Jessie L. McLenaghen

1888 - 1968

Jessie Louise McLenaghen was born on 3 December 1888 near Balderson Corners, Lanark County, Ontario, third of seven children of John and Elspeth (McIlquham) McLenaghen. At age nineteen Jessie was teaching in a one-room schoolhouse close to the family farm. The McLenaghen family moved to Portage La Prairie, Manitoba in 1904 and Jessie and her sister Jen attended Winnipeg Normal School for an eighteen-week course. In her diary Jessie recorded taking manual training and making a "little box" at Normal School, but unlike her sister, she did not take domestic science. It is not clear when McLenaghen developed an interest in home economics, but certainly she had a lifelong mission to "improve people's lot." Those who knew her recall her as "very human," the kind of person who "always had three kinds of cookies made by herself on hand." Jessie was seen as an "idealist, governed by conviction" who thoroughly believed in home economics. To ensure change "all you had to do was call attention to a point and the person would correct it."

Jessie McLenaghen spent a few years teaching grade school in southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In 1917, she attended Lillian Massey-Treble School of Domestic Science in Toronto and was head of the class. This study was not sufficient for a degree in Household Science, but did introduce McLenaghen to noted home economists such as Annie Laird, associate professor and one of the founding members of the American Dietetic Association. After her return to Saskatchewan, McLenaghen worked as Assistant Supervisor for the Saskatoon Normal School under the principalship of Dr. George M. Weir, considered to be "one of the most popular educators in the Dominion."

In 1924, Jessie McLenaghen left Saskatchewan to attend Teachers College, Columbia University in New York. The Faculty of Practical Arts had been established to train teachers of household arts, industrial arts, and allied subjects. It was highly rated, with eight out of twenty-two departments devoted to home economics. After receiving her bachelor's degree from the Faculty of Practical Arts and her teacher's diploma in 1925, Jessie McLenaghen was employed as a foods instructor for one year at the New York State Teachers College in Albany.

In August of 1926, McLenaghen was appointed to the position of Director, Home Economics, Department of Education, Province of British Columbia. She held that position for twenty years until retirement in 1946. A major life event for Jessie was receiving an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of British Columbia in 1956. In the citation delivered in McLenaghen's honour, mention was made of her "boundless enthusiasm and happy blend of caution and open-mindedness" as well as her efforts during the Depression when "it looked as if home economics would be swept from the curriculum as a frill."

After Jessie McLenaghen's death on 19 December 1968, she was credited with making home economics an appropriate subject for junior matriculation, putting home economics courses for elementary, junior, and high school courses into effect and having been "instrumental in raising the standard for home economics." (Annual Report of the Public Schools of British Columbia, 1968-69, p. G80).

Contributed by Mary Leah DeZwart

Excerpted from Mary Leah DeZwart, "Proving Its Worth: Jessie McLeanaghen and Home Economics in British Columbia," Canadian Home Economics Journal/Revue canadienne d'economie familiale, 41 (Summer 1991), 134-139.

See also Mary Leah DeZwart, "A merry tourist party: Jessie McLenaghen in Vancouver, 1906," British Columbia Historical News, Vol. 29, No. 3 (1996), 3-6; and DeZwart, "Pitt Lake Outing," British Columbia Historical News, Vol. 30, No.4 (1997), 6-8.