Manitoba History: “The Most Humane Institution in All the Village”: The Women’s Rest Room in Rural Manitoba
by Donna Norell
In the late spring of 1919, the “Local News” column of the Melita New Era carried the following item:
The event heralded in this brief announcement would cause no stir in today’s Manitoba villages. However, in 1919 in Melita, then a town of some 675 souls in the southwest corner of the province, it marked the end of a struggle that had already been waged in at least a dozen other Manitoba communities and would be repeated in many more of them during the three subsequent decades. Between 1910 and 1950 more than sixty rooms and sets of rooms were established “for rest purposes for ladies and children from out of town.” In some cases the event signalled the victory of local women over indifferent or recalcitrant politicians and merchants. In every case it represented a successful attempt by groups and individuals to alleviate the solitude that pioneering imposed upon farm women.
For most non-prairie people and even for a large part of the west’s younger population, especially urban, the term “rest room” is a euphemism, having acquired a connotation equivalent to that of “public washroom.” Yet such was not the case for the two or three previous generations, for whom the words meant exactly what they implied: a room to rest in. Very likely the rest room had “a little house out back” or even an indoor toilet, but these facilities did not represent the main purpose of the room. For thousands of rural women the rest room proper appeased a hunger for female companionship and self-respect that was assuaged by no other institution in the prairie village. The final pages of Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow graphically depict the predicament in which prairie farm women frequently found themselves:
Stegner’s village of Whitemud, Saskatchewan, is a fictional one in that it is a composite of those he knew, but it is true-to-life in its essentials, and the rest room building that he describes, “weather-beaten, warped, the paint flaking off its shiplap, its windows flyspecked and with alluvial fans of dust in the corners of the frames, its partly seen interior poisonous with bilious calcimine,” had many counterparts, most of them more attractive, in the rural settlements of the three prairie provinces during the first half of this century. Even as late as 1950, the “trip to town” was frequently a whole day affair for Manitoba farmers, and many a woman found herself undertaking it with a babe in arms and a string of children pulling at her skirt. Not all towns had a cafe, but even if there were one she could not loiter half the day in it or in any other business establishment. Hamlin Garland’s story, with its ironic title “A Day’s Pleasure,”  paints just such a woman’s wanderings up and down the main street of a U.S. prairie town before the turn of the century and demonstrates how widespread and how long-lasting was the problem, which became especially acute in winter. So, wherever they were found in rural Manitoba, rest rooms were a boon to farm women during the years of their proliferation. Yet historians have scarcely acknowledged their existence. This essay attempts to paint a general picture of their history in Manitoba by means of randomly chosen examples and a sampling of statistics, but does not claim to exhaust the subject in any way. The primary intention is to awaken interest in this hitherto-neglected area of prairie history while there are still a few rest rooms left, and especially before the memories that once knew them well can no longer furnish precious information.
The last flurry of rest room building took place just after World War II, but the story of post-1945 rooms is little different from that of so many others decades earlier. Helen E. Stacey, one of the original Benito Rest Room Committee members, describes her village’s initial impulse thus: “At that meeting in Feb./47 the member [of the Women’s Institute] who suggested we build a rest room had just put her team of horses in the livery barn and found a lady changing her baby in the office of the livery stable.”  It was not that men wished farm women any particular inconvenience or suffering. It was simply that in many areas the emphasis was still on survival rather than on comfort. Furthermore, prairie society had grown up in such a way as to put men’s needs and interests foremost. The social exigencies of farm women were a focus for the work of an organization known as the Manitoba Women’s Institute, and it is to the Women’s Institute that the majority of Manitoba rest rooms owed their existence.
The Women’s Institute movement, which originated in Ontario in 1897 under Adelaide Hoodless, first came to Manitoba in 1910 to the Morris area.  It was and still is an organization composed of non-denominational groups of country women banding together for their own and society’s better development. Their slogan: “For home and country.” The local groups, which until 1919 were called Home Economics Societies and then were also individually known as Institutes, have always been semi-autonomous, coming together for common purposes under the umbrella of the provincial Institute and operating, for some of their programs, through the Extension Service of the Manitoba Department of Agriculture.
From its formation, the Manitoba Women’s Institute placed the establishment and maintenance of rest rooms high on its list of projects. By mid-World War I, eighteen local units were working to establish or maintain rooms in their districts, often in conjunction with other women’s groups.  Melita’s Home Economics Society, which had been formed in 1915, was one of those.
But the Institute was not just interested in establishing rest rooms. It also disseminated information that would enable other groups to follow its example. As part of Farmers’ Week, the Home Economics Societies held a two-day convention at the Manitoba Agricultural College in 1916. The programme contained this item for the Tuesday, February 15, afternoon session, Mrs. R. M. Thornton of Deloraine presiding:
The discussion period that followed was led by Mrs. Carr-Lawson of Gladstone and Mrs. Crewson of Burnside, a village once located about eight miles west of Portage la Prairie but which disappeared from Manitoba maps well before World War II.
This 1916 seminar suggests what proved to be the three most frequent sources of funding and maintenance for the project: Home Economics Societies or Women’s Institutes, coalitions of community groups, and local governments such as towns and municipalities. The first-named source was by far the most important, however. For one thing, few consortiums of rural women’s groups were considered complete without the Women’s Institute. Secondly, even in those cases where a rest room was the project of another organization, the local institute often contributed funds for its upkeep. And, thirdly, its members were also active on management boards for rest rooms operated by town and municipal councils. In short, the Women’s Institute nearly always had a voice in rest room business.
