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Once the model bride glided off the Fashion Court stage, the ‘golden staircase’ was moved swiftly into the left wing. On cue, from stage right, pre-heated stoves and the latest refrigerator models were wheeled in; sinks and cupboards also arrived, along with an archetypal ‘country kitchen’ window, festooned with a curtain frill and the requisite potted geranium. [2] In the 1920s, “Kate Aitken’s Country Kitchen” attracted homemakers hungry for Aitken’s “homely touch” who were “flock[ing]” to the Canadian National Exhibition Women’s Building demonstration kitchen despite having often felt “cooly indifferent to the sight of prize boules or the latest machinery.” [3] The seating was crammed and the set-up was not ideal: performance hazards included giant electric wires snaking across the floor and kitchen sinks lacking real plumbing. Undoubtedly knowing she was good for business, in 1935 the directors promoted Aitken’s kitchen stage to a larger arrangement in the new Electrical and Engineering building, which was a marvel of modern efficiency. [4] The move was significant: her kitchen was now centred in the CNE’s stove, washing machine and refrigerator universe. The new demonstration kitchen, dubbed “Kate Aitken’s Cooking School,” could seat 1,200 comfortably, boasted the very latest modern conveniences, and featured brilliant white surfaces. Its shelves gleamed with lines of canisters of Canada Cornstarch and Maple Leaf product placements (figure 1).

Figure 1

Kate Aitken’s Cooking School in the Electrical and Engineering Building, Canadian National Exhibition, 1938

Pringle and Booth Fonds, MG4 A 14227-1, CNE Archives

-> See the list of figures

Aitken’s food education career began with pickling and canning in the “country kitchen,” but she was soon singing the praises of packaged food on the airwaves, with broadcasts that were sponsored by various food companies, such as Ogilvie Flour, Canada Starch, Good Luck Margarine and Lipton Tea and Soup.[5] Aitken was a contradiction, pivoting between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ kitchens, a transition she herself embodied. Aitken’s kitchen demonstration development, and her overwhelming success as an educator at the CNE offers a lens through which to examine the gendered education of food preparation, at a time when what constituted as ‘women’s work’ was itself being re-worked. Aitken’s pedagogical programming also deftly demonstrated that women’s work stretched far beyond the frilly curtains of the kitchen windowsill. More than creating marital bliss with a bake mix or limiting women to a life in the kitchen, Aitken’s programming sought to show how women’s domestic work was important and had national ramifications. The CNE Women’s Building programming was an exhibition of what women across the nation had achieved, as advocates and actors within their own communities and beyond.

Aitken’s decades of leadership at the CNE, which ended with her retirement in 1952, charts the shifting roles of women in society. Women’s programming at the CNE helped to support and construct these roles as part of a wider discourse about women’s place both within and outside the home. Food played an intensely important part in this process. While the pedagogical purpose of many of the activities at the Women’s Building were described as the “capture, care and feeding of husbands,”[6] Aitken’s use of food programming fulfilled multiple functions: as a tool for community organizing in her massive ‘ladies luncheons’ and her work with Women’s Institutes; as a gendered pedagogy in her restaurants, table-setting and cooking demonstrations and competitions; and as a means of teaching children and young people the skill of feeding themselves. As a woman whose work sat at the intersection of the ‘modern’ and the ‘traditional’ kitchen she also communicated important messages about shifting gender roles in the early to mid-twentieth century in Canada.

And Now Here’s Mrs. A

Kate Aitken (1891–1971) was born Katherine Scott in Beeton, Ontario. She started what would develop into a surprising national career as a domestic educator by leaving home at 16 to teach in a one-room schoolhouse in Cypress Hills, Alberta. After marrying Henry Mundell Aitken, an accountant, in Toronto, she eventually returned with her young family to her hometown. There, she ran successful poultry and home canning businesses. Her yearly output of 12,000 jars of jams, pickles and preserves went to a shop in the city, and two of her White Wyandotte hens held world records for egg laying, a feat that attracted the royal family’s attention and subsequent work advising royal hen-keepers in England. [7] She freelanced as a food writer, ran multiple cooking schools, and during the Second World War advised the federal government on food and rationing matters. However, Aitken was and still is best known as a pioneer in the broadcasting field, a career that took place by accident, quite literally, when an announcer was suddenly unavailable because she broke her leg.[8] “Mrs. A.’s” familiar sing-song voice became known across the country on CFRB and later CBC radio by regaling listeners with homemaking and health tips, and stories about her travels and women who were community organizers. [9] More than once a day for more than twenty years, 1934 to 1957, over the airwaves, Aitken entertained and informed Canadian households, particularly housewives. During World War II, she became Canada’s ambassador of frugality when she took the job of Supervisor of Conservation for the Consumer Branch of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board. [10] She was equally as comfortable interviewing Mussolini about wheat as counselling housewives on how to save a drying fruitcake.[11] At the same time she was Women’s Editor of the Montreal Standard, and published books and articles in various newspapers and magazines. They were geared for a female readership and delved into various topics over the years: etiquette, cooking, making a living, traveling alone, education in different countries, world poverty, refugee camps, and raising a family. All while raising her own family.

