Manitoba History: “Valiant Servants”: Women and Technology on the Canadian Prairies 1910-1940
by Angela E. Davis
The history of science and technology is a relatively new field of study in Canada. Although a number of popular histories were written in the 1970s and earlier,  the discipline did not become officially established until 1980 when the First Conference on the Study of the History of Canadian Science and Technology was held at Kingston, Ontario.  Perhaps because of this late academic development, work on the impact of technology on women’s lives was included as early as the second conference of 1981.  While women working in the field of science itself have only recently received recognition,  Canadian women’s history has long included discussion of the changes brought about by technology, especially in studies of women and the industrialized workplace.  Considerable research has also been done on the subject of housework and the kitchen.  But with the exception of Marjorie Cohen ‘s article on dairying,  there is little on the impact of technology on women living in rural Canada in the early years of the present century. The implication in most writing is that changes in the lives of rural women followed that of urban women, albeit later in time.  Taking the prairie provinces as its focus and concentrating on the period 1910 to 1940, this paper will suggest that rural women did not have the advantages (and disadvantages) that technology made available to town-dwellers in the early years of the twentieth century, and that their ultimate acceptance and their appreciation of certain types of technology differed from that of their urban sisters.
Through the use of reminiscences and letters and articles from the women’s pages of the Grain Growers’ Guide,  it can be determined that while rural women were well aware of the advances being made in household technology in the period before the electrification of the prairies in the 1940s, they were also aware that the new technology would change their lives very little. Labour-saving devices were beyond the financial means of most farm families, and even if they could be afforded, women soon realized that while relieving much of the drudgery of work in the home, they would not make much difference to their actual work load. Other technical inventions, however, began to remove the isolation which had been such a burden of farm life.  The telephone, the radio and, above all, the automobile, allowed rural women to become part of a wider community and were, therefore, of greater consequence in changing the quality of their lives than was technology in the kitchen.
There are, then, two types of technology to be considered here: one which affected women’s house and farm work directly, and another which related to women’s wider experience of the outside world. It is also necessary to consider the impact of technology on the farm as a whole. Where the farmer himself may have perceived the steam-driven threshing machine as the ultimate in improving his working schedule, his wife may have felt the same about a kitchen sink with a drain  or a water tank closer to her back door. Technology, as Barbara Drygulski Wright explains, concerns the “solutions of real problems in a concrete environment.”  It is “in touch with reality;” and, therefore, for most prairie women in the years before electricity, involved finding ways around almost impossible working conditions.
As soon as railways and telegraphic communication linked them with eastern Canada, the cities and larger towns of the Canadian West adopted all the latest technical advances. Electric lighting and water services started to be introduced into the wealthier neighbourhoods of cities like Winnipeg and Calgary by the end of the nineteenth century,  while smaller towns followed suit once their populations warranted such expenditure.  On the prairie itself, however, it was a different story. Except for a few wealthy farmers who could afford their own generating plants, men and women worked the homesteads and family farms without electricity until the 1940s. Horses were used in the fields, water was pumped by hand and food was cooked on wood-burning stoves. When technology did begin to change life on the farm it changed it for both men and women, even if the technological inventions which helped men were not always the same as those which were most appreciated by women. However, the gap between men’s and women’s adoption of new technology on the prairies was not as wide as has sometimes been suggested.
The division of labour on the farm followed, in theory, the contemporary concept of “separate spheres.” While men worked outside“on the farm”women took care of things related to the house. They were expected to look after all the cooking, cleaning, laundry and sewing as well as care for the children. Farm life being what it was (and still is it appears),  women also found themselves fulfilling tasks relating to the farm itself. Besides the extra cooking involved at threshing time, they were invariably responsible for looking after the poultry, milking the cows, and growing the vegetables. Many of them preferred these chores to their housework and were often able to turn them to financial advantage. In letters to the Grain Growers’ Guide complaints were rare in regards to this outside work. “The outside work of raising an average sized garden, a flock of a hundred or so chickens and milking three or four cows I consider a pleasure rather than hard work,” wrote one farm woman. They frequently expressed the opinion that it helped them feel part of the farm: they “shared” the work involved.  It was their inside work which prompted their dissatisfaction: washing with a primitive water supply, cooking and ironing in hot weather, churning butter and providing meals for threshing crews in inadequate kitchens. As many prairie women had known what it was to live in towns with the latest amenities,  it is not surprising that suggestions to alleviate their indoor work was a constant topic of interest in the women’s pages of the Guide.
Household “labour-saving devices” had been available since the 1860s.  By the 1910s, vacuum cleaners, washing machines and dishwashers were displayed at industrial exhibitions and advertised in all types of women’s magazines.  They were not as simple to use as advertised, however. For example, most washing machines were hand operated, vacuum cleaners could weigh as much as seventy-five pounds,  and dishwashers were often little more than a hose attached to a hot-water tap (presupposing, of course, that there was a hot-water tap).  Moreover, the best of these appliances were dependent on some sort of powera gasoline-driven generator, gas or electricityand, for most people, were too expensive.  In spite of this, the women editors of the Grain Growers’ Guide, like writers in other magazines, devoted considerable space to promoting the new kitchen technology to farm women. There was, then, a noticeable gap between the prescription of household technology and its adoption in rural areas.
Prior to 1912, technology in the farm kitchen as advised by the editors in the Guide, centred on such devices as “fireless cookers;’ and means of dry-cleaning clothes at home.  But from 1912 emphasis was placed on acquiring what in one article were called “Five Valiant Servants.” In a lengthy editorial, Francis Marion Beynon discussed the merits of a “New Power Washer,” dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, “Hoosier Kitchen Cabinets,” and gasoline stoves. The washing machine was one which could be run “by gasoline engine, horse, steam or tread and which, should all sources of power fail unexpectedly some day, can be turned by hand as easily as an ordinary washing machine.”  (While some women did have the use of a gasoline engine, there is no mention in the Guide letters of any who used horse or steam power!). The rubbing of clothes on a washboard or turning the handle of a “posser,”  was eliminated by the use of a “power” washing machine but considerable preparation was still required:
The washing completed, the clothes were then wrung out into rinse water and blued or starched as required. Hand wringing and scrubbing were obviously removed but whether time was saved is extremely doubtful.
