Case Study: Home Economics Labs and Extension on the Canadian Prairies
We began this book with the conviction that labs are more than a tangle of spaces and apparatus and people. Labs are sites for situated practice—a geographically and historically specific chain of operations and techniques that produces not only knowledge, but also very specific kinds of subjects. Describing that specificity means also paying attention to the factors that inform any particular lab: cultural policy and its attendant infrastructure, but also the lab imaginary, that is, the fantasies, beliefs, and ideologies that provide the lab with its consistency, and the discourses in which that imaginary circulates. “The extended laboratory” is a useful name for this assemblage, rooted in a hugely significant but underexamined history. Like the famed “circuit of culture” in British cultural studies, a scholar can begin anywhere in our extended lab assemblage, as long as their analysis visits all of the other aspects of it along the way.25 Here, we’re going to begin with the lab site, and work outward, but there are other ways to tell this story. For reasons of space, we have limited the scope to roughly the first half of the twentieth century.
The idea of “the extended laboratory” we lay out in the introduction to this book has a specific historical origin. The idea of extension evokes the early twentieth century policy project in western Canada called “Agricultural Extension”—the umbrella under which the discipline that was variously called Domestic Science, Household Science, Home Economics, and, finally, Human Ecology, came into being. This policy project emerged directly out of Home Economics laboratories at various universities, notably the University of Manitoba, by way of the discourse of modernity and scientificity that those labs developed and by way of the kinds of subjects they produced. By virtue of various infrastructures at the university and provincial levels (railways, roads, the electrical and gas grids, the telephone exchange, the newspapers, radio stations, and eventually TV channels) in combination with a series of innovative policy instruments and tools, trained and accredited researchers from Home Economics labs flowed out of the university and into the larger publics of city, town, and farm, transforming Canadian culture in the process. Some of them went directly to work for the provincial government itself, consolidating links between these infrastructures, working to improve the circulation of new subjects into the university for training and to improve the process of knowledge dissemination back out again.
The relative beginnings of Domestic Science in colonial North America are with Ursuline Nuns in Quebec, as early as the seventeenth century. But over the nineteenth century in Great Britain and the United States, it is the imaginary of modernity that sets the stage for industrialization, the rise of scientific objectivity, women’s suffrage, the sovereignty of the individual, and changes in pedagogical philosophy.26 Even the earliest public-facing documents of prairie Home Economics define its imaginary in terms of scientific method. A 1902 circular from the Winnipeg School of Household Science is worth quoting at length:
Household Science may be defined as the application of scientific principles and systematic methods of work to the mechanical problems of homemaking. It also embraces instruction in the science of all the processes carried on in the home, as well as the practical application of these scientific principles to the daily operations of housekeeping.27
Visual records from the period illustrate how this ideology was put into practice in very concrete ways. These images have survived in university archives because of the kind of subject that the discipline of Home Economics produced via its lab spaces; it’s part of the ethos of Home Economics to keep meticulous records of everything, so the University of Manitoba’s fonds is a particularly rich site for researchers. Two other major resources include Johanna Gudrun Wilson’s comprehensive but unpublished 1966 Master’s thesis for the University of Manitoba Faculty of Education, and A Time in Our Lives, a privately published collective autoethnography of Manitoba Home Economics in Extension, written by its mid-century alumni.28 The materials in these sources identify not only what is inside various Domestic Science and Home Economics labs, but what it cost, where it was sourced, and where it went after new equipment was purchased.
What these images depict is the University of Manitoba Home Economics Food Lab between 1914 and 1915. The first image, shot from a different angle and probably with a different lens or different camera, seems to have been flipped horizontally for aesthetic reasons, creating a sense of spaciousness absent from the other two images. These images date from about a year after Home Economics moved from its original home at the old Agricultural College in the Tuxedo neighbourhood of Winnipeg to the Fort Garry campus that eventually became the University of Manitoba.29
As Wilson notes in her thesis, “A History of Home Economics Education in Manitoba 1826–1966,” because of the financial stresses created by the first World War, the construction of the promised Home Economics building was delayed and would not open until 1950 (43–44). As a result, and as catalogued by the Department of Household Science, later Home Economics, occupied the basement, second, and third floors of the Administration Building (60). The spatial arrangement of the lab follows the “open square” model, which had already been employed by 1909 in household science labs in Winnipeg high schools, like the Alexandra School in Winnipeg School Division no. 1, and in the Brandon Central School’s Domestic Science department in 1911 (154). It includes: stationary tables on three sides of the room with gas jets for each student along a metal strip at the back of the table; the teacher’s desk on the open end; a table for supplies in the middle; and storage space built into the benches (112–113).
This setup was a substantial improvement over the original food laboratory apparatus at the Department of Household Science at the old Manitoba Agricultural College. The earliest foods laboratory equipment there (around 1909–10) included wood, coal, and gas ranges, plus the then-common “fireless cooker” or haybox (40). (A 1902 circular from the Winnipeg School of Household Science describes an even earlier food lab as being equipped with 12 desks and Bunsen burners .) Home Economics pedagogy always explicitly included the selection and care of equipment, and, as we point out above, Home Economists tracked everything, so we know that, in 1919, the equipment from Alexandra School was transferred to Cecil Rhodes, Gordon Bell, and Hugh John McDonald schools, and that its estimated worth was still $2,800 (129, 115). Home Economics was no different from any other science in terms of its participation in the long and honourable tradition of scrounging for lab equipment.
