Lately, you may have considered tightening your home budget, planting a vegetable garden in your yard, eating at home, making food from scratch instead of out of the box, teaching your kids instead of hiring a tutor, mending your sweater instead of buying a new one, or updating your home to be more energy efficient. Prodded by the recession, you have been thinking about home economics.

In fact, economics starts in the home. The word economy comes from ancient Greek oikonomos, one who manages a household. And while we try to put our national household in order, Americans of late are paying more attention to their home economies.

Younger generation examining older generation is canning jarsIllustration David Wheeler

Over the past few decades many of us have lost touch with those basic skills and principles that were once taught in high school home economics programs around the country, says Karen Leonas, an expert in textile chemistry and chair of Washington State University’s Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles.

Leonas has seen students who don’t know the essentials—like balancing a check book or sewing on a button. Recovering home economics skills may be valuable in surviving the current economic situation, says Leonas.

The Department of Domestic Economy at Washington State was established 1903. It emphasized the basic sciences as well as classes in sewing and millinery, cooking, and household economy and management. In order to graduate with a home economics degree, students studied fine arts, chemistry, and bacteriology. They learned human nutrition, accounting, teaching, food preparation, culture, and early childhood development.

In 1913 the university’s extension program hired its first home economist, whose job it was to take the expertise of home economics to the rural residents of the state. One of the earliest interior design projects at WSU—which would later be applied to homes in the region—had to do with optimum counter heights in a working farm kitchen.

Stretching the dollar was also an early consideration. In 1918 one student wrote her master’s thesis on furnishing a home for a family of five on an income of $1,500 a year. During the Depression, Washington State’s students focused on projects like turning flour sacks into clothes and making their own mattresses.

At the same time women nation-wide were making up for lost income by increasing their productivity at home. According to historian Alice Kessler-Harris, they did more sewing, preserving fruits, and canning vegetables. Domestic labor became more valued by society as a whole.

By 1928 the home economics department at WSU had its own building. It was later named White Hall, which in the 1990s became Honors Hall. It was a nexus for all that was home ec, with a nursery in the basement and a food science laboratory in the attic. There were home management houses nearby where students could live for a semester and run a household—from budgets and cleaning to meal planning and preparation.

Home economics was about taking the latest in science and research and applying it to home use, says Leonas. It was also a conduit for women who were looking for professional avenues beyond teaching school—design, and nutrition, for example.

But then something changed. During World War II, many women had to set aside work at home and clock in at factories and businesses. On campus, they were going into male-dominated fields, including pharmacy and journalism. Then the war ended and the men came home. In the years that followed, there was an effort to get women back into homes and focused on a domestic life instead of a professional one.

Unfortunately, home economics became a part of that effort. Across the country, university and college administrators encouraged women who were attending college to go into Home Ec, focusing them on becoming good homemakers. This pressure also kept the women out of other fields of study. Home Ec’s image became more about keeping women in the home than about teaching students the latest science and technology as it applied to their near environments, says Leonas.

Everyone was harmed. Home economics, and all the good it did us, was cast in an unflattering light, says Leonas. By the time of the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s, those home ec basics were widely rejected. Rather than being a source of opportunity for women, it was stigmatized as a limitation.

Beginning in the 1980s, WSU’s College of Home Economics was broken up and blended in with other programs, including the College of Agriculture. Foods and Human Nutrition were moved into Food Science. Child, Consumer and Family Studies became Human Development. Apparel, Merchandising, Textiles and Design was the last to change when Interior Design moved up to Spokane and the rest of the program moved to an empty dormitory across campus.

“Energetic, productive, dedicated faculty and students are still here, and they are in three former Home Economics departments, as well as in others. But the soul of the Home Economics profession is not here,” wrote Dorothy Price, a professor emeritus from the College of Home Economics, in her 2003 History of Home Economics at Washington State University: Year 75 to Year 100.

“We have been so concerned with the other things, I think we’ve lost something,” Price says when asked about the situation now. Many of the areas of study once offered in home economics are still on campus. But the holistic approach that home economics provided is gone, she says. “And that’s probably something we need right now.”

But again, things are changing. There is a growing interest in the home or near environment. Martha Stewart in the 1990s may have led the revival of the domestic arts, but the do-it-yourself shows, the Food Network, and programs like Project Runway and Top Chef are showing that people are willing to bypass convenience and learn again how to do things for themselves. The downturn in the economy is going to push it further, say the experts. “I think the dollar is going to be more of a priority than convenience is,” says WSU nutritionist Shelly McGuire, who believes the economic downturn will push families to eat well at home on a budget. It may even improve their nutrition, she says.

“At this point we’re all just guessing what’s going to happen,” she says, but as middle income families stretch their dollars a little further, they will probably be more careful about planning and executing meals. “They may take more personal responsibility and plan ahead.”

Americans are in a great position to economize on their eating. “We have the cheapest, most accessible food supply of anyone,” says McGuire. But first, we have to learn how to do it. “I think we’ve forgotten these simple, sort of inexpensive ways to eat,” she says. She has friends, for example, who don’t know how to cook legumes. Simple, economical, and healthy dishes like rice and beans just aren’t in their repertoire. There are also people who have never popped popcorn. “They rely on the microwave popcorn,” she says. “It’s amazing. Do you want to spend two cents or two dollars?”

McGuire is a spokesperson for the American Society of Nutrition. She notes that the organization advises changing food purchasing habits by cutting back on restaurant meals, focusing on in-season fruits and vegetables, and going to the store with a shopping list to avoid impulse buys.

“I hope people will take more personal responsibility and look at their budgets and say wow I’m spending a lot on groceries and eating out,” she says. “You don’t stop at the expensive grocery store every time. Plan ahead.”

In her household, home-cooked meals are de rigueur. A version of economizing for her there would be making protein a component of a meal rather than the center piece. “We’ve been joking that maybe this is the year of the casserole,” she says. “Eating healthfully and cheaply is completely within people’s control,” she says. “And in times like this, knowing what you do have control over is important.”

Home gardening is also something people turn to during tough times, says Tonie Fitzgerald, program leader of WSU’s Master Gardener’s program. “There were three times when home, community, and school gardens were at a peak,” she says. “World War I, World War II, and now.”

People gardened during the wars so that the commercially produced food could be sent to soldiers and starving people in war-ravaged Europe, says Fitzgerald. Back then we promoted some of the same concepts we have now including getting youth involved and cutting down on the number of miles your food has to travel. The effort “tied people back to their land and community,” she says.

The National Gardening Association is predicting a 19-percent increase in home gardening in 2009. Even the Obamas have planned a vegetable garden for the White House.

Roses and dahlias are coming out and fruits and vegetables are going in, says Linda Kirk Fox, head of WSU Extension and a family economist. It’s all coming back—budgeting, growing and preserving food, fabricating apparel, and improving the home environment. Fox notes that Extension is reaching out to families to help with financial literacy with a web-based effort to spread general information about consumer credit and financial planning.

While most people probably won’t be making their own clothes, they would do well to understand construction and textiles. They should be concerned that the pieces they’re purchasing are ones that will fit well and wear well, says Leonas.

And now, there’s a national push toward living sustainably. It could be a very home economical idea, says Price. The notion embodies all that was first promised and promoted by this discipline—using the latest in science and technology to improve our home environments. And as resources become less affordable, simple changes that reduce the inputs required to operate a home could help households and communities. It could be a very good thing, says Price. “As long as we don’t get too caught up in the technology.”

In the end, we may end up valuing this time, says McGuire, as it causes us to do more with less and pay closer attention to our home environments. It may even improve our quality of life.