Mrs A. at the CNE

Aitken was the first director of “Women’s Activities”[12] at the Women’s Division of the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) in Toronto, a position she officially took on in 1938. Starting with local community work, Aitken helped found the Beeton branch of her local Women’s Institute in November 1920 and was the director of the Women’s Institute displays at the Women’s Building throughout the late 1920s, working in tandem with what was then known as the Ladies Committee.[13]

She had previously led food demos in her “country kitchen,” in a modest ten-square foot space, and directed Women’s Institutes exhibits during the 1920s, a period during which she learned about educative displays and how to interact with an audience. The CNE Association established the Women’s Division because of the popularity of the programming. The goal of the new Women’s Division, in Aitken’s words, was to exhibit “every activity and phase of life that interests women.”[14] As a site of “female consciousness,”[15] the roles of women as displayed within the exhibition reflect the shifts of gender roles themselves, as women worked both within their homes and communities. By analysing Aitken’s broadcast scripts, correspondence and press releases as well as press coverage from this time period, it becomes clear that Aitken saw women’s social roles in increasingly complex ways. Not surprisingly, the post-World War II rhetoric of domesticity that she used was understood in nationalist terms, as the concepts of ‘kitchen’ and ‘nation’ were fused.[16] However, Aitken was also an early advocate of women’s professional organizations. She frequently addressed programming to the ‘career girl’ or ‘business girl’, even while she publicly downplayed her own career successes.[17]

Aitken considered herself a rural woman. Her engaging autobiographies detail her early life as a small town girl who warmed herself by the woodstove above the Scott family’s general store and who learned to become a proficient butter-maker. [18] In time she evolved into a highly influential and connected woman, who enjoyed the privilege of being well traveled and worldly, having covered more than two million miles in her lifetime.[19] She was remarkably energetic, prolific and articulate. Aitken’s career moves in terms of her work with women’s organizations and clubs are evidence of how her personal ideologies changed over time. Similar to Karen Blair’s analysis of the history of clubwomen in the US, clubwomen wielded community power under the banner of a distinctly ‘domestic feminism.’ [20] One reason for Aitken’s broad appeal no doubt lay in her ability to support women’s homemaking abilities, while also pointing to women’s larger influence in community-based activism. Her popularity as a radio and media personality was in part because of her ability to be moderately controversial but not too much so. Moreover, her career trajectory took her beyond local women’s groups’ activities, as a government employee, and later, her work as a representative of global non-profit organizations, such as UNICEF.[21]

Figure 2

Postcard of the Women’s Building, with Balcony Restaurant visible on far right, no date, author’s collection.

-> See the list of figures

Setting the Scene: Feminizing the CNE

The Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) began its life as the Toronto Industrial Exhibition in 1879, a monumental fair ground on the shore of Lake Ontario. Like other ‘Great Exhibitions’ it was hailed as a “People’s University,” dedicated to the display of “every branch of human activity.”[22] Although there is evidence to suggest that women’s exhibits were featured at the first exhibition in 1879, the Ladies Committee of the CNE was founded in 1901 because, in the words of their secretary “it was felt that only a committee of women could properly supervise and arrange for the many interests concerning women and children which come under the scope of the Women’s department of the Great Exhibition.”[23] In Saturday Night, art writer Jean Grant argued for a women’s building, as early as 1898, stating that “women who love their country and love their sisters” need to be “worthily represented” at the fair.[24] Grant argued that it “would certainly open up financial prospects for many women supporting themselves, and afford some stimulus and occupation to those most unfortunate mortals who have nothing to do.”[25] However, she was careful to position the need for a women’s building in patriotic, not emancipatory terms. She wrote:

wherever a woman is by brains and hand producing that whereby the country is made wealthier, that it is to be displayed to the country when it is available, and duly credited to her. We do not suggest that any effort has ever been made to prevent her so doing. We suppose not...We are far from entertaining the opinion that woman, generally speaking is a downtrodden and much abused mortal, and that a la Susan B. Anthony and Sarah Grand it is our howling necessity and imperative privilege to assert our independence from these oppressors of ours...Entre nous, we get most things we really want now.[26]

Therefore, rather remarkably, creating the Women’s Building, essentially Toronto’s only museum for women in its history, was not expressed as a feminist act.[27] If anything, the building would be, to use a term coined by Shauna Wilton, an act of maternal nationalism.[28] Grant clearly also associated the kinds of things on display in the women’s department as an honouring of older ideas of womanhood. “It is not on account of our New Woman theories [that] we desire representation. The Old Woman is good enough for us. It is the same Old Woman we wish to see brought out at our Fair to tell us how she is occupying her own ‘spear’ [sic] and helping to make the most of her resources.”[29]

On the other hand, while Grant aligned women’s work to create their own museum as an act that upheld traditional ideals of womanhood, we should not interpret these acts as necessarily non-feminist. Grant’s professed interest in the “Old Woman” could have been a rhetorical strategy designed to couch what was viewed as a potentially controversial act of female agency. Jean Grant was interested in making women’s contributions to rural and urban life visible. She wrote: “we have enough material produced by women to make a small fair in and of itself”; she argued that women were working with bees, in dairy farms (although she noted that they seldom exhibited under their own names), caring for fowl and fruit-raising. She saw the need to showcase women’s cookery, inventions and their progressive work in education, particularly women’s “inventions” such as a musical kindergarten.[30] Displays were exhibited as Ladies’ Work on the upper floor of the Crystal Palace until 1902.[31] The first Women’s Building was established in 1903 in what was possibly a former music pavilion, a “grand white frame building facing the lake”.[32] The socially prominent women from the Ladies Committee, women from wealthy, well-connected families and whose husbands were often presidents or vice-presidents on the board of directors, were catalysts for educational programming. [33] As building superintendent Violet Dickens recounted, “Mrs. Willoughby Cummings[Emily Cummings],[34] Mrs. Joseph Oliver and Mrs. A.E. Stevens …invited friends of the exhibition and the directors to tea, supplying their own small tables with cookery from their homes.”[35] The first purpose-built Women’s Building was constructed in 1908, as part of the south side of the Manufacturer’s Building.[36] Once the building was established the teas continued as an object lesson in etiquette: the staff women who were involved with the restaurant usually entertained 500 guests at tea, and the restaurant was used as a pedagogical opportunity to teach the art of hostessing to young girls. Once the Women’s Division was formed it was responsible for the annual women’s dinner on Women’s Day, a very well-organized affair that in 1924 featured women representing their provinces. [37] The programming was a way in which women who were prominent in their communities could be brought together and their accomplishments celebrated, which was done by staging a massive tea or luncheon. These were by-invitation-only affairs of hundreds of people gathered in the Balcony restaurant that featured speeches by prominent women from women’s clubs, industrial and agricultural as well as professional organizations about their work. During the 1940s, the ‘women’s wing’ was designed to showcase the current-day contributions of organized women in various arenas; the National Council of Women of Canada and the Federated Women’s Institutes of the Dominion operated twelve booths. Seventeen more booths were devoted to demonstrations in public health, child welfare, handicraft and applied art, Canadian literature, Housing and Town Planning and the work of the League of Nations. [38]

