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Looking Back to Walter Reed-Those Required Home Economic Classes

Some people love to cook and sew...Not me!

For those of you who remember Walter Reed, I’d like to pay homage to those requisite home economic classes we were forced to take.  Remember those cooking and sewing classes?

I wasn’t very good at either of them, but of the two, sewing was a real chore. I was dismal at sewing. I’m not very good at following directions anyway, so putting me in a class like this was a recipe for disaster.

I remember having Mrs. Ahlberg, who did her best. First, we had to make those zany gingham aprons.  I suppose it was necessary, as we were also required to take a cooking class, where aprons would certainly come in handy.

Despite Mrs. Ahlberg's efforts, I wasn’t very good at lining up those little squares so the seams would look even.  Try as I would, I just couldn’t get it right. My finished apron looked like a bad Jackson Pollack painting, when it was supposed to look more like the mathematical paintings of Victor Vasarely. Strike one.

Then, we graduated to making skirts. Oh boy. I didn’t even like wearing them, let alone trying to create one. On top of it all, Mrs. Alhberg had really bad breath. She’d pop those tic-tacs all day, but after that first whiff of peppermint, that familiar stench of coffee, and whatever she’d had for dinner the night before would return. She’d lean over me, breathing her instructions, and I would almost pass out. Perhaps she liked to pull a cork between classes? Who knows? 

In that low menopause voice she’d gingerly instruct me to take that dart apart, and redo it. Gently, I’d ease my quad into the lever that controlled the sewing machine, and then I’d be off to the races again, with the needle hammering into the fabric like a mad woodpecker.  Soon, the skirt was flying off the table, caught in a web of thread.

Then, I’d have to take it apart and start over.  I was too embarrassed to wear my skirt to school, so I probably dumped it in the dog bed at home and hoped Cha Cha would make some use of it.

But despite my failure Mrs. Ahlberg was a good teacher, and extremely patient. She even signed my yearbook.

Cooking class wasn’t much of an improvement. I guess they thought that two tomboys like my twin sister Teresa and I would have a better chance of catching a man if we at least knew how to cook and sew.   Why didn’t they just let us play softball or volleyball for an extra two hours a day? I was much better at playing sports than I ever was at home economics.

I’m sure I burned my share of scrambled eggs, and failed at setting the timer to bake some cookies. Probably, I was looking out the window wishing I were on the guy’s football team.

Oh, those requisite classes.  Not sure if they teach them anymore, but if they do, maybe kids can have a choice as to what electives to take, so they don’t get crammed into gender roles that might not agree with them.

