Ironing out the creases

Sometimes we come across such a spectacular artefact, that we are inspired to look a little deeper into the historical industry from which it was used. The discovery of a charcoal clothes iron got me thinking about the domestic lives of 19th century women, and the ironing industry in colonial New Zealand.

During my research for this blog post, I found countless newspaper advertisements for laundry soaps, starches, ironing stoves and laundress services, as well as reports brimming with derivatives of “while the lady of the house was in the other room ironing…” The amount of time and sweat that went into this industry is a far cry from the afterthought that we largely give ironing today. If you’re anything like me, you avoid wearing easily wrinkled linen, and unless it’s a special occasion, your t-shirt or blouse is lucky to a get a last minute iron over with the hair straightener you were just using on your hair (this is the most convenient addition to laundry technology in the 21st century, in my opinion).

A quick office survey confirmed that we here at Underground Overground Archaeology do not habitually iron our sheets or our ‘high vis’. Instead, we save this indulgence for important events, such as a legitimate special occasion, helping to dry damp clothes, ironing pant cuffs so they don’t fall down (for the vertically challenged among us), and many of us can recount the distant memory of pressing pleats into our school uniform kilts on Sunday nights. How did this industry lose such importance you ask? I’m not entirely sure, but I do know that when we take a look at the previous generation, my mother saved ironing for her hair in the 70s, and my father let his shirts blow dry in the wind. This being the case, perhaps the ‘un-domestication’ of Generation X isn’t to blame (in this instance) for the loss of an old tradition.

What struck me about the difference between our modern attitudes toward ironing and that of our predecessors was how commonplace it was for a 19th century woman to be spending her day performing this back-breaking labour. Ironing was such an important skill, that little girls would be given miniature flat irons as gifts and taught ironing “and other necessary skills” in convent school (New Zealand Tablet 23/12/1881: 11). The number of ironing stoves and mangles that I found advertised for sale in local newspapers during the 19th century illustrates their mainstream popularity. The task had to be completed weekly, and for 19th century housewives or servants, it was customary for the entirety of Monday to be taken up by washing and drying laundry, while the whole of Tuesday was reserved for ironing it (Poverty Bay Herald 3/4/1879: 2). The chore was so familiar that I found many articles toting advice about timesaving ironing techniques (e.g. Otago Witness 22/1/ 1876: 19). My favourite tip, and the most realistic, was to simply stop ironing things… The sensible woman who wrote this article suggests hanging the laundry out to dry in the wind and ignoring the bed linen, nightclothes, tablecloths and napkins. Alternatively, another recommended that ironing energy should be saved for children’s aprons and shirt cuffs (Bruce Herald 9/6/1876: 3).

By now, you might be forming the impression that ironing in the 19th century was quite labor-intensive. In fact, the task was so arduous that we see housewives complaining constantly of their heavy and time-consuming burden in local newspapers, and there is even a story of one woman obtaining a doctor’s certificate to prevent her from doing too much ironing (Wairarapa Standard 23/12/1875: 2). Victorian ironing was not only backbreaking; it also came with its share of health risks – there was the danger involved with using gas-fuelled irons, or the first electric irons (patented in 1882), which were not temperature controlled by thermostats until the 1920s (Gretton 2016). Having said this, the first electric irons were not commonly used. They were not only dangerous, but most Victorian households did not have electricity, and if they did, it was common to only use electricity in the evenings for lighting.

Figure 1. Flat iron stove. Image: Wikipedia.

Figure 1. Flat iron stove. Image: Wikipedia.

During the 19th century, the most common type of iron used was called a flat iron, otherwise known as a sad iron (commonly thought to be called sad, due to the negative attitudes that its use invoked, though ‘sad’ is actually an old English ‘solid’; Gretton 2016). Sad irons required an intricate system of heating and rotation. Several heavy flat irons were heated on a special iron stove, and sometimes heat tested by holding a hot iron near one’s cheek (you would not catch me doing this). It was used until it cooled down, then returned to the stove and replaced with one of its hotter counterparts (the phrase “to have many irons in the fire” derives from this practice). These irons were heavy and hot, and the system required special skill and experience. Several improvements were made during the second half of the 19th century in order to streamline the process. These included a sad iron that was pointed at both ends, so one could iron in either direction. There was also the addition was a detachable wooden handle, which helped prevent the burning of the user (Figure 1). These patents were granted to a housewife named Mary Florence Potts of Ottumwa, Iowa, in 1870 (Ladd 2014).

