Manitoba History: Cool Things in the Collection: For Home and Country, Reflections of the Great War on a Women’s Society
by Marianne Reid
Within the collections of the S. J. McKee Archives at Brandon University are the minutes of the Minnedosa Home Economics Society for 1914 to 1918.  The minutes are well preserved and detailed, and the handwriting is legible. They are handwritten on paper that was once part of a small school scribbler. The record for each meeting ranges from one page to a page and a half. The run from January 1914 to June 1918 is almost complete with only a few missing months.
The Minnedosa Home Economics Society (HES) formed on 11 November 1910 as one of 17 chapters that resulted from a drive sponsored by the Manitoba Department of Agriculture in the latter part of that year. Charter members were primarily women of British descent. The Society’s motto, “For Home and Country,” reflected its core concerns: domestic science, improvement of the community, and participation in provincial and national concerns.
HES meetings had a business portion followed by an educational program. The minutes record a topic of discussion in a terse sentence; no context is given. These few words have the power to pique curiosity, potentially leading the curious to consult other historical records. An example of this is found in the last sentence of the 23 March 1916 minutes: “Meeting closed by singing the National Anthem and the additional verse now beginning during the war of God Save our Splendid Men.”
At the 25 May 1917 meeting, the guest speaker noted that “… now that we had the franchise to cast our ballot carefully and vote for the right irrespective of party.” Additional Women’s Institute records may illuminate the attitude of first-wave feminists to the arrival of suffrage in rural Manitoba. Besides votes for women, there are numerous other references throughout the minutes that reflect the major societal changes of that period: to the Dowager Act and custody of children, to the temperance movement, and to difficult economic times.
In the early years of the war, the program focussed on domestic or community concerns: starting bedding plants, cleaning the house in spring, improving the local school yard. As the war continued, the topics included providing meals without meat or flour, nursing at home, and learning about war-related causes.
In 1916, the theme of the educational program was home nursing with sessions led by the Minnedosa Hospital’s nurse. On 24 August 1916, Nurse Masters gave a lesson “on bandaging, showing how to apply bandages on various parts of the head, neck, shoulder, arm, heel, fingers, and toes.”
The fonds also contains a local history scrapbook entitled Minnedosa: A Village History, 1878–1956 written and assembled by the Minnedosa Women’s Institute. This excellent example of vernacular history is extensive, typewritten on sturdy paper, and illustrated with numerous high-quality photographs. Its opening pages describe activities in Minnedosa during the Great War and frequently provide more information about a reference in the HES minutes. One example relates to the Minnedosa branch of the Red Cross Society. During the First World War, Canadians wholeheartedly supported the Red Cross as the vehicle to provide humanitarian relief for Allied combatants and non-combatants. At the first meeting of the HES after war was declared, the minutes record that the members “spoke for a few minutes on how to carry on a Red Cross Society” (24 September 1914).
The scrapbook gives more detail in the section relating to the Red Cross, noting that the Minnedosa branch officially began on 12 May 1915 and that the women did a prodigious amount of sewing, knitting, bandage rolling, and fundraising. The scrapbook records that the “final report for the Red Cross in February 1919 showed a total of $17,261 has been raised” for Red Cross Belgian relief, Hospital Ship, Soldier’s Aid Fund, the Women’s Tribute, etc.
At the 24 February 1916 meeting, “the President offered the use of the Rest Room in the evenings to the Soldier Boys as a place to read, play games and enjoy themselves and to be under the supervision of the Red Cross.” In Manitoba, Rest Rooms were initiated, supported and run by members of the Women’s Institute as a place where farm women (and their children) who came into town could rest, have refreshment, read, and visit.  The scrapbook records that this space (intended for women only) was opened to recruits and an evening lunch was served to them.
The 1918 minutes repeatedly reference concerns about food production and food shortage. Part of the problem can be inferred from the minutes of 23 March 1918 where it is reported that a committee of two was formed “to assist in looking after the boys who might engage in farm work.” Later in the same meeting, we learn that the women “find a difficulty in getting [land for victory gardens] plowed and cultivated” and will approach the Town Council to “procure the service of some competent person with a team and outfit to undertake this work.”
These references to a shortage of men to do farm work and to work the land are further supported by the scrapbook which records that the Minnedosa Honour Roll for the Great War has the names of approximately 300 men (and four women who worked as nursing sisters) who served overseas and that the Minnedosa War Memorial has the names of 100 men. The population of the village was 1,500 people. Discovering that one-fifth of the town went overseas could explain why the women had difficulty finding a competent person to plough and cultivate land.
The minutes of the Minnedosa HES and the opening pages of the local history scrapbook are excellent primary source material on the years of the Great War, particularly on the activities and concerns of women in a small rural village in Manitoba. When considered together, we get a clear sense how the war overseas affected the women and their homes and farms. Their response to the war is summed up in the enduring motto of the Home Economics Society/ Women’s Institute: “For Home and Country.”
This article is dedicated in memory of the author’s paternal grandparents, Stan and Maggie Reid. David Stanley Reid (1897-1970) was a young farmer from Boissevain who volunteered to serve in the First World War in 1917 and volunteered again for the Second World War. Margaret Letitia Kerr (1896-1978) was a young woman from Alexander who waited for her betrothed to return from the Great War in France. Sadly for her, he did not come back. She married Stan Reid in 1927. Their life story is that of many people born in Canada near the turn of the twentieth century.
1. The Home Economics Societies in Manitoba changed their name to Women’s Institute in 1919.
2. For further information on Rest Rooms, see the Manitoba History article by Donna Norell at www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/11/ womensrestrooms.shtml
Page revised: 4 November 2018