The uniforms in the images above are also an explicit part of the lab apparatus. In 1909, the program required its students to manufacture specific aprons for foods laboratory, sewing, and housekeeping (37, 39). In the 1950s, students wore an entire white uniform for the Foods Lab, which some Home Economists continued to wear after graduation while working in the field to project an aura of scientific efficiency.30
There were also other Home Economics lab spaces at the University of Manitoba, including, somewhat infamously, the practice apartments and practice houses. A practice housekeeping apartment in the Administrative Building served as the lab space for courses in Materials and Household Efficiency, which were regularized as a course in Household Management in 1927. Mrs. L.C. Duncan, who taught this course for years, “urged the Board to provide proper laboratory facilities,” so in 1929 the university rented the Sprague house on the northern edge of the university campus for the Department. Wilson notes that, in 1931, the Department took over a second house, the Farm Cottage, which it used until 1939 (54). The Farm Cottage was small and poorly heated, so Ralph Ham designed the Practice House, a new red brick Georgian residence specifically for the Department of Home Economics.31 Wilson goes on to write that, in 1957–1958, the Department opened four new Home Management apartments (64).
Wilson also tells of how, infamously, two children, “wards of the Child Welfare Department,” also lived in the Sprague house “to give students experience in understanding and caring for young children” (54). Between 1929 and 1953, thirty-three children—mostly infants—lived in the house under the care of Miss Florence Mclauchlin (later Mrs. T. R. Brownridge).32 For a period, it was mandatory for all third-year students to briefly spend time in the house as “child director” (54–55). After 1950, the new Home Economics building still had a “nursery school laboratory” (62). Just because we might find it difficult to imagine how a laboratory practice involving the rearing of children inside the lab would pass a university ethics committee today doesn’t mean that the Practice House was out of step with the university research culture of the time. The Practice House was every inch a hybrid laboratory, in keeping with a long tradition of display as part of animal behaviourist studies at the university’s Department of Psychology that persisted well into the 1980s, when ducklings inside a vitrine in one of the university tunnels were a popular sight.
By 1950, when the School of Home Economics finally received its own building, it contained a range of laboratories (62). The Foods Lab was renovated to include a section equipped for taste testing and the new demonstration room, like an operating theatre, included a large adjustable plate glass mirror over the main table (62–63). In 1961, a new textile lab and conditioning room opened, and a second smaller textile lab for honours and graduate students opened in 1964 (63). And by the 1970s, the apparatus of the various Home Economics labs had become highly sophisticated, including equipment like gas chromatographs, amino acid analyzers, textureometers, weatherometers, Allo-Kramer shears, and Magnehelics. Many of these devices were part of the textile lab and were used to artificially stress or age fabric samples and then provide precise measurement of the changes they had undergone.33
Wilson writes that, from the time of the second Household Science year in 1911, “enough science was taught to give the student an intelligent understanding of the natural processes which she would encounter in her daily life and a scientific basis for practical studies” (41–42). Once the school relocated to the Fort Garry campus, students took courses in chemistry and bacteriology (44). In 1929, Miss Louise Pettingell became the first Manitoba Home Economics graduate to teach on the Winnipeg School Board staff (117). By the mid-1930s, high school Home Economics students were producing laboratory reports on the experiments they conducted (118). Meanwhile, by 1930, there was a thriving Home Economics research culture at the university, producing and disseminating original science: “Problems of an experimental lecture were carried on at the request of other departments or as part of nutrition studies. Between 1928 and 1934 experimental work on animals was undertaken to demonstrate, for example, the effect of proper food on growth” (51). Around 1940, the University Research Council approved the purchase of equipment for the establishment of a textile research laboratory (52).
There’s one more unusual Home Economics hybrid lab space that demands some attention, in part because it circulates; this space also briefly returns us to the materiality and function of the images with which this case study opens. The three images of the 1914 Foods Lab aren’t just photographs: they’re postcards. The university wanted these images to circulate, and literally wanted people to comment on them. Production doesn’t mean much without circulation.