For that matter, most rest rooms in Manitoba have been, at one time or another, under the aegis of a local Institute, which raised funds for the project and decided how they should be spent. Often Institutes from the outlying areas banded together with the central one for that purpose. Such was the case at Killarney, where, during the 1930s, Oak Ridge and Northcote worked with the larger Killarney Institute, as well as with those of Jaques, Mt. Valent, Fairdale and H.G.T. (the combined districts of Hullett, Glendenning and Tisdale). In this instance the rural units were actually the prime movers in the project just as, a hundred miles to the north-east and at about the same time, the Livingstone Institute initiated the rest room at Gladstone, later to be joined by the town Institute for the purpose of furthering the project. The sometimes dominant role of the smaller group in connection with this specific undertaking is not surprising, given that members from the outlying areas had a more personal and more urgent interest in promoting the rest room. Some groups working for rest rooms had as few members as fourteen.
So integral a part of the Women’s Institute’s work was the establishment and maintenance of rest rooms that for three decades, from 1920 to 1950, the Annual Report form completed by each local Institute for the provincial body contained a special section devoted to rest room finances. An Extension Service report of 1920 offered the balance sheet of the Birtle Rest Room as an example for other districts to follow: 
Perusal of Institute minute books quickly reveals the prominence always accorded this project by interested parties. For instance, when Canada entered World War II in September 1939 the event provoked this entry recording the September 5 meeting of the Hamiota Women’s Institute:
Only one other item of business was seen fit to precede this announcement of accomplished disaster: the Rest Room Committee reported that the Council promised to have Mr. Brown mend the roof of the rest room.
In spite of its importance in the history of rest room establishment and maintenance in Manitoba, the provincial Institute from the beginning viewed its role chiefly as an initiating one, for its membership was expected to move on to new projects as soon as appeared feasible, rather than become static in its activities. Thus, although a few rest rooms, such as Deloraine’s, continued to operate under the Institute banner right to the day their doors closed, one finds appended to the 1936-1937 Annual Reports summary a mimeographed query to the local units asking if it was not time “again” to explore the possibility of towns and/or municipalities taking over the project.
Indeed, this transfer had already been achieved in some cases. Responsibility for the Melita rest room, which in 1922 passed from the Community Club to a Women’s Institute/United Farm Women coalition, was transferred in 1928 to the town and municipal councils, costs to be shared 213 by Arthur Municipality and 113 by the town of Melita.  Likewise, after thirty years of operation authority for Minnedosa’s room moved to the Town Council.  Other rest rooms, such as those at Dauphin and at Grandview, had functioned almost from the beginning under the control of town and municipal bodies, though even in those cases local women, and especially Institute members, continued to have a strong voice in their management through representation on rest room boards. By 1930 the general movement toward management by local government had begun.
Although statistics were not kept as to the number of rest rooms actually founded by the Women’s Institute, file material suggests that the number operating at any given time from 1920 to 1950 remained fairly constant at between twenty and thirty. In 1936-1937, local Institutes reported total expenditures of $1505 on rest rooms, of which $568 came from grants and donations.  Existing records suggest that the peak year for Institute rest room activity was 1950-1951, when thirty-two local Institutes maintained such rooms and a further seventeen helped in their maintenance. After that the number declined rapidly, as rest rooms were closed or responsibility for them was handed over to other authorities. Between the two World Wars, their fortunes had varied a good deal, many of them being obliged to close for months or even years in times of crisis, sometimes never to re-open. Only one, it seems, ceased to operate because it had never been truly needed. Ironically, this was the rest room at Morris, where the first Women’s Institute in Manitoba had been formed. Morris’ rest room opened near the beginning of World War I. An unsigned narrative from Institute archives tells the story:
No second attempt to open a rest room was ever made in Morris and one wonders why its initial experiment did not succeed. In the light of the experience of other towns its failure is difficult to understand. Whatever the reason, Morris’ experience was not repeated in other areas, where the need for such a service was demonstrated over and over again during the next thirty-five years. Perhaps if Morris had persevered in its project, its story might have more resembled Melita’s where the rest room closed only in 1982, after 63 years of service to “women and children from out of town.”
Local Institutes frequently had to fight to provide rest rooms, since early efforts to promote them were not without opposition. Mary Speechly, one of the best known public figures active in the Women’s Institute, later commented on those early days:
And the years to follow were to show that vested interests were not always on the side of the women.
As late as 1971 resentment still lingered in the Killarney area because of its “rest room saga,” in which local men seem to have been awarded the role of villain. It has already been mentioned that seven area Institutes banded together in the early 1930s to establish a permanent rest room in that town, the largest in the district. Four decades later, a spokeswoman for one of them narrated the ensuing events:
Killarney’s story illustrates the high feeling that was sometimes engendered in a community in connection with rest rooms even in recent years.