With the exception of the Hoosier Kitchen Cabinets (a useful all purpose kitchen storage system), the other “servants” advocated by Beynon were as dubious in utility as the washing machine. The dishwasher worked on the pump principle and again relied on boiling water being poured into it. The vacuum cleaner was no doubt of the manually operated pump variety  and the gasoline stove, as Beynon herself noted, was positively dangerous. There was always the risk that “a draught may blow out the flame, in which case the room will fill with gas and if a match is lit in it an explosion will follow.” 
And yet Francis Beynon and her successors at the Guide, Mary McCallum and Amy J. Roe, continued to extol the virtues of the new “machines” and to imply that they were within the financial reach of most farm women. Mary McCallum, writing in 1917, explained that it cost only “about $400” to install an “electrical plant” for an average farm or $600 for “larger plants.” This included “the engine, a one-and-a-half horse power gasoline engine, the generator and the storage batteries, for the smaller plants.” To wire the house would cost another $150. She recommended that even if her readers could not afford new appliances, they should at least acquire the plant so that lighting would be available. 
But it was obvious from women’s letters in the Grain Growers’ Guide, and from their responses to both the essay competition, “Should Your Daughter Marry a Farmer?”; as well as to the letter competition, “How Would You Spend $1000?”; held in 1922,  that while women were fully aware of the new technology it was beyond the financial resources of most of them. As Amy Roe described in her summing up of the results of the competitions, the majority of entrants were still concerned with such basics as water systems and adequate flooring. After all, what was the point of a washing machine or a dishwasher if one had to carry pails of water in from the pump? And what use was a vacuum cleaner if one had only rough boards as a floor?  The reality for most farm women was that they were still living in primitive conditions. Kathleen Strange, in a 1924 Guide article, “Making the Shack Homey,” described how she managed with her almost non-existent water supply and her inadequate kitchen. The problems she encountered had still not been solved for Manila Whitmore in 1926 or Grace Wakeman in 1928.  However much the new appliances were promoted, and for whatever reasons, most farm women did not have them.
It was often implied in the Grain Growers’ Guide woman’s page editorials that women did not impress their husbands enough with their need for modern equipment: “They have often not asked for anything better,” wrote Francis Beynon in 1913. Other arguments presented were that farmers were expanding their farms and becoming wealthy at the expense of their wives. Francis Beynon said on more than one occasion that in her opinion even the homes of wealthy farmers were badly equipped: “The well-to-do farmer supplies himself with every known convenience for saving labour” while his home “(is) a triumph of inconvenience”  Mary McCallum, in 1920, was still blaming farm women for not adopting modern conveniences: she reported that rather than modernize their homes, women were putting up with inconveniences until they could move “to a more congenial home in the city.”  It can, on the other hand, be pointed out that the seeming reticence on the part of prairie women to modernize their kitchens was not dissimilar to their husbands’ acceptance of machinery on the farm (which was not always as far ahead of the farm-house as the editorials implied).
At the beginning of the century, the major technical breakthrough on the farm was the steam-driven tractor. Used primarily for threshing and run by teams of twelve to twenty men, this huge machine would arrive on the farm at harvest time, complete the harvesting operation and then move on to the next farm.  But because the steam tractor itself was too expensive for most farmers to own their own and too large to be suitable for other farm chores, horses remained the main source of power (and transport) until the gasoline engine began to offer alternative work patterns. Following the introduction of the gasoline driven tractor in 1908,  it might be thought that farmers would have rushed to buy this new invention. Instead of having to feed, stable and care for horses, all of whom needed harnessing every time they were put to work, the farmer could now leap onto his tractor, start its engine and plow his fields in half the time it had taken him before. But it did not work out like that. As a number of studies have shown, farmers were slow to accept the new invention and, like their wives with household technology, their hesitancy would appear to have been based on more than lack of money.  The image of the highly mechanized farm, with lights in the barn and machines in the fields, contrasting with the primitive state of the kitchen, does not, it seems, always hold true. Where, however, a gasoline engine was available which could be put to a variety of uses, then the farm and the house seem to have benefitted equally.  In the case of electricity, while some farmers were able to purchase an electrical generating plant, most had to rely on government or private companies for electrical power.  By the end of the 1920s, when pressure was finally put on provincial governments and local councils to extend their sources of power to rural areas, it was too late. Such projects were destroyed by the onset of the depression, thus leaving most of the prairie region at the same stage of development until after the Second World War.
For rural women, then, in the first forty years of the present century, technology in the home was confined to improving the status quo. Fireless cookers, bread mixers, hand powered washers and wringers, pressure cookers, gasoline irons and gasoline cookers were major achievements. Bringing water tanks closer to the house, building summer kitchens and putting linoleum on floors were more important projects than acquiring new appliances. Little was changed in terms of the work women were responsible for and the new household technology made no difference to their expectations. But with technological advances not directly related to the homethe car, the telephone and the radiothe impact on women was of quite a different order. And in all three cases the changes which transpired were related to the farm and farm life itself.
The farmers, whose slow acceptance of the gasoline driven tractor has been described as “evolutionary” rather than “revolutionary,” had also been reluctant to change from horse drawn wagons to motorized farm trucks. Trucks were still, in the early 1920s, not economically viable for most farmersin fact, by 1926, only two out of every hundred farmers in the prairie provinces owned trucks.  Even if farmers could afford a tractor, they could rarely afford the extra farm vehicle and continued to use horses and wagons to take their grain to the railway or the storage elevators. When it came to buying a car, however, it was a different proposition. A Model T Ford seems to have been viewed as a sensible convenience rather than a risk investment.
