Web Extra

Displays of items used by homemakers over the past century at the IEHA Home and Family conference.The IEHA Home and Family conference featured displays of items used by homemakers over the past century.

From Iceboxes to iPads

Indiana Extension Homemakers Celebrate
100 years

By Jessica Merzdorf


In 1913, life for a rural farm wife in Indiana was often difficult and isolated. Women typically worked from before daybreak to after dark, sometimes in both the house and the fields, and had few opportunities for social interaction with their far-flung neighbors. While their husbands often had opportunities to get together at social and educational meetings, such opportunities for farm wives were few and far between.

During the January 1913 Agricultural Conference at Purdue University, a group of women—homemakers and Purdue faculty—came together to plan an organization that would allow Hoosier homemakers to have the same chances for fellowship and education that their husbands had.

The organization they started was the Indiana Extension Homemakers Association. From the earliest days of IEHA, women learned valuable new skills that they brought home to their families. And as the organization grew, women began taking leadership positions in their clubs, reaching out to their communities and traveling to meet other homemakers overseas.

This year, IEHA celebrated its 100th anniversary—looking back on its early beginnings, celebrating its vibrant present and looking ahead to its hopeful future.

Web Extra
Indiana Extension Homemakers Association Timeline

The Early Years

In the early 1900s, Purdue University hosted an annual conference called the Farmer's Short Course. This course focused on corn and livestock production and offered farmers a chance to socialize during the long winters while learning new skills and theories to improve their farms in the spring. Each year, the attendees' wives noticed how refreshed and eager their husbands were when they returned home. But when they decided to attend and see what it was all about, they were disappointed to find little information that would help them with running a house and few other wives to talk to.

Virginia Meredith
Virginia Meredith.

Discouragement led to inspiration. The women decided to form an organization of their own—one that would allow them to meet other homemakers and give them a chance to learn new skills. The founding group included such women as Virginia Meredith, Purdue's first woman trustee, and her adopted daughter Mary Matthews, who went on to become the first dean of Home Economics at Purdue. The group drafted its constitution and elected officers on Jan. 17, 1913.

With the creation of IEHA clubs, women gained opportunities to socialize with other women who juggled the same responsibilities they did and to learn how to manage their households more efficiently and skillfully.

Mary Matthews
Mary Matthews. (Courtesy Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections)

IEHA came to play an integral role in farm families' lives and communities as the number of members grew. The women gained opportunities for social interaction and personal development; their husbands and families enjoyed their wives' and mothers' new home management skills.

Homemakers also used these skills to serve their communities during economic downturns, epidemics and wars. They nursed the sick; taught others how to grow gardens and live frugally; lobbied for better education and nutrition for their children; and traveled overseas to reach out to other homemakers around the world.

Beginning with World War I and continuing into the 1920s, Indiana counties were assigned home demonstration agents, special Extension agents—usually women—who helped teach homemaking skills in their counties and guided women in leadership and service endeavors, such as coordinating care for patients during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919. From its small beginnings, IEHA has grown to include 877 clubs and more than 11,000 members.

(J.C. Allen Collection)

"The fact that IEHA's leadership opportunities started 100 years ago, and that this is still a very strong emphasis of the organization, is incredible," says April Mason, who served as a professor, associate dean of Extension for Consumer and Family Science, assistant director of Extension, and associate dean for discovery and engagement during her 20 years at Purdue.

"IEHA provides leadership opportunities wherever members are, whether it's in a small rural county or a larger, more urban area, and for those who are working outside the home and those who aren't," says Mason, who delivered the keynote address at IEHA Centennial Home and Family conference this summer. "Leadership opportunities are wherever the person is. I think that's the most significant contribution that the organization has made to the lives of its members." Mason currently serves as provost and senior vice president at Kansas State University.

Web Extra

Homemaking Today

IEHA meetings today often look different on the surface than the meetings of the past century. Rather than gathering around a dress form or a hot stove, members are just as likely to gather around a laptop or iPad, learning about such topics as technology, health care and the economic recession. Membership is primarily comprised of retirees and empty nesters, rather than young wives, and members are not necessarily rural or farm residents.

"We don't focus on homemaking topics quite as much," says Cricket Brown, IEHA's immediate past president, who has been a member since 1975. "We also try to promote new and exciting changes in products that make our lives easier. Topics that we focus on have changed significantly—we learn about technology, estate planning, identity theft, lifelong learning skills, and taking care of grandchildren, since many of our members now have that responsibility."

But underneath the differences, IEHA meetings still accomplish the same mission: bringing homemakers closer together, educating younger generations and reaching out to meet needs in their communities.