Finances were always a major concern for rest room committees, especially during the periods of economic decline around World War I and during the 1930s, but every effort was made to keep the rooms open. The women usually raised the greatest part of rest room expenses themselves but they also relied on donations from local businesses and individuals. Municipal and town councils were regularly approached for funds. Donations were frequently made in the form of goods and services. For a time, Cartwright’s rest room received two tons of coal per year from a local co-operative; on the other hand, it was obliged to turn its lights off in summer to save money.  At Langruth, during World War I, the rest room was open “only on those days trains arrived bringing women and children to town.”  In December 1938, the Hamiota Women’s Institute moved “that a fire be kept in the restroom [sic] every day till after Xmas then again on train days and special days as before.” Bake sales, box socials, potluck dinners, card parties, concerts, carnivals, fowl suppers, tag days, banquets, rummage sales, quilt-making, raffles, teasevery conceivable form of fund-raising was used to provide even these meagre services. Most rest rooms were rented out to other groups for meetings. Some of them were much in demand. For instance, Deloraine’s busy room saw kindergarten classes and baby clinics  while Cartwright’s was host to music lessons, Sunday school, and even regular school classes when the local school burned down. 
Obstacles were not merely financial, they were also legal. In at least one case they arose just when the group believed its efforts were about to be crowned with success. When the Foxwarren Institute made the decision to buy property just after World War I, it foresaw no difficulty in raising the $1400 needed ($500 down, remainder payable in three annual instalments). But it learned with dismay that an Institute could not hold title to property. The ownership question was finally solved by having one member hold the property in trust, and the new building opened in July 1920.  Other Institutes followed Foxwarren’s example, until the law was finally changed. By 1933, fourteen of them owned their own rooms.
Finding and retaining suitable premises always presented a challenge. The very early rest rooms were generally located in someone’s home or in the room of a store. The village of Pierson located suitable accommodation in an old bank.  Similarly, Melita’s rest room, which by 1922 was in the Bar Room of the Metropolitan Hotel, later found a permanent home in the Union Bank Building.  Souris Women’s Institute bought Bruce House, a former “stopping place” for travellers.  Clearwater’s rest room was temporarily located in the Anglican rectory, while Napinka women moved from quarters over an old blacksmith shop to a room in the small building that also served as fire hall and jail.  For a time, Boissevain area women used space in an abandoned hotel, until in 1923 they, too, were granted use of the former fire hall.  Small wonder that most promoters of village rest rooms aimed at actual ownership of a “rest room building.”
Furnishings were usually cast-off pieces or donated articles. A typical rest room contained stuffed and wooden chairs, rockers, one or two tables, a couch or sofa, and perhaps a desk or piano. There would also be lamps (frequently oil), linoleum floor coverings, a baby-changing table with baby supplies, a stack of donated magazines and, in the more ambitious establishments, equipment for making tea. In 1935 lunch and coffee were being served in the Shoal Lake rest room. On October 15, 1937, a “delicious supper” was served in the Birtle rest room to the Institute District Board. Many rest rooms housed a lending library numbering a few hundred volumes that had either been donated by local people or were distributed on a rotating basis from town to town by the Extension Service of the Manitoba Department of Agriculture. In any case, necessity dictated that rest rooms be furnished as ingeniously as possible. The late Alberta Palmer recalled how Waskada coped with its project during difficult times:
The original rest room in Waskada has long since been demolished, and its successor, the only one in Manitoba for both men and women, is now furnished only with straight-backed kitchen chairs. Humble the rural rest room may have been, but its atmosphere was always a pleasant one to those who used it. One Winnipeg woman, who as a child during the 1930s and 1940s on a farm near Boissevain regularly went to that town’s room with her mother, has good memories of her visits there. “It was such a warm and welcoming place,” she says, “and though we burned wood in the fire at home the wood fire in the rest room seemed to have something special about it. The matron was such a kindly woman. I remember that I always liked to go there.” 
The more financially solvent rest rooms had a full-time matron, who usually lived in a room or rooms behind or above the public areas. Often she received only her living quarters in return for services, though sometimes a small salary was also paid. In 1928, the caretaker of the Melita rest room, which had no running water, received the living quarters above the room in exchange for services, and was expected to clean windows, sweep the sidewalk, and carry coal and ashes. 
In many cases the hours were long, for the matron did janitor work and was usually expected to be on the premises whenever the rest room was open. Nor did rest room matrons expect to become wealthy in their jobs. In January 1943 the matron’s salary at the Dauphin rest room was raised to $40 per month. In 1945 it was $562 per year, with the rest room still open every day; this amount was paid out of a total budget of $757, the premises being donated by the town. Gradually the room’s hours of accessibility to the public were reduced until by 1967 it was open only from 9 until 6 Tuesday to Saturday. By this time, Amy Evason, the last matron to hold the post, was receiving $1320 per year but received no living accommodation. She recalls those days with affection: “I remember the schoolgirls used to come in often and eat their lunch there. They were good company for me. But women from all sorts of places came in and signed the [register] book. I used to pass the time just sitting there making quilts. Over the years I sold a lot of those quilts.”  Not only did Mrs. Evason supervise schoolgirls’ lunches, she willingly supplied hot water for their cocoa or chocolate, and occasionally even warmed their food. During the fifty-four continuous years of operation of the Dauphin rest room, eight matrons served the female and juvenile public, their lengths of service varying from two to more than eleven years.