At first there were variations in price: in 1909 a tractor cost $1700, while in 1911 a car was $1025. By 1915 a Model T Ford could be purchased for $590 and by 1917 it was as low as $545.  In 1914, after a change in government tax policies, a tractor could be bought for $795 and by the end of the 1920s was definitely more economical than horses. But statistical studies show that farmers still found horses more economical than tractors in the 1910s and early 1920s. (There was a rise in tractor purchases in the later years of the 1920s, but with the onset of the depression many farmers were forced to return to using horses).  Price does not seem to have been the only factor which persuaded farmers to buy cars, however. Prior to the arrival of the automobile, the one-horse “buggy” was the only means of family transport. A small wagon with seats, it was used for visiting the nearest town: to meet the train, to collect the mail, to buy groceries, to deliver the eggs, milk and butter to market or the railway station, to visit the doctor or the bank. It meant, however, that a horse had to be taken away from the farm and that considerable time was spent in actual travelling, sometimes too much time for one day. The great advantage of the car was speed and, if no mechanical failures occurred, availability. It did not have to be harnessed, fed or left at the livery stable while attending to errands in town. For whatever reason, price or convenience, the automobile was accepted by farmers and farm families with much more alacrity than tractors, trucks and household appliances. 
Not all farmers could afford cars, of course, and some, like Kathleen Strange’s husband, were adamantly opposed to them.  But, according to the Grain Growers’ Guide, on the farms where cars were bought many women used them from the beginning. There are no letters in the Guide which imply that it was “unladylike” for women to drive and no mention of husbands who disapproved of their wives driving. Perhaps the convenience of having another driver overcame any such prejudices.  It is sometimes argued that the introduction of cars into everyday life added yet another chore to women’s work load: that they became chauffeurs as well as housekeepers and nursemaids.  But there is no sense of this in the Guide’s women’s pages. In response to a questionnaire conducted by Mary McCallum in 1918, women described the pleasure they had in getting around in their cars. It is obvious that they did run errands for the farm: they took machinery to town for repairs, they delivered the milk and eggs to the station and they picked up the mail. But none of this was new to them. It was simply accomplished with more ease and in less time. As one woman said,
As with other technological changes, the process of adaptation was gradual: not everyone could afford a car, early models were not always reliable and roads, except for a few months of the year, were often unusable. But there was a slow programme of road improvement:  it became easier for doctors to travel outside rural towns to attend patients, for families to visit each other and for both men and women to attend the meetings of the emerging farm organizations. The car also made the cultural events of the nearest town or city available to rural people. As one woman said in response to the Guide’s “Should My Daughter Marry a Farmer” competition, the automobile made it possible for her daughter “to attend chautauqua or any worth-while entertainments in the city ...”  The car was, then, one of the major technological inventions to bring about the breakdown of women’s sense of isolation on the prairies. The other was the telephone. Neither made a difference to women’s work load on the farm: instead, they offered a feeling of independence on the one hand and community on the other. They were innovations which, while primarily introduced as practical for running the farm, could be used by women to their own advantage.
Before they acquired telephones, prairie women ran a high risk of being alone at times of childbirth and medical emergencies. Unless living close to a town, they had no means of summoning help. The introduction of a rural telephone service was thus “a blessing to the pioneer wife” in a purely practical sense. But besides enabling women to contact the doctor or nurse, it also “brought the sound of a neighbour’s voice into the farm kitchen.”  It meant that women could finally talk to each other: they were able to exchange news, plan meetings and organize visits.
The telephone was introduced into the West two years after its invention in 1876. Starting in the major cities in the 1880s,  provincial governments gradually introduced telephone services into rural areas during the first two decades of the twentieth century.  Before this, however, farmers had constructed their own “fence link” service. Using the barbed wire fences around their properties they were able to communicate with each other but not with central switchboards.  Kathleen Strange described how, in 1920, the farmers’ telephone system was still in evidence: “Old poles and sagging lines still stood here and there about the countryside.  She also recorded that the government service was available but that “the farmers would have to pay for it.” The cost varied depending on the position of a farmhouse from the roadway: every post counted. The Strange’s had to pay “around three hundred dollars or so” for their telephone.
But the telephone was obviously not considered a luxury by prairie women. As attested to in the responses to the Guide competitions, it made all the difference to women’s lives: women described how telephones “bring neighbours closer,” “quickly connect us (with) proper medical care” and “overcome distance.”  There is a strong sense of “before” and “after” the advent of the telephone. Certainly those with telephones felt that the old isolation had been broken. Sharing “party” lines with others does not seem to have been a problem. Listening in, or “rubbin”, as it was called, was officially illegal, but as Strange noted, it kept people in touch with all local happenings and often “it would be some lonely man or woman, cut off from contact with other human beings for days and even weeks at a time. Just to hear another human voice was something of a thrill.”  The telephone aided women in organizing social and work-related events in a manner not possible before. Marilla Whitmore, in her description of how four women of her acquaintance organized their annual cooking for threshers through a cooperative effort, says that they were such good friends that they had a “general call which they all understood and often they all four visited over the wire at one time.”  For farmers the value of the telephone was partly work oriented: it kept them in touch with events in the farm markets. For women, however, it not only provided a feeling of safety, it was also a symbol of new possibilities. Women’s entries in the Guide competitions clearly demonstrated that they considered it a major requirement before advising their daughters to marry a farmer.
There was one further invention which improved the quality of life for prairie women and their families and that was the radio. But, unlike the car and telephone which gave individuals access to and connection with life off the farm, the radio brought the outside world into the farm home. And it did so, moreover, at very little expense. Introduced into Manitoba in 1909, radio transmission “developed more quickly on the prairies than in any other region.” T. J. Allard, in his study of private broadcasting in Canada says that “the instant communication that wireless (radio) made possible was a benefit beyond value in that land of vast distances; poor roads; harsh winters; and scattered population.”  The radio supplied both information and entertainment. It offered farmers the latest grain and livestock prices and their families a variety of lectures, concerts and religious programmes. 