Feeding Maternal Feminism?

Scholars have often interpreted this kind of women’s social and cultural activism as an act of maternal feminism.[39] Maternalists still framed women’s rights as familial obligations, their sources of social power emanating from their roles as mothers, first and foremost. In the rhetoric used at the CNE Women’s Division press releases however, domestic roles are of national importance, eliding the space between household and nation. Women’s institutes, whose aim was to educate rural women, particularly in ‘domestic science’, aligned good homemaking with the health of families and by extension the nation. So too did Aitken follow the Women’s Institute dictum, for home and country.[40]

Scholars such as Nancy F. Cott have questioned the limitation of concepts such as maternal feminism, sometimes also referred to as ‘social feminism,’ particularly because it presumes that all action that involves women and ‘women’s interests’ as de facto feminist, and does not reflect the varied range of women’s political and social activities.[41] Aitken’s concept of women’s work stressed domestic skills as well as social service involvement, and it also hung on the concept of gendered difference, although she seemed to enjoy blurring gendered categories occasionally. According to a former staff member, Aitken was “more concerned with women’s rights than politics,” a distinction this author interprets as an emphasis on women’s issues on a community level, a focus that was in keeping with her work as a journalist visiting homes in towns and cities in Pakistan, and Japan to assess what ‘women’s work’ was like internationally.[42] She also was a formidable organizer who connected women’s groups, many of which were focused on what would be interpreted today as white middle class women’s activities, on both a local and national level. For Aitken, as for the women from the Ladies/Women’s Committee, holding lunches with well-known women as well as with the wives of powerful men would undoubtedly have been a clever strategy to legitimize ‘women’s work’ and to visually demonstrate and argue for its reach and impact. [43]

Of Women’s Lives Past…

At the same time Aitken’s programming also consisted of performing and remembering women’s work of the past. Grant’s “Old Woman” was very much still present at the fair, at once a nostalgic figure but also an articulation of women’s work as something worthy of historical investigation.

Aitken popularized the practice of women’s pageants in the 1920s, conceived as elaborate features of the CNE. According to press accounts:

those who have seen the parades of models wearing exquisite old-fashioned costumes, or the Confederation pageant last year, on the beautiful outdoor stage, in the lawn that borders the shores of Lake Ontario will testify to the spectacular success of this idea. This year it was particularly suitable—a parade of the various provinces, impersonated by cleverly costumed children, each disappearing into a huge melting pot, which was stirred by Madame Confederation, and from which came Miss Canada.[44]

Mini-historical pageants were also held at the Women’s Building, with the winning Women’s Institutes parading in their best Victorian garb. Often, one had to be part of a WI to take part in historical fashion shows. Hornby WI ladies were photographed in costume at the early Canadian fashion show, and featured one member dressed up as Queen Victoria. The first prize for the early Canadian fashion show was $50.00, for the participant or her WI. Each group had to have at least three ‘old fashioned’ costumes, modelled by entrants, winning WI women were then entertained by the CNE for Agriculture day.[45] There seems to have been a great fascination with the 1800s and with taking tea: “The Victorian Room probably aroused the greatest interest and won hundreds of visitors for its rare collection of old needlepoint, flower pictures and embroideries which were exhibited and explained by a Victorian lady familiar with all the art of needlecraft.”[46] WI members seemed to enjoy role-playing women from the past, and reflecting on the time when “to show one’s shape was an unforgivable social error.”[47] In this way fashion was a way of reflecting on changes in gender status as represented by the social codes of dress. Also, these pageants clearly demarcated the historical terrain that was suitable as women’s history since textile history, like craft, has been consistently feminised as a historical investigation.[48] As New Zealand historian Bronwyn Labrun has argued, various exhibitions and programming have worked to evoke a female present by placing women in a particularly female past, in ways that were distinctly performative within exhibition space.[49] In order to secure women’s roles in the present then, women would have to anchor themselves, and render their lives visible, within the past. In a Canadian context, the particular pasts enacted by historical fashion parades, contact with familial historical objects and heirlooms and the hands-on craft demonstrations all provided space for particular Canadian histories and identities to be acted out. The Women’s Building and Women’s Wing also served as an arena where women could ‘perform’ as women of particular historical time periods, notably with Victorian ‘tea performances’ (figure 3).[50]

Figure 3

Women in period costume drinking tea

RG 4 -0-3-0-6-1085C, CNEA

-> See the list of figures

Because of Aitken’s involvement with Women’s Institute work, it’s no coincidence that she framed the educational programming developed by the Women’s Division in a similar fashion to the WI programming. Historians such as Margaret Kechnie have argued that WI programming did not really address the real needs of farming women, using “urban-based domestic science experts, the wives of well-to-do farmers and small town elite women to impose their middle class ideals and values on farm women.”[51] Others have pointed out that WI courses were arguably one of the first continuing education programming for women that may have empowered them to organize around issues of health care and education.[52] As a founder and lecturer for Beeton’s WI, Aitken certainly belonged to the latter camp, and used her formidable organizational skills to focus on work being done by women in communities across Canada.