Although the Dauphin matron was probably unique in undertaking to supervise school lunches, rest room matrons everywhere were known for their co-operative spirit. In fact it was partly their adaptability that made some rest rooms so versatile. During the 1940s, the Roblin rest room, whose yearly visitors then averaged about 4000, also served as an unofficial employment agency for “hired girls to work on the farm.” 
Available information about the geographical distribution of rest rooms shows that the greatest concentration was always in areas heavily settled by British from Ontario. This should not be surprising, given that the Women’s Institute, which played such a prominent role in rest room establishment, came to Manitoba from southern Ontario and, although its membership was always open to other ethnic groups, it found its earliest support mostly in that segment of the province’s population. Most Institute charters granted before 1930 were issued to women in areas in which a large part of the population was of British origin. Since these were the very years in which there is the greatest proliferation of rest rooms in the province, the coincidence in the pattern of growth of the two phenomena is both understandable and significant. No figures are yet available for the geographical distribution of all types of rest rooms, but the following table gives a rough break-down of those which the Women’s Institute Annual Reports show operating in 1940-1941:
It will be seen that two Institute provinces, representing the two southern-most areas of the western third of Manitoba, show the greatest concentration of rest room activity, while those areas east and north of Winnipeg, with a denser population of French, Scandinavian, German, Slavic and other European groups, show almost no activity. There are many reasons for this, some of which have nothing at all to do with the development of the Manitoba Women’s Institute. For instance, patterns of Mennonite settlement, where farm dwellings were concentrated in groups, obviated the most pressing need for the establishment of women’s rest rooms in some districts. Furthermore, many areas of the province were still so sparsely settled that it would have been impractical, not only to establish rest rooms, but to attempt any organized program for women.
The administrative history of rest rooms tended to follow certain patterns, which will become clear through a few case studies:
Deloraine: Seventy years of successful WI management
To the rest room at Deloraine probably goes the honour for the longest continuous history under the banner of the Women’s Institute.  On November 15, 1910, about a hundred women met at Deloraine Opera House to organize a Household Science Association, which would be renamed a Home Economics Society the following May. At the group’s inaugural meeting on December 12, the possibility of having a rest room was the only project discussed. Its plans bore fruit the next summer, when a “rest tent” for women was set up at the Deloraine agricultural fair. By April 1912 the group was paying a Mrs. Chapin $1.50 per month for a room in her home. Subsequent rooms were also in private dwellings. Records for 1918 show the women moving to accept “Mr. Potter’s offer,” but by 1920 they had bought an existing small two-storey building on one of the town’s main streets. There was no matron but members took turns serving at the rest room on Saturdays, “names to be arranged alphabetically by the committee.” Costs of upkeep were nevertheless $193.88 the following year. At this time, also, the Institute built an addition onto the existing structure for about $400. By 1923, library hours had been extended so that the room was open in the evenings from 8:00 to 10:00, and a coal shed had been added. Every meeting of the Institute included a long discussion on rest room plans and projects. A caretaker was engaged and in March of 1925 notices were up stating that lunch would be served if desired. In 1928, a “partial layette” was added to the services available. Finally, in 1929, after much discussion about ways and means, a new building was erected on the south side of the railroad tracks, at a cost of $3742 not counting volunteer labour. Members of the Institute (as by then the group was called) eagerly debated how it was to be furnished. A good part of the meeting of September 14, 1929 was devoted to deciding whether the floors of the rest room “were to be oiled, waxed, painted or covered with Linoleum, finally deciding to Oil and put down Linoleum Rug.” Local interest in the project was also high. Grants were gladly awarded by the Deloraine Town council and the Winchester Municipal council. At the formal opening 272 visitors signed the guest book.
By 1930 the depression had reached Deloraine and in October of the same year fears were being expressed by the women that the rest room would have to be closed except on Saturdays. However, once the crisis became known, help came in the form of donations. Monarch Lumber Co. gave one ton of coal and a load of wood. A Mr. H. McKenzie contributed $10, no mean sum in those days. Special electricity and telephone rates were requested of the utility bodies. Though Deloraine was in the heart of the Manitoba drought area during the 1930s, the mortgage was paid off within seven years. The economic situation meant, on the other hand, that the rest room was obliged to expand its functions in quite another way: it became a centre for the collection of relief bundles. Indeed, rest rooms in several other towns were forced to adjust in this way to the changing times. Some did not survive the depression years. Deloraine was one of the fortunate ones. When the Deloraine rest room was finally closed in 1981, the old building was taken to the local airport, where it still does service to those who wait.
Hamiota: Ups and downs for the WI
Hamiota’s fortunes in rest room building fluctuated much more than did Deloraine’s. Because of that, its story is probably more representative of what happened in most Manitoba towns and villages. For a long time its rest room was located in whatever building would provide space.  Records for 1932 show it in an old millinery shop. No matron was in charge but Institute members took turns in supervising the room and a part-time caretaker was hired. That same year, economic constraints obliged the women to ask that the fee for rental and caretaking be only $10 per month instead of $11. In 1935 a Mr. Stone offered a room if the Institute women would furnish it. This they agreed to do, and the matter seemed settled. Unfortunately, after a few months “Mr. Stone” decided to move and the women had to remove their possessions. Fully used to such setbacks, the Institute secretary laconically recorded this town turn in events: “Moved by Mrs. Currie, sec. by Mrs. R. G. Fraser that Mrs. Homuth hire a dray and return what belonged to any person who loaned it and store the remainder.”
