Grads celebrate 100 years of home economics at University of Alberta

A sold-out reunion during the University of Alberta’s alumni weekend brought together more than 100 women who studied home economics and human ecology between the early 1940s and 2017.

The program started in 1918 as home economics and is now called human ecology

Home economics students who graduated in the 1940s at a centennial dinner at the University of Alberta on Sept. 21. Front row from left to right: Marilyn Moret, Katherine Sawka, Anne (Puchalik) Sawka and Fay Winning. Back row: Sophie Rasko, Phyllis Fowler and Sheila McLaggan. (Sarah Pratt/University of Alberta)

A sold-out reunion during the University of Alberta's alumni weekend brought together more than 100 women who studied home economics and human ecology between the early 1940s and 2017. 

Now called human ecology within the faculty of agricultural, life and environmental sciences, the department opened as household economics within the faculty of arts and science in 1918. 

The department celebrated its centennial anniversary this past weekend with sparkling wine, dinner and speeches at the Faculty Club on Friday night.

The evening's centrepiece was a red, white and grey quilt that local quilters spent more than 300 hours creating. 

This centennial quilt commemorates 100 years of home economics and human ecology programs at the University of Alberta. (Sarah Pratt/University of Alberta)

Red triangles on the quilt form a large star, representing knowledge and light. Other shapes symbolize family, nutrition, education and aging.

Seeing the quilt she signed was a highlight for Phyllis Fowler, who told CBC News she was one of four members of the home economics class of '48 to attend the event. She and her friends, all from Edmonton, marked 70 years since their graduation.

"But there was a lady who sat with us who graduated in 1945, so she beat us," Fowler said.

"Apparently she had come up on the bus from Calgary."

Henry Marshall Tory, the university's first president, established the department a decade after the school opened.

The department became a school, then a faculty, then merged with the faculty of agriculture and forestry in 1993.

From its early days, the program emphasized science, especially as it pertained to food and nutrition. Over the years, students have studied clothing and textiles, chemistry, biology, physiology, microbiology, psychology, physics, anthropology and design, among other subjects.

Sherry Ann Chapman, a practicum co-ordinator who teaches an introductory course in the department, researched the history of the program and lectured earlier this year on its past and future.

Her research revealed a tension — central to the field since the beginning — regarding women's roles in society and whether home economics should go beyond teaching students practical skills to be used inside the home.
This recipe booklet lives in the scrapbook of a home economics graduate from the University of Alberta. (Sarah Pratt/University of Alberta)

"If you ask people, 'what do you think of home economics?' it's often cooking and sewing," Chapman said.

"But what I really came to appreciate was that, from the earliest days, there was an attempt to push against that." 

Faculty members and home economists worked to expand women's rights, Chapman said. They embraced recommendations from the Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada and advocated for child care and maternity benefits.

Enrolment has gone up and down over the years. The department grew from approximately 67 students in 1960 to nearly 400 in 1976.

Today about 150 undergraduate students take classes in clothing, textiles and material culture and family science.

The department offers masters and doctoral programs to about 50 graduate students. Not all students are women but they remain the majority. 

The department has survived in an era when many home economics programs have disappeared from university campuses across North America.

"Our longevity speaks to the ongoing relevance of our programming, our education and research programs," said department chair Deanna Williamson, who earned her PhD in family studies and has been with the department since 1999.

Other notable women associated with the department include Lillian Fishman, who graduated in 1936 and Doris Badir, a professor and dean who helped influence the United Nations to declare 1994 as the International Year of the Family.

This year, the department produced Rhodes Scholar Mackenzie Martin, who earned a combined degree in human ecology and education.

"Home economists and human ecologists have always been very committed to enhancing people's quality of life and I think that degree programs provide graduates with the knowledge and the skills to do that," Williamson said.

The university's alumni weekend ends Monday night with an awards ceremony at Jubilee Auditorium.


Madeleine Cummings is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. She covers local news for CBC Edmonton's web, radio and TV platforms. You can reach her at madeleine.cummings@cbc.ca.