According to the Women’s Committee Minutes, in 1924 demonstrations took place in what was called the “Farm Kitchen” and enjoyed much success as an “educational tool.” By 1926 the WI section was called “Canada’s Kitchen.” [53] Aitken was mentioned in the Ladies Committee minutes in 1924 in connection with the cross-Canada WI exhibit, suggesting that she was instrumental in organizing that programming, particularly the addresses to be given.[54] This exhibit was a great success and was seen as valuable because it “brought the country woman and the city woman together.”[55] Prior to the founding of the Women’s Division, women from the Women’s Committee arranged displays and demonstrations themselves during this time. [56]

In the post- World War II period, Aitken actively recruited stove and refrigerator manufacturers to donate their equipment for her Kitchen Theatre programming, as a means of advertising their new products, which were all for sale.[57] However, she started her career at the CNE demonstrating preserving and canning, important domestic skills in the nineteenth century kitchen. As the urban Canadian kitchen became more industrialised, and electricity became more widely available, particularly for urban women, these skills were no longer emphasized in the same way.[58] Aitken’s personal focus on home sewing competitions, her correspondence with Electric Companies, and her sponsorship by Ogilvie Flour tells us much about how she saw her role as Women’s Division director: the ‘best’ modern technologies were well-displayed and demonstrated in her Kitchen Theatre and in the show room but domestic skills and their importance for family life were still emphasized.

Aitken also regularly featured tools of the nineteenth century kitchen as “artifact stumpers” in the Canadiana or “Old Curiosity Shoppe” displays.[59] Butter presses and mangles were on display, as well as old sausage makers and grandmothers’ tea sets. Domestic objects of the past were spoken about as objects of curiosity or as items that evoked nostalgia in Aitken’s onsite broadcasts, while the modern kitchen was simultaneously praised for its efficiency and convenience.[60] As a connective space between urban and rural women, Aitken’s programming honoured modes of production of the past–in the form of crafts, object display, and teaching women ‘traditional methods’—as well as recognized the need to market the ‘new and improved’ products of culinary convenience to women. Historians have described the shift to a fossil fuel dependent kitchen as hinging on women’s acceptance of the ‘modern’ kitchen. As Ruth Sandwell’s recent work has argued, advertisers were actively promoting the convenience of the ‘modern’ electric kitchen to women and were dependent on them for the shift from an organic energy regime in the kitchen to a mineral energy regime. As Sandwell has shown, the adoption of electricity depended on women’s organizations like Women’s Institutes to convince an often sceptical female public about adopting new forms of energy in their homes, which promised health and efficiency.[61] Aitken, like many women involved in the WI movement, spoke encouragingly of the modern conveniences of the kitchen.

As Margaret Kechnie has suggested, the modern kitchen was premised on the convenience of consumption, not production. In her analysis of agrarian idealists and the WI, she states that “All manner of mechanical conveniences, including bread machines and dishwashers, were promoted by reformers in their design of the ideal family home… the reward [for a rural woman] would be more time with her family.”[62] In 1945, electrical companies were advising to plan for the more efficient kitchen now—labour and time-saving appliances would require more electricity and proper wiring. Canadian Home Journal advertisements suggested planning for a re-wiring before the ‘after the war’ rush started.[63] While historians have suggested that the modernization of the kitchen was an uneven process, and perhaps even that the inevitable ‘progression’ of the newest and best appliances did not receive much buy-in by rural women, Aitken was a respected national figure who encouraged this transition. Kate Aitken’s Canadian Cookbook (1945) notably addressed the fact that many of the ovens used did not have standardized heat temperatures, a phenomenon that most likely exasperated exacting cookbook authors and bakers alike.[64] On the one hand, Aitken was promoting labour-saving cake mixes during her day job as a broadcaster, but at the same time honouring the food her mother made in the 1890s. The cookbook, with recipes for nineteenth century treats like the popular beverage Raspberry Vinegar is further evidence that Aitken’s culinary education work straddled both ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ kitchens.[65]

Women’s programming during Aitken’s tenure featured the material of the past in order to underscore the differences between the domestic spaces of the past and present. History was mounted as a progression within women’s programming, from simple, often hard living, typified by the erection of an 1876 log cabin to the latest modern conveniences. For example Aitken described her plans for 1948: “the best to date for ‘48 might be the theme,” she wrote in her correspondence to Vern Hall, referring to the Canadiana display as: “that superb display of life as it was way back in 1876. It will be your history books come to life and to our older visitors it will bring back memories of that more leisurely life before the rush and noise of our wonderful modern inventions.”[66] Both the ‘rush and noise’ and nostalgia of ‘old times’ were celebrated in Aitken’s programing, wherein women ‘performed the past’ in the form of pageants, teas and handicraft demonstrations.