Month after month the Rest Room Committee reported back to the sixty member group that no premises were available. The rest room remained closed for some time. Finally, in December of 1937, the Institute voted the sum of $25 plus $8 for transfer of title to acquire a building in poor condition known as “the Eby property.” The women must have worked very quickly to prepare the new room, for it opened on January 8, 1938, in the depths of winter. Despite its inadequacies, the room was rented out for teas and other functions at $2 an event. On occasion this price had to be reduced. In the fall of 1939 the “Anglican ladies” were charged only half the going tariff because the roof had leaked during their tea. No written record remains of the consequences of that tea! The late 1930s were difficult years, but the fact that the “Rest Room fund” and the “Relief fund” show roughly parallel expenditures suggests how significant a role the room played in the community. An Institute report for October 2, 1939, indicates a balance of $13.23 in the Rest Room Fund as opposed to $13.40 in the Relief Fund. Fortunately these modest sums went much farther then than now. In 1940, the caretaker of the Hamiota rest room was receiving the magnificent wage of $4 per month.
During World War II, as had happened twenty-five years earlier with the advent of the first Great War, the attentions and efforts of women’s groups were turned to more critical projects than those leading to an improvement in their own lives. As in so many other places, the Hamiota women’s rest room was used by the Red Cross and as a centre for packing overseas parcels. To cope with the once familiar prairie phenomenon known as “Saturday night in town,” Institute members took turns staying in the rest room from 9:00 to 11:00 each Saturday evening. It was only after the war, in 1945, that the Hamiota Women’s Institute again placed a new building at the top of its list of priorities. Reports on progress of the new rest room were regularly printed in the Hamiota Echo. In May 1946 came the announcement: “The convenor of the Rest Room committee reported that the Rest Room was open at all times to the public, and those mothers with small children were very welcome to make use of the services available.”
In an effort to pay off the building quickly, funds were raised in a hundred different ways over the next few months. The entire community worked for the project. The room was let out for card parties, as well as for sewing and cooking classes. Each member contributed $0.10 to “Mrs. Dillon’s picture” to hang on the rest room wall. J. G. McConnell offered his Hall rent free for a dance to raise funds specially for the room, with the cost of electric light being included for the occasion. Well equipped for social functions, the premises were now rented at $3 with use of kitchen, $2 without. Many local groups contributed money, though even here success was not achieved without friction. One lapse in local protocol provoked this letter to the Hamiota Echo:
Despite the fact that in the Echo of January 7, 1947 the Institute had already thanked everyone for their help, it publicly recognized its oversight, thereby re-establishing good relations with all parties, and in the Institute annual report for the year the rest room was termed “a successful adventure.” It continued to play a valuable role in the community until its closure some six years later.
Dauphin: fifty-four years of town and municipal co-operation
Typical of towns whose rest room was run by local government was Dauphin.  The town’s first rest room, established by the Women’s Institute in 1917 in what had been a doctor’s office, lasted only a few months. Then, after a vigorous campaign on the group’s part to be heard by officials of rural governments, a more durable arrangement was achieved. A rest room was set up, to be governed by a Board of eight members, of whom six were local women and two were appointed by the Town. The municipality agreed to cover costs of maintenance while the town council provided for its furnishings. To the written agreement confirming this arrangement between the two official bodies was appended the following proviso: “that the expenditures in connection therewith be under the supervision of the Health and Relief Committee.” In 1932 the rest room, which had been located in rented premises in the Bank of Montreal building on the town’s principal shopping street, was moved to the basement of the Town Hall, where two rooms were given over to its use. In addition to a full-time matron and the usual amenities, the rooms provided couches for babies to sleep on, lockers for storing parcels and newspapers for reading. Because the town was now paying what it considered to be more than its share of expenses, a certain amount of friction arose between the two bodies, so that the agreement was revised in 1943, the town receiving rural tax concessions in return for its greater financial burden. Under the new system, local women’s groups were freed from having to raise funds for the room’s upkeep, though their predominance of members on the Rest Room Board meant that their influence was a strong one. The Board submitted an Annual Report to the Town but was, in effect, independent of the councils. This arrangement remained in force for the next 29 years.
Use of the Dauphin rest room increased steadily from 1919, when 7,193 persons signed the registration book, until 1931 when 48,434 names were recorded. During the 1930s and 1940s the number of signatures remained impressive. The fact that for many years the room was used for “Citizen welfare” or storage of relief clothing and, later, for blood clinics probably helped to keep them at a high level. In 1941, 43,984 signatures were recorded, of which 23,187 were from the municipality, 12,964 from town, and 7,833 from “outside”; schoolgirls having lunch numbered 1936. After World War II, the rest room’s role declined. By 1954, the annual count was down to 9,627 and, by December 31, 1972, when the room closed, to just 1,088.
Although it must be considered a success in terms of rest room history, the Dauphin rest room never had a building of its own. However, it did achieve stability, the one condition so often sought in vain by rest room committees. For one thing, since it was continually funded by local government bodies, the Dauphin rest room’s existence was less peripatetic, and certainly less precarious, than in many other districts, where the ever-present threat of closure of rented premises made ownership of a “rest room building” more attractive in the long term.
