Mrs A.’s legacy lives on

A new generation finds inspiration in 1950s domesticity icon

Rachel Percy is the great-granddaughter of Kate Aitken, a prolific journalist who covered everything from interviews with Stalin, Mussolini and Mao to making fruitcake on a budget.
Rachel Percy is the great-granddaughter of Kate Aitken, a prolific journalist who covered everything from interviews with Stalin, Mussolini and Mao to making fruitcake on a budget.

One of my favourite ways to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon is combing through the shelves of a used bookstore. In part, because I love to read. But there’s also a special magic in the dusty piles of old paperbacks.

The cracked spines and dog-eared corners hold the secrets of the readers who came before me. Particularly delightful for the used-book scavenger are notes scribbled in the margins, or—even better—letters, photographs or news clippings slipped between the pages and forgotten by the last reader. That is why this summer, when I flipped through a familiar paperback and a clipping from a 1975 issue of The Kingston Whig-Standard fluttered out, I was curious.

The sketch it contained, and the story next to it were familiar: “Kate Aitken: known to millions through her chatty radio programs, once during a blizzard that immobilized cars, ran into the street and commandeered a milk sleigh and skidded into her program on time. Thus her many years of never missing a deadline [remained] an unbroken record.” The picture accompanying it was of my great-grandmother, and the book it had fallen out of, Never a Day So Bright, was her memoir.

Kate Aitken—Mrs. A., as she was known to fans and family alike—died in 1971, fourteen years before I was born. Though I’ve never met her, she made an indelible impression on my childhood.

Decades before Martha Stewart, Mrs. A.’s CBC radio show featuring recipes, etiquette and beauty tips for Canadian women, aired three times a day. At the peak of her popularity, one in three Canadian homes tuned in.

She received more than a quarter of a million fan letters a year, and employed 11 secretaries to keep up with the responses. Kate Aitken’s Canadian Cookbook was first published in 1945, and remains in print today. Though it contains recipes for dishes as ominous-sounding as “jellied green salad,” it also has the only recipe for chocolate chip cookies anyone could ever need. Her other books offer an entertaining glimpse into the past. Her warning about promiscuous girls, “in the final analysis they end up as bridesmaids, not brides, as good girls to take out but not to marry,” for example, would surely make a modern feminist’s skin crawl. And her comforting words to parents—they shouldn’t be shocked in this “modern age” if their daughters choose to work for several years after getting married was about as progressive as she got in writing. But for a woman who dedicated so much of her energy to broadcasting about homemaking and being a dedicated wife and mother, her own life reflected considerable interests outside the home. In a time before commercial air travel was nearly as common as it is today, Mrs. A. logged over two million miles of travel. And while her radio show included many tips on fruitcakes and jellied salads, or hosting the perfect strawberry social, her career as a journalist also involved interviewing international personalities including Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini, and our family photo album has pictures of her with both of these men, as well as Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Canadian prime ministers Lester B. Pearson, Louis St-Laurent and William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Mrs. A. is a contradictory figure in my family’s mythology: on one hand, she almost perfectly embodied the spirit of 1950s femininity. The cavity-inducing optimism of book titles such as Raising a Family is Fun! and the mildly shocking advice on how to raise your daughter to be a successful homemaker, paint her as a Canadian June Cleaver. This image contrasts sharply with that of the world-traveled journalist who, in 1928, interviewed Benito Mussolini, and warned Mackenzie King that the Italian politician was “a shrewd man.” Thus, Mrs. A. was both the quintessential 1950s homemaker, and a woman well before her time—a dualism that captured the imagination of many Canadians during the 30s, 40s and 50s, and that has been passed down through the women in my family for three generations, and predictably many more.

Words of wisdom from Mrs A.

“Men are all alike, whether they’re 8, 18, or 80.”

“A man wants to take out a girl whom the other lads eye with envy. He wants a slim (not skinny) lass well set up with the adequate hips, shoulders and legs.”

“When it comes to a special date, such as a dance or a movie, then it does give the boyfriend great confidence in himself and a large measure of protectiveness to foot the bill. Just see to it though that the bill isn’t exorbitant for with the high cost of living and dating, that would be your last date.”

—From Lovely You, Collins, 1951

“From a health standpoint, soft drinks are fine. They are pure, they satisfy and are palatable.”

—From Kate Aitken’s Cookbook, Collins, 1950

“After school, after a movie or after a dance, teenagers flock into their favorite restaurant for a coke, a soda or a cup of coffee and a sandwich. They’re young, these teenagers, they’re brash, they’re self-conscious and far too often they’re so noisy that they upset other patrons of
the restaurant.”

“Don’t drop burning cigarettes on the floor and grind them under your feet. This makes an indelible mark on the floor covering.”

—From Canadian Etiquette for Daily Living, Collins, 1953

Mrs A.’s Chocolate Chip Cookies

Temperature: 375 F
Time: 8-10 minutes

• ½ cup shortening
• ¼ cup brown sugar
• ¼ cup white sugar
• ½ teaspoon vanilla
• 1 egg, well beaten
• ½ cup nuts, chopped
• ½ cup semi-sweet chocolate, slivered
• 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sifted all-purpose flour
• ½ teaspoon salt
• ½ teaspoon baking soda

Cream together shortening, brown sugar, white sugar and vanilla. Add egg and beat until fluffy; add nuts and slivered chocolate; add sifted dry ingredients in three additions, blend well and chill. Drop by spoonfuls on oiled cookie sheet; bake in moderate oven till done. Yield: about 24 cookies.

—from Kate Aitken’s Canadian Cook Book, Collins, 1950.

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