Most studies of the history of Canadian broadcasting are concerned with the politics and economics of government (public) versus privately operated radio stations.  Beyond a remark here and there, the impact of radio on its listeners is generally ignored. The pleasure it brought to isolated rural households has been deemed of minor importance compared to the wrangling between entrepreneurs and provincial or federal governments. Most listeners were not concerned with who transmitted the broadcasts but with how well they could receive them. The radio stations were, at first, in the hands of a variety of organizations: private companies such as Marconi, newspapers such as the Winnipeg Free Press, the Winnipeg Tribune and the Edmonton Journal, the Manitoba Telephone System and the Canadian National Railways.  By 1922, there were four radio stations in Manitoba, one of which (CKZC) had its transmitter in Eaton’s department store.  In 1923, when the newspapers’ stations (CJCG and CJNC) were taken over by the Manitoba Telephone System to become CKY, the new station advertised itself as being a “public utility for entertainment, instructional and commercial use.” There were concerts three evenings a week, news, sports and market reports daily except Sunday and on Sunday evenings a concert of “sacred music.” 
By 1922, there were three stations in Alberta and by 1927 as many as nine in Saskatchewan.  One source says that more households owned receiving sets in Manitoba in the 1920s then in the other prairies provinces, while another describes Alberta as being the most “infected” with “radiomania.”  Whatever the case, by the 1920s all three provinces had radio stations and “receiving sets” in the remotest places. Moreover, people could make these sets themselves from kits and component parts ordered through magazines and catalogues,  or bought at places like Eaton’s radio section. Obviously, obtaining and setting up a receiving set was something which would be appreciated by all members of a family, women as well as men.
E. Austin Weir, in his study, The Struggle for National Broadcasting in Canada, makes the unsubstantiated comment that only men were appreciative of the new radio technology: the “harassed housewife abandoned her dishes, while the head of the house listened intently for sounds out of space ... family relations were often strained.”  One has only to compare this statement with Kathleen Strange’s enthusiastic response to the acquisition of a “wireless set” to recognize a false assumption. She recorded that in 1920, among the family Christmas gifts, was one
Strange described her set as consisting of “three tubes in a simple wooden box, and three sets of earphones!”  It was certainly primitive, she said, but
Depending on where one lived, it was possible to receive a wide variety of programmes: the World Series from the United States, lectures from the University of Manitoba Extension Service and symphony concerts from Toronto.  In 1924, Amy J. Roe noted in the Guide that “the radio has come to stay. Possibly no other invention of modern day science will mean so much to life in rural communities, especially where distances between large centres of population is great and where many must of necessity live far from the culture, the educational and social advantages of those large centres.” She noted how “the family in the farm house may now sit quietly at home on a cold winter’s evening and enjoy lectures, concerts and public speeches given by the best talent that is to be procured.”  Her readers informed her that the radio “helps to banish isolation” and described how they were able to use their sets for both farm information and entertainment.  The only negative aspect of the introduction of the radio into family life (rural or urban) was the possible decline in home produced entertainment. However, letters in the Guide continued to refer to piano and choral music, so presumably “home” music was still appreciated.
One of the great advantages of the radio, in its early years, was its availability. It was cheap, could be made at home and did not need electricity: it was thus accessible to most people. For this reason its popularity did not decline with the onset of the Depression in the 1930s. Where farm families had to retire their cars and return to using horses,  their radios became, instead, a lifeline. James Gray describes how listening to the radio intensified during the period: “it enabled farm people to shut themselves away from the depression itself, from the dust, and from the wind that blew night and day ...”  Serial stories (“soap operas”), concerts, comedy shows and plays were all available. It was possible, said Gray, “at any time of an evening, any day of the week, to turn on the radio and escape from the depression into a world of beautiful music, comedy and drama.” There were talks by “professors and editors” and plays by “the best modern dramatists, up to and including Eugene O’Neill.” The radio became such an essential element for survival in the 1930s that, according to Gray, farmers on relief could somehow manage to get replacement dry cell batteries for their receiving sets on their relief allowance.  Along with the car and the telephone, then, the radio finally ensured that prairie dwellers would no longer be cut off from the outside world.
The major difficulty in assessing the impact of technology on prairie women as a whole is the lack of reliable information concerning the economic status of individual farm families. While gasoline powered “electrical plants” were available from the 1910s, it is obvious from the Guide competitions and other sources that not all farmers were able to afford them, for either the farm or the farmhouse. Nor did they all have cars and telephones.  One woman in 1922 described how “modern conveniences, cars, telephones, rural mail and hospitals (and) the best that our cities have to offer” were available to rural dwellers,  and another noted that “[t]elephones bring neighbours closer. The rural mail comes more frequently. In summer the automobile makes travel a possibility and a pleasure for mother and children.” But, in contrast, another said “[t]he monotony of farm life is hard to bear, though, of course, in sections where the telephone is in use it is minimized somewhat, and of course a car is a great help, though only the well-to-do farmer can have cars.” 
These economic differences were discussed by Amy Roe in 1926. She found it impossible to determine what was “typical of farm life in Western Canada,” quoting from one letter which said
and from another which said that the homes in her neighbourhood
Roe concluded that in “no other industry” were there “such contrasts in standards of living” and that this was due to the fact that the home was “very closely and definitely linked up” with the farm itself. 