Grandview’s municipal rest room: a “two-storey brick”
Forty-five miles to the west of Dauphin and with a fraction of its population, lies the village of Grandview. Its rest room, a two-storey 38-year old brick structure just off the village’s main commercial street, was among those which were, not just maintained, but actually built through co-operation of municipal authorities with women’s organizations. It is still in operation today.  A former rest room, located close by in the front of what was then the municipal clerk’s home, had been in operation for many years, but had created difficulties, not the least of which was inconvenience to the clerk’s family. By the end of World War II public sentiment was that improved premises were long overdue. Members of the municipal council and of the rest room board thus met in a co-operative spirit with representatives of several local women’s organizations, with the result that the new building was opened on January 31, 1948. The “new” rest room, which runs the width of the building at the front, with toilets at the back (there are also some for men, with entrance from an outside back door), is on the main floor; the resident caretaker still lives above. Before the building was opened, seven tenders were received for caretaking services. The lowest bid, which requested living premises but no financial remuneration, was accepted. During the first month of the new room’s operation, the names of 901 rural and 358 “town” visitors were recorded. Financial reports of the Board were published. in the Grandview Exponent every three months. In 1948 the room was open from 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. except on Saturdays when it closed at midnight. In 1953, a Sunday closing was proposed so that the caretaker could have a day off, but this proposal was not passed until 1957. At the end of three more years, use of the room had begun to decline and it was decided to close it on both Sundays and Mondays, “except when there was a funeral or other event.” So smooth did management of the rest room become that by 1968 meetings were being held by telephone, “as there didn’t seem much to do.” Only cryptic entries to the Minute Book were found necessary. In 1973 the cash drawer was removed, because of thefts. No further vicissitudes have been recorded. Though Grandview’s rest room remains smoothly functioning in 1986, under the management of two members of the municipal council, the last entry in the Minute Book is for 1974. It sums up the situation succinctly: “No meetings held.”
Benito: survival of the volunteer spirit
One of the last rest rooms to be established in Manitoba opened at Benito in 1949, just after Grand-view’s “new” building. But its story is typical of those set up in the 1920s.  Initiated by local Women’s Institute groups in 1947, it began with $500 from the municipality and an equal amount from the town, receiving a 99-year lease on the property, which was the same as that on which the town office was located. Committee members canvassed for free labor. Each Institute member was to arrange for five man-weeks of workthat is, for the labour of five men for one week. Town women gave the workers their noon meal. Public subscription raised $494, donations of lumber were received, dances and other events netted $1130, and the building opened in January 1949 at a total cost of about $3,000. Here is how it was described about 1955:
The Women’s Institute of Benito has long since been disbanded and responsibility for the rest room transferred to an informal group known as the “Rest Room Auxiliary,” composed chiefly of former Institute members. The group’s sole function is to keep the rest room open. Over the years, it has installed a new heating system and an electric furnace, had the roof re-shingled, the walls insulated and re-stuccoed, and a new floor covering laid. It has installed a bath-room for the caretaker, who still receives her small premises free in return for her services. The Town of Benito pays for the heating and water. The donation box continues to receive a few dollars every month. Though the room is now used much less than formerly, Benito’s story shows how a feeling of community co-operation and volunteer assistance can serve to make an idea concrete, and to keep it alive even when the most urgent need for sustaining it is past.
Virden: a “co-operative” rest room
Virden’s rest room may be unique in that it was the recipient of an endowment.  Furthermore, it never operated under the separate auspices of either the Women’s Institute or a government authority, although both these bodies played a role in its history.
Opened in 1919 with no particular organization behind it, Virden rest room was set up to be governed by a Board of twelve persons, the charter members all being women. For many years it struggled along, being forced to close temporarily more than once, until 1936, when it opened permanently. In 1951 a townsperson donated $4000 in bonds as a perpetual source of income, so that in 1986 Virden’s rest room still welcomes farm women and passing travellers.
At the present time, the premises consist of a one-story building in the main shopping area of Virden. A full-time matron, who has her own quarters at the back, looks after the two rooms open to the public from 9:00 to 6:00 daily. The project regularly receives donations from local government bodies such as the R.M. of Pipestone as well as from organizations interested in its continued existence. These include groups such as the Canadian Legion and rural Women’s Institutes. The existence of the room is, however, threatened. For one thing, interest on the bonds does not go as far for upkeep as it did formerly. Consequently, the Board has been repeatedly obliged to go to the Town of Virden with requests for money to make urgent repairs. So far, the Town Council has always been able to come to its rescue. But persons involved on the Board and in the Town government are fearful that, in spite of its endowment privileges, the days of the Virden rest room are numbered and that its name will soon be added to the long list of Manitoba rest rooms that have passed into history.
