Cooking Up History

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During the period when the Y.W.C.A. released their cookbook, recent advances in science and medicine had shown correlations between disease and hygiene, leading to desires to establish a public health system, make medical care safer and more accessible, and implement food safety laws. These new concerns about health and safety are evident in the St. Thomas Y.W.C.A. Cookbook. This also helps to explain why certain sections were included, such as the "Remedy" section that provides recipes for household items such as soap and treatments for common illnesses. It is also important to consider that new food regulations would have impacted the foods utilized in the recipes, making them safer for consumption.

One initiative that really stands out in the later 19th and early 20th centuries in Canada is the establishment of public health systems. In 1882, the Ontario Board of Health was created, which promoted healthy living for Ontarians. The provincial government was responsible for looking after other health concerns, such as hospitals, the urban environment, and keeping the water supply safe. In addition to the Ontario Board of Health, a variety of privately-organized associations provided relief to the sick and attempted to prevent outbreaks of disease. The creation of these public health systems accompanied a growing understanding of bacteria’s impact on disease.

Along with establishing formal public health systems under the jurisdiction of the provincial governments, the Social Purity Movement gained traction at the turn of the century, which sought to solve the social ills plaguing Canadian society. Groups tasked with investigating immoral or indecent behaviours used clergymen and charity workers to carry out their work on the ground. It was believed that more spiritual guidance was needed in order to reform the nation's moral health and, by extension, Canadians' physical health. Reformers attempted to carry out change in several ways, including educating Canadians about the importance of personal hygiene and keeping the home neat, clean, and free of pestilence. The medical community promoted abstinence in the hopes of curbing rates of venereal disease. Overall, the Social Purity Movement of the later 19th and early 20th centuries played a significant role in spreading information about the importance of cleanliness in all aspects of life. The establishment of such organizations relates to the Y.W.C.A. as they, too, promoted a Christian lifestyle that was defined by moral behaviours and actions. 

Another new idea in the early 20th century was that children needed physicians who specialized in the field of pediatric medicine. Despite the rise of pediatrics and the professionalization of medical practice generally, mothers continued to administer the majority of health care in the home. Although women were being pressured to take their children to doctors, "home doctoring" remained popular. Health education was also starting to show up in schools. For example, Dr. William Krohn helped write an elementary school health textbook that encouraged girls and boys to seek out the same amount of physical exercise. However, these physical exercises should be different as boys' and girls' bodies were different. The promotion of health for children was crucial during this period due to high infant and child mortality rates. It was not uncommon in the early 20th century for children to be stricken with harmful diseases like polio and diptheria. When children were ill, mothers used a range of so-called tried and true methods to ease children's suffering. In extreme cases, or when a child failed to get better, a doctor was consulted if they were nearby and available. Many families avoided using doctors' services because of the fees and in rural areas, doctors were hard to come by. Because so much medical care continued to occur in the home, it is clear why the St. Thomas Y.W.C.A. Cookbook contains medical advice for common ailments such as burns, croup, and pneumonia. Since Canadians did not consult doctors for every bump and scrape they got, the remedies provided in the cookbook would have been very handy. 


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The increasing awareness of the importance of hygiene and cleanliness also impacted food production and handling. Between the 1870s and the end of the First World War in 1918, both Canada and the United States initiated a series of laws and recommendations surrounding food safety, inspection, and surveillance. One example was the Canadian federal government's Meat and Canned Foods Act in 1907, which created "a regulatory system for all animals intended for slaughter as well as for the inspection of packaged meat products." Due to the implementation of this Act, deaths resulting from the ingestion of bacteria-ladden meats were significantly reduced. 

Overall, the period leading up to the publication of the St. Thomas Y.W.C.A. Cookbook was one marked by much change, especially regarding understandings of disease and how to prevent it. We can see that this shift in knowledge occurred through the establishment of public health associations (both formal and informal), greater recognition of physicians' expertise and abilities, and the passage of food safety laws. 


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