Kate Aitken (1891-1971)
Aitken, Kate (1891-1971)
Kate Aitken – Mrs. A – was Canada’s Martha Stewart decades before the U.S. version, and with a far wider audience proportionately. Mrs. A had up to three million listeners in the ‘40s and ‘50s when she was Canada’s most popular broadcaster – that’s a quarter of all Canadians at the time.
She could receive 75,000 letters in response to a program. At the height of her popularity she had 21 secretaries to answer her mail.
Mrs. A talked about domestic issues such cooking, homemaking and etiquette but she also travelled the world and interviewed world leaders like Josef Stalin and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and she considered the young Queen Elizabeth II a friend.
She was born Kate Scott in the village of Beeton, now part of New Tecumseth, just north of Toronto. By age 12 she was selling cosmetics door-to-door on her bicycle. At 14 she trained as a teacher. She moved west and learned to ride and shoot but her father died and she returned home to help her mother, Anne, to run the family store. She married Henry Aitken in 1914. After a stop in Minnesota, they returned to Beeton where Henry helped to manage his family’s mill and where they had two daughters.
They bought 10.5 hectares of land across from the mill and started a small farm, and Kate started a canning business using their products. Her experimental work was so successful that she was hired by the federal and provincial agriculture departments to lecture. She was put in charge of the Canadian Craft Exhibit at an Empire craft show in London, where she met the royal family, including an 18-month-old girl who was to become Queen Elizabeth II. A writing assignment by a farm journal paid for further travels in Europe and a year later a government assignment led to an interview with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
During the Depression years, Kate taught cooking in Montreal, the Maritimes, at the Chicago World’s Fair, then the Canadian National Exhibition’s first cooking school. For 14 years she was director of women’s activities at the CNE.
A woman broadcaster broke her leg en route to work and the resourceful radio station manager rushed to a theatre where Kate was showing an audience how to bake a cake. The lesson went on-air and within a week Kate began her broadcast career as Mrs. A. From 1934, radio station CFRB Toronto carried Mrs. A’s syndicated show, usually on remote as she travelled Canada and the world covering subjects from cooking to etiquette to a clambake in Trinidad to refugees fleeing Hungary after the 1956 revolution. CJAD Montreal picked up the show later, and later still it was carried on the trans-Canada network of the CBC where Kate was joined by announcer Cy Strange with Horace Lapp at the organ. Cy’s intro went: “It’s your good neighbour time, yes it’s Kate Aitken time, from here and there and everywhere, with news and views for you to share… And now, here’s Mrs. A.”
When the time came, Mrs. A smoothly added television to her media successes. She was on TV, radio, wrote columns for newspapers, and several books including Never a Day So Bright, the story of her childhood years in Beeton.
Kate Aitken was curious, energetic, and always professional. She said she just hopped from job to job like a grasshopper having a good time. She advised people to try new things, to treat them as an adventure, and, if they failed, to try again. One of her books was Making Your Living is Fun. She believed anyone could talk to world leaders as she had if they were just persistent.
She retired from the media in 1958 but continued to work for the United Nations, UNICEF, and was on the board of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
There’s a Kate Aitken memorial plaque in Community Park, Beeton, and a subdivision is named after her.
She died quietly in 1971 at the Beeton farm, Sunnybank, where it had all started.
Written by Jerry Fairbridge - January, 2004