Unless the Guide editors rewrote their readers’ letters, most writers seemed to have been of the same educational level. There was no literacy difference (something which might assist in defining economic status) between those with modern conveniences and those without. And it is apparent from the letters and reminiscences that many women had been used to a different standard of living before settling on the prairies. How then, is it possible to reach any conclusions as to what elements came together to make farm people decide whether they should invest in tractors, washing machines or cars? As has been noted in other studies of the Canadian prairies, there is little in the source material to distinguish between poor farm families and wealthy during this period.  Was, therefore, Francis Marion Beynon correct in 1913 when she asserted that some wives of “well-to-do” farmers were being deprived of labour saving devices through the selfishness of their husbands or is it more likely that farm women were more involved in the overall business of the farm and were more independent in their decisions than has generally been conceded? In the “How Would You Spend $1000?” competition, running water was given precedence over washing machines and flooring was of more concern than vacuum cleaners. Also, like their husbands’ experiences with the early tractors, the farm women perhaps thought it advisable to wait until the new “labour-saving” devices really performed the work they were supposed to before purchasing them. Be that as it may, it seems apparent that even with the electrification programmes on the prairies in the late 1940s, work in the home changed very little for most women as the result of technology. 
Technology which began to remove the loneliness and isolation of life on the prairies was, however, a different matter. As the result of the new avenues of communication made available through the car and the telephone, farm women were able to become part of the national process of women’s emancipation and reform. They could join the various farm women’s organizations, arrange meetings by phone and attend them by car. There are stories of women who walked through the snow or drove their buggies to the polling stations when women first voted in Manitoba,  but it was all made much easier by car. Furthermore, on the everyday level of cooking for threshers or arranging social visits, the telephone and the car were invaluable. The radio, the other invention to change prairie life, introduced the outside world into farm life and thus kept people in touch with business, cultural and political events elsewhere. It can be argued that radio programmes were liable to influence individual tastes and ideas and that home-produced entertainment would decline. This long term result does, however, have to be balanced against the pleasure the radio undoubtedly gave to hundreds of families otherwise cut off from cultural and educational centres.
It might, at first glance, seem simplistic to talk of the non-household technologies as the ones which changed the quality of rural women’s lives. After all, the telephone, the car and the radio undoubtedly improved things for men as well. But, as Sylvia Van Kirk has noted, while “the female experience has its own internal and often unique reality,”  women’s lives “must be examined and evaluated within the context of the times in which they lived.”  In the case of exploring the reality of the impact of technology on rural prairie women in the early years of the present century, it is impossible to consider women’s experience, different though it was, without also considering the experience of their husbands.
The lives of both men and women were circumscribed by the farm or homestead. Most of them were financially insecure and were committed to hard work if the farm was to become economically viable. But women’s initial experience of prairie life was different from men’s. Men had often moved to the prairie prior to marriage, had worked for or with other men and were not necessarily so conditioned to contemporary standards of what constituted a “good” or “comfortable” home.  Women, on the other hand, especially those coming from a culture which emphasized women’s place in the home (providing a “haven” for the tired working man) were not prepared for the solitary wooden shacks and the distances which surrounded them. It was hard work which improved the conditions of the shack and which turned it into a home; it was also hard work that was essential for the development of the farm and that women shared with men. Not all women enjoyed or were capable of the unrelenting work farm life required. As Nellie McClung noted, “[t]heir hours were endless, their duties imperative.”  But many found great satisfaction in their contribution to the growth of the farm and their home: for them it was not work which they perceived as a problem, but the isolation and separation from other women.  It was not possible for rural women to chat over the fence as women did in working class areas of large cities; it was not possible to get on a street car to go shopping or to meetings; it was not possible to walk or go by tram to a theatre or concert hall. The non-household inventions were, therefore, of much greater significance to rural women than to urban women in improving the quality of daily life.
Following the Second World War prairie life began to change: electricity made modern conveniences available to those who could afford them, horses were replaced by cars, tractors and trucks, and the radio was controlled by fewer but larger agencies. In the period before this, however, the positive impact of technology on farm women was related far more to the removal of isolation that it was to saving labour. The true “valiant servants” were not the washing machine and the vacuum cleaner but the car, the telephone and the radio.
A version of this paper was presented at the Canadian Historical Association Conference, Kingston, 1991. Study of the letters and editorials in the women’s page of the Grain Growers’ Guide was made possible by a Research Grant from the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women.
1. See, for example, J. J. Brown, Ideas in Exile: A History of Canadian Invention (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1967); Janis Nostbakken and Jack Humphrey, The Canadian Inventions Book: Innovations, Discoveries and Firsts (Toronto: Greey de Pencier Publications, 1976): Bruce Sinclair, Norman R. Ball and James O. Peterson, eds. Let us be Honest and Modest: Technology and Society in Canadian History (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1974).
2. Richard A. Jarrell and Norman R. Ball, “The Study of the History of Canadian Science and Technology,” in Richard A. Jarrell and Norman R. Ball, eds. Science, Technology and Canadian History (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1980), pp. 1-12.
3. Women’s history and the history of science in Canada followed a roughly parallel development. Thus, Diana Pedersen, “‘The Scientific Training of Mothers’: The Campaign for Domestic Science in Ontario Schools, 1890-1913,” was included in the second conference. See Richard A. Jarrell and Arnold E. Roos, eds. Critical Issues in the History of Canadian Science, Technology and Medicine (Thornhill, Ontario: HSIC Publications, 1983), pp. 178-94.
5. See, for example, Gail Cuthbert Brandt, “‘Weaving it Together’: Life Cycle and the Industrial Experience of Female Cotton Workers in Quebec, 1910-1950,” in Alison Prentice and Susan Mann Trofimenkoff, eds. The Neglected Majority: Essays in Canadian Women’s History, vol. 2. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987), pp. 160-73; Linda Kealey, “Women and Labour during World War I: Women Workers and the Minimum Wage in Manitoba;” in Mary Kinnear, ed. First Days Fighting Days: Women in Manitoba History (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 1987), pp. 76-99; Ceta Ramkhalawansingh, “Women during the Great War,” in Women and Work (Toronto: Canadian Women’s Educational Press, 1974), pp. 261-307; Susan Mann Trofimenkoff, “One Hundred and Two Muffled Voices: Canada’s Industrial Women in the 1880s,” in Veronica Strong-Boag and Anita Clair Fellmann, Rethinking Canada: The Promises of Women’s History (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman Ltd., 1986), pp. 82-94.
