In 1913, the Secretary of Agriculture, David F. Houston, was worried about the decline in the number of Americans living on farms and determined to make rural life more “comfortable, healthful, and attractive,” so he sent out a survey asking farmwomen what the US Department of Agriculture might do for them. He got some surprising letters back.
There were plenty of requests for efficient kitchens and methods for banishing pests, but there were also letters that revealed how much American women hungered for beauty in dress. A girl would not be so eager to leave the farm, wrote a lady from Tennessee, if she could “really see that there is an art in the farm life, and that she can dress as prettily and have her home as neatly furnished as a city girl can.” A woman from Idaho thought that a pamphlet on “the art of appropriateness of dress” would be much appreciated. Who would answer these requests? The home economists, who soon found a headquarters at the USDA.