Figure 2. Advertisement for a sad iron with a removable handle. Image: Hawera & Normanby Star 19/9/1916: 6.

Figure 2. Advertisement for a sad iron with a removable handle. Image: Hawera & Normanby Star 17/9/1916: 6

The specific iron that started this enquiry was not the type that was heated on an iron stove. It was called a box iron or charcoal iron, which had a built in, hinged, chamber to store hot coals or other fuels so the iron would stay hotter for longer (Figure 2). A tool with such characteristics would not have to be replaced on the ironing stove, making the job a whole lot more efficient. However, this technology was not without its drawbacks, as the coal made the task of ironing a smoky one, which sometimes left residual ash or odour on freshly cleaned fabrics (heartbreaking). This type of iron required a chimney or spout-like opening, to insert a bellows into or to produce a sufficient draft to stoke the coals when swung back and forth (Gretton 2016). This particular model was manufactured by Jabez and John Whitehouse, Victoria, Tipton, as illustrated by the maker’s mark on its gilded copper heat shield (Figure 3). This English company owned the Phoenix Foundry on Castle Street, Tipton, and produced cast iron goods from the late 19th century until the 1920s (Powerhouse Museum 2016). It is unclear whether this specific iron was used commercially or domestically, but its operator would have had to eat their Wheat-bix, as it weighs a whopping 4 kilograms! If Garfield were a 19th century domestic housewife, I bet that he would have hated Tuesdays!

Figure 3. J & J. Whitehouse charcoal iron from Rangiora, showing chimney neck.

Figure 3. J & J. Whitehouse charcoal iron from Rangiora, showing chimney neck.

Figure 4. J & J. Whitehouse maker’s mark.

Figure 4. J & J. Whitehouse maker’s mark.

As mentioned, we can’t be certain whether this iron was used in a domestic house or a commercial laundry. If this was used as a commercial iron, let us have a look at what this industry was like locally during the 1900s. Comparatively, while we think nothing of dropping our badly stained or trickier to wash garments at a dry cleaner, or if we are especially lazy or busy, we drop all of our soiled goods or ‘bachelor bundles’ at a ‘fluff & fold’ (regrettably, I couldn’t find fun 19th century comparative terms for these). The demand for large scale laundries is alluded to in 1842, in a (presumably fictitious) newspaper report describing American girls attaching hot irons to their feet and skating over garments (New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser 2/8/1842: 3).

Figure 5. Ice skate irons. Image: New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser 2/8/1842: 3.

Figure 5. Ice skate irons. Image: New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser 2/8/1842: 3.

Additionally, 19th century newspapers present countless advertisements for private laundresses, illustrating a viable business opportunity for women in Victorian society. In fact, the gift of a mangle to a widow at the wake of her deceased husband was a common occurrence (Ladd 2016). On a larger scale, full-size commercial laundries appear to have been common in New Zealand during the second half of the 19th century (Evening Post 24/11/1876: 2, Otago Daily Times 10/04/1876: 5, Star 24/08/1880: 2; 19/05/1881: 4).

Below is an advertisement and price list from 1880 for a new steam laundry in Christchurch (Figure 5). The article boasts about a new ironing machine that will polish collars and cuffs like new and promises that no article will be damaged by the process! As in the domestic sphere, it is likely that it was women who would have been operating these laundry machines. This same article advertises the skills of a French laundress. The small number of women who were in paid employment in New Zealand during the 19th century (a fifth of women over fifteen in 1874 and less than a quarter by 1891) were working in factories, domestic service, tailoring and shop work (Else 2012). No doubt some of these women were employed as laundresses.

Figure 6. Christchurch Steam Laundry advertisement. 1880 (Star 24/8/1880: 2).

Figure 6. Christchurch Steam Laundry advertisement. 1880 (Star 24/8/1880: 2).

Whether or not a fatigued housewife or servant, or an overworked and underpaid laundress used this iron, we can assume that it was used to successfully press its share of garments. While the finished product of freshly starched and wrinkle-free linen is not the social necessity it once was, it was a fun artefact to research and I hope the original iron’s 19th century owner thought that the finished result of their labour was worth their toil.

Chelsea Dickson

References

Bruce Herald [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed January 2016].

