May Louise Cowles

Credit: UW Digitial Collection.

May Louise Cowles

May Louise Cowles (1892-1978) compassion for her fellow citizens and her desire to understand them as consumers, family members, and individuals led her to study subjects she felt were central to home management, including family and consumer economics, rural sociology, consumerism, and architecture. While a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Home Economics Department from 1915-1958, Cowles epitomized the discipline of home management. Instead of seeing the home and family life as simplistic, Cowles viewed them as involving many different, yet interrelated areas. Her work at UW demonstrated this belief. Much of her research focused on families living in rural areas and the financial and social issues that were important for them. At UW, her emphasis on family economics and rural sociology shed light on issues that were central to improving people's lives and financial situations. Her contributions to UW Home Economics broadened its program, communicating her knowledge to others. As a teacher, advisor, and friend, Cowles improved the quality of life of those around her in many ways. Throughout her life--in her academic research, her Extension work, her student interactions, and her personal life--Cowles strove to assist people in bettering their lives.


May Louise Cowles was born on September 25, 1892, in Sibley, Kansas. She attended Kansas State Agricultural College (now Kansas State University), where she earned a B.S. in home economics in 1912. After teaching high school home economics in Hamilton, Texas, and Austin, Texas, Cowles came to UW in 1915 to earn her master's degree in home economics. While working on her degree, Cowles taught in the home economics department as a part-time Assistant (1915-16) and an Instructor (1916-1920). She finished her degree in 1918 and was promoted to Assistant Professor in 1920. In order to advance her knowledge of consumer-related activities, in 1926-1929 Cowles studied for her Ph.D. in economics at the University of Chicago under the renowned economist Hazel Kyrk. In her Ph.D. dissertation, Cowles investigated the economics of clothing consumption and whether consumer behavior could be classified according to "laws."

A Dedicated Avisor

Cowles helped and encouraged UW students of home economics. A large portion of her time she devoted to student organizations. As a faculty advisor for these societies, Cowles led and counseled home economics students in their professional activities. An excellent teacher and advisor, she assisted numerous students during their education in home economics. Students remembered her teaching as "inspired and inspiring." Cowles helped students understand the "scientific approach" by having them conduct their own research and critically analyze information by identifying important facts and organizing ideas. Often she worked with students and encouraged them to publish their results, evident by the many articles Cowles co-authored with former advisees.

Cowles also felt strongly that students needed to understand the "business" of running a household. She taught students how to run their homes effectively by making informed decisions about financial matters, including insurance, wills, and budgets. As an advisor, Cowles spent a great deal of time helping students weather difficulties they were experiencing in their personal lives or their academic careers. Students recalled her using a "graphic" language and her "keen sense of humor" to ease tense moments. When she retired in 1959, Cowles left her students with many

Focus on Rural Families

Of her research interests, Cowles paid the greatest attention to the situation of rural families. Recognizing that farms were the backbone of Wisconsin, she concerned herself with understanding all aspects of farm living, especially the role the farm itself played with regard to family economics. She studied the farm family as a unit and observed the transitions in social roles, wealth, occupations, and living situations that occurred within it.

Additionally, Cowles investigated the health of farm families and focused on seasonal nutrition and medical care. She found that the lives of these families revolved entirely around the farm. Indeed, Cowles found, the farm itself took priority over almost everything else. During the Depression, families bought only things needed for health and safety. House repairs went undone; shoes were usually the only new item of clothing bought; the purchasing of non-farm food was extremely limited; and charity contributions were lower than the families would have liked. Even after the economic improvement of the early 40s, families restricted their spending to the absolutely necessary. Until the economy felt more stable, families limited spending so as to protect the farm.

Beyond the University

Cowles extended her interests in family financial security, the welfare of the farm family, and consumerism beyond the realm of academic home economics. She worked closely with the Agricultural Experiment Station and Extension Services. As a result, she published a portion of her work as research bulletins or as booklets that were directed at the general reader, such as Meeting Housing Needs of Older People in Rural Areas (1957). In the booklet, Cowles and Clara G. Sweeney discussed the various issues to be considered when older relatives and friends could no longer live completely on their own but still desired privacy and independence. As a solution, Cowles and Sweeney suggested four different possibilities for living arrangements and included floor plan sketches for each one.

In addition to publishing written Extension material, Cowles also communicated important issues in family economics to a larger audience by participating in summer "proseminars" at UW during the early 1950s. UW, along with the University of Pennsylvania, University of Connecticut, and Southern Methodist University, offered the workshop to high school, college, and adult education teachers from the Upper Midwest. The eight-week-long "Proseminar on Family and Financial Security Education" aimed to "give a boost" to teaching high school students about family economics, an "often neglected part of the curriculum" which included "insurance, investments, budgets, and other financial problems." Cowles participated by leading the family economics portions of the proseminar, where she lectured on the benefits of constructing budgets. She noted that, while most families avoided budgeting, the process could actually help increase family cooperation. The entire family, according to Cowles, including children "as soon as they are old enough to understand money problems," should be involved setting up a budget.

Professional Activities

Cowles had professional interests in many areas, all of which concerned the welfare of people. She took particular interest in the different ways people managed their homes. In her academic work, Cowles investigated efficient kitchen planning, living situations of the elderly, architecture, family economics, consumer choices and behavior, and rural sociology and economics. She was a prolific researcher and published articles on these topics in the Journal of Home Economics, the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, and Rural Sociology. Cowles also participated in the professional home economics community as an active member of the American Economics Association (AEA) and the American Home Economics Association (AHEA). In the 1940s she chaired the AHEA's family economics division and its research department.

Additionally, Cowles wanted to help home economics students gain professional experience and was actively involved in the national home economics honor societies, Omicron Nu and Phi Upsilon Omicron.Cowles' alma mater, Kansas State, recognized her contributions to home economics and her participation in the field by awarding her the Distinguished Service Award for "outstanding achievement in home economics" in 1959.

At UW, she gave depth to the home economics classes in home management by addressing the home in its widest sense. Inspired by the work of her Ph.D. advisor, Hazel Kyrk, Cowles created some of the first family economics courses in the nation. After receiving her Ph.D., Cowles gradually integrated a wide variety of issues related to the home into her classes on house management or household administration. In 1944 she gave her first course officially titled, "Family Economics."

Active in Her Free Time

After her retirement, Cowles had more time to pursue her many hobbies. She enjoyed the outdoors a great deal, and she and her close friend and housemate of almost fifty years, Helen Tracy Parsons, cultivated a beautiful garden at their home at 5814 Old Sauk Road. Friends frequently visited their house and, guided by either Parsons or Cowles on a tour through the landscape, marveled at the lovely plants and flowers. At their joint memorial service, a friend of Parsons touchingly reflected on Cowles' connection to the garden: "A never to be forgotten afternoon was a walk with Mae thru the garden. She spoke to each plant and I saw living proof they understood and responded by blooming in profusion."

In addition to tending to her plants and flowers, Cowles played the recorder, was a bird watcher, enjoyed woodworking and carpentry, and traveled around the country and to Europe with Parsons. Although they each maintained their separate identities, the two friends shared a great deal, including their passion for travel and gardening. Nicknaming them "Helen and Cowlesy," friends described the two women as "inseparable" and their lives as "entwined." Indeed, having shared the majority of their lives with each other and grown old together, Cowles and Parsons died within thirteen days of each other--Parsons on 30 December 1977 and Cowles on 11 January 1978.