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Knowles, Neale S.

Published onAug 19, 2021
Knowles, Neale S.

(1869 — )

Quick Facts

Head of Home Economics Extension Service from 1908-1934, establishing programs during World War I to reach all farm women quickly and personally with nutrition and food preservation programs.

Five years after organized extension work was initiated by a group of Sioux County farmers, and two years after the first state appropriation, Neale S. Knowles came to Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) on December 7, 1907 to work with home economics extension. Within two years she was head of the department and served as state leader for 26 years. Under her administration, the program was marked by “unequivocal success.”

Daughter of a Wisconsin Civil War veteran, Knowles became an efficient public school teacher upon graduation form college. Seven years later, she returned to school to get a degree in home economics and then taught in Alabama before coming to Iowa.

As head of home economics extension, Knowles created a highly proficient organization with many specialty areas. Clothing, food, home furnishings, home management, and health were major topics. Her staff used many methods: lectures, demonstrations, exhibits, fairs, window displays films and slides, style shows, plays, conferences, printed material, and work with boys’ and girls’ clubs. Knowles, herself, paid attention to every detail and could captivate any size of group as she gave demonstration lectures. Besides conducting excellent short courses, she brought classrooms to the people with the women’s cars on the education trains popularized by Perry G. Holden between 1904 and 1914.

During World War I, Knowles used a local cooperator plan to extend home economics education. One woman was chosen for every four square miles in the state. A total of 14,000 cooperators served approximately 15-16 families each. They enabled Extension and Farm Bureau to reach all farm women quickly and personally with nutrition and food preservation programs as well as requests for food production, food conservation, and other defense or war work.

Following the war, farm women began to exhibit great dissatisfaction with the disparity between their lifestyle and that of their town sisters. When demand for information about nutrition, clothing, home furnishings, and leadership far exceeded Extension’s ability to fill requests, Knowles developed week-long county-wide training schools that utilized rotating specialists to save time and travel expense. Thousands of women were served as each trained woman passed information on to her neighbors. Extension was stabilized and the program was so successful that, during the Great Depression, farm women’s lives kept improving despite financial problems.

Throughout her career, Knowles worked closely with other organizations. When Jessie Field Shambaugh arranged a girls’ camp at Chautauqua in 1911, Knowles had charge of the educational work. Later on, she worked with Ruth Buxton Sayre to make the Women’s Committee of the State Farm Bureau an efficient farm women’s rganization. Knowles also supported a music program that spread singing groups and contests from 4-H to rural women. The excellence of a performance of “Bohemian Girl” before 5,000 people in Des Moines attracted favorable response from New York City papers.

A popular figure in the social and cultural circles of her community, Knowles retired July 1, 1934, when she reached retirement age. Through a long and distinguished career she had earned her reputation as one of the country’s most distinguished leaders in home economics extension education.

Selections of text republished with permission from Iowans who made a difference: 150 years of agricultural progress by Don Muhm and Virginia Wadsley, published by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, 1996.

Selected Sources

Knowles, Neale S. Planning & Serving Meals. Ia. State College of Agriculture & Mechanic Arts, 1917.

Goeppinger, Katherine (1923) "Echoes from State Home Economics Convention," The Iowa Homemaker: Vol. 3 : No. 9 , Article 6.

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