By Susanna McLeod
Special to Ontario Construction News
The struggle was real in the early 20th century. “’Interior decorating,’ one career counsellor began, ‘is a singularly appropriate career for women,’” quoted Annemarie Adams and Petra Tancred in Designing Women: Gender and the Architectural Profession (University of Toronto 2000). There was another problem, too, with architects holding “a little prejudice amongst the male members of the profession against the invasion of their sphere by women.” Moving into interior design, women pressed on into architecture anyway.
Toronto’s T. Eaton Company was a launch point for interior decorating in Ontario. (Women were already on the job in Quebec.) Interested in home design, Minerva Elliot (b. England 1887) was hired at Eaton’s House Furnishings Department on College Street in 1920. Applying her sharp eye for decorating, she helped shoppers with their choices. Elliot earned a wage of $30 weekly for her talent, much higher than the average earnings paid to store clerks. (In 1921, the Ontario government set the minimum weekly wage for experienced retail workers at $12.50.)
Ambitious, Elliot resigned after two years to open her own interior decorating business, Minerva Elliot Limited. Her change signified “an early desire for a set of standards to distinguish interior decorating as a reputable profession,” wrote Nicola Krantz in her thesis “Making a business of Good Taste,” Carleton University 2018. Along with her successful design firm, Elliot took time for interviews and wrote articles in Canadian Homes and Gardens magazine, sharing decorating advice and promoting the expanding job field She also gave speeches on the future profession of interior decorating.
Speaking at Ottawa’s Women’s Club, Elliot discussed how the business was taken too lightly. Women who may have done a fine job of decorating their own homes thought they could start their own interior decorating business with a few supplies, she said, “forgetting there were certain fundamentals that could not be ignored, and which required a great deal of study.”
A serious entrepreneur, Elliot hired assistants—women and men—and took on apprentices as well. She was a difficult employer, occasionally requiring 18-hour days of her staff, and paying low wages of $15 a week. However, Elliot’s high standards resulted in excellent outcomes for clients, with policies of fair pricing and full guarantees. Her staff realized the experience was invaluable. Designers gradually worked toward professional standards.
Collaborating with construction teams, interior decorators participated alongside architects and engineers to produce functional homes and safe commercial buildings. The designers “must be competent in design theory and aesthetics, history, analysis, space planning and programming, specifications and inspections, as well as related aspects of environmental design,” described George R. Fuller and Alison Hymas in The Canadian Encyclopedia, edited July 8, 2015.
The extensive requirements led to the establishment of the Society of Interior Decorators in 1934. Fifty years later, the provincial government passed the Association of Registered Interior Designers of Ontario Act (ARIDO), giving legal standing to interior designers. In 1999, the Act was changed, so that “every registered member of the Association may use the designations ‘Interior Designer’ and, after the member’s name, ‘A.R.I.D.O.’” (Bill Pr61999) Any use of the designations by non-members ends in expensive penalties.
While Elliot built a foundation in interior design, other women eyed careers in architecture. Born in Guelph, Ontario in 1895, E. Marjorie Hill enrolled in the architecture program at University of Alberta. The program head was strongly against a woman in class, but Hill was not stopped. During WW1, classes were interrupted, and she transferred to University of Toronto, completing a Bachelor of Applied Science of Architecture degree in 1920. Similar to Alberta’s professor, the program chairman refused to attend convocation.
Taking further courses, the well-qualified Hill found doors closed for women trying to find architecture posts. “That same year, the only job she could find in Toronto was as interior decorated at Eaton’s department store,” noted Blanche Van Ginkel in The Canadian Encyclopedia, edited December 16, 2013. Attempting to register with the Alberta Association of Architects in 1921, Hill was flatly denied.
Trying to register again, she was accepted in 1925, thanks to the province amending “the Architects Act to admit ‘any graduate of any school of architecture in His Majesty’s Dominion.” The admission made history—Hill was the first registered woman architect in Canada.
The young architect supported herself with short-term work until 1940 when she was awarded her first commission. Transforming a single home into a duplex, Hill “began to get regular work, designing new houses and converting old ones,” mentioned Van Ginkel. “She was particularly busy with plans for housing for returning veterans,” and received “a commendation from the Veterans’ Land Administration Office in Victoria.” Hill’s style featured “social sensibility” and elements of space, airiness, and light.
Elliot, Hill and others pried open the architectural industry door, but women still face pushback. The struggle goes on.
© 2023 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History.