This other lab space—or rather, these spaces—were the Better Farming trains, and they were crucial to the early history of Manitoba (and Saskatchewan) Home Economics. These trains took the labs directly to the people, presenting “new research” as well as improved techniques for a range of applications on the farm and in the farmhouse.34 There were two such trains, provided free, with crew, by each of the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Railways. Faculty from the Agricultural College, including Home Economics faculty, travelled throughout the province over the summer. Wilson writes that, in 1911, as a North American first, a dedicated Home Economics car was added to the trains (43). According to the Manitoba Agricultural College Calendar for 1912–1913, in 1912 alone, the trains staged 150 meetings, with over 35,000 people attending.35 We have found newspaper reports of such trains running as late as 1927. They were very effective tools and bear a strong family resemblance to the agit-trains that the Bolsheviks began using to promote the art and culture of the Revolution after 1918. The circulation of both postcards and trains leads directly to our notion of the expanded lab, one which only makes sense in the context of a discussion of cultural policy and the kinds of subjects it desired to produce. The trains, for example, were authorized by the Provincial Department of Agriculture and supported by the Dominion Government as part of an extremely long-lived and successful policy program known as Agricultural Extension.36 At root, Extension was a policy initiative to bring modernity to the prairies through the creation of a scientifically informed population in order to better stimulate agricultural industry. It has its relative beginnings in a series of Acts passed by the government of Manitoba over the turn of the century, beginning with an 1872 Act to establish agricultural societies, which was expanded the following year to include fairs and agricultural exhibitions.37
The concern of cultural policy is the relationship of the individual to the state. Rather than brutalize people into obeying, modern democratic policy uses a variety of training regimes to organize and produce, by and large, willingly productive citizen-subjects. In 1902, the Agricultural Society Act stipulated that an agricultural society could be established anywhere in the province, as long as there were 50 members.38 A 1906 Act established the degree-granting Agricultural College for men; W.J. Black, the first President of the college, was not only responsible for Home Economics and Agriculture at the college, but for province-wide Extension work.39 In 1910, an Act provided for the creation and organization of Home Economic Societies (which became Women’s Institutes in 1919). In the same year, the Agricultural College established a diploma course for women, which became the Bachelor of Home Economics degree in 1916.40 From 1914–1923, the Manitoba Department of Agriculture supplied a grant under the Dominion Agricultural Instruction Act to finance Home Economics Extension; the grant was withdrawn in 1923, which nearly killed the program. The program was kept alive almost single-handedly by Esther Mackay (nee Thompson), one of the first graduates of the program and subsequently director of the Home Economics program.41
This series of resolutions created the conditions for citizens to emerge who were not only subject to cultural policy, but also active contributors to it and producers of it. In 1911, the Household Science Association in Morris, Manitoba (the first of its kind in Manitoba, founded the previous year) made its first resolution, requesting support from Premier Rodmond Roblin.42 Since this first resolution, Women’s Institute members regularly took positions on cultural issues and made significant contributions to provincial cultural policy.43 By the 1930s, Home Economists were working in many Manitoba government departments, including Relief in Public Works, Child and Family Welfare, the Prairie Housing Committee and the Flood Restoration Committee.44
Many Home Economists applied their technological skills by working directly for corporations that maintained provincial infrastructure. For example, widespread electrification didn’t take place in Manitoba until after WWII. Winnipeg City Hydro and Manitoba Hydro, the two utilities providers, directly employed Home Economists to aid with this process. Extension graduates were involved in the redesign of farm homes to accommodate electricity—remodeling kitchens for new appliances, as well as helping to design and add bathrooms, mudrooms. and farm offices.45 They also demonstrated the new electrical and gas appliances for shoppers on-site and in the Hydro store and the department stores that sold them. Home Economists employed by the utilities also served as a pre-digital information network; in addition to authoring publications such as cookbooks, writing regular newspaper columns, and appearing on radio and TV they were available for free public consultation over the phone about any and all domestic questions related to the new technologies.
Perhaps the best known of the many policy instruments that Home Economics Extension put in place is the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, later known as the 4-H Clubs. In 1913, eight Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs were formed in rural Manitoba towns; by 1915, there were 28 such clubs and the 1916 Extension report stated that they were the most effective way of teaching Home Economics. Designed for rural youth aged 10–21, their stated “primary purpose” was to convey improvements in agricultural and home economics methods. The mandate: to develop the “citizenship potential of these children by participating in a voluntary activity and to become aware of improved agricultural and home economics technology.”46 The program’s success meant that it soon required other staff, and it exists to the time of this writing.
There is far more to say about the extended Home Economics lab than we can cover in the space of a brief case study. What we want to emphasize is that the lab space, apparatus, and people in the Home Economics labs—and any labs, really—do not make sense unless we also take into account the larger cultural policies, infrastructural support, and the various imaginary regimes that position and produce the labs. Lab assemblages are flat, and the whole mess emerges by fits and starts in unpredictable ways.
The politics of Home Economics Extension are what historian Veronica Strong-Boag dubs “working feminism.”47 It made women and their difficult work a subject for serious study, and employed scientific method to produce not only primary research, but new techniques for developing modern, productive subjects, versed in everything from scientific method to parliamentary procedure.48 For Strong-Boag, early twentieth century Home Economics had “some of the same consciousness raising and research goals” as “modern” (ca. 1986) women’s studies programs.49 In the autoethnographies of twentieth-century prairie Home Economists, the varieties of feminist politics range from the radical to the conservative. But over the course of the century, what began as an effort to ameliorate the work of women in the private sphere passed through the Home Economics laboratories to become a collective cultural policy agenda. When the University of Manitoba closed the Faculty of Human Ecology on July 1, 2015, transitioning remaining units to other faculties, a significant, century-long part of the project of modernity on the Canadian prairies came to an end.50 Revisiting it by way of the laboratory is only one piece of an ongoing assessment of its complex legacy.