Institute movement evolved from one woman’s passion

By Willa Wick in Community, Health & Fitness, Places, Events, & History

Adelaide Hunter Hoodless was an ordinary young housewife…until she lost her 13-month-old son.
Her inquisitive mind set her to finding out exactly what had happened to this baby she so lovingly tended. It was confirmed to be “summer complaint”, an intestinal ailment caused by drinking impure milk.
Mrs. Hoodless was shocked at her own ignorance of domestic hygiene and decided to turn her own tragedy into a crusade to spare other mothers a similar heartbreak. Many of the young girls of that era were thrown into marriage with only minor knowledge of how to run a home. She devoted herself to becoming the spokesperson for a movement to have women educated in the practical science of running a household. She started with opening a cooking school in Hamilton and later had a role in promoting a school for domestic science at the Guelph O.A.C.
Recognizing Hoodless to be an evocative speaker, Erland Lee arranged for her to be a guest at the Annual Meeting of the Farmer’s Institute. He was intrigued by what he heard and was instrumental in helping her arrange a meeting at the Stoney Creek Town Hall, where she addressed a crowd of over 100 women.
Mrs. Hoodless was promoting the idea of forming rural women’s groups to concentrate on country living from the woman’s point of view, and raise the standard of housekeeping to the same level as farming. Her idea was that women’s work (homecraft and mothercraft) was of utmost importance, and things like sewing and cooking should be introduced to the school system.
During that first meeting nearly all ladies present were in favor of forming a women’s group, and by the end of that stormy February night in 1897 the first Women’s Institute was formed.
The mission for that, and all ensuing institutes around the world, was the dissemination of knowledge on topics like domestic hygiene, food and meal preparation, sewing, child rearing and finances, plus a view to raising the general standard of health and morals. In essence that was the beginning of Home Economics classes.
The number of Women’s Institutes increased rapidly, covering an extensive area. The second group was formed in Whitby, and the third at Kemble, in Grey County.
Because they were affiliated with the Farmer’s Institute, and promoted education plus improvement of rural life, these new Women’s Institutes received financial assistance from the Ontario Department of Agriculture ($10 a year). By the end of the second year there were 31 institutes organized, each holding meetings once a month.
In 1902 an act of provincial parliament gave Women’s Institutes formal legal status (they no longer had to be affiliated with any men’s group). The official motto “For Home and Country”, colors blue and gold, and the emblematic pin (designed by Laura Rose, organizer of the Whitby club) were all unveiled at the first annual convention held at the Macdonald Institute in Guelph.
The W.I. movement spread to the United States and overseas. Britain’s first groups were formed in 1915 to encourage country women to grow and preserve staples to help increase the food supply during the war years. The idea was met with such enthusiasm and success that by the end of the war the number of organizations had reached 1405. It was in 1919 that Sandringham formed theirs and the late Queen Mother became president. Queen Elizabeth II is now honorary Branch President of Sandringham. She and her son, Prince Charles, both donate prizes for the raffle at the annual flower show. These prizes (Balmoral tea set, and a hand painted plate) ensure a brisk trade in ticket sales for the Institute.
With the expansion of the WI, came the idea of having them write stories of farming, buildings, and local events. This would give more time to study local history and hopefully gain insight into the lives and thoughts of their ancestors.
Lady Tweedsmuir, wife of the Governor General of Canada, took a great interest in the institutes. While at a meeting in Athens, Ontario, she stressed the need for preserving the history of the Canadian people. Lady Tweedsmuir was an active member in England and suggested that Ontario Institutes keep detailed scrapbooks as they did in Britain.
In 1940 she was delighted to learn that these histories were being named after her late husband, and the scrapbooks became known as the Tweedsmuir Village History Books. By 1947, the 50th anniversary of Women’s Institutes in Ontario, nearly every branch had started its own scrapbook. There are now Tweedsmuir workshops to teach the fundamentals of compiling a local history.
Many of these books from our local institutes have now been digitized and are on file at the Wellington County Museum and Archives.
A group of rural women from the 8th, 10th, and 12th concessions of Minto Township met at the home of Mrs. Harry Aitchison (now the farm of Elmer & Betty Dennison). By the end of that November afternoon in 1926 the group of 28 ladies had organized a new club, elected officers, and became known as the Little Ireland Women’s Institute.
To raise money for community projects they had bake sales, garden parties and quilting bees, as well as an annual fee of $1, plus a small donation at each meeting. The group donated to the School Fair, put a public rest room in one of the hotels, installed First Aid kits in local schools, and supplied a bed for the Mount Forest hospital. During the war years these women supported soldiers overseas by sending knitted goods and blankets, non-perishable foods, candy, nuts and cigarettes.
In 1948 they entered a Pioneer Dress Parade Contest at the CNE in Toronto and won 3rd prize of $35.
Every five years a celebration was held with a banquet and special program.
The women attended training schools and then held community workshops for everything from preserving and bread making, to sewing and crewel embroidery. There were always displays at the Fall Fair, and for over 35 years they ran a food booth at the Harriston-Minto Fall Fair (the last was 2010).
The Women’s Institute sponsored the girls 4-H Clubs and most rural girls over 12 attended. Many of those girls took over leadership themselves when an older leader wanted to step down. Sadly there are no longer any girls 4-H clubs in this section.
Little Ireland Women’s Institute celebrated their 85th Anniversary on November 15th with a large gathering of other institutes, former members, and relatives of deceased members. A film of the old pictures from the History Books evoked happy memories. Guests were Amy Dunlop and Susan Dunlop (no relation) curators at the Wellington County Museum and Archives. Susan narrated a film which documented the vital role of the Women’s Institute in the founding of the county museum.
On display were the Tweedsmuir Scrapbooks, samples of the 1940s, ‘50s, and 60s handbooks, and several pieces of (out of circulation) W.I. chinaware. Of particular interest were two antique dresses. One was an avocado green silk gown which was the wedding dress of the grandmother of current member 96-year old Marion Bracken. The other was white eyelet lace – the two piece wedding outfit (including bloomers) belonged to the grandmother of former member (the late) Mrs. Wm. Crispin.
Also on view was the black bonnet worn by Mrs. Crispin in many of the scrapbook pictures from the early days.
The afternoon concluded with several vocal numbers by Gloria and Laverne Stinson.
On the table for everyone was a rolled up scroll which listed many of the things for which the Women’s Institutes have lobbied with the governments in an effort to improve the quality of life for all Canadians. The list includes: milk pasteurization; white lines painted on the centre of all provincial highways; inclusion of music in the school curriculum (1937); legislation prohibiting passing stopped school busses (1962); abolishing wire staples from food packages (1964); poison labeling on containers; and the blue box recycling program.


September 1948  Pioneer Costume Parade Contest at the CNE.

September 1948 Pioneer Costume Parade Contest at the CNE.