Eating, Serving and Performing as Pedagogy

Aitken became involved with the Women’s Building’s Balcony Restaurant in 1926 and her menu honoured local food production. She actively connected her demonstrations with the Balcony Restaurant as a means of promoting local flowers, fruits and vegetables from different regions of the Dominion, as well as showcasing women’s canning, dairying and egg production skills.[67] A daily luncheon was also held, in which food from each province was prepared under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture. Aitken was at first responsible for the Ontario section, which included sewing demonstrations under the trees each morning, fashion shows of dresses made by Women’s Institute members, a lecture about “What Women Buy” by a Miss MacDonald, a competition among Junior Women’s Institute members to make and serve refreshments to twenty people, and a pageant, a practice she began in the 1920s, about the ‘pioneering days’ by the Islington, Port Credit and Meadowvale Women’s Institutes.[68]

Aitken eventually ran two other restaurants in the Women’s Division during the 1940s: the Woman’s World Tea Room and the Tea Room in Teen Town. Aitken was generous with her staff; she employed many women in the Balcony Restaurant and various tearooms. Woman waitresses were well paid at $5.00/day in 1948, double what was normally paid to waitresses in 1941.[69]

Figure 4

Norma Williamson (standing), student dietician from Willowdale ON, serves a full course chicken dinner to Claude Phillips (head electrician), Phyllis Walters (back to camera), clerical worker, Henry Wall, carpenter, Bill Kirkham, head carpenter, Doreen Robinson, runner and John Hall, restaurant designer. 60 people who were involved with the Balcony restaurant renovation in 1948 were treated to the first meal.

RG 4 0 1 0 3, CNEA

-> See the list of figures

Restaurants were not just about sustenance; they were a crucial part of pedagogical programming, as object lessons to display all the fruits and vegetables from Ontario, as well as a way in which to advertise the newest Weston and Frigidaire products.[70] By 1948, Women’s World, a section of the Coliseum devoted to women’s programming including kitchen and handicraft demonstrations, had a tea court that seated 200 at once. Aitken never missed an opportunity to educate in manners of etiquette and form: in the center of the workshop section of Women’s World was a table setting demonstrating to “every bride or housewife a correct and beautiful table service”— one of Aitken’s teachables that resulted in a very popular table-setting competition.

The restaurants were also hands-on lessons for how to plan a dinner for young people. The guests in question were often a CNE director and his wife; high school students could enter a competition to serve them dinner. High school students would have to mount the dinner as well as act as hostess. Aitken supplied the access to the stove, sink, refrigerator, work surface, cutlery, china and table and chairs; the participant was scored on the preparation of food, which she was allocated one hour to do, her table service and hostessing demeanour.[71] In the Bride’s Kitchen, a program that ran in the Teen Town theatre in the Coliseum, young women who had just married would attend daily demonstrations, which ran from noon until 10 pm in which ‘food experts’ would demonstrate “how to keep your husband happy on packaged foods” a labour-saving lesson on laying a meal on the table with the help of the latest bake mixes. These demonstrations were an exercise in packaged food diplomacy, as Aitken regularly counselled demonstrators to give particular flour companies “the edge” over others, fearing a lost sponsorship.[72] Dieticians from Macdonald College were on hand regularly in the West Annex of the Coliseum to give food budgeting advice; top Canadian women florists demonstrated flower arrangements and experts showed how to upholster a chair.[73] Aitken also regularly had home economics students to help with the prep work for restaurants and demonstrations (figure 5). University students, young women and also a few men, also helped to clear the theatre, seat guests and pass out programs.[74]

Did these theatre demonstrations serve to prime middle class women for a life in the kitchen? Aitken was not formally trained in home economics, and her use of trained professionals and their students is notable. The CNE was a stage in which to display scientific notions of diet and nutrition and there was some emphasis on women’s physiques in staged beauty contests, and regular breaks for seat exercises designed to help her audience members get some exercise and ‘stay slim.’[75] Aitken’s recipes centered on daily inexpensive meals; the women of Canada were the ones who could secure the health of their families because “food is our business. It’s an intelligent business and its dividends are paid daily in the health and happiness of the members of our family.”[76]

Figure 5

Kate Aitken with unnamed students, location unknown

RG 4 0 3 0 6 1178B, CNEA

-> See the list of figures

Competitions: Boys who Bake and Girls who Drive

Aitken was remembered, in Erb Kee’s account, by those who knew her as “… [a woman who] ruffled a few feathers, but she got things done.”[77] Under her direction, the cooking shows, fashion shows, beauty contests and handicraft demonstrations grew in number and influence, and the Women’s Prize List and School Prize List expanded.[78] Although it may be tempting to stereotype Aitken as a woman who solidified gender norms and upheld the norm of the white middle class family, as her emphasis on brides and baking might suggest at first blush, there were moments in which she disrupted gender paradigms and expanded what could be defined as appropriate behaviour for women during this time period. While it is unclear how deliberate Aitken’s provocation was, one such example was a subversion of the usual beauty contest that had become an annual fixture at the CNE. Aitken staged a beauty contest for men, judged by young women, including the most recent Miss CNE, who openly scrutinized men’s bodies in bathing suits and business suits and kissed the winner of the contest; Aitken was apparently criticized for the event.[79] Competitions that involved skills that were traditionally deemed feminine, such as crocheting, typing, making breakfast and shirt ironing were open to men, which was much remarked upon in the press. According to one of her staff people: “It wasn’t just for was for the whole family.”[80] Aitken often commented that the competitions such as shirt-ironing and pancake-making were open to “bachelors”, the assumption being that married men would not necessarily need those abilities once married. She also held special knitting competitions such as the Ceylon Tea Bureau tea cosy competition that included 750 entries from both men and women, which provided a much-needed creative outlet for men and boys who knit.[81] Aitken’s “Know your Meat” competition had its roots in the conservation ethos of the war era. It was open to “all housewives or husbands who are good shoppers” and offered a $50.00 first prize to identify which part of a cow is the tenderest cut, or the least expensive piece of lamb, with a Mr. Laing of Canada Packers serving as a judge.

