Work to improve the daily lives of Mississippi’s rural women began before passage of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914. Mississippi A&M College faculty organized Farmers’ Institutes shortly after the school’s opening in 1880. Although the college was originally designed for male farmers, women received encouragement to attend, and organizers eventually added special sessions on domestic-oriented topics.
After the success of William Smith’s Corn Club in Holmes County, Seaman Knapp hired Susie V. Powell, school improvement supervisor at the Mississippi State Department of Education, to organize Tomato Clubs for girls. Promoters of club work for girls believed that they would gain responsibility and learn skills that would make them better homemakers and mothers. In addition, agents expected that girls would bring their new home economics knowledge to their mothers back on the farm. With assistance from the Mississippi Federation of Women’s Clubs, Powell established clubs in Lincoln and Copiah Counties in 1911. The first canning demonstration took place at Whitworth College in Brookhaven, and by the fall of that year 152 girls had tomatoes canned and displayed at local fairs. As clubs formed across the state, markets and other avenues developed where the girls could sell their products.
After passage of the Smith-Lever Act Powell became the state home demonstration agent for Mississippi A&M College’s Extension Service. Alcorn A&M also had an extension program that worked mostly in the southwestern area of the state. Counties hired white and African American women to serve as agents and to develop programs for both women and girls. After the United States entered World War I extension programs refocused on educating farm women and their families about producing and conserving food and fiber. Agents formed mother-daughter Canning Clubs to further the war effort. Club members sold their canned goods to the US Army and Navy, filling entire railroad cars with products. Agents also taught conservation through the adoption of wheatless and meatless days.
With the end of the war, home demonstration again shifted gears, this time emphasizing ways to improve Mississippians’ home lives. Local clubs run by county councils became commonplace throughout the state’s rural communities. Programs reflected the growth of home economics and the adoption of scientific homemaking. Women learned food preparation, dairy and poultry techniques, clothing construction, and home and kitchen improvement. The Extension Service also began hosting on-campus short courses that provided women and girls with intensive training on particular subjects.
With the start of the Great Depression, the concept of living at home became the major theme of extension work, as agents encouraged impoverished farm families to become self-sufficient and thus eliminate the need to purchase goods. Home demonstration programs now featured instruction on refinishing furniture or making usable home decorations out of packing crates. By the mid-1930s, agents had begun teaching about the benefits that electrification would bring to rural homesteads.
World War II again altered home demonstration programming, returning it to a focus on food preparation and preservation. Clubs throughout the state adopted horticulture and canning programs to make the nationwide program for victory gardens a reality in Mississippi. In the decades after the war agents continued to teach improved homemaking skills and added projects regarding civil defense, voting, health and safety, Head Start, family finances, and numerous other topics. By the 1960s, home demonstration had shifted from emphasizing the improvement of the rural home to working with women to improve their rural communities. This focus led to the end of home demonstration programs, as extension agents concentrated on social problems and working with food industries.
- Lu Ann Jones, Mama Learned Us to Work: Farm Women in the New South (2002)
- Danny Blair Moore, “‘Window to the World’: Educating Rural Women in Mississippi, 1911–1965” (PhD dissertation, Mississippi State University, 1991)
- Lee Howard Moseley, History of Mississippi Cooperative Extension (1976)
- Minoa Dawn Uffelman, “‘Rite Thorny Places to Go Thro’: Narratives of Identities, Southern Farm Women of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 2003)