Messaging Gendered Lessons About Maintenance: Farm Equipment, Domestic Appliances, and University Expertise

One of the issues we have been thinking a lot about in The Maintainers is the creation and diffusion of maintenance best practices, or put another way, *innovation-in-maintenance*. Today, we are re-posting one of our favorite papers from the Maintainers II conference, Amy Sue Bix’s “Messaging Gendered Lessons about Maintenance.” Bix is the author of Inventing Ourselves Out of Jobs?: America’s Debate Over Technological Unemployment, 1929–1981 and Girls Coming to Tech!: A History of American Engineering Education for Women, two books that everyone should be reading given contemporary debates about robot-driven unemployment and women in the tech world. In “Managing Gendered Lessons about Maintenance,” Bix shows how Land Grant universities diffused maintenance thinking and practices to ordinary citizens and how thoroughly gendered those lessons were.

Histories of technology have often explored innovation at U.S. universities – early computers developed at Penn, Harvard, and elsewhere; masers at Columbia, new crop varieties, medical devices, and more. That invention focus hides another history, universities’ vital role in teaching, investigating, and promoting maintenance. In particular, maintenance became institutionally essential at land-grant schools, given their mission emphasizing public economic and social well-being. As a case-study, this paper shows the historic significance of maintenance in Iowa State teaching, research, and extension. As broadly true of late-nineteenth and much twentieth-century education, the culture of maintenance expertise displayed a clear gender divide. Principles of education credited both men and women with the ability to master important technical questions, but in distinctly separate spheres of knowledge and work. Given the short time here, I focus on two sets of examples: how Iowa State taught, investigated, and popularized maintenance knowledge for men in farm mechanization, and for women in textile care.

Established in 1858, the Iowa State College of Agricultural and Mechanic Arts expanded under the 1862 Morrill Act. Trustees aimed to train young men as “successful, intelligent and practical farmers and mechanics” and to help young women “acquire by practice a thorough knowledge of the art of conducting a well-regulated household.” Under state legislation and 1914’s Smith-Lever Act, the school mounted an increasing range of extension activities targeted to men and women statewide.

Maintenance lessons represented a central component of teaching in Iowa State’s core colleges – agriculture and engineering for men, home-economics for women. Jay Davidson, who headed the Department of Agricultural Engineering for over thirty years, prioritized concrete knowledge and hands-on experience. 1923’s curriculum included “practical farm mechanics,” teaching “use of farm shop tools in repair and maintenance of equipment.” Other courses covered farm carpentry, advanced forge work, plus the ”operation, adjustment, and care” of farm motors, gas engines, tractors, horticultural machines, and dairy equipment. Davidson wrote, “The average undergraduate… cannot expect… to become a skilled mechanic… [but] a fair knowledge of good practice… will enable him to perform many important mechanical operations of the farm.” In his 1920 textbook, Farm Machinery and Farm Motors, Davidson wrote, “Many instances are on record where farmers have kept tools in constant use by good care for more than twice the average life of the machine…. Sentiment ought to be such that the man who does not take good care of his machinery will be placed in the same class as the man who does not take good care of his livestock.” Davidson advised future farmers to protect machinery by painting it, storing it under shelter, and setting up a tagging system to track necessary repairs. He argued that even the smallest farms should invest in a shop, to save time by doing onsite repairs, since ”a delay of a few hours means a loss of many dollars in wasted crops.” Davidson listed thirty tools – saws, chisels, planes, and forging apparatus – that he recommended all farmers own.

Across campus, Iowa State home-ec courses positioned women as intelligent, informed technology users. As I describe elsewhere, female faculty required students to literally take apart refrigerators and stoves, learning to repair wires, replace fuses, and handle kitchen appliances with self-reliant confidence. My case-study here traces a different home-ec focus, caring for clothing. Louise Peet, Helen Van Zante, and other staff taught students to understand and apply scientifically-based knowledge of laundering textiles. Peet’s multiple-edition text Household Equipment explained the ingredients and action of different detergents, bleaches, and fabric softeners. It covered solutions for yellowing, graying, and other problems of doing laundry in water with high alkalinity, turbidity, discoloration, dissolved minerals, or pH imbalance. Exercises asked students to “compare lingerie washed and dried by hand to some done in the automatic washer and dryer,” to “set up a method of laundering curtains, drapes, bedspreads, blankets, and rugs,” and to “discuss how to reduce service needs on a washer and dryer.”

