History of Domestic Science 101 – McGill University, Montreal

Muriel Roscoe, Warden, with students at the Coffee House of the Royal Victoria College, 1950s.

Since the title of this blog was inspired by the universities that turned simple chores like baking and cleaning into a ‘science’ at the turn of the last century, I thought it might be a good time to take a delve into the history books and see just what it meant to be a student of Domestic Science in the 20th century.

Household Science Class, 1910.

Here in Montreal, the School of Household Sciences was built at MacDonald Campus, part of McGill University, in 1907. The motivation was to “assist in providing courses of instruction and training in Domestic Economy or Household Science for young women from country homes.” Essentially, this was a time when many aspects of life that had been handed down from father to son and mother to daughter were being standardized. It was in part due to the Industrial Revolution, in part also with advances in working conditions and our understanding of science (and in particular medicine and the spread of disease). Just like now, when people complain that they need a degree in order to qualify for their field, people in the early and mid-20th century were feeling the need to qualify properly ahead of time.

Household Science Class, 1913.

One of the jokes at the time was the men went to university to get their BA, Bsc, or BEng, while women went to university to get their MRS. However, the School of Domestic Science was not just a place to exchange recipes for lemon meringue or gossip. Students who graduated from the program were well-versed in family and consumer needs, textiles, and health and nutrition.

Women at War, 1942.

The women also took a strong interest in the social and political lives of the student body, particularly in times of crisis. Household Science had seen two World Wars, the nuclear arms race, and Canada’s Centennial by the time its name was changed to the School of Food Science in 1967.

Household Science Class, 1950s.

I think the idea of teaching Domestic Science as a university degree is so interesting, because it both an affirmation that what we do as cleaners, cooks, minders, and everything else is a valid subject of study, while also sometimes segregating women from other degrees that are less gender-specific. If your university had (or has) a program of home economics or household science, email me at newfoundland49 (at!) gmail (dot) com and I will feature it in another installment of History of Domestic Science 101.

In honour of McGill’s School of Household Science, here is a recipe from a Ms Kate Montague, published in the 1920 edition of The Perry Home Cookbook:

GRAHAM BREAD

2 cups, sour milk; 2 teaspoons soda; 1 tablespoon molasses; butter size of walnut; salt; 2 cups graham flour; ½ cup white flour; 1 teaspoon baking powder.

Sift, mix, and add all ingredients. Bake 1 hour at 350 degrees, or until hollow sound is heard upon tapping the bread tin. A pinch of ginger keeps bread sweet.

All photos courtesy of the McGill Archives Virtual Exhibits.

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About Meredith

Just another twenty-something crafter, with a penchant for delicious home cooking, the English countryside, and knitting.
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