6. Pedersen, “‘The Scientific Training of Mothers’.” See also Genevieve Leslie, “Domestic Service in Canada, 1880-1920,” in Women and Work, pp. 71-81; Veronica Strong-Boag, “Keeping House,” Chapter 4 of The New Day Recalled: Lives of Girls and Women in English Canada 1919-1939 (Harmortdsworth: Penguin Books, 1988), pp. 113-144; Sharon Reilly, “Material History and the History of Women,” in First Days Fighting Days, pp. 1-17; Hilary Russell, “‘Canadian Ways’: An Introduction to Comparative Studies of Housework, Stoves and Diet in Great Britain and Canada,” Material History Bulletin, 19 (Spring-Printemps, 1984) pp. 1-12.
7. Marjorie Griffin Cohen, “The Decline of Women in Canadian Dairying,” in The Neglected Majority, vol. 2, pp. 61-83. Also see Veronica Strong-Boag, “Pulling in Double Harness or Hauling a Double Load: Women, Work and Feminism on the Canadian Prairie,” Journal of Canadian Studies, 21, 3 (Automne/Fall, 1986) pp. 32-52.
8. Although the unique difficulties faced by rural women are respected in both Canadian and American writing, the generalizations usually refer to urban or suburban women. See, for example, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York: Basic books, Inc., 1983); Susan Strassner, Never Done: A History of American Housework (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982) and Alison Prentice, Paula Bourne, Gail Cuthbert Brandt, Beth Light, Wendy Mitchinson and Naomi Black, eds. ‘At Home,” Chapter 3 of Canadian Women: A History (Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988), pp. 240-62. See also John Herd Thompson, “Writing About Rural Life and Agriculture,” in John Schultz, ed. Writing About Canada: A Handbook for Modern Canadian History (Scarborough, Ontario: Prentice-Hall Canada Inc., 1990), pp. 107, 110.
9. See Angela E. Davis, “‘Country Homemakers’: The Daily Lives of Prairie women as seen through the Woman’s Page of the Grain Growers’ Guide 1908-1928,” in Donald K. Akenson, ed., Canadian Papers in Rural History, vol. VIII, (Gananoque, Ontario: Langdale Press, 1992), concerning the value of the letters and editorials in the woman’s page of the Grain Growers’ Guide prior to changes in the Guide’s editorial policies. During the early years, the woman’s page carried a large number and a wide variety of readers’ letters: certainly sufficient to gain an understanding of women’s attitudes towards prairie life. In the 1930s, reflecting new ideas of “scientific management” in the home, the letters ceased and the editorials became instructive rather than participatory commentaries on women’s lives.
10. Prentice et al., Canadian Women, p. 120; Strong-Boag, New Day Recalled, p. 135. Also see Sara Brooks Sundberg, “Farm Women on the Canadian Prairie Frontier: The Helpmate Image,” in Rethinking Canada, pp. 95-106.
11. Christine Kleinegger, “Out of the Barns and into the Kitchens: Trans-formations in Farm Women’s Work in the First Half of the Twentieth Century,” in Barbara Druygulski Wright, ed., Women, Work and Technology: Transformations (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987), pp. 171-72.
13. See Alan J. Artibise, “Boosterism and the Development of Prairie Cities, 1871-1913,” in Alan J. Artibise, ed., Town and City: Aspects of Canadian Urban Development (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 1981), pp. 209-35; Alan J. Artibise, Winnipeg: a Social History of Urban Growth (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1975), pp. 89-101, 207-222; Herbert W. Blake, “Electric Light Comes to Winnipeg,” Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba Transactions. Series III, p. 34 and p. 35 (1977-78) pp. 5-22; J. William Brennan, Regina: An Illustrated History (Toronto: James Lorimer and Co., 1989), pp. 43-47; James G. MacGregor, A History of Alberta (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishing, 1981), p. 156; W. L. Morton, Manitoba: A History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979), pp. 306-308; H.V. Nelles, “Public Ownership of Electrical Utilities in Manitoba and Ontario, 1906-30,” Canadian Historical Review LVII, 4 (December, 1976) p. 464; Clinton O. White, Power for a Province: A History of Saskatchewan Power (Regina: University of Regina, 1976), pp. 1-27.
14. See Alex Johnston and Andy A. den Otter, Lethbridge: A Centennial History (Lethbridge: City of Lethbridge, 1985), pp. 74, 94, 104; Barry Potyondi, “In Quest of Limited Urban Status: the Town Building Process in Minnedosa,1879-1906;’ in Town and City, p. 142; Paul Voisey, Vulcan: The Making of a Prairie Community (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), p. 25. Also see Clinton O. White, “The QuAppelle Electrical Utility, 1906-1927,” Saskatchewan History, XXVIII, 1 (Winter, 1975) 1-8 re. attempts to provide a small community with electrical power.
17. For example, Irene Parlby and Mary Speechly were prairie women who had emigrated from London, England, and Cambridge, England, respectively. See GGG, April 9, 1919, p. 8 and Angela E. Davis, “Mary Barrett Speechly 1873-1968: A Manitoba Feminist,” (Paper presented to the annual Conference of Manitoba History, University of Manitoba, 1988. Forthcoming in The Beaver). Also see Prentice et al., Canadian Women, p. 255.
18. Cowan, More Work for Mother, p. 3 and passim. See also Christina Hardyment, From Mangle to Microwave: The Mechanization of Household Work (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988), p. viii and passim and Witold Rybczynski, Home: A Short History of an Idea (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987), pp. 148-54.
19. Diane Dodd, “Women in Advertising: The Role of Canadian Women in the Promotion of Domestic Electrical Technology in the Interwar Period,” in Despite the Odds, pp. 134-51, 407-11; Mary Vipond, “The Image of Women in Mass Circulation Magazines in the 1920s,” in Susan Mann Trofimenkoff and Alison Prentice, eds., The Neglected Majority: Essays in Canadian Women’s History, vol. I, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1984), pp. 120-121. See also Ruth Schwartz Cowan, “The ‘Industrial Revolution’ in the Home: Household Technology and Social Change in the Twentieth Century” in Thomas J. Schlereth, ed., Material Culture Studies in America (Nashville, Tennessee: American Association for State and Local History, 1982), pp. 226, 234-35.
