Dabney, Ellen Powell (1861-1937) and Washington's Home Economics Movement

  • By John Daughters
  • Posted 3/06/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8109

Ellen Powell Dabney, founding president of the Washington State Home Economics Association, came to Seattle in 1907 to teach at the new Lincoln High School, and at the age of 46 began a career in education that would span the next 30 years.  Her background, education,  and experience fit well with the growth and direction of the Seattle school system, and her classes in "Cookery" at Lincoln High helped launch her leadership role in the emerging Home Economics movement, a key component of the progressive reform movement of the time

Girlhood and Education

Born in Illinois on August 16, 1861, Ellen Powell was the daughter of Curtis Scoles Powell, a Methodist minister, and Margaret Welch Powell, a mother who shouldered the hard work of farm life while her husband traveled his church circuit. Ellen frequently accompanied her father to camp meetings and other church gatherings and assisted with the music, playing the organ and so on. From a young age she was exposed to discussions of church sermons and current events. The Reverend and Mrs. Powell motivated, educated, and encouraged all their children to succeed, and their sons and daughters found careers as teachers, a preacher, a lawyer, an editor, and a farmer. Ellen Powell  entered Lincoln University at an early age. She studied natural sciences for a few years, went on to Illinois Female College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she studied music and art, and attended Chicago Female College where she earned a diploma.

The choices for a woman with a college education in the early 1880s were limited.  While most other professions were considered the domain of men, teaching was one of the main occupational options available to women. Following the lead of her older sisters, Ellen Powell took that path.  

Her first teaching job, in 1882, was at the Henderson Female Seminary in Henderson, Kentucky, where she taught a range of subjects that included art, literature, history, and science. While living in Henderson, she met and married James Rumsey Dabney, a county judge. Upon marrying, most women, including Ellen Dabney, gave up careers outside the home. The Dabney family soon began to grow with the birth of two boys in Henderson.

Young Family Goes West

In 1886, at the end of James's term of office as judge, the Dabneys decided to go west. A move to Spokane Falls, Washington Territory, was motivated in part by James Dabney's hope of appointment to a federal office, and his aspirations of making it in the Spokane land boom that had taken off with the completion of a rail connection from Spokane Falls to the East. The pull west also came from her family. Powells had been going to Oregon since the 1850s, and Ellen's older sister Martha had traveled with an aunt and uncle to Salem, Oregon, in 1870, where she taught school for 10 years before moving on to Portland and later, to Seattle.

James did not get the coveted appointment as judge, but life in Spokane appears to have started out with great hope. Church life was active as always; a lot or two of land was purchased; a career as an attorney was in the building stages for James, and he dabbled in local business and Democratic Party politics as well.  Ellen gave birth to three more children. But by 1894 the optimism of 1886 had fizzled. A second attempt at appointment to a federal office went nowhere, the work as an attorney did not take off, and the Panic of 1893 sent land values plummeting. In the midst of a decade of growth, the middle years were stagnant and some folks left Spokane, including the Dabneys.

Home and Home Economics

A year after returning to Kentucky, James Dabney died of typhoid fever and Ellen Dabney was left to support herself and five children. She was more fortunate than many widows. With her education and prior experience, she was able to return to teaching in Kentucky and later, back home in Illinois.

Looking for a new direction, the emerging field of home economics caught her attention. The summer of 1906 she enrolled at the University of Chicago, taking several related courses including "The Teaching of Home Economics." 

Known by various names including "domestic science," home economics, as it came to be called, was seen by many of its adherents as the application of science and economy to the home; and "home" was frequently meant to include the larger community beyond the family house. Science and its application to municipal health issues formed the background of Ellen H. Richards (1842-1911), the woman considered by many to be the founder of the home economics movement. The first woman granted a degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Ellen H. Richards was a chemist involved with issues of municipal sanitation in Boston. In 1899, she had convened a group of interested people at Lake Placid, New York, that ultimately lead to the formation of the American Home Economics Association (AHEA).

Attracted to this developing movement, Ellen Dabney applied to the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York and in 1906 began a one-year study of home economics, coming into contact with the primary circles in the field at one of its key centers. When the American Home Economics Association was formed in December of 1908, Ellen Dabney was listed as a founding member.

Pioneering Professional Woman

In May 1907 Ellen Dabney applied for a teaching position in the home economics field in the Seattle Public Schools. Teachers drawn to Seattle schools came for a variety of reasons -- job opportunities created by the growth of the city, the reputation of Seattle schools under the visionary leadership of Superintendent Frank B. Cooper, and the pay. Low as salaries were, they were higher than at many school systems around the country.  Doris Pieroth, Seattle historian and writer, describes Seattle schoolteachers as being older and more experienced than was typical elsewhere and the women who applied were interested in the prospects of a professional career despite the prohibition on marriage for women teachers.