Else. A., 2012. Gender inequalities – Paid employment, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, [online] Available at: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/gender-inequalities/page-4. [Accessed January 2016].

Gretton., L. 2016. ‘A History of ironing.’ Old & Interesting. [online] Available at: http://www.oldandinteresting.com/antique-irons-smoothers-mangles.aspx. [Accessed January 2016.

Hawera & Normanby Star [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed January 2016].

Ladd, M. 2014. ‘Historical Treasure: Mrs. Potts’ sad iron.’ Tribune-Star. [online] Available at: http://www.tribstar.com/news/lifestyles/historical-treasure-mrs-potts-sad-iron/article_e5ef38e0-b1ff-563b-b2a1-4ab04796775e.html [Accessed January 2016]. 

New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed January 2016].

New Zealand Tablet [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed January 2016].

Otago Witness [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed January 2016].

Poverty Bay Herald [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed January 2016].

Star [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed January 2016].

Powerhouse Museum, 2016. Collections [online] Available at: http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=242565. Accessed January 2016].

Wairarapa Standard [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed January 2016].

 

 

Archaeological challenges in the Hundred Acre Wood

Hello everyone! Belated happy new year and welcome back.

We’ve decided to begin the year by talking about problems (just to start on a positive note). Well, sort of. We’re participating in an international round-up of blog posts this month on the subject of grand challenges in archaeology (you can see the whole thing here). Obviously, we’re approaching this from the perspective of Christchurch (and, to a degree, New Zealand) and the challenges we face here – both in the sense of difficulties encountered and challenges to be met.

To this end, three of us – with different areas of interest and experience in archaeology – got together and had a bit of a discussion about the challenges that stand out to us the most, the salient points of which are presented here. However, partly because it amuses me and partly because I want to see if any of you can guess who said what, I have replaced our real names with the names of Winnie-the-Pooh characters for the purposes of this post.

Imagine, if you will then, that Christopher Robin, Tigger and Owl, playing at being archaeologists for a day, are sitting around a fire in a clearing of the Hundred Acre Wood. Their conversation turns, as it always does when archaeologists congregate, to their (current) profession, and some of the challenges they’ve encountered while uncovering the mysteries of the past. For the purposes of this tortured metaphor, The Hundred Acre Wood is not always a place in England but sometimes a city in New Zealand (just go with it, okay?).

(In reality, we sat at our computers and carried out an online conversation over a couple of days when we should have been doing other work. The truth is always so much less fun than fiction.)

It was a situation not dissimilar to this. Image:

See, doesn’t this look much better than people hunched over computer screens?

This conversation ranges from the specific and often practical difficulties they have faced in their daily work to some of the broader questions facing archaeology as a profession and field of research. Two major themes start to emerge: one revolves around the engagement of archaeology with the world today, the other encompasses the research potential of archaeological work, especially when it comes to answering big, broad questions.

The challenges of research – from the practical difficulties of realising it, to the scale at which it can be approached and the questions to be asked and answered – is perhaps the most obvious to the three participants, given the scale of work and amount of archaeological data being gathered in the city after the earthquakes. The last five years have resulted in over 2000 new recorded archaeological sites in Christchurch, approximately 1000 (or more) boxes of artefacts and the systematic excavation of the first 50 years of a whole city (not to mention several earlier Maori archaeological sites as well). It can be a little overwhelming.

“Indeed,” says Owl, hootingly. “Just from a practical perspective, there are the challenges presented by the time and money required to undertake research, by issues like databases and data management and accessibility and so on. A lot of which is made more challenging by the fact that all of the archaeological work in the city is done by archaeological consultants, who have neither the time nor funds to actually do the research.”

“Yeah,” says Tigger, bouncing up and down (please feel free to imagine this said in a Tigger voice, it’s kind of hilarious). “It’s the perennial problem of realising the research potential of archaeological consultancy, where most of the work happens but not much of the research. Unlike universities and research institutes, where most of the research happens, but less of the work. I mean, less of the initial data collection and excavation. I would never suggest that academics do less work.”  

In which Tigger bounces and

In which Tigger bounces and muses on the challenges of research in archaeological consultancy at the same time.

“Maybe,” says Christopher Robin (who has been uncharacteristically silent until now), “we’re excavating too many sites. There does seem to be too much data and not enough people to work with it. But it’s also important that we don’t lose the information offered by those sites.”