24. Francis Marion Beynon, “Five Valiant Servants Wanting Country Employ,” GGG, June 26, 1912, pp. 13, 26. Beynon does not include the sewing machine in her list of “servants.” Hand and treadle machines were in use from the mid-nineteenth-century, with a Canadian machine patented in 1858. But early attempts to mechanize them seem to have been as impractical as with other “labour-saving” devices. See Hardyment, From Mangle to Microwave, pp. 41-52.
25. Hardyment, From Mangle to Microwave, p. 56. The earliest washing machine, which consisted of “a two-armed handle on the top of a stout stick,” was known as a “dolly” or “posser.” According to Hardyment, “It was wielded in a wooden tub full of hot suds and dirty clothes.” The “Canadian Washer” worked on the force-pump principle and dated from 1881. See also Barber, “Below Stairs,” p. 45, and Russell, “‘Canadian Ways’,” pp. 9-10.
29. Mary P. McCallum, “Electricity for the Farm;’ GGG, September 12, 1917, p. 10. See R. G. Marchildon, “Improving the Quality of Rural Life in Saskatchewan: Some Activities of the Women’s Section of the Saskatchewan Grain Growers, 1913-1920,” in David C. Jones and Ian MacPherson, eds., Building Beyond the Homestead (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 1985), p. 90, for a discussion of this issue. Also see Jeremy Adelman, “Prairie Farm Debt and the Financial Crisis of 1914,” The Canadian Historical Review, LXXI, 4 (1990) pp. 491-519, for a study of farm economic problems.
30. “Which Should My Daughter Many?,” GGG, June 14, 1922, pp. 8-9, 27; “Should My Daughter Marry a Farmer?,” July 12, 1922, pp. 9, 22, 23; August 9, 1922, pp. 18, 19. See Mary Kinnear, “‘Do You Want Your Daughter to Marry a Farmer?’: Women’s Work on the Farm, 1922;’ in Donald H. Akenson, ed., Canadian Papers in Rural History, vol. VI. (Gananoque, Ontario: Langdale Press, 1988), pp. 137-53, for an evaluation of the answers to the GGG essay competition and to a survey carried out by the United Farm Women of Manitoba.
32. Kathleen Strange, “Making the Shack Homey,” GGG, May 14, 1924, p. 9; Marilla R. Whitmore, “If I Were Building Again,” March 17, 1926, p. 25; Grace Wakeman, “Dollar Stretching,” November 1, 1928, p. 20. See Strong-Boag, “Pulling in Double Harness;’ p. 37, and Kinnear, “‘Do You Want Your Daughter to Marry a Farmer?,” pp. 145-150 for discussions of this issue.
33. Beynon, “The Farm Girls’ Strike,” GGG, December 10, 1913, p. 16 and “Women’s Unnecessary Martydom,” July 30, 1913, p. 8. This view was supported by other contemporary writers. See, for example, Nellie McClung, ‘As a man thinketh,” In Times Like These (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983. Originally published 1915), pp. 113-114. Also see Kinnear, “‘Do You Want Your Daughter to Marry a Farmer?”, p. 149.
35. Helen J. Abell, “The Social Consequences of the Modernization of Agriculture,” in Marc-Adilard Tremblay and Walter J. Anderson, eds. Rural Canada in Transition: A Multi-dimensional Study of the impact of technology and urbanization on traditional society (Ottawa: Agricultural Economic Research Council of Canada, 1970), pp. 181-183; John H. Archer, Saskatchewan History (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1981), pp. 147-148; Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), pp. 329-331; Ian MacPherson, ‘Better Tractors for Less Money’: The Establishment of Canadian Co-operative Implements Limited;’ Manitoba History, 13 (Spring, 1987) p. 3; R. Bruce Shepard, “The Mechanized Agricultural Frontier of the Canadian Plains,” Material History Bulletin, 7 (SpringPrintemps, 1979) pp. 3-6; Earl J. Tyler, “The Farmer as a Social Class in the Prairie Region,” in Rural Canada in Transition, pp. 268-269, 322.
36. Robert E. Ankli, H. Dan Helsberg and John Herd Thompson, “The Adoption of the Gasoline Tractor in Western Canada;’ in Donald H. Akenson, ed. Canadian Papers in Rural History, vol. III, (Gananoque, Ontario: Langdale Press, 1980), p. 10 and passim; Shepard, “The Mechanized Agricultural Frontier,” p. 6 and passim.
39. See Christopher Armstrong and H. V. Nelles, Monopoly’s Moment: The Organization and Regulation of Canadian Utilities, 1830-1930 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), pp. 321-328; Armstrong and Nelles, “Competition vs Convenience: Federal Administration of Bow River Waterpowers, 1906-13,” in Henry C. Klassen, ed. The Canadian West: Social Change and Economic Development (Calgary: University of Calgary Comprint Publishing Co., 1977), pp. 163-180; A History of Hydro-electric Power in Manitoba (Winnipeg: Manitoba Hydro, n.d.), pp. 3-10; Nelles, “Public Ownership of Electrical Utilities;’ p. 484.
40. Ankli et al., “The Adoption of the Gasoline Tractor,” p. 16. Also G. T. Bloomfield, “‘I can see a car in that crop’: Motorization in Saskatchewan 1906-1934,” Saskatchewan History, XXXVII, 1 (Winter, 1984) p. 11.