In some cases the competitions addressed knowledge that were seen as areas which in girls’ and women’s education were deficient. For example, in 1947, there was a Young Drivers Roadeo (not a typo) and a Transportation Day on September 9 1948 in which women were invited to compete in a driving competition; one Miriam Barclay won a $25.00 prize. On the previous day, Aitken received a letter from the Mayor of the Town of Huntsville, Mr. J Frank Kelly, who had written to tell her that he was bewildered to be among so many ladies on Automotive Day. As Erb Kee alluded, Aitken’s programming was remembered for causing some controversy. Clearly, the women’s department programming was challenged what constituted as women’s knowledge, as well as the expectations of feminine behaviour.[82] The Women’s Division also held public speaking competitions in which female high school students fared well. In 1948, for example, sixteen-year-old Ann Emmett won second place for her speech on the value of an education (first place went to Robert Trumper who spoke about Warriors’ Day). Doubtless because of Aitken’s own broadcasting career, news-casting contests were advertised alongside the pancake-making, shirt-ironing and cake-baking competitions, as legitimate arenas for female participation. [83]

The west annex of the Coliseum was also the place to learn from food lectures and do food budgeting exercises. Food prices, it was reported in one 1948 broadcast that took place on CNE grounds, were up 34% since 1939—a food budgeting activity that Aitken devised suggests that she was aware of class differences among families. In her lessons on frugality intended for the ‘homemaker’ she did acknowledge that ‘saving’ for women of different classes, would have meant different things; hence a display of weekly shopping, one for each of the three levels of income.[84]

Figure 6

Baking Competition Publicity Photo.

RG 4 0 3 0 6 1135C, CNEA

-> See the list of figures

The Women’s Building, however, had always been a place where both boys and girls could display their culinary efforts. By 1910 the Ladies Committee began to judge the handicraft and household arts competitions by using a point system. Mona H. Purser, the committee’s secretary and first superintendent of the Women’s Building, remarked that “the educational value of this was made evident when a boy’[s]… use of poor baking powder, and a lack of care in the arrangement of the exhibit of buns had deprived him of the prize that had been won by his friend.”[85] Women played an essential role in establishing a space for women, children and families to learn in and in which to exhibit. From a very early point girls as well as boys were invited to enter the Women’s Buildings’ competitions and to be judged by selected judges, some of whom were on the committee itself.[86]

The women’s competitions of craftwork and cooking were attracting 5000 entries by 1936.[87] Competitions themselves functioned as a sort of object lesson, providing examples of the best in order that they were emulated, although Aitken’s staff had a nuanced understanding of the competitions’ influence.[88] Competitions could be quite lucrative and men and women as well as children were invited to compete; $100.00 first prize for the best ham and eggs was open to men and women, and children could compete in their own sewing, knitting and baking competitions. The prize-winning articles were arranged under the supervision of the Superintendent with an office staff of three and a group of twenty case dressers who were employed for at least five days prior to the opening of the building. They arranged more than 2,000 pieces of handiwork and cookery exhibits. An office with information on the exhibits was also maintained.

From Mrs. Consumer to Mrs. Make It Do

The women’s programming framed consumption as a distinctly patriotic act, a way of supporting local business, but also as a purchase that would reflect Canadian taste. As within major Canadian department stores in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, taste-making involved ‘deploying the power of social emulation to motivate Canadians to become consumers’ and to see consumption as aligned with Canadian national identity, albeit one that was white, middle-class and capitalistic.[89] In a Canadian context, by the 1880s major department stores were actively courting women’s presences with features like curtained waiting rooms and tearooms, effectively creating respectable downtown destinations for women.[90] Aitken firmly believed in the power of “Mrs. Consumer”, and often openly addressed women as consumers.[91] She was certainly not the first: by the end of the 1900s it was ‘conventional wisdom’ that women did 85% of the shopping.[92] In Aitken’s radio broadcasts she spoke about women’s control of the family purse-strings. In her 1948 press release for her CNE broadcast entitled “Women are Terrific” she pronounced:

[women] are the vital force that rouses the washing machine men to lyrical poetry that drives the hotdog lads to greater heights of proficiency. Women spend 85 cents out of every dollar earned in Canada. They are the potential meal ticket of every manufacturer, every dress designer, every food store and every house furnishing business.[93]

While the programming delivered by the Women’s Division acknowledged and celebrated women’s varied employment during the Second World War, historians have shown that many of the gains that women made during this period were fleeting.[94] Women were urged to become “housekeepers for the nation” during the war—“tasks that will in their aggregate speed or hold back the day of Victory. Fighting waste and want saves materials and men!”[95] As the National Supervisor of Conservation for the Consumer Branch of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board, Aitken taught women how to conserve food, clothing and household equipment and “thoroughly enjoy doing it.”[96] Similarly to her educational work at the CNE, her purpose on the Consumer branch was “bringing ideas to the masses on how to do it.” Her teaching included remaking clothing and presenting the garments on stage as a sort of more frugal fashion show. While the CNE fair was cancelled from 1942 to 1946, the Remake Revue that Aitken presented on the stage toured many cities. She also distributed photographs and instruction booklets: these also contained diagrams and the ways and means for ‘the Miracle of Making Old Things New.’ These included: buying fresh vegetables whenever possible to save on tin, budgeting for food accordingly and making soups from table scraps.[97]

The first fair held after World War II was a special event and the press release promoted the CNE as an important site for post-war reconstruction. It read: “The world is our neighbour now. Following the lead of the UN the CNE is particularly anxious for the 1947 reopening to promote world unity...Canadian women worked together in the emergency of war. CNE 1947 recognizes this fact. It offers the women of Canada the chance to promote good will on the part of women throughout the world.”[98] This resulted in the programming “We [women] Build Canada,” which recognized the work of women, both inside and outside the home.

