Post Classifieds

Behind the Name: M. Estella Sprague

By Sten Spinella
On April 14, 2014

Found on East Campus, Sprague Hall, which was built in 1942, bears the name of M. Estella Sprague.

Sprague, who was born in 1870, became a UConn professor of home economics in 1917 and was named dean shortly thereafter. But Sprague's achievements are more impressive when put into historical context. 

She was the first woman chosen to be the dean of a college at UConn, and she was selected after a successful career as a home economics professor. 

Also the first female extension worker ever in Connecticut, Sprague was integral to the at-home-effort during World War I. An extension worker is defined as a technical employee teaching, supervising and organizing agriculture and fisheries. Sprague's work as an extension worker revolved around food conservation, but even before she took the job as "Home Economics Director for the Food Administration in Connecticut," she spent time working for UConn as an assistant for Boys' and Girls' Clubs, which also helped the Connecticut war effort.

In the 1917-1918 UConn Biennial Report of the President, there was a section titled "Cooperation with the Food Committee of the State Council of Defense and With the U.S. Food Administration," which spoke to Sprague's work for the Extension Service. Sprague was put in charge of "the food conservation work." 

The same report details three staff resignations from Home Economics that year. Henceforth, Sprague was hired as a professor in Home Economics (now Family Studies). At the time, a section named "Needs of the College for Buildings and Improvements," which specifically related to Home Economics read: "It is recognized that it is quite as important to train young women for home making as to educate young men for farming. The young woman who is to take her place as the head of a home should have a knowledge of human nutrition, of personal hygiene and home sanitation, of house decoration, and of cooking and sewing."

To give a sense of the place of women at the University of Connecticut at the time of Sprague's professional ascendancy, take this section from a book by Bruce Stave with the title - Red Brick in the Land of Steady Habits: Creating the University of Connecticut: "In April 1919, administrators recommended that a woman student be suspended for the remainder of the school year because of 'unseemly conduct' that included dancing on Sunday at the women's dormitory; going out on Sunday evening and giving the faculty the false impression that she was going to church; objectionable dancing in a hallway..." A girl was also suspended in 1926 for "smoking a cigarette while she was traveling between Willimantic and Storrs in the company of other college women." This is the landscape Sprague dealt with. The year was 1922, and the inaugural female members of UConn's Board of Trustees were just recently inducted. A week later, Sprague wrote to President Charles Beach asking him why there was not a leading professor or dean in Home Economics like there were in all eight of the departments of agriculture. Wrote Sprague: "Everywhere it has been rather difficult to have Home Economics raised to the standing of other departments...If you do not wish to grant full professorships, why not associate professorships?" After researching the proposal, Beach thought it right to appoint a dean and a full professor in charge of administration and subject matter. Still, Beach only allowed a single full professorship to the women who taught in Home Economics, rather than the three suggested by Sprague.

It never was easy for Sprague, but looking back, that makes her shining example of professionalism and her immovable, admirable demeanor glow that much brighter. 

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