Owl nods. Wisely. Because owls are wise. “It’s not just the amount of information we have from sites being excavated and investigated right now. It’s also all of the accumulated information we have from old sites, which is constantly being re-analysed and integrated into new databases and new methods and new research questions.”

Christopher Robin gently suggests that Owl try not to be such an Eeyore, and think instead about the potential of this information. “The fact that so much data has been accumulated makes possible some really interesting challenges as far as research questions go. We can look at bigger, broader questions of life in the past that we couldn’t before. Ideas like the birth of the modern city, the development of regional architectural styles, the development of identity at different scales and at different groups.”

“Capitalism! Consumerism! Colonialism!” hoots Owl, in a momentary loss of dignity.

Tigger, in the typically positive manner of tiggers everywhere, reminds the other two that this potential is one of the most exciting things about working in Christchurch. The other two agree, nodding solemnly in the firelight. Christchurch has immense potential when it comes to broad research questions in archaeology, uniquely placed as it is to explore the past through the lives of individuals and communities and the global processes that changed the world. We’re excavating on a site by site basis, but accumulating a city wide dataset that fits within a much wider context. The scale of the archaeology (in every sense of the word) has so much to offer.

Owl, the ruffled feathers and dignity from the previous outburst settling back into place, adds “There are some challenges inherent in that as well, though. There’s a need for comparative data from other places and time periods in the world, especially if we want to address these questions on a global scale over time. Accessibility and data compatibility – and comparability – is a real challenge, as other archaeologists have already talked about elsewhere.”

“It doesn’t mean that incompatible or incomparable datasets can’t contribute to a bigger global conversation, though,” says Christopher Robin, reasonably.

“True” Owl continues, on a roll. “It’s not just the practicalities of it, though. It’s not always easy to reconcile different scales of research potential. When you’re looking at big picture questions, it can be hard to hold on to the nuances and details of individuals and things and easy to over generalise or simplify complicated situations and concepts. But, at the same time, these are the questions we need to be asking, the ideas and changes that are most relevant to the world we live in today – and some of the most exciting to pursue.”

Owl holds court on

Owl holds court on research potential in Christchurch.

It is at this point that a second big theme begins to emerge from the conversation: the challenge of engaging archaeology with the world today. Again, it is one that is particularly obvious to those of us working in Christchurch, where the value and relevance of heritage in the present day is a complex and often controversial topic. So much of the city’s visible heritage has been lost and the significance and future of those elements that have survived (the cathedral is a case in point) is very publicly and contentiously negotiated. The challenge goes beyond this, however, beyond the very obvious examples of symbolic heritage buildings to the ways in which archaeology (and heritage in general) is engaging with the world and lives of people today.

“Exactly,” says Owl, slightly long winded-ly. “There’s so much potential, especially with the situation here, to make use of all this information we have about the history of the city in the context of the world around us now. Like the parallels and contrasts you can see between the social, political, and urban processes that are occurring in Christchurch now, after the earthquakes, and those that occurred during the first decades of European settlement in the 19th century. Our past is relevant to our present (and our future) and we need to be better at communicating this.”

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They may not look like much, but sites and features like these can answer all kinds of questions on all kinds of scales. A small midden (left), when combined with other information, might shed light on how humans have impacted the environment in the past (through progressively smaller shellfish sizes over time, for example) or where and how people were getting their food. Historic rubbish pits and artefacts (right) might, when placed in a larger dataset or context, tell us about individual and collective consumption choices (and what those choices tell us about people and societies) or manufacturing and trade processes in the Victorian world. The potential of individual objects, sites and assemblages to contribute to a wider understanding of the past is something we’ve covered often here on the blog (because it’s something that’s important and needs to be talked about). Images: T. Wadsworth (left), J. Garland (right).

Christopher Robin adds, thoughtfully (everything Christopher Robin does is thoughtful), “There’s definitely a lot to be said for the value that relevance adds to archaeology, as well, especially from the perspective of non-archaeologists. That’s one of the biggest challenges for me, you know – the public perception of archaeology and the apparent lack of value that people place on heritage in Christchurch (and New Zealand), outside of a few select examples.”

“That’s something that archaeology faces all over the world, I think,” says Tigger.