43. Ankli et al., “The Adoption of the Gasoline Tractor,” p. 10; John H. Archer, Saskatchewan A History, (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1981), p. 201; Voisey, Vulcan, pp. 23-24, pp. 168-169. C. A. Dawson and Eva R. Younge, in Pioneering in the Prairie Provinces: The Social Side of the Settlement Process. Vol. VIII, Canadian Frontiers of Settlement (New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1974. Reprint edition, Toronto: MacMillan Col., Ltd., 1940), pp. 155-156, note that of nine suggested living conveniences surveyed by the Canadian Pioneer Problems Committee in 1929, farmhouse basements and cars ranked in first place, followed next in order by the telephone, the radio and the power washing machine.
44. Kathleen Strange, With the West in Her Eyes (Toronto: George J. McLeod, Ltd., 1937), p. 251. It is interesting to note, however, that the Strange’s had to rely on their neighbours to transport Kathleen to hospital in an emergency. See pp. 258-61.
45. While the Grain Growers’ Guide gives the impression that women drove the farm cars as soon as they were purchased, the United Farm Women of Manitoba survey records that only 22% of women drove. It is difficult to interpret these differences without further information on the economic status of the women involved in the survey. See Kinnear, “‘Do You Want Your Daughter to Marry a Farmer?;” p. 145.
46. Cowan, “The ‘Industrial Revolution in the Home;’p. 236; Strong-Boag, The New Day Recalled, p. 136. Also see Cowan, “A Case Study of Technological and Social Change: The Washing Machine and the Working Wife;’ in Mary S. Hai tuian and Lois Banner, eds. Clio’s Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), p. 248 for a view of the use of contemporary women’s time.
51. Gilbert A. Muir, ‘A History of the Telephone in Manitoba;’ Transactions of the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba. Series III, 21 (1964-65) p. 69. Also MacGregor, A History of Alberta, p.320; Brennan, Regina, p. 44; Voisey, Vulcan, pp. 63, 169.
52. Archer, Saskatchewan, pp. 153-54; Muir, “History of the Telephone in Manitoba;’ p. 74. Also see E. B. Ogle, Long Distance Please: The Story of the Trans Canada Telephone System (Toronto: Collins Publishers, 1979), pp. 123-47.
60. See, for example, David Ellis, Evolution of the Canadian Broadcasting System: Objectives and Realities, 1928-1968 (Ottawa: Department of Communications, 1979); Frank W. Peers, The Politics of Canadian Broadcasting 1920-1951 (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1969); E. Austin Weir, The Struggle for National Broadcasting in Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1965).
61. Allard, Straight Up, pp. 15-27. See also George F. Reynolds, “Early Wireless and Radio in Manitoba, 1909-1924;’ Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba Transactions. Series III. Numbers 34 and 35 (1977-78 and 1978-79) pp. 99-108 and Mary Vipond, “CKY Winnipeg in the 1920s: Canada’s Only Experiment in Government Monopoly Broadcasting,” Manitoba History, 12 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 3-4.
62. Reynolds, “Early Wireless and Radio,” p. 102.
65. Allard, Straight Up, p. 23; Vipond, “CKY Winnipeg,” p. 5.
66. Reynolds, “Early Wireless and Radio,” pp. 92-94, 102-03.
68. See Reynolds, “Early Wireless and Radio;’ p. 93, re the “crystal set” radios of the time.
70. See Maria Tippett, Making Culture: English-Canadian Institutions and the Arts before the Massey Commission (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), pp. 14-20. Also Vipond, “CKY Winnipeg,” p. 7; Voisey, Vulcan, p. 25.
72. Tippett, Making Culture, p. 14. Home entertainment had been provided by the piano in homes which could afford it. Also, the phonograph, invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, allowed families to listen to music. Neither, however, compared with the direct contact with the outside world provided by the radio.
76. Tyler, “The Farmer as a Social Class;’ pp. 269, 322. Tyler’s charts show that only 1% of farms in the prairie region had electric motors by 1941. Dawson and Younge, Pioneering in the Prairie Provinces, p. 155, note that “Electric light, running water in the farm home, and sewage systems, belong to the luxury class of farm home conveniences.”
81. Prentice et al., Canadian Women, p. 246. See also Ruth Schwartz Cowan, “From Virginia Dare to Virginia Slims: Women and Technology in American Life;’ in Martha Moore Trescott, ed. Dunomos and Virgins Revisited: Women and Technological Change in History (Metuchen, J. J.: The Scarecrow Press Inc., 1979), p. 38.
83. Sylvia Van Kirk, “What Has the Feminist Perspective Done for Canadian History?” in Knowledge Reconsidered: A Feminist Overview (Ottawa: Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, 1983), p. 53.
85. See, for example, the accounts of men living on their own in Elizabeth Lewthwaite, “Women’s Work in Western Canada;’ and Marion Cran, ‘A Woman in Canada,” in Susan Jackel, ed., A Flannel Shirt and Liberty: British Emigrant Gentlewomen in the Canadian West, 1880-1914 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1982), pp. 113, 135.
86. Prentice et al.. Canadian Women, pp. 143-44. For the wider concept of “women’s sphere,” see Jane Lewis, “Introduction: Reconstructing Women’s Experience of Home and Family,” in Jane Lewis, ed. Labour and Love: Women’s Experience of Home and Family 1850-1940 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1986), pp. 5-12. Also Patricia Branca, Silent Sisterhood: Middle-Class Women in the Victorian Home (London: Croom Helm, 1977), p. 7.
87. See Kinnear, “‘Do you want your daughter to marry a farmer? p. 144, concerning the distances women lived from markets, doctors and schools. It should be noted that these particular circumstances did not apply to women who emigrated with groups of settlers. See, for example, Royden Loewen, “Family, Church and Market: A History of a Mennonite Community Transplanted from Russia to Canada and the United States, 1850-1930.” (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Manitoba, 1990), pp. 58-76. The work of Mennonite women was equally hard but loneliness was not a problem. In fact, it seems that privacy may have been more valuable.
88. Nellie McClung, The Stream Runs Fast: My Own Story (Toronto: Thomas Allen Limited, 1945), p. 46.
Page revised: 29 April 2020