Barbara Krause July 18, 2012 at 12:50 PM
I remember my home ec classes in the 1950's while the boys took shop and wondered even then why we did not all learn skills of both.
Mary McGrath July 18, 2012 at 12:54 PM
Thanks for your post Barbara...there was true gender differentiation back then...
Lydia Ash July 18, 2012 at 02:26 PM
How hysterical... Thanks Mary! The memories of all of this came rushing back... I, too, had to sew a gingham apron...My aunt found it years ago among my Grandmother's things... it wasn't half bad. I luckily did get to take 6 weeks of "shop" when we swapped with the boys... I was much better at woodworking than sewing and I think the family still has the wooden shelves I made to separate the dish stacks! Fun times, but yes, awkward too! The striped knit top with an elastic neck and sleeve cuffs was a disaster! ;)
Leah July 18, 2012 at 04:38 PM
I think the first thing we had to make was the denim gym bag and then graduated to those aprons. Those cooking classes...baked apples with red hots...
Mary McGrath July 19, 2012 at 06:16 AM
Oh, we never got to take shop, but with my luck, I might have cut off my thumb. I did like chemistry though, and those electricity experiments with the centrifuge...
Mary McGrath July 19, 2012 at 06:18 AM
Right, that gym bag! I think we did scrambled eggs in cooking class...I remember putting in the zipper a few times with that stupid skirt...Ironically, I worked in a leather factory making wallets and purses in my early 20's...I was a failure at that also!
Wendy Cohen July 20, 2012 at 12:23 AM
Oh, definite memories! I always thought I should like those classes more than I did. I would have if I'd been better at them. I WANTED to be good so badly but I never was. I got better at cooking (especially baking, which I like), but not sewing, to my regret. I envied my friends who could make their own clothes. I tried knitting, too, when I was an adult, but those skills just avoided me. I did/do make jewelry & am not half-bad at that. And admittedly, I don't mind NOT remembering how to fix a tuna casserole (yuk).
Mary McGrath July 20, 2012 at 12:37 AM
Thanks for sharing Wendy! We all have such poignant memories...
Andy Steiner July 21, 2012 at 08:58 AM
At Reed, I took print shop. After the first year, I went back to learn how to develop film and enlarge photos. I also learned that the darkroom in the print shop is the one place on campus where a boy and a girl could, during class time, spend the entire period making out in complete privacy and still have something, other than hickies, to show for it. Wow! I was such a pig. Or a really good kisser. Dunno.
Mary McGrath July 21, 2012 at 01:19 PM
Hey Andy! I didn't know they had photo-related classes at Walter Reed. It puts a new spin on the "developer", eh? Not just seven minutes in heaven for you, but probably closer to 60...What fun...Women were allowed in that class? Sorry I missed it.
teresa mcgrath July 25, 2012 at 02:38 PM
great article mary....leah is correct...the first task from mrs ahlberg was the canvas or cotton tote bag....we all did ok on it...the gingham apron was next...mine was light green gingham, and my lack of sewing skills began seeping through with the apron...it escalated in the skirt, and i couldn't master the zipper...i think i redid the zipper 4 times, and was very upset...i eventually received a "d" due to slowly tackling these tasks...mom had to come in and dispute the d grade, as she thought i was methodical and efficient....mrs alberg still gave me a d grade, and i forever hated sewing....i wanted to take wood working or metal, but the sexist rules prevailed at walter reed....loved the cooking class as i didn't have alberg, and creating food was more fun ....we did have to eat our creations no matter what...fun memories from all of these postings...
Mary McGrath July 25, 2012 at 05:07 PM
Well, I'm sure I got a D also, I don't recall, but that zipper was a nightmare. Amazing that I actually had a job in college making wallets and purses in a leather factory. I got laid off from that fiasco of a job. Sew what? So what!
teresa mcgrath July 25, 2012 at 11:59 PM
forgot about the darts...that was a pain too...wish i could remember the cooking teacher's name....she was nice
Terri Bonds July 27, 2012 at 01:35 AM
I remember them!!! LOL omg the memories you just brought flooding in moved to Sepulveda for my 9th grade year. Miss that place and the ninth grade lawn LOL
Richard Niederberg July 28, 2012 at 05:12 PM
YES, it was VERY sexist and not realistic to restrict females to Home Ec Classes and males to Shops. Their way of 'fixing' it without admitting to their lack of foresight was to eliminate both, with the exception of a scant number of Auto Shop 'magnets'. I had to wait until I was at CSUN before I was allowed to use an Overlock or Blindstich sewing machine, in conjunction with a class, to build costumes and drapery goods for the theatrical shows that I was producing, starting in 1970. I wish that I would have had a head start; it would have saved me both money and grief in the execution of the items that I designed. Likewise, females should have been allowed to take Electric Shop at Reed and NHHS. They wouldn't even let girls on the Stage Crew, when in reality, they dominate the field as professional Stage Managers.
Mary McGrath July 28, 2012 at 06:46 PM
Thankfully, things have changed quite a bit since then, eh? Wish you could have taken my sewing classes for me Richard. I would have filled in for you in shop. Aren't we all born with certain attributes. Hooray to parents who let their children excel in whatever tickles their fancy.
teresa mcgrath July 29, 2012 at 11:20 AM
love the stories richard
Bam Carle August 03, 2012 at 11:40 AM
Wow! I had Mrs. Ahlberg, too, and Mrs. Arrowsmith for cooking. What's really funny is that I was just thinking about them both while shopping for custard cups last week. I can remember making: a potholder, a tote bag, an apron and a skirt, but I forget in what order. And I was so sorry to read of Mr. Fitz-Gibbons passing. I believe I was in his very first class at Reed back in '67 or '68, when Friday was "pants day" for girls and we didn't have to wear a dress or skirt...did I just say that? How totally weird that seems now.
teresa mcgrath August 03, 2012 at 01:54 PM
thx bam....arrowsmith for cooking...she was less judgemental than alhlberg
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