“Yes,” says Christopher Robin. “It’s that issue of archaeology, and heritage in general, being seen as something that halts or holds up development and is therefore a nuisance, rather than something useful to society.”

Owl hoots in agreement. Or something.

ChristopherRobin

In which Christopher Robin ponders the challenge of archaeology and public opinion.

“For New Zealand in general, though” Christopher Robin continues, “it does seem like we place a lot of value on our natural heritage, which is such a huge part of our national identity, but not as much on our cultural heritage. Maybe, as a profession, one of the challenges to be met here is how we present what we do to the general public. Maybe we should be focusing more on what the public wants out of archaeology, rather than what we think they should know about.”

“Maybe,” says Owl. “It’s true that I am often surprised by the kinds of stories and discoveries that people – archaeologists and non-archaeologists, alike – think are interesting and cool. It turns out that the things that owls find interesting are not always interesting to other people.”

“Who knew,” says Christopher Robin, only a little sarcastically.

“It’s not just what we’re communicating,” says Tigger, still bouncing. “It’s how we’re communicating it. We need to be better at making archaeology accessible to non-archaeologists. Tiggers watch a lot of YouTube videos, you know, and a lot of the archaeology channels are dry. They should be active, experimental or – if we’re talking about that natural heritage focus – taking place in relation to the landscape. Time Team was a good example of that.”

“I miss Time Team,” says Owl, mournfully.

“And if we’re talking about individual artefacts or sites or even archaeologists,” adds Tigger, “they need to be personalised in some way.That’s it! We need to personalise the past, make it engaging and accessible.”

“What, like writing an entire blog post as fictional characters from our childhoods?” asks Christopher Robin.

“Sure,” says Owl. “That sounds like a good idea. Could be fun.”

Fun,” agrees Tigger. “Fun, fun, fun, fun fun.”

It is here that we shall leave our three intrepid archaeologists, although their conversation continues long into the night, as the flames of their campfire flicker through the trees of the Hundred Acre Wood. There are other challenges to be solved, other adventures to be had and discoveries to be made, but these are tales for another day.

(Or, the online conversation occurring in reality deteriorates into a series of typos and comments on coffee and shoes and the subject is tabled for another day.)

Owl, Christopher Robin and Tigger.

Acknowledgements:

The fantastic, fabulous work of A. A. Milne, of course.

2015. Another year down!

It’s that time of year again. Behold! Some of our favourite discoveries and images from 2015. It’s been an eventful twelve months.

Archaeology happened. Sites were surveyed, excavated, photographed, investigated, disseminated and ruminated upon. Clues were followed and mysteries unravelled. Adventures were had. Memories were made.

Kirsa

Kirsa learned not to let other people set the total station up for her, lest they make it too high and force her to stand on tip-toes. Image: K. Bennett.

Excavating a pit feature on site in full protective gear. Image: K. Bone.

We really brought the glamour back to archaeology this year. This site yielded our largest assemblage for the year and ended up being one of the most interesting sites we’ve investigated in Christchurch, encompassing entrepreneurship, early artefacts, political machinations and many other aspects of the city’s history. Image: K. Bone.

Lloyd St. Credit C

Archaeologists captured in the wild. This is one of our more recent excavations, which revealed a layer of burned artefact material across the site. Figuring out the story behind it is going to be fun. Image: C. Dickson.

Fran, from FB

In which Fran found a foundry floor and frantically forged ahead to figure out the foundations of her find. Image: H. Williams.

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We did a lot of work in Lyttelton over the year, including a site that yielded a large collection of artefacts. It’s one of the more unusual ones we’ve worked on in a while, excavated as it was underneath a house that had been raised onto pylons above the archaeologists. Image: P. Mitchell.

Throwing shade. Image: K. Webb.

Throwing shade. Image: K. Webb.

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The Manchester Street fire tank! This was built in 1885 for the Fire Brigade and held 114,000 litres of water to be used by the brigade during their fire fighting endeavours. Image: H. Williams.

building and drawing

One of the more complicated houses we recorded in 2015. A house was built on the site in the 1860s, followed by a 13 room house built in 1871 by Wyatt the grocer, who lived there until the 1890s. Eventually, in 1893 the whole house was dismantled and rebuilt on 1890s foundations using some of the original 1871 material, leaving a mixture of 1871 and 1893 materials and styles in the house to baffle future archaeologists. Photo: P. Mitchell. Drawing: K. Webb.