The CNE feels this is the year to show Canadians and visitors from other countries our very finest in the fields of education, art and culture, home-making, food and fashions. Canadian citizenship is now recognized. Whatever we as Canadians can do to build up that recognition is a step forward. Thirty national women’s organizations, representing a total membership of close to three million members have space in the women’s building to show the services they contribute to Canada.[99]

Programming included a three-day women’s forum from August 30 to September 1 , during which a panel of ‘experts’ handpicked by Aitken herself from a variety of organizations, debated women’s place in the home, the community, the nation and the world. It provided a chance for women who were visiting the fair to express their views on a range of issues that affected them. Honouring women’s contributions and achievements was also symbolized with the lighting of a ‘lamp of service.’ This ceremony took place every night at the Ex that year: three national presidents paid tribute, lighting torches to the achievements of Canadian women. In Women’s World, a theatre space that featured special programming, church groups and clubs competed in trivia contests that were based on how well they knew Canada.

Aitken, true to her peace- oriented work following the war, chose to focus on how women’s work could promote world peace and global unity. Hitler’s car, reportedly with realistic effigies of Hitler and Goering inside, was put on display on the CNE grounds that year. On a trip sponsored by the British Ministry of Food, Aitken traveled to London, Paris and Berlin. While in Berlin she studied and photographed the ‘de-nazification’ education programs there with the aim of “displaying something of its operation for the benefit of Ex visitors.”[100]

“Women Build Canada”

Women’s Division programming addressed women as heads of the household, but also of significant national and economic efforts. Aitken herself saw the home and by extension the community as the prime political location of influence for women. During the 1950s, she wrote about the challenges women faced in political life and submitted that they should not bother themselves with it. Aitken reported that 90% of Canadian women voters and 95% of men were opposed to women in political life.[101] Aitken believed in women’s ability to lead, and as the president of numerous women’s clubs, including the Federation of Women’s Institutes, she presented herself as a role model of what a committed woman could do for her family, community and country.[102] The problem lay, in Aitken’s view, in the inherently masculinist political sphere. Women who chose that path only had a few options: they ended up “being a boy with the boys,” or garnered an “undeserved reputation as being a dyed-in-the-wool feminist” because of the women who supported them, or become labelled as an “eccentric” whose wardrobe would be analyzed to death by the press. Aitken lamented that women in power were often forced to be “subservient to the masculine element, speaking out only where it concerns the welfare of women and children, a field which men politicians are happy to relinquish.” [103] While she had had a government appointed position as the head of food conservation efforts during the war, Aitken herself had avoided political leadership. She had reportedly been asked twelve times to run for public office on the municipal, provincial and federal level, and had refused.[104] How are we to interpret her drive to remain purportedly non-political? Aitken regularly stretched and interrogated what could be held within women’s “separate sphere,” even as she praised women who built families and communities over those who were swayed by male arenas of power. To put it another way, Aitken did not believe that women’s work was inferior to men’s. Women were powerful, in Aitken’s schema, because of the ways in which their personal acts and choices affected everyone else’s life. While hers was a notion of programming that acknowledged the separateness of male and female spheres, her programming could also be interpreted as visual proof that a woman’s place was not just in the home.[105] By showcasing the work women did within their communities, Aitken’s display of women and their work, as well as providing a space wherein women could talk about their work was an argument for women’s autonomy.

For Aitken, club-work as a real way that women could affect social change, a kind of alternative economic sphere in which to improve public life. She actively promoted the kind of community-based work that she herself was a champion of, and which had been the foundation of her own career. She wrote:

although most women claim it’s a man’s world Canadian women run this country either openly or behind the scenes. With a population nudging 14,000,000 there are approximately 3,750,000 members in the 42 national women’s groups plus an infinity of local groups. (The City of Toronto has 5,281 women’s organizations...) I find that most club women belong to three or four organizations such as the Local Ladies’ Aid, Canadian Club, Eastern Star, IODE, Home and School, Women’s Institute or a host of others...This vast body of women annually raises in excess of $150,000,000, all of which is expended on good works.[106]

For Aitken and for other women who devoted their efforts to clubs, they offered skills, organizational and administrative training and networking. They also prepared women for work in public life: Aitken stressed that “each member [should attain] enough poise to speak clearly and succinctly on her feet at a moment’s notice.”[107] Aitken continued to provide space so that the work of women’s groups was made visible at the CNE. Her programs relied on the active participation of women and she brought their work to the public. As director of Women’s Activities, she helped promote the daily luncheons in the tearoom in the Women’s Building, which women’s editors were invited to cover, and which featured many prominent women who were active in clubs and organizations, ranging from the Soroptimists, an international female rights organization with ties to the UN, to the local Women’s Missionary Society.[108] While many of these clubs were engaged with culturally assimilative work with new Canadians and First Nations children, to name two groups discussed in some of the speeches, Aitken invited a range of active women.[109] She was interested in promoting women’s social causes, women’s historical activities and British imperialist organizations, but she also brought in pacifist organizations and some diverse women’s groups. Aitken proclaimed that for the 1948 fair one out of every two of the 2, 600,000 adult visitors was female, prompting her to write that the “potent, many-sided program aimed at the weaker sex” had “paid off big at the gate.”[110]

Some of Aitken’s programming was also a conscious effort to garner the attention of single working women. She valued the ‘business girl’ in numerous targeted programs, although these were often presented with the understanding that marriage and home life was ultimately still women’s life goals. The Career Woman’s Style show and the Make-it-Yourself show are two examples of how making things for yourself, be it a tailored suit or an apron, was seen as an important skill. [111]