In both the ag-engineering and home-ec programs, faculty and grad students conducted extensive research on maintenance issues. For example, a 1960 master’s thesis by Stephen Marley documented multiple equipment failures on an Iowa case-study farm: manure-spreader breakdowns, self-unloading wagons that refused to unload, hay machines that failed to tie bales, and more. For her 1951 home-ec master’s thesis, Velma Williams performed 160 test washes to gauge the effectiveness of rinsing cloth once vs. twice, in hard vs. soft water, and at different temperatures.

Extension programs translated maintenance-related research into terms ordinary Iowans could use. Ag-engineering experts set up state-fair demonstrations, short-courses, and other programs to talk about issues and ideal practices in farm-equipment operation, care, and repair. Outreach by Iowa State home-ec faculty and extension agents included a radio program, “The Homemakers’ Half Hour.” Broadcasts during World War II emphasized the patriotic value of making clothes last “for the duration.” Given the lack of silk stockings, one show advised listeners to make the best of cotton hosiery by learning the best washing and drying techniques. With shortages of elastic, experts told women to use mild soap and lukewarm water in “taking good care of the girdles you have, [to] make them last longer.” Wartime suggestions to “exercise extra care in handling” felt hats advised patting them on, rather than tugging at the brim.

Postwar extension continued praising attention to maintenance as signifying a virtue, responsibility. A series of 1960s conferences sought “to assist homemakers to increase their knowledge of how to use resources wisely, in application of principles related to clothing care.” A 1965 two-day “Home Laundry Conference” featured talks on fabric labels, equipment service, and water-quality problems. Announcements promised attendees, “There will be a mountain – well, not quite – of detergents, bleaches, softeners, whiteners and starches… [to] help you decide ‘which is best for me.’” The National Cotton Council and companies such as Sears, Monsanto, and Maytag set up displays, appreciating the publicity opportunity. In a style show for “wash and wear garments,” 4H girls modeled identical blouses, skirts, and jackets, one set new and the other repeatedly worn, “to show [whether] the garments have stood washing well.”

Speaking at a 1966 “laundry management conference,” Iowa State professor Jane Saddler called for reorienting “thinking in care of clothing.” Americans “expect garments [to] maintain their original size, shape…color and texture,” she said, “but most clothing [is] not purchased with the idea of how to retain appearance.” Too many women “have not developed skill in ironing, nor are they much interested in doing so,” she complained, though conceding that “often garments are so constructed that pressing them is difficult.” Saddler said that caring for clothes “requires knowledge of the textile – fiber content, yarn, fabric structure, finishes, and how the garment is made. One also needs to know about laundry aids and appliances,” especially as multicomponent fabrics, foam laminates, and flame-retardant material made care harder.

Extension publications represented a resource for Iowans to consult as needed, giving specific steps to remove sweat, oil, ink, paint, rust, mildew, grease, tea, chocolate, blood, lipstick, and more. One pamphlet advised, “Stains are like some people, they grow stubborn with age… [so] tackle [one] the moment it occurs… Stains are like people in another way; they become contrary if you give them the wrong treatment…. If you pour boiling water through [berry stains], they quickly disappear, but if soap is used, they are… almost impossible.” Professors Jane Farrell and Sara Kadolph wrote specialized bulletins on preserving wedding gowns and antique quilts. Drawing on ISU research, a 1984 pamphlet on “What to do when clothes are soiled with pesticide” advised double-rinsing, line-drying to avoid contaminating the dryer, and running an empty hot-water cycle to clean the washer before resuming normal use.

Twenty-first-century Iowa State has continued to prioritize maintenance as worthy of attention both inside and outside classrooms. Every spring, the Ag-Systems Tech Club offers routine lawnmower service, and every fall, the same student group changes snowblower sparkplugs, oil, and filters. Such traditions highlight the long history of maintenance as part of land-grant institution service, teaching, and research. Maintenance-related college work both reflected and reasserted gender boundaries; male ag-engineering majors learned to trouble-shoot farm machinery, while female home-ec students learned laundry strategies and clothing care. But though they addressed different audiences, male ag-engineering and female home-ec experts shared key principles. Both groups insisted that the modern pace of technological change made the challenge of maintaining farm and home equipment ever more complex. Both groups viewed questions surrounding maintenance as important enough to deserve sustained scientific study in academic labs. Both groups prioritized translating that knowledge into practical advice, both for undergraduate classes and a state-wide general audience. Glory, celebratory headlines, and big grant money might increasingly go to biotech, computer advances, and pursuit of other high-profile innovations. Yet from the mid-nineteenth-century to today, land-grant schools such as Iowa State maintained a faith in the study and promotion of maintenance.