Wawanesa: Manitoba’s newest rest room
In 1971, at a time when many rest rooms had closed or were about to close, a group known as the Wawanesa Community Club, whose members were all middle-aged or older women, decided to build a new rest room, though an old one had existed in the town for many years.  The women’s plans were warmly received by local authorities, and their efforts crowned with success. In exchange for $1.00 the Town sold them a small building on the main commercial street, the town retaining title to the land. In only a few months, there was constructed a one-storey building with full living quarters behind (including two bedrooms, bathroom and full basement) for a resident caretaker. Between March and December of the same year the women were able to repay the entire $11,000 borrowed for the project, their methods of fundraising being the traditional ones of holding teas, selling raffle tickets, and serving lunches and meals at local events. Since Wawanesa is almost at the intersection of the rural municipalities of Oakland, South Cypress, Cornwallis and Riverside, all four made an initial donation to the project in 1971; two of them still make small annual grants to the room.
In fact, little has changed in the fifteen years since the rest room was built. The Community Club still runs the building and the rest room is much used by women from the surrounding area as well as by those waiting to catch a bus at the depot next door. The building also contains men’s toilet facilities, with an entrance from one side. At the other side is the rest room proper, which is comfortably furnished but contains no donation box, all expenses being borne by the Club. Caretaking is still done by the family living at the back. Well used and with good community support, Wawanesa’s rest room is open seven days a week, from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. including Sunday, and shows every sign of continuing to operate in the same way to the end of the century.
In December of 1916, the following paragraphs appeared in The Grain Growers’ Guide, as part of a report on Birtle’s “splendid” rest room:
Today’s visitors to Birtle will seek in vain the rest room once described in such glowing terms. Indeed, in Manitoba today, scarcely a handful of women’s rest rooms remain. Furthermore, as the case histories reveal, most of those still operating are not used as much as they once were, the need for them having almost disappeared and their role in the community having been superseded by other phenomena. Their decline is directly attributable to several important changes in prairie life, and inextricably bound up with a number of others.
The decrease in the Manitoba farm population over the past several decades has naturally meant a diminution in the demographic base both of persons supporting rest rooms and of those using them. Particularly after World War II, the many advances in farm technology brought about not just a decrease in the number of persons required to run a farm operationfor instance, the “hired man” and the “hired girl” became obsolete,but a corollary increase in the size of the average farm. The following table shows the increase and decrease in the number of Manitoba farms and in the rural population over some fifty-five years, without any significant change taking place in the amount of the province’s arable acreage: 
During the same period, the number of towns and villages in the province was also declining, and this was not just because of the smaller farm population. Improvements in transportation were permitting country people to travel farther to make their purchases and to do business. As a result, the larger market towns and those that were easy of access along a paved highway grew, often at the expense of neighboring villages and smaller towns. Beginning in 1959, the systematic move away from rural school districts and towards large divisions meant that many villages came to have no school at all. From 1961 on, the closing of branch railway lines, with the accompanying loss of local grain elevators, also contributed to the general decline of businesses and population in the smaller rural settlements. And, with better roads and modern vehicles, the farm woman, even when she did not have her own vehicle, could be driven to town and be home again, her shopping and other business finished, within a couple of hours. In short, the “day in town,” as well as its evening counterpart “Saturday night,” became a thing of the past. With all these changes, not only did the primary and the secondary functions of rest rooms cease to be, but the number of their potential users dwindled as well.
The rise of another phenomenon of the years immediately after World War II also hastened the decline of women’s rest rooms: the community memorial hall. For the generations publicly active just after World War I, the recognition of local persons killed or wounded in combat had tended to take the form of a memorial park or a monument. But the citizenry of post-1945 Manitoba marked its gratitude in a more pragmatic way. During the ten years after the end of World War II, community memorial halls sprang up all across the province. As a rule, these halls were designed to be versatile. Most of them were intended to be used for a great variety of activities, including dances, card parties, banquets and meetings. Furthermore, their facilities for making teas and lunches were generally very modern. This meant that some of the secondary activities for which rest rooms had been used could be better held in the new buildings. As, indeed, they were. Women’s rest rooms simply became less and less useful to the community.
There were, of course, minor factors at work, too. Bars and beer parlours ceased to be male-only establishments, and both men and women had more money to spend in those places that they did choose to patronize. Even the rising crime rate played a small part in helping to banish women’s rest rooms from prairie villages. Until about 1960, residence doors were rarely locked in most parts of rural Manitoba. The same held true for rest rooms. Thus, near the beginning of World War II, the Napinka women expressed only mild dismay upon learning that a well-known local figure, Chief Sitting Eagle of the Pipestone Reserve, had spent the night in their rest room, which was not intended to be used for sleeping purposes.  But no thought was given to locking the room, which had no matron. Before many more years had passed, however, vandalism became a problem for rest room committees, so that unlocked rooms, especially in the evening, have long since become impractical without a person in attendance.
In spite of the fact that Manitoba was the first province in Canada to accord voting rights to women, agricultural life in the province has always been largely controlled by men. Indeed, in spite of a perceptible movement towards joint conjugal ownership of farms, the activities and decisions of most farm wives still remain subordinate to those of their spouse. Viewed from this perspective, the rest room phenomenon might be seen as one of the earliest efforts by Manitoba women to lighten the load of masculine dominance, for, although the comfort and convenience afforded by rest rooms was apparent from the first, the enthusiasm evinced by women for rest room building before and after World War I was out of all proportion to the physical advantages they offered. This suggests that some of the benefits may have been psychological. The room’s presence in the community became tangible evidence that farm women’s social needs were at last being taken into account.