Women’s World

Not surprisingly, women’s programming also expanded to other buildings. By 1948 the second floor of the West Annex of the Coliseum got a makeover and was dubbed “Woman’s World.”[112] Kate Aitken declared: “Our Woman’s World’ theatre will present fashion shows, broadcasts, special competitions, our spelling bees, the final judging of our home baking and similar attractions.”[113] Women’s World also included “our Court of Ten Workshops [which] will demonstrate such activities as glove-making, toy making, kitchen gadgets, budgets and weaving. It was completely equipped with a cosmetic bar and free facials by appointment” (for both men and women).[114]

Women’s World also featured 21 rooms on platforms, furnished with Canadian-made furniture, textiles, rugs, designs, and utensils.[115] Aitken also had a program, one which harkened back to the living ethnographic displays of early twentieth century exhibitions, that was presumably intended as outreach: “A specially selected Canadian family will live in each of these rooms for one day—people who suit not only the furniture but the spirit of the room.[116] The historical period rooms were in contrast to the displays of modern kitchens and bedrooms on display, wherein Aitken made sure that all the latest gadgets were represented, courtesy of Westinghouse, General Electric, and Consumer’s Gas.[117] These displays, which were featured as an education on locally made household products, would soon be a thing of the past when companies began to move their manufacturing locations overseas.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Women’s Division educational programs were the radio broadcasts, which took place at the Women’s World Theatre. Radio hosts Jan Weston, June Dennis from CBJC radio station and Marjorie Chadwick from CHUM commentated on the Woman’s World broadcast, and Aitken acted as MC. The Woman’s World programme opened with an audience sing song and then moved on to diverse topics, such as whether oleo margarine should be permitted in Canada, whether Canada should remain in the British Empire, beliefs about interracial marriage, whether more art should be taught in schools and whether housewives should unionize.[118] This suggests that Woman’s World provided a space in which women actively engaged and debated prescribed gender roles, as well as cultural and racial ideas about identity. Cooking up inexpensive meals for the family would be bookended by these debates, which were undoubtedly politically charged.

At the end of the CNE’s 1952 season Kate Aitken declared that she was going to retire. In her farewell speech she commented that “Nowhere on in the world can you meet people from all walks of life as you can at the is the great Canadian democracy in action.”[119] But the women’s programming presence within the fair itself had to continuously struggle for legitimacy. Women’s work was still subject to the approval of the General Manager, a relationship that did not always bode well for their activities. [120]

A case in point is Ruth S. Houck from the Brampton Women’s Institute’s letter to Kate Aitken on September 17 1948 complaining about the “crowded spaces and temporary character of the theatre and the space for judging cooking to be presented to the directors of the CNE.” She hastened to add that she did not want to embarrass her with a protest, “but surely with so much space for livestock... the Woman’s World [in the West Annex of the Coliseum] might get a little more attention.”[121] Aitken’s response September 28 1948 showed glimmers of frustration. She wrote:

I’m afraid we cannot help until we have a permanent building of our own. The weather is hot and the food spoils—displayed after cutting it looks like nothing on earth. We have always felt it better to hurry it out of sight that to have left it to mildew. [It’s] impossible to make a good display of it. Your letter will go with me to the director’s meeting and will be a source of ammunition for me. [122]

Aitken was succeeded by Elsa Jenkins, who was the director of the Women’s Division from 1952 to 1980. Jenkins, originally a fashion editor for MacLean’s, also had a history in broadcasting as the first woman announcer on the CBC.[123] Under her direction the programming expanded to include more international dancing, more fashion shows, male bachelor celebrities demonstrating cooking; it also focused on ‘international’ cuisine. [124]


Due to a shortage of steel the Women’s Division did not get another dedicated building until 1958, which was ultimately called the Queen Elizabeth (QE) building. Much of the programming was not moved to the QE building, however.[125] The Women’s Division still used multiple sites, including eventually setting up programming in the Better Living Center, a move that resulted in a more product-oriented programming. Women were then addressed primarily as consumers, not as producers, and there was a marked shift in the meaning of “women’s work.” Early on, Elsa Jenkins remarked that the craft demonstrations could not feature audience participation due to “an accident suffered by [a] Mrs. Elliot,” and that the demonstration “programming was in need of more funds.”[126]

On January 1 1981 the functions of the Women’s Division were distributed amongst other departments and Jenkins became director of Visitor Services. It is generally thought that the Women’s Division was absorbed because of the perception that sex-segregation was no longer needed and that women’s representation within the fair had progressed enough that the Women’s Division was thought to be superfluous. The competitions were discontinued and the allocation of not-for-profit exhibition space became a thing of the past. [127] The only remnant of women’s programming was the quilt show, which was held annually at the CNE through the 1980s, but no longer takes place. According to one of Aitken’s staff, this happened because “women no longer have the time to make things anymore.” [128]

‘Women’s work’ was defined, made visible, celebrated and potentially redefined within Aitken’s Women’s Division program. The Women’s Building and women’s programming locations were also spaces in which to contemplate gender roles across time periods, be it as costumed Victorian women taking tea, as social organizers, as career women or as homemakers. Aitken’s cooking demonstrations, and their development into major productions that served to celebrate the efficiency of the modern kitchen, showed generations of women what modern homemaking looked like. But “all the activities that concerned women,” the Women’s Division mandate, also created space for the work women did outside the frilly curtains of the kitchen windows, a way of being socially relevant that Aitken eventually epitomized. Aitken’s complicated relationship to women’s equality and agency, and her multi-faceted career as a woman who was focused on her family and her community and ultimately, on women’s work on a global level, was aware of domestic power and how to use it.