Lessons from Good Housekeeping on public vs. private

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kitchen cleaning

I read a book once. It’s a book people either love or hate, depending on where they fall on the topic of free market economics and American history. It was an interesting read, regardless.

One story stuck with me. It was the story of how people used the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval to vet household products in the early 1900s. If it didn’t meet the magazine’s criteria, it didn’t get the seal, and it did not fare as well on the market.

How it started

Good Housekeeping was established in 1885 with the stated mission: “to produce and perpetuate perfection — or as near unto perfection as may be attained in the household.”

Lofty goals. I just spent two weeks with a livestock guardian dog on house arrest while he healed from a leg amputation. My downstairs rooms are wearing more of his fur than he is at this point. I’m not sure what this perfection is of which they speak.

Back to the story, though. From the beginning, Good Housekeeping investigated food safety. There were articles about such things as candy being contaminated with asbestos and other adulterated food items. In 1902, they aired concerns about the use of formaldehyde — of all things — in infants’ formula, milk and cream.

The magazine opened an “experiment station” in 1900, which later became the institute. Eight year later, staff members requested sinks in the station be 36 inches, establishing the standard height for all kitchen sinks and counters that is still used today.

And in 1914, the magazine wrote about fad diets: “Don’t believe anyone who tells you that you can reduce your weight with no injury to your health without dieting, exercise and right living … Overeating and under-exercising are the main causes of too much fat.” These things had a profound impact on the quality of what we used and consumed, all without government involvement.

Federal oversight

But then, the Food and Drug Administration was established in 1906, with the support of Good Housekeeping, actually. The agency wouldn’t be known as the FDA until later, but the legislation that laid the groundwork was in place. Currently, the agency oversees the regulation of human and veterinary drugs, biological products and medical devices. And it ensures the safety of the United States’ food supply, cosmetics and products that emit radiation. (Yes, I pulled that list from the website.)

Since its inception, it has grown in scope. We always hear about recalls and warnings from the FDA. The big news this year is that both the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will oversee the development of lab-cultured meat, with the FDA handling the inspections and safety checks. So, the scope continues to broaden.

Keeping on

And yet, did you know that Good Housekeeping still has its institute? They are still putting out recommendations for products and are still uncovering poor products and malfunctions.

In 1998, when a reader’s child was strangled by an ill-fitting crib sheet, the institute tested crib sheets and found that most were too small or didn’t use quality elastic to ensure they didn’t come off the mattress corners. Good Housekeeping set a new standard, which is under review to become the industry standard.

In 2012, the institute found that nearly half of readings from drugstore blood pressure monitors were more than five points off of those of a nurse practitioner. In 2014, researchers discovered that seven mini flat hair irons exceeded water’s boiling point, which could pose burn risks.

In other words, even with the FDA and other agencies that now abound, Good Housekeeping is still a necessary force in the marketplace. This is where I get to the crux of it. While I don’t believe government is unnecessary, I also think that nothing replaces the sheer force of individual ingenuity, ambition and drive.

Good Housekeeping didn’t have to keep doing its work. But it has. And products continue to be held to high standards. I have to ask: are we applying the same rigorous standards to what we do in the livestock sector? Yes, I have more to say. But it’s going to be too much for one column. Stay tuned.

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Farm and Dairy Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Miller was tapped to lead the newsroom in 2019. A veteran journalist, dog wrangler and traveler, she lives on a 220-acre, 325-ewe commercial sheep farm in Lisbon, Ohio, which she runs in partnership with her mother. She can be reached at 330-817-6179 or editor@farmanddairy.com.

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