Brown's club, H.O.M.E. in Miami County, is actively engaged in serving families and children from Indiana to India. They regularly make puppy pillows for children at Riley Hospital in Indianapolis and shawls for grieving families through the Indiana Organ Procurement Organization. This year, they also sent pencils and tote bags made of recycled materials overseas for people who needed them. The club is active in fundraising, too, raising money for cancer research. (In the past three years, Indiana clubs have raised more than $80,000 for cancer research.)

Brown's club still teaches homemaking skills to young people, although, today, it's done with a twist. "Teaching these skills to the young people can be two-way learning," she says. "While we share about the way to, say, make a pie crust the way grandma used to do it, they in turn show us how to find a tutorial on the Internet, and we all work together."

Modern lives don't always mesh with the traditions of IEHA—for example, trying to schedule meetings after a long day of work. Clubs have adapted to this as well, Brown says. "We are constantly looking at ways to promote membership by understanding that meetings may not work after a full day of work," she says. "Clubs can meet during the lunch hour or certainly through Facebook and other social media. We have to be flexible and realize this. Several of the ‘older' clubs meet during the day instead of night, or some meet every other month."

A Look to the Future

What role will IEHA play in the future, as home and family continue to evolve?

April Mason says she hopes IEHA will continue to be a strong organization to assess the needs of homemakers and communities and address their needs. "Be ever vigilant to provide the best information and change with the times, but don't lose the core mission, which is to better the home," she says.

"Prognosticators have said that the home won't even have a kitchen in the future," Mason says. What would that look like? How do we need to think about that? IEHA needs to keep track of the pulse of what homemakers and communities need, and continue to provide that in the very grassroots way that they have."

From its beginnings in rural Indiana to today's outreach online and around the world, IEHA has continued to bring women together to provide for their families and their communities. Regardless of what it may look like in the future, IEHA continues to be dedicated to its founding vision.

"IEHA has been a tradition and a long-standing partner with Purdue Extension," said Angie Abbott, Purdue Extension program leader in Health and Human Sciences and assistant director of Extension. "A century ago, we were delivering programs on things like dress forms, fabrics and textiles, how to freeze food; today, we're delivering programs on prevention of chronic disease, identity theft and quality childcare for our children.

"The thread that runs through all of those things is improving the quality of life for families. That hasn't changed. The content and topics have changed, but that common thread hasn't."

Melody Makers of Indiana Strike a Chord

By Jessica Merzdorf

Melody Makers of Indiana perform at the 2012 Indiana State Fair.
Melody Makers of Indiana perform at the 2012 Indiana State Fair.

The Melody Makers of Indiana was founded in 1934 as a small temporary choir to perform background music for a Purdue University radio program about Indiana home economics clubs. As it turned out, the women in the group enjoyed singing together so much that they asked to keep going under the guidance of the Purdue Musical Organizations. The group was named the Tippecanoe County Home Economics Chorus.

The Chorus was such a hit that in 1936 it was asked to perform at the White House for President and Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt was so delighted by the group that she contributed several squares to a quilt that the members were making. Today, the quilt resides in the Tippecanoe County Historical Museum.

The county chorus idea spread quickly, and soon other counties organized choruses of their own. A state Chorus was established as part of the Agriculture Extension Service just one year later, in 1937. At its peak, the Chorus had 3,000 members—the largest women's chorus in the world. They performed for the World's Fair in New York City in 1939, the Sesquicentennial Celebration in Washington, D.C. in 1951, the Rose Festival in Portland in 1958 and the International Boy Scout Leaders' Conference in Hawaii in 1972.

The state Chorus left the oversight of PMO and became its own entity, the Melody Makers of Indiana Association, in 2004. Today, MMIA's 500 members represent IEHA members from 28 counties and continue to perform regularly at events in Indiana and nearby states.

Jonell Gandy, a member of the Extension Chords of Marion County, says, "There's a song our chorus likes to sing called, 'Music in my Mother's House.' It starts out, 'There were wind chimes in the window, bells inside the clock, an organ in the corner, tunes in the music box.' Our members can all relate to this song, and I believe almost everyone does. Music is an important part of everyday home life, from the lullabies we sing to our babies, to iTunes and beyond. Our club provides an opportunity to sing, as well as to share our love of singing with the community."

The importance of music in home and community has always been a cornerstone of MMIA's mission, which is "to enrich our communities and create a bond with other people throughout the state of Indiana, while providing the opportunity to foster healthy relationships through the medium of music. Furthermore, we endeavor to promote the art of choral music through excellence in an atmosphere of fun and fellowship."