Thus it was that, even though town councils and municipal governments were also dominated by men until recent years, whenever they made financial contributions to the establishment or maintenance of women’s rest rooms, they were, in effect, seconding, however reluctantly, the efforts of Manitoba women to create an institution that would recognize, in a concrete way, their worth as individuals. The following excerpt, taken from a newspaper report of 1917, represents an eye-witness account of the value of rest rooms before they passed into history:
The group of women whose efforts are related in this story did not live in Manitoba at all. They were the Sounding Creek Women’s Institute of Youngstown, Alberta. Yet their tale is the same as that which might have been told in every Manitoba town and village that ever had a women’s rest room. Despite the evident poverty of Whitemud’s rest room, Wallace Stegner called that Saskatchewan settlement’s shabby building “the most humane institution in all that village.”  In doing so, he accurately signalled the essential nature of the phenomenon, without which the history, not just of rural Manitoba but of all three prarie provinces, would never have been as rich as it was.
4. Unless otherwise indicated, information relating to the activities of the Manitoba Women’s Institute has been taken from files and records deposited in the Public Archives of Manitoba, as well as from the Institute’s own publication, The Great Human Heart: A History of the Manitoba Women’s Institute 1910-1980 (Altona: Manitoba Women’s Institute, 1980). Special thanks is made to Gwen Parker, Executive Secretary of the Manitoba Women’s Institute, for her co-operation.
9. Although the statistics available do suggest a stable pattern, all information compiled from the Institute Reports Summaries must be approached with caution, since the Summary for any given year includes figures only for those Institutes actually sending in reports. Unfortunately, some Institutes were less conscientious than others in this respect, so that there are few summaries based on a full set of reports.
10. From typed pages in the Institute files, entitled “The Story of the Morris Women’s Institute,” pages 6-7. This information was verified in a telephone conversation with Mrs. Lillian Lewis, who remembers the rest room.
12. From a typed report in the Public Archives of Manitoba, bearing the title “1910-1971. Manitou District Women’s Institute,” (page 40). The Killarney community history book also contains several paragraphs in which these events are mentioned. According to this source, the site was purchased in 1934 by a Dinah Mary Christian acting for the rest room groups. However, at the time, the Legion was also looking for a suitable property in which to hold meetings and social activities. An agreement, whereby the Legion would purchase the property for $1 and “irrevocably guarantee” to supply a room suitable for use as a ladies’ rest room, was drafted. Signed by Institute officers, it was never signed by the Legion. Another document was prepared whereby the Legion paid $100 for the property, which had cost the Institutes twice that amount. The $100 difference, plus the other $600 collected by the Institutes was to go towards the rest room. Despite the existence of these documents, no written agreement between the parties seems ever to have been consummated, though the money collected by the Institutes was spent on the Legion building. (Reflections, 1882-1982: a community history of the Rural Municipality of Turtle Mountain and the Town of Killarney, compiled by committees representing the J. A. Victor David Museum and New Horizons [Killarney: s. n., 1982], page 146).
28. For the history of Deloraine’s rest room, acknowledgement must be made to Ben Kroeker of the Deloraine Times and to Frances Dickinson of the Deloraine Women’s Institute for their help, as well as to Jean Hopper and to the group’s president, Claudette Teetaert, who so kindly assisted the author in sifting through the local Institute’s many volumes of Minutes. Unless otherwise indicated, all the details furnished in this account were obtained during that investigation in May of 1985.
30. Information on Dauphin’s rest room comes principally from town records, since most of the municipal records concerning it have been lost or destroyed. Free use has been made of two brief accounts in the town newspapers: Dauphin Herald, 11 June 1969, and Daily Bulletin, 11 January 1973. Acknowledgment is also made to Margaret Ritchie, Mary Prokopowich and Alma Artibise for their assistance as well as to Amy Evason for her willingness to be interviewed.
31. Information on Grandview’s rest room has been obtained almost exclusively from Board minutes kept in the Grandview municipal office. Acknowledgement is hereby made to municipal personnel for permission to read and copy those minutes.
33. Information on Virden’s rest room comes partly from the brief account by Ida Clingan in The Virden Story (Virden: Empire Publishing, 1957), pages 119-20. It was brought up to date through a telephone interview (20 December 1985) with Mrs. Katherine Webster, who has been involved with the project for some thirty-five years.
36. Sources: Farm statistics have been taken from the Manitoba Agricultural Yearbooks of 1963 and 1982 (Winnipeg: Manitoba Department of Agriculture), and from the 31 December 1920 and 31 December 1930 issues of the Report on Crops, Livestock, etc. (Dept. of Agriculture and Immigration, Province of Manitoba). Population figures have been taken from the Census of Canada for the years indicated and from the Canada Year Book 1985; in those sources, as of 1951, “urban” population is defined as all persons living in an area having population concentration of at least 1000 and a population density of at least 400 per square kilometre, all remaining population being classified as rural. No break-down of rural population into “farm” and “other” is available before 1951.
38. Hanna Herald, 11 June 1980, which gives the original source as the Youngstown Plaindealer. Acknowledgement is hereby made to Edna Moldon of the Meota [Saskatchewan] Historical Society and to Norine Coad of the Hanna and District Historical Society for bringing this account to the attention of the author.
39. Stegner, p. 305.
Page revised: 28 September 2023