Dabney's choice of Seattle was not accidental. Not only did it have a reputation as a growing, progressive city with a good school system, but it was also the home of her younger brother, John Powell (1866-1930). He had built a reputation as a lawyer, served a term in the state legislature (beginning in 1897), and was on the Board of Regents of the University of Washington. Her inclusion of his name and address as a local contact on her application was probably not accidental. She began teaching cooking and nutrition courses at Lincoln High in the fall.

The next few years were remarkable, as if fueled by years of pent-up ambition. Summer quarter of 1908, Ellen Dabney taught three classes in foods and cooking under the name "Domestic Science" at the University of Washington. In 1910 she became the first Supervisor of Home Economics in the Seattle Public Schools. She was active in the Washington Education Association, serving as chair of the new Home Economics Section in 1911. In April 1911, she presided over the first state conference of the Washington State Home Economics Association as its founding president. The same year, she developed a statewide curriculum for home economics as a supplement to the state teachers' manual.

She taught again at the University during the summer sessions of 1911 and 1913. For the summer term of 1913, she was in charge of a department of four that offered courses in foods and cooking, textiles and clothing, and daily lectures on the subject of "preservation and adulteration of foods." Now in her early 50s, Ellen Dabney had found her place.

Dabney in the Progressive Movement

In addition to her expanding responsibilities with the schools, she immersed herself in the work of the Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs. Women's clubs across the country played a key role in passing much of the early twentieth century reform legislation that included such things as the pure food and drug laws. The women's clubs were a powerful force in Seattle, exemplified by the election of Bertha Knight Landes (1868-1943), president of the Seattle Federation of Women's Clubs, to the Seattle City Council in 1922 and to as mayor of Seattle in 1926 on a platform of "municipal housekeeping." 

In addition to school and club work, church continued to be an important part of Ellen Dabney's life. Membership in downtown Seattle's Plymouth Congregational Church was a part of the overlapping networks of school organizations, women's clubs, and church work in which she traveled. The purchase of farm land at Maltby in Snohomish County brought her into the orbit of the Maltby Congregational Church where, with an almost "home missionary" kind of zeal, she frequently would bring out guest preachers from Seattle during a time when the Maltby church had no regular minister.

Ellen Dabney's circle was not confined to Washington state. She continued to be active in the American Home Economics Association at all levels, serving on the Finance Committee of the national organization, and helping to organize and speak at state, regional, and national conferences.

During World War I she took a leave of absence from the Seattle schools and worked with the U.S. Food Administration in Washington, D.C. Throughout the 1920s and into 1930s, she continued to travel extensively to conferences of the American Home Economics Association, the National Educational Association and in 1930, to the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection. 

During the first years of the 1930s Great Depression, Ellen Dabney was a member of the Women's Employment Committee, part of a mayoral commission on improving employment in Seattle. The committee was headed by former mayor Bertha Landes and included a number of other women such as Evangeline Starr, an attorney who became King County's second female Justice of the Peace.

The American Home Economics Association held its annual convention in Seattle in July 1936. In advance of the convention, Dabney worked with the local planning committee and wrote an article on Seattle and its schools for the AHEA Journal. "It has been the aim of our leading citizens to establish our educational system on a broad, firm foundation with ideals to match the stability and grandeur of our mountains," she wrote, reflecting an obvious pride in her city and in the school system that she had helped to build.

Ill health prevented her from attending the convention itself. Her health continued to decline through 1936 and by late fall she was no longer able to work the long days  she had been accustomed to. Ellen Powell Dabney died in January 1937 at the age of 75, still an employee of the Seattle Public Schools.

Sources: Doris H. Pieroth, Seattle's Women Teachers of the Interwar Years: Shapers of a Livable City (Seattle: University of Washington Press. 2004);  Bryce E. Nelson, Good Schools: The Seattle Public School System, 1901-1930 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988);  Rethinking Home Economics: Women and the History of a Profession ed. by Sarah Stage and Virginia B. Vincenti (Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1997);  Journal of the American Home Economics Association, Vol. 1, No. 1 (February 1909);  Personnel records for Ellen P. Dabney, Seattle Public Schools Archives, Seattle, Washington;  "Home Economics, 1915-1921" folder, Accession A1978-15, Seattle Public Schools Archives; Elsie L. Mann, Maltby Congregational Church: 1903-2003 (Maltby: First Congregational Church of Maltby, 2005);  "Work Relief for Women," Folder No. 15 titled "articles, reports, etc. fragments," Box 1, Bertha Knight Landes Papers (Accession No. 76), University of Washington Libraries Special Collections; Journal of the American Home Economics Association, Vol. 28, No. 6 (June 1936). See also John Daughters, “Ellen Powell Dabney: Leading the Home Economics Movement in Washington,” Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History Vol. 22, No. 3 (Fall 2008), 8-11.

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