The Practice House
Above: NANCY HUNTER RAKOFF ’59 MLS ’93, JOELLEN LADLEY EVANS ’59, and CAROL DOUBET COWSER ’60 prepare to serve a meal at Winchip House. Besides learning to be teachers and homemakers, the students were encouraged to serve their communities. Rakoff, a Bradley Centurion, taught home economics and then spent 23 years as executive director of Common Place in Peoria.
By Gayle Erwin McDowell ’77
One hundred years ago, Bradley Polytechnic Institute opened a facility that was lauded as revolutionary. The Practice House, later known as the Home Management House and Winchip House, gave coeds the opportunity to practice the skills they were learning in domestic economy courses. In today’s technology-driven world, describing the concept can prompt smiles and more than a few raised eyebrows, yet the Practice House was a sensible and valued program on the Hilltop.
Beginning in 1911 and for most of the next 48 years, the Practice House was a hands-on laboratory, much like student teaching for future teachers. Coeds lived in the house while honing their skills. In small groups, they were charged with managing the home. That entailed planning, preparing, and serving meals; budgeting; housekeeping; and laundry. (That meant ironing, too, in those pre-permanent-press days.)
The back story
Intent on creating an institute that enabled students to lead useful, productive, and self-supporting lives, Lydia Moss Bradley insisted on a domestic science department when she founded Bradley in 1897. As early as 1902, Bradley had a Domestic Science Club. Some students intended to prepare themselves for homemaking, while majors were able to take specialty courses. Many of the graduates became teachers, a career they had to relinquish when they married.
Three years after Mrs. Bradley’s 1908 death, the Practice House opened at the corner of Laura and Clara (now Glenwood) streets. Some of the furnishings were from the founder’s home on Moss Avenue.
Bradley’s newspaper, The Tech, published a student’s description of its operation in 1914:
“The Senior Domestic Economy Class is divided into groups of three and each group serves two meals a day for three days, alternating the duties of hostess, cook, and waitress. ... The family consists of members of the faculty who are glad to pay for the meals thus furnished. The money paid in makes the fund used by the students in making their purchases. It is the duty of the hostess for the day, to do the marketing and work out the dietary for the two meals for the day. She is also responsible for all reports for the expenditures of money. … This work gives the girls practical home experiences and should be welcomed by all Domestic Economy students as a rare opportunity.”
Just three years later, the Practice House was relocated to Comstock Hall on Bradley Avenue, the current home of Bradley Hilltopics. A new laundry was to be installed in the basement, and the kitchen featured new oak cabinets made by manual arts classes. Later, manual arts students helped by refinishing furniture for the Practice House. The Tech reported in October 1917:
“It is on the street car track, which will be most appreciated by the town girls who will come up to prepare breakfast at an early hour in the morning. The house is somewhat larger than the old Practice House, having full-sized upstairs rooms and an attic.”
Another article — a diary entry — soon followed in The Tech. The writer mentions domestic science professor Helen Day. Educated at Columbia University, she taught at Bradley from 1907 until 1920 when “domestic science” became “home economics.”
“I had heard vague rumors of its terrors [the Practice House], and had been the recipient of many more or less serviceable pieces of advice with regard to organizing the work, all the bills, using the proper silver and china at the proper time and above all, ‘Don’t ruin Miss Day’s digestion by serving tough meat or burnt cake. …’
“We all owe much to Miss Day. Not one of our mistakes was overlooked in the criticism which followed the day’s work, yet no girl was made to feel that she had been a hopeless failure, but rather that next time her ‘very best’ would be better at that point than ever before. When Saturday morning came it was with feelings of real regret that … we said our farewell to our work at the Practice House.”
With plans to be both social and educational, the Domestic Economy Club was revived with Miss Day’s assistance. Members held meetings and teas “with dainty refreshments” at the Practice House for years to come. They sold roasted peanuts at football games and held rummage sales to buy items for the house; in 1926 it was a silver coffee and tea service and a fashionable chair.
A simpler time?
In many ways, the Practice House era was a simpler time. In terms of rules to be followed, however, it could prove more complicated than life in 2011. Good Manners by Beth Bailey McLean, published in 1934, offered a great many do’s and don’ts for students. As dinner guests, they were not to eat too fast or too slowly, not to discuss the food’s cost, never to eat cake with a spoon, and to eat French fries with a fork. It was recommended that their “visiting-cards” be engraved — never printed or merely handwritten.
The 1937 Bulletin (Bradley’s course catalog) indicates the Practice House was utilized in two ways. During the fall, juniors and seniors earned three credit hours for Home Management 305, using the Practice House as a laboratory. The course was a prerequisite for Home Management House 406, which required coeds to live there. Offered second semester, the class afforded “the opportunity for application of all previous courses” and two credit hours.
Perhaps a reflection of the Great Depression, a Bradley careers brochure from the ’30s advises “… there is a growing tendency for marriage to be postponed for a number of years during which time a girl must be a wage earner.”
The late SALLY ADAMS CONVER ’40 experienced the Practice House at that time. Speaking to an interviewer in 1997 about life in the ’30s and ’40s, Conver reminisced about living there. She recalled that students were allowed to invite friends over for a meal on the weekends. Often, as in Conver’s case, the guest was the student’s husband-to-be. At age 80, Conver remembered most of the special menu. “To begin with, we had broiled grapefruit. Then we had scallops and potato ‘wells’ with peas. I can’t remember what we had for dessert.”
Just after World War II in 1946, the house was named Winchip House in honor of Mrs. Elida Winchip, who taught domestic economy from 1899 until her death on campus in 1915.
Although still popular among home economics majors and a required course for teachers, the ’50s was to be the last decade for home management in Winchip House. A 1951 article in Peoria’s newspaper, The Star, featured coeds living there:
“Each group during their term of occupancy strives to make Winchip House a real home with emphasis on companionship, conversation, and mutual respect. Miss [Beatrice] Benson is treated like a houseguest rather than an instructor by her four hostesses. … The girls learn that each member of a household must depend upon the others for a smooth-running organization. … Much of the furniture, silverware, and dishes adding to the charm of the rooms were gifts of Mrs. Lydia Bradley. … Surprisingly enough about the only suggestion the girls can offer is that they would like to see the course repeated another semester.”
The coeds played records so they could enjoy dinner music, and their instructor believed they should know how to play bridge. “We all enjoyed being around Miss Benson, but she had an air about her that meant you needed to pay attention,” recalls JOELLEN LADLEY EVANS ’59, one of the last students to experience the house. The end of the decade signaled the retirement of Miss Benson and the final days of Winchip House after a useful “life” of almost 50 years.
“Living in the house was a fun thing to do, but it was work,” Evans recalls. There wasn’t much lounging around in the Practice House. “I don’t recall there was a television. We stayed for four weeks. Each week we had a different duty. It was a very detailed assignment.”
Special thanks to Dr. Nina Collins for her book An Industrious and Useful Life: The History of Home Economics at Bradley University and to the Special Collections Center at Bradley University Library.