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The oldest building we recorded this year, a cottage constructed in 1851. Image: F. Bradley.

Annthalina the gangster 2ed

Sometimes, buildings archaeology can have strange effects on people. Case in point, all it takes to bring out a historian’s inner gangster is a little heritage related graffiti. Image: F. Bradley.

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In which two muddy archaeologists prove themselves to be peace loving and a giant nerd. Image: K. Bone.

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Many animals were encountered over the year, from cats  and dogs to these curious goats. Image: H. Williams.

I already regret including this photo. Image: J. Garland.

I already regret including this photo. Image: K. Bone.

Site work was just the tip of the iceberg. Discoveries were discovered. Exhibitions were exhibited. Analysts analysed things. Photographers photographed even more things. Researchers researched all the things. Need I go on?

A rather unusual walking stick, featuring a sheep foot masquerading as a handle, complete with small metal shoe at the hoof. Image: J. Garland.

A rather unusual walking stick, featuring a sheep foot masquerading as a handle, complete with small metal shoe at the hoof. This was found underneath the floorboards of a turn of the century house in the city. Image: J. Garland.

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Part of a huge rubbish pit filled with bottles discovered in Rangiora. Quite an unusual assemblage, this one. Image: M. Hennessey.

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An Italian Buildings patterned plate emerging from the earth. Image: J. Garland.

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An inscribed brick, found to have possible connections to the great-great-grandfather of one of our archaeologists. Image: H. Williams.

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Analysis got a little unconventional at times. We persevered. Image: J. Garland.

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Beard analysis! Microscope also used to identify archaeological textiles. We do actually do some work on occasion. Image: Underground Overground.

Castanets! Image: J. Garland.

Castanets! Or musical wooden owls, if you prefer. Image: J. Garland.

A Christchurch trade token, used as a form of substitute currency in the city in the 19th century, when actual currency was a bit scarce. Image: J. Garland.

A Christchurch trade token, used as a form of substitute currency in the city in the 19th century, when actual currency was a bit scarce. These aren’t common finds at all. Image: J. Garland.

One of the more interesting stories we came across in Papers Past this year. Image:

Many, many treasures were discovered through the delight that is Papers Past. This is both one of the more interesting stories we came across this year and one of the most recurring. The Mystery of the Severed Hand was, apparently, one for the storybooks. Image: Press 14/06/1905: 8.

This, on the other hand, is easily the most sexist thing we found this year. Fair warning, may induce speechlessness and incredulous laughter. Image:

This, on the other hand, is easily the most sexist thing we found this year. Fair warning, may induce speechlessness and incredulous laughter. Image: Observer 29/04/1882: 100. 

Artefacts

Even more artefacts. A very tiny sample of the stuff we’ve worked with this year. Image: J. Garland.

We held several exhibitions throughout the year, including the online 'Pieces of the Past' and 'Boom or Bust', shown here. Image: J. Garland.

We also held several exhibitions throughout the year, including the online ‘Pieces of the Past’ and ‘Boom or Bust’, shown here. Image: J. Garland.

It’s been quite the busy year, really. We need a nap, or we might fall over from exhaustion.

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Whoops. Too late. Image: K. Bennett.

From everyone at Underground Overground, Merry Christmas and a happy new year to you all! We’ll see you in 2016 (the blog will be back in February).

Everyone 3

 

A matter of perspective

Early photographs are the best. They encompass everything from the utterly absurd to the momentous to the mundane. They provide us with a window into the past that is rare and wonderful (especially from an archaeological perspective), putting faces to names and shapes to cities. We are indebted to those who took them, the pioneers and innovators who experimented with chemicals and light and hid under big black sheets in an attempt to freeze time into a single frame. Yet, most of the time, they’re no more than a name scribbled on the back of a photograph, if that. We so very rarely get to meet these photographers, to look behind the images in front of us to the people through whose lens we are now viewing the past.

Father Christmas from Gimblett collection CCL.

A seasonally appropriate and completely wonderful photograph of Father Christmas visiting Heathcote School in the early 1900s. It is quite possibly the best thing I have seen in a long time. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference Gimblett-0011.

