of society.

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Bradley has always taken seriously its obligation to serve the central Illinois community. Holding "open houses" was one of those services from the very beginning. The availability to the community of what was being taught to women at BPI shows that the curriculum was, at least subtly, making its way into the mainstream of society. Education was not corrupting young women at BPI, but was improving everyone's life by providing better managed homes. That women were being educated was not as newsworthy. Evidence of the delight of the press and the community in visiting the Institute can be found in early newspaper reports. According to the Herald, June 17, 1899:

6,000 people visited Bradley Institute last night and acquainted themselves with the workings of Peoria's young but famous educational institution. They saw four hundred students busied with their varied tasks; young men and women representing every state in the union, who have an aim in life and who are taking advantage of the rare chances there offered to prepare them for a successful strife in their various callings. . . .But of all attractive places, the cooking laboratory certainly took first place. The savory odors from the dishes being prepared permeated the hallways and pulled at visitors like a magnet. This is more properly known as the department of domestic economy and is under the supervision of Mrs. Kedzie. The young ladies who were giving exhibitions in cooking wore pretty white dresses and sweet smiles. They gave the visitors tastes of their cookery and the room was packed at all times. All were loath to leave and others were clamoring for admittance.

More information on Nellie Sawyer Kedzie Jones can be found in the Special Collections Center of the Bradley University Library, Peoria, Illinois.

Contributing Library:

Cullom-Davis Library, Bradley University, Peoria, Illinois


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