So far, yet so close…

As a Spanish archaeologist who used to work on prehistoric sites and then became an artefact specialist in New Zealand, my experience has shown me that although they are worlds apart, Spanish prehistory and the Victorian era are closer than you think. And I’ll explain why…

As you know, archaeology provides us with information about societies in the past. That means a long timeline and heaps of artefacts that let us know how people used to live. But, how much have these objects changed from thousands of years ago to the 19th century? Less than you might imagine…

Food, care practices and children’s education are aspects of life that are present in all times and all places around the world. It comes down to the simple fact that people are people. Daily activities are the most important ones for the survival and development of all societies. These tasks articulate the relationships and social links between people. However, although they are important, essential tasks, they have long been dismissed or gone unnoticed. How is it possible? Easy! Because history has been written in masculine, based on the idea of the technological and industrial progress carried out by man, and those domestic works associated with women and dwelling have been undervalued. This lack of attention in archaeological discourse doesn’t make sense because most of the artefacts recorded in all cultures and historical periods are associated with the household.

To be honest, I chose this topic because gendered archaeology is one of my passions. I have been analysing how women were represented in prehistoric rock art from the eastern area of Spain as researcher at the University of Alicante and I also used to work on the archaeological site of Cabezo Redondo (Villena, Spain), which dates to the Bronze Age. Currently, I have the chance to keep looking for women and children through the artefacts from 19th century sites in Christchurch. So, today, I want to merge my experiences here in the Antipodes with those from Spain. With that in mind, I’ll mainly look at the most common finds that archaeologists deal with: ceramic vessels, along with a couple of other unusual and cool artefacts.

So, first, a few basic ideas to start with!

The basic tasks of daily life may not have always been undertaken by women in prehistory, for sure! In fact, in the early periods of human history, the whole group (women, men and children) would have been involved. It was later that these activities became part of women’s heritage in traditional and historical societies. Especially, by the middle of the 19th century when homes and workplaces were no longer combined in the same place, a strict division of roles of family members became visible: the main responsibility for men was the economic support of the household, while the women undertook the role of homemaker and child carer and retreated from the public sphere. Women were encouraged to be the wives, mothers and domestic servants. Poor behaviour and inattention to housework was often linked to gossiping or even insanity. Can you believe it? Do you think domesticity causes illness? This husband didn’t agree because his wife was the most domestic woman ever.

Evening Star 12/06/1883.

Now that you’ve had a little bit of an introduction, we are ready! It is time to start democratising the past through archaeology, listening the silent voices from the past, and highlighting and researching the role of the people less represented. Let’s make women, children and their practices visible!

Recreation of a prehistoric settlement. Image: M. A. Salvatierra.

I’ll show you some objects related to food, caregiving and children’s socialization. Comparing both artefacts found in Spain at prehistoric sites and 19th century ones from Christchurch, we’ll reach an evident and clever conclusion: materials and manufacturing methods are different, but the use of the objects remains consistent.

Eating is probably the most essential activity for everybody. As well as being a biological necessity, food practices display social rituals and indicate different means, status and behaviours, based on factors like the variety of table settings. The first tableware and cutlery recovered from prehistoric sites in Spain dates to the 5th to the 4th millennium BC. Is that not amazing? At these sites, we find communal serving dishes from which household members were served, individual bowls for eating and handled vessels to contain and serve liquids. Simple for us, but an authentic revolution for the Neolithic groups. Their new economy, based on farming, involved significant changes in food preparation and consumption. These processes required knowledge about sources as well as tools and technical skills for cutting, grinding, boiling, smoking or roasting. A kind of soup and cream made from grains mixed with water was the main dish on the menu, and it was cooked and eaten with a spoon. It would look like a porridge. I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t as yummy as our current food! How lucky we are!

A range of food related material, comparing prehistoric (black background) and 19th century (white background) from Spain and Christchurch sites respectively: bone spoon/silver spoon, bowl with incised decoration/green transfer printed bowl, polished jug/Bristol glazed jug and serving dish with geometric decoration/moulded serving dish. Images: Museu de Prehistoria de Valencia, Museo Arqueologico Regional de Madrid, J. Garland and M. Lillo Bernabeu.

In the same way that eating is important in order to create and negotiate relations between people, childcare and education also have social significance. Through play and imitation, young children were taught roles that would be important in their daily life as adults. Based on the archaeological record, it looks like dolls were of the most popular toys from ancient times! By the 19th century, porcelain dolls were given to girls to encourage maternal instincts as well as toy tea sets to learn the rules of domestic etiquette and social interaction in the Victorian era. But again, this is not a modern invention! Miniature ceramics were also found in prehistoric sites, and they were not only used as toys but also as a way to learn about ceramic manufacture. These asymmetric and unburnished vessels showed the processes of skill acquisition needed to make pottery. To be honest, I don’t think that I would be able to make them any better using my hands…maybe because my mum didn’t teach me about that?

Children’s artefacts. On the right, an articulated doll made of ivory recovered from a children’s burial from Paleocristian site of Tarragona (Spain) dating to 3rd or 4th century AD. Remnants of fabric were also visible on it, indicating that these dolls wore clothes, as 19th century porcelain dolls recovered from Christchurch sites do. On the left, there are some miniature ceramic vessels from el Cerro de la Encina (Monachil, Granada, Spain) dating to the Bronze Age between 3rd and 1st millennium BC. They were recovered from a children’s burial as well. Below those, there is a toy tea set and a children’s cup found in Christchurch. Images: Museu Nacional Arqueologic de Tarragona, Underground Overground Archaeology, J. Garland, M.A. Blanco and G. Jackson.

So why have I used prehistoric and 19th century artefacts to look at maintenance activities? I’ve tried to make you think about the evidence of daily life because artefacts hide a history behind them. They talk about social processes and relationships between people, which is the core of all societies. Women carried out an active role as well as men, of course, and the archaeological record confirms this. However, traditional historians and archaeologists, influenced by our contemporary minds, have interpreted the past by focusing on men and their achievements. But in reality, the development of all cultures and societies is the result of the tasks undertaken by men and women, as well as the relationships and connections between them. So, it is time to make women and their practices visible!

What a curious scene that’s shown in these images! Do you notice the similarities and difference between them? Domestic activities are shown as awful tasks in both pictures. As a difference, the re-creation on top depicts a relaxed man, who is smoking and reading a race car magazine, while his stressed woman is cooking and holding the baby, with the other children surrounding her. It might be the traditional atmosphere in a 19th century household context. However, the female and masculine roles are reversed in the bottom picture. Here, the domestic activities are presented as the apocalypse for men, and they cannot manage the situation. Top image: The Observer 14/03/1891. Bottom image: New Zealand Mail 29/09/1893.

So how do we do it? The archaeological record provides the tools that we need – women and children are visible through objects from household contexts as I explained here. Also, human bones from burials and rock art are both especially useful in the case of prehistoric sites. In the case of the 19th century Christchurch sites, archaeologists are lucky as well. Lots of rubbish was dumped into pits or accidentally fell under the floors of houses, waiting to be uncovered and compared with the historical records for that period or site. Therefore, we only need to be asking the right questions to find the answers – and to find the women and children that we are looking for. Let’s go, get into it!

Images: Underground Overground Archaeology and El Periodico Villena.

By Maria Lillo Bernabeu

References

GEA. Cultura Material e identidad social en la Prehistoria Reciente en el Sur de la Peninsula Iberica. [online] Available at: http://www.webgea.es/ [Accessed 11/05/2017].

Gonzalez Marcen, P., Monton-Subias, M. and Picazo, M., 2008. ‘Towards an archaeology of maintenance activities’. In Monton-Subias, S. and Sanchez-Romero, S., 2008 (ed.) Engendering Social Dynamics: The Archaeology of Maintenance Activities. BAR International Series 1862.

Museo Arqueologico Regional. Comunidad de Madrid. [online] Available at: http://www.museoarqueologicoregional.org [Accessed 11/05/2017].

Museu de Prehistoria de Valencia. [online] Available at: http://www.museuprehistoriavalencia.es [Accessed 8/05/2017].

Museu Nacional Arqueologic de Tarragona [online] Available at: http://www.mnat.cat/ [Accessed 9/05/2017].

Past Women. Material Culture of Women. [online] Available at: http://www.pastwomen.net/ [Accessed 9/05/2017].

Sanchez Romero, M., 2008. ‘Childhood and the Construction of Gender Identities through Material Culture’. Childhood in the Past 1, 17-37.

Symonds, J., 2007. Table Settings. The Material Culture and Social Context of Dinning, AD 1700-1900. Oxbow Books, United Kingdom.

Williams, H., Garland, J. and Geary Nichol, R., 2017. Christchurch Justice and Emergency Services Precinct Archaeological Report. Unpublished report for the Ministry of Justice.

 

Piles, bones and marbles: what was under the Godleys’ house?

Way back in the winter of 2012, at the height of the post-earthquake demolition, I was pretty excited to learn we were going to get the chance to investigate the site of John and Charlotte Godley’s house in Lyttelton. John was a prominent figure in the Canterbury Association, the young settlement’s Chief Agent and is often regarded as one of Canterbury’s founding fathers. Charlotte was his wife and the author of a fantastic volume of letters that record so much detail about life in the new settlement and – importantly for this tale – the house they lived in. And then there was Arthur Godley, their son, born in 1847.

John Robert Godley. Image: Wikipedia.

The house was built for the Godleys in late 1849/early 1850, by the advance party of Canterbury Association surveyors sent to carry out some of the ground work to establish the colony. The house was ready for occupation when the Godleys arrived in Lyttelton in April 1850, although the Godleys only stayed a few days before travelling to Wellington to await the arrival of the first Canterbury Association ships. John Robert Godley later recorded that “after seeing it, we could not help laughing at our own anticipation of a shed on a bare beach with a fire at the door”, while Charlotte thought the house to be “…the best looking house we have yet seen in New Zealand”, and she particularly admired the “… kind of pantry” (Amodeo 2003: 117).

Charlotte Godley, 1877. Image: Wikipedia.

The house might have looked good, but the practicalities of living in it were trying, as Charlotte was to discover when the family returned to the house in December 1850: both dust and rain came in through the walls, depending on the weather. Charlotte records one sleepless night when the wind howled all night and the house creaked like a ship. She rose in the morning to find the inside of the house covered in dust, including all the furniture and all her dresses. The rain that seeped in through the poorly lined walls caused the drawing room wallpaper to come unstuck (Godley 1951: 170, 191). This anecdote’s a great one, because it tells us that (a) the house had wallpaper – in early 1850s Lyttelton! – and (b) that it had a drawing room. Historical records tell us that the house had six rooms (although it’s worth noting that Victorian room counts often didn’t include halls, pantries and/or similar service rooms), but don’t list what these were.

Lyttelton, with Immigrants’ Barracks and settlers’ houses, 1852? Frederick Aloysius Weld, 1823-1891. Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference number: B-139-004. The Godleys’ house is the building with three gables in the middle of the picture.

In spite of the “kind of pantry”, meat did not last well in the house, lasting on average two days before going off (Godley 1951: 155). This wasn’t really anything to do with this particular house, it was more about life in the 19th century… but it is relevant to this story. For John and Charlotte’s position in Canterbury meant that they entertained very regularly, hosting tea parties nearly every evening in December 1850 (Godley 1951: 153, 155, 161). And then there were the guests who stayed the night – or several nights, leading Charlotte to refer to John’s dressing room (yes, a dressing room! More on that in a moment), as “the spare room of Lyttelton” (Godley 1951: 172).

So, the dressing room, which seems fairly extraordinary to me in Lyttelton in the early 1850s. But John was an important man in the colony, and perhaps his status was such that a dressing room may have been required. I also wonder if the dressing room functioned as a study/office for John. When he got the chance to use it. Early in 1851, there was a plan to turn it into a dining room (Godley 1951: 153) – indicating both that the house didn’t already have one (perhaps guests ate in the kitchen or the drawing room?) and that the dressing room was of a decent size. Whether or not it ever became a dining room isn’t clear – there may not have been the opportunity, given how frequently it was used as a bedroom.

The dressing room wasn’t the only room to have been used as a bedroom – in August 1851 the bathroom was converted into a bedroom for a visiting Canterbury Association official (Godley 1951: 226). Perhaps John had finally put his foot down about the use of dressing room as a bedroom? The presence of a bathroom is also intriguing. Clearly the house didn’t have any running water, although a well was dug specially for it (Amodeo 2003: 116). The bathroom may have contained a bath or even a commode.

In terms of the other rooms in the house, Charlotte records the presence of a kitchen in the house, although the initial one must have been somewhat unsatisfactory, as Charlotte referred to a new kitchen in March 1851, complete with stove and “refractory chimney” (Godley 1951: 184). We know, too, that Charlotte and John had a bedroom in the house, as did young Arthur – the three seemed to alternate between sleeping up and downstairs. We know the Godleys had servants, and it’s possible that a servant may have lived in too. But perhaps the most interesting use of a room in the house was as the Lyttelton library, which started operation here in June 1851 (Burgess 2009: Appendix 4).

When it came time to do the archaeological work on the site, I really wasn’t sure what we’d find. Or, indeed, if we’d find anything related to the c.1850 building. But we did! Lots and lots of piles, and some pile holes: brick piles, timber piles and stone piles, specifically. The house sat on timber piles (identified as mātai and kōwhai) and its verandahs – on the north and west elevations – sat on stone piles. This is interesting, because it wasn’t long before houses in Christchurch and Lyttelton were supported by stone piles, stone being a much more readily available material than timber. The other intriguing feature found under the house was a mysterious brick pit…

Underneath the Godleys’ house. Image: G. Gedson.

We’ve no idea what this was used for, or even how old it was – it certainly predated the 1943 building constructed where the Godleys’ house had stood, but this feature was able to remain in situ and so we didn’t get to look at the bricks it was made from. One of the notable things about this feature was that it contained lots of animal bones, almost all of which was bird bone and all of which is likely to have been food waste. The bones were from at least two domestic ducks and at least one brown teal duck. The brown teal duck must pre-date the 1900s, as it gradually disappeared from the South Island prior to this date (Williams and Dumbell 1996). So, perhaps food from the Godleys’ table? There’s no way of knowing.

The mysterious brick pit, found at the rear of the house. Image: G. Gedson.

Amongst the other intriguing artefacts from under the house were several marbles, which were found scattered on the ground surface, and in some of the pile holes. Marbles aren’t uncommon on archaeological sites (see here for more information), but finding eight is. Half of these were lying on the surface under the 1943 building and the other half were in the piles holes. Realistically, given the nature of marbles – small round things designed to roll – these could have been deposited at any time from the house’s construction until the site was built on again following its demolition. So, sadly, we can’t say that young Arthur Godley was playing with these marbles, but nor can we entirely discount the possibility (although some of the types found date to the later part of the 19th century, so he definitely wasn’t playing with those ones).

Marbles! Image: J. Garland & L. Dawson.

We found a range of other artefacts at the site, too, most of which was the normal detritus of mid-late 19th century European life in Canterbury. Nothing, regrettably, that could be associated directly with the Godleys. But we only looked at part of the site, and it is possible that more remains outside the footprint of the area we excavated. And possibly the best outcome of this project is that the piles – and the mystery brick feature – have been preserved in situ for the future. And for me, the site provided a great opportunity to explore the lives of John and Charlotte Godley, leading me to Charlotte’s wonderful letters and to a wealth of information about life in Lyttelton at the beginning of the European settlement.

Katharine Watson & Kirsa Webb

References

Amodeo, C., 2003. Forgotten Forty-Niners: being an account of the men & women who paved the way in 1849 for the Canterbury Pilgrims in 1850. The Caxton Press, Christchurch.

Burgess, R., 2009. Lyttelton Township Historic Area. Registration report for a historic area (Volume 2). Unpublished report for the New Zealand Historic Places Pouhere Taonga.

Godley, C., 1951. Letters from Early New Zealand. Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd, Christchurch.

Williams, M. and Dumbell, G. 1996. Brown teal (pateke) Anas chlorotis recovery plan. Threatened Species Recovery Plan No 19. Department of Conservation, Wellington.

Odds and ends

A selection of the most interesting bits and pieces we’ve been working with recently here in Christchurch.

This gorgeous ceramic vessel is an 1850s-1860s chamber pot, found on a site just outside the central city. It’s decorated with the imaginatively named “Cattle Scenery” pattern, featuring, …well, cows. Image: M. L. Bernabeu.

What’s known as a ‘bent’ clay smoking pipe (referring to the curve, or ‘bend’ of the stem, with the mark ‘SQUATTER’S / OWN’ impressed on the side. The other side of stem has the mark ‘SYDNEY’. Squatter’s own pipes are a little bit of a mystery – identical pipes to this one have been found on other sites here in Christchurch and in Auckland, while variations (Squatter’s Own Budgeree) have been found in several locations in Australia. The budgeree pipes are often decorated with scenes featuring Aboriginal and European figures, while the ones found in New Zealand (so far) appear to be plain. Image: M. L. Bernabeu.

Another beautiful ceramic vessel. This time, it’s a saucer decorated with the pattern ‘Dresden Vignette’ and made by William Smith and Co. between 1825 and 1855. Image: M. L. Bernabeu.

Marbles! So many marbles! Several of the sites we’ve been working on lately have had different marbles in the assemblages. We’ve got German glass swirl marbles (top row and third from the left in the second row), ‘commie’ marbles (far right of third and fourth rows), onionskin marbles (far right of second row), Bennington, or glazed ceramic marbles (second from left in third row), pipe clay marbles (second from left in fourth row), and porcelain marbles with fine banded decoration (far left in third row). Phew. Did you get all of that? Some of them have been heavily used (might have been a child’s favourite marble, who knows!), while others are in pretty good condition. I think my favourite is probably the onionskin: it’s got a great name, and the colours are fantastic. Image: J. Garland, C. Dickson, M. L. Bernabeu.

A serving dish or tureen lid decorated with the Wild Rose pattern, a decorative motif that depicts the gardens at Nuneham Courtenay (near Oxford, England) and was extremely popular in the 1830s-1850s period. Image: M. L. Bernabeu.

This is easily the coolest thing we’ve found in a while. These stemware drinking glasses were coloured using uranium diuranate, which creates the distinctive yellow colour seen in the image to the right. But (wait for it), when you put them under a blacklight, they glow green with the light of a thousand superhero origin stories. Or alien colour schemes. Take your pick. Image: J. Garland.

It’s Friday afternoon, how about a wee tipple of gin? This fragment is from a labelled bottle of Nolet’s finest Dutch geneva. Nolet’s was established in Holland in the late 17th century by Johannes Nolet and is still in operation today. It’s the first label of its kind that we’ve found in Christchurch. Image: C. Dickson.

The ‘Grecian’ pattern, with the potter’s initials J. T. There are several different pattern variations known as ‘Grecian’ or that incorporate Greek and/or neo-classical themes into their motifs. Image: C. Dickson.

Another elaborately decorated saucer, this time displaying the Neva pattern. Confusingly for us, this is not the only 19th century ceramic pattern found under the name of ‘Neva’. This example was made by Thomas Bevington (1877 until 1891). Image: J. Garland.

How’s your reading comprehension? Up to 1870s standards? We found these pages from ‘The Royal Readers’, first published in the early 1870s, inside the walls of a schoolhouse in Governors Bay. Image: J. Garland.

The expressions on the faces of Victorian dolls never fail to amuse me. Image: C. Dickson.

Also found in the walls of the Governors Bay school house, this excerpt from ‘The School Journal.’ If you look closely you can see the typewritten words “Governors Bay, Lyttelton” in the bottom right of the fragment. Image: J. Garland.

And last, but not least, this wonderfully labelled wine bottle was identified as Champagne