A wee while ago now, we excavated a site on Oxford Terrace with several phases of occupation and activity, including the 1870s-1880s use of the section by a commercial bonded warehouse. We excavated rather a lot of artefacts from the site, some of them associated with the bonded warehouse and some of them associated with the occupation of a cottage on the section from its construction in 1851 until the mid-1870s. Over the decades, this cottage was occupied by a range of people, including a butcher and tailor (but not a candlestick maker). Just one of these occupants, however, was responsible for most of the material culture we found in association with this phase of activity on the site. Through a combination of product types and manufacturing dates (and historical records), we were able to trace the assemblage back to Mr Samuel Charles Louis Lawrence, photographer extraordinaire and resident of Oxford Terrace from the mid-1860s until the early 1870s.

An old photograph of Oxford Terrace west, showing the 1851 cottage (the building with a verandah) and a photograph of the site as we excavated it. Image:

An old photograph of Oxford Terrace west, showing the 1851 cottage (the third building from the corner with the verandah) next to Walton and Warner’s bonded store and a photograph of the site as we excavated it in 2013. Image: (above) Andersen 1949: 320; (below) M. Carter.

Mr Charles Lawrence, as he was known professionally, arrived in New Zealand in the 1860s and promptly set himself up as a photographer on Oxford Terrace West, next to Walton and Warner’s bonded store. We know that he offered a variety of photographic styles such as carte de visite, cabinet, miniature and “every description of picture taken in the most artistic style” (Southern Provinces Almanac, cited by Canterbury Photography). He appears to have become quite successful: he was advertised as “photographer by especial appointment to his excellency Sir James Fergusson” in 1873 and moved into larger premises, known as the Central Photographic Rooms, on High Street in 1874.

He was something of an innovator as well, as evident from a legal dispute described in the newspapers in 1888. Lawrence took F. H. von Schoeneberg to court for the sum of £25 over patent claims to a new camera front that they had developed together. As one account of the court case stated, “they had drunk laager beer over it, and talked religion over it, and the existence of God or a hereafter had been denied over it” (Press 18/05/1888: 6). As a side note, he appears to have been involved in another unrelated court case in 1871 regarding a group of photographers breaching the Distillation Act through the home use of stills to distill water for their photographic enterprises. They were let off with “the understanding that they were to memorialise the Commissioner of Customs for licenses” (Star 18/08/1871: 3).

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Account of legal patent dispute between Charles Lawrence and H. F. von Shoenberg. Image: Press 18/05/1888: 6.

The artefacts we found at the site of Lawrence’s cottage included many of the types of artefacts that we find on domestic sites all over the city – such as tea and table wares, food containers (condiments!), alcohol bottles, personal hygiene items, pharmaceutical bottles, smoking pipes  and shoes,  as well as slightly more unusual artefacts, like decanters and toothbrushes. Some of the material reflects the 1860s-early 1870s date of use and discard, with manufacturing dates ranging from the late 1850s through into the late 1860s. Some of it provides evidence for the presence of children at the site: we found several pairs of children’s size gaitor boots (ankle boots with elastic sides), which could easily have belonged to Charles Lawrence’s children (although, being difficult to date, they may have belonged to earlier residents of the site).

Selection of artefacts likely to have been associated with Charles Lawrence's occupation of the site. Image: J. Garland.

Selection of artefacts likely to have been associated with Charles Lawrence’s occupation of the site. Image: J. Garland.

Unfortunately, what the assemblage didn’t really provide was material culture related to Charles’ photography business, with one exception. The only evidence we found of his photographic pursuits took the form of bottle from London based firm R. W. Thomas, who made all manner of chemicals and other sundries used in the practice of photography. We could speculate about the rest of the artefacts found – perhaps some of them could have been used to serve refreshments to or entertain clients who came to the Oxford Terrace house to have their photographs taken. We don’t know. Maybe some of the artefacts could have been used as props in his images, everyday objects used to make the studio staged photographs seem more real.

R. W. Thomas bottle from the site on Oxford Terrace. Image: J. Garland.

R. W. Thomas bottle from the site on Oxford Terrace. R. W. Thomas operated as a photogrraphic merchant from 1851 until 1894, becoming R. W. Thomas & Co. and then R. W. Thomas & Co. Ltd in the 1880s. Thomas sold all manner of photographic equipment, from dry plates, dark tents and cameras to the chemicals and products necessary for the development of the photographs. Image: J. Garland.

Fortunately for us, several of Charles Lawrence’s photographs have survived. Some of them are accessible through the Alexander Turnbull Library collections, others through the Canterbury Photography blog. They show a range of figures from a long since lost Christchurch, some of them known to history, some of them now just faces without names. They capture men, women and children looking off into the distance, staring inquisitively, uncertainly, decisively at the viewer, posing artfully against plinths, armchairs and walls. They do not, however, include any of the artefacts that we found on the site, in a turn of events that is disappointing but not surprising.

Photographs taken by Charles Lawrence in the 19th century. Notice the same arm chair and table popping up in different images, along with the same curtain, arranged in different ways. The different styles of clothing are also fascinating, although perhaps not indicative of everyday life (one would wear one's best to have a portrait taken, after all). Images: Canterbury Photography.

Photographs taken by Charles Lawrence in the 19th century. The different styles of clothing are also fascinating, although perhaps not indicative of everyday life (one would wear one’s best to have a portrait taken, after all). Images: Canterbury Photography.

The photographs themselves are interesting artefacts of life in 19th century Christchurch, though, when you look at them closely. The people in them are fascinating, from their clothes – spanning fashions from the 1860s into the 1870s – to their hairstyles, their expressions, their poses. There’s even one example of the classic ‘Victorian ghost mother’, in which a mother sits, covered in a rug for the sake of (ineffective) camouflage, holding on to a child in order to, presumably, stop it running away.

In which a child sits on the lap of a 'camouflaged' figure. Image: Canterbury Photography.

In which a child sits on the lap of a ‘camouflaged’ figure. Image: Canterbury Photography.

If you look closely enough, you can even see behind the scenes of the image, to the parts that make up the sum. Maybe because I’ve been looking at them with the photographer in mind more than the subject, thinking about his premises on Oxford Terrace and the process behind these images that he’s taken, it’s easy to see the pieces that make up the image. You can see the same props popping up in different images, the same plinth, the same balustrade, the same armchair. You can imagine the studio – perhaps not the carefully framed room visible in the images, but a collection of separate elements, artfully arranged to create the illusion of a whole when viewed from just the right angle. You can even imagine Mr Lawrence with his camera set up, directing his subjects to stand or sit just so, before capturing their likenesses with glass and chemicals and light.

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More photographs taken by Charles Lawrence. Notice the same arm chair and table popping up in different images (including some of those above). The balustrade in the right hand image shows up several times in other photographs on the Alexander Turnbull website as well. Images: Canterbury Photography.

Charles Lawrence continued to work as a photographer in Christchurch until the 1880s, when he went bankrupt and moved to Ashburton. He died there in 1891. He is survived by the footprint he left behind him in the archaeological record and the faces of the past that look back at us through his lens. One man and his camera, connecting present to past and past to present with the click of a shutter.

Jessie Garland

Our thanks to Natasha Wells, for pointing us in the direction of the Canterbury Photography blog, and our thanks to the author of that blog, who kindly allowed us to use some of Charles Lawrence’s photographs in this post.

A crumbling mystery…

North and west elevations of the house.

Regarded as Christchurch’s oldest home, this two storey farm cottage was built in 1851-2 for Mr. Parkerson, a surgeon. It was built with 600 mm thick scoria stone blocks quarried from Lyttelton and roofed with Welsh slate.

Exposed wall structure in upstairs bedroom.

600 mm thick south wall of original stone cottage.

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Stonemason’s minor blunder hidden in the cupboard under the stairs.

The layout of this cottage is unusual, and some have suggested it was a common design back in Norfolk, England. Downstairs, the two rooms are orientated around central back-to-back stone fireplaces, with a chimney that runs up through the centre of the house, and there’s no central hall.

Central fireplace in the east downstairs main room.

Central fireplace in the west downstairs main room.

Oddly enough, this small cottage has two mirroring staircases at either end of the house, each leading to two small upstairs bedrooms. But perhaps the most bizarre aspect about this building is the absence of a connecting doorway to allow the occupants to access both ends of the house.

Staircase at east end of house.

Staircase at west end of house.

Upstairs main bedrooms once separated by a brick wall (which collapsed in the earthquakes).

Original casement windows in upstairs bedroom.

Exposed early split lath used to constructed a wall in the west downstairs main room.

The layout of this mid-19th century stone cottage presents us with whole new set of questions about the mysterious ways our ancestors lived, and will help us understand the development of Christchurch’s domestic architecture.

Francesca Bradley