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Manitoba History: The Women’s Institute Loan Collection of Handicrafts Finds a Home

by Heather Meiklejohn
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Number 23, Spring 1992

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Heather Meiklejohn was formerly Assistant Curator at the Dugald Costume Museum.

The Women’s Institute movement was first formed in Stoney Creek, Ontario under the direction of a rural farm wife, Adelaide Hoodless. Spurred by the death of her infant son, Adelaide launched a crusade to create a support group that would help women, through domestic science education, to improve their homes and their communities. Prior to the formation of the Women’s Institute, there were very few, if any, organizations in which rural women could become involved. By providing a source of support, education and companionship, the Women’s Institute was able to fill this void.

Prior to the formation of the first Women’s Institute, Adelaide Hoodless lectured to many groups concerning issues of home economics, sanitation, hygiene, and child care. Through lectures of this type, her work came to the attention of one Farmer’s Institute group. With their assistance, Adelaide Hoodless addressed a Farmer’s Institute meeting in Stoney Creek, Ontario and the result was the formation of the Women’s Department of the Farmer’s Institute of South Wentworth. During the first formal meeting on February 25, 1897, the name was changed to the Women’s Institute of Saltfleet County.

Like the Farmer’s Institute, the Women’s Institute became affiliated with the Department of Agriculture and was entitled to the services of lecturers on various phases of homemaking. Form its earliest beginnings, it was agreed that any woman might join the organization regardless of race, creed or politics.

The central purpose of the Women’s Institute was to raise the standard of homemaking for the better development of members and society. Members believed that a nation could not rise above the level of its homes and this creed became an article of faith for all Women’s Institute groups.

Hartney Chapter of the Women’s Institute, 1914.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

News of the formation of the first Women’s Institute group in Stoney Creek spread to neighbouring areas and other similar groups were soon formed. Thirteen years after the initiation of the first group in Ontario, news of the organization reached Manitoba. The first Manitoba Women’s Institute group was formed at Morris in August of 1910 with 37 members.

It is true that the initial goal of the Women’s Institute was to educate women to become better homemakers, but from the beginning the Women’s Institute viewed its role chiefly as an initiating one. It was hoped that by initiating projects, the Institute would disseminate information that could enable other groups to follow its example. Its membership was expected to move on to new projects involving current needs and issues as soon as possible so as not to become static in its activities.

The Manitoba Women’s Institute remained active through the first and second world wars, when their attentions and efforts turned to more critical international projects, rather than those leading to an improvement in their own personal lives. Care packages and news from home were sent to enlisted men overseas and members raised thousands of dollars for the Red Cross and the Children’s War Service Fund.

In addition to its extensive patriotic service, the Manitoba Women’s Institute was an invaluable source of education and support during the depression years of the 1930s. Educational programs on mental health care and thrift became very popular, as did classes in dressmaking and millinery. Members collected relief bundles and searched out ways and means of stretching supplies of food and clothing, and found substitutes to replace those that the current conditions had made unavailable.

Figures provided by the Manitoba Women’s Institute indicate that there are now approximately 85 Women’s Institute groups functioning in Manitoba. While their realm of activities still include community service and education for home-makers, activities of international importance have also been undertaken; for example, involvement in the nuclear arms debate.

From the time the first home economics societies emerged into Women’s Institutes, handicrafts have played an important role in the Institute program in Manitoba. The continued growth and interest in the area of handicrafts prompted a recommendation at the provincial convention in 1937 to establish a handicraft loan collection that could be circulated to local Institutes.

Her Excellency, the Lady Tweedsmuir, whose husband was then Governor General of Canada, is credited with initiating the idea of a loan collection. In her opinion, if the interest in handicrafts was to live and grow, and to become something more than a “passing fad,” the quality of work must be continually improved. She believed the best way to improve the quality of handicrafts was to let women see high quality work. Lady Tweedsmuir expressed the hope that Manitoba would develop such a collection, on an experimental basis, with the vision that it become a permanent resource.

By the end of 1937, a committee had assembled articles and agreed that the collection would include the following: knitted articles; small quilts; small rugs; a simple loom and some woven articles; embroideries characteristic of various countries; handmade gloves and; articles carved from wood. Additional material would be added as funds became available. The loan collection was completed in time to be displayed at the 1938 provincial convention.

The loan collection continued to grow until 1951, when it was decided to divide the collection into nine sections; each section was to include a history of the craft as well as samples and designs. It was also decided, during that year, to sponsor a quilt competition; the two prize-winning quilts, entered by the Egremont and Myrtle Institutes, were acquired by the collection for $50 each.

To increase the collection’s usefulness, changes in its makeup were again made in 1956. The collection was reorganized into four small units: rug making; quilt making; embroideries; knitting and weaving. The condensed units were to include display pieces as well as a commentary explaining each article, study material related to their making, and in-process samples to show how they were worked.

Wool rug / wallhanging from the Women’s Institute loan collection of handicrafts at the Dugald Costume Museum. This design was copied from a painting by W. R. Phillips entitled “Old Fort Garry.”
Source: Dugald Costume Museum

Throughout the following years, the loan collection was renovated, renewed, and up-dated as the need arose, and periodic inventories were conducted. The final loan collection included embroidered articles illustrating eight different types of stitches; various forms of rug making; knitting; weaving; and such other articles as wood-turned picture frames, buttons made from fruit stones, leather gloves, and belts. Scrapbooks were also included to further illustrate each craft.

Due to declining requests from Institute groups to borrow the collection, a decision was made to place the collection in a museum for permanent storage. In 1984, the Dugald Costume Museum was approached as a potential home for the collection, and in 1987 the transfer of ownership was completed. The Manitoba Women’s Institute’s loan collection of handicrafts is now part of the permanent collection at the Dugald Costume Museum. Maintained in an environment of controlled temperature and humidity, the safety of the Institute’s loan collection is insured for research and display purposes so future generations can enjoy and benefit from the care and foresight provided from a long line of Manitoba Women’s Institute groups.

Selected Bibliography

Ellis, J. H., The Ministry of Agriculture in Manitoba 1870-1970. Winnipeg: Manitoba Department of Agriculture, 1971.

MacDonald, C., “The angel in the house” The Beaver, August-September 1986, pp. 22-29.

Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Recreation, The Women’s Institute of Manitoba. Winnipeg: Historic Resources Branch, 1985.

Manitoba Women’s Institute, The Great human heart: A history of the Manitoba Women’s Institute 1910-1980. Altona: 1986.

Norell, Donna, “The Most Humane Institution in all the Village: The Women’s Rest Room in Rural ManitobaManitoba History, no. 11, pp. 38-50.

Speechly, H. M., A Story of the Women’s Institutes of Manitoba 1910-1934, Winnipeg: Manitoba Women’s Institute, 1934.

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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