Home Economists were important educational agents in the development of BC utility companies. In these days of the Site C dam and the Kinder Morgan pipeline controversies, it may be hard to believe that BC residents once had to be convinced to use gas and electrical utilities.
Vancouver Gas Company was incorporated in 1886 and acquired by British Columbia Electric Railway Co. in 1904. In 1926 it became part of British Columbia Electric Power and Gas[i].
The commercial efforts to increase the use of utilities were aimed at the housewife. The Victoria Modern Household Cookery Book (1911)[ii] promoted the efficiency of gas ranges and the amount of effort that would be saved. A cartoon at the end of the cookbook offered the opinion that “John” would no longer be a silly ass if he would start to cook with gas. Or at least buy a gas range for his wife.
In order to appeal to women, BC Electric established a home service department in 1917 and hired home economists and dieticians to write recipe books, run cooking schools and give weekly radio broadcasts. Its monthly pamphlet entitled Utility Topics: A Magazine of Service endorsed the economy of electric stoves on one page and the ease of using a gas range on the next page “as simple as tuning in a radio”.
Agnes M. Reed was the first Director of the BC Electric Home Service Department. In Utility Topics she passed along budgeting tips and “Ways with Waffles”. The cheery two-page article featured the excitement of having an electric waffle iron party: “The [irons] are so fitted out with regulators, and so accompanied by minute directions for their care and operation, that the most inexperienced bride should be able to offer their tender products to any guest”[iii].
The appointment of Jean Elizabeth Mutch to Reed’s staff in 1931 signaled the continuing professionalization of home economics. Mutch is described as a “demure young lady” in Utility Topics, “something of an authority on almost every phase of home-making”. She was originally from Prince Edward Island and had attended Macdonald College in Montreal. From there she went west to the Vancouver General Hospital where she worked as a dietician. She spent the rest of her working life at BC Electric, and like many women of her generation, remained single in order to have a career.
BC Electric Company was one of hundreds of companies across Canada that employed home economists. Much credit is due to Sir William Macdonald, the tobacco magnate (and crotchety bachelor) also from Prince Edward Island whose extensive educational philanthropy resulted in the establishment of many health-oriented institutions. Macdonald College, along with its sister college, Macdonald Institute in Guelph, had been established under his largesse in the early 1900s [iv]. By funding these institutions, Macdonald helped make home economics viable.
[i] See Elizabeth Driver’s book, Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks 1825-1949, (2008), University of Toronto Press, p. 1090.
[ii] An identical cookbook under the name Modern Vancouver Household Cookery Book was published in 1910. The books included a wide range of recipes
[iii] Ways with Waffles. (1931). Utility Topics: A Magazine of Service. 4 (8), pp. 6-7. Author’s private collection.
[iv] It is ironic that so many health-oriented programs were built on tobacco. Macdonald was a shrewd businessman who founded the Macdonald Tobacco Company later amalgamated with Reynolds Tobacco to become RJR. In addition to McGill University, Macdonald supported school garden programs, the teaching of household science, manual training, and other rural-education related projects and institutions: and the consolidated schools in Middleton, Nova Scotia, Rexton, New Brunswick, Guelph, and P.E.I. He supported the “McGill on the Pacific” project, which led to the University of British Columbia, and he helped as well to finance the beginnings of the University of Alberta. See http://vre2.upei.ca/cap/node/824 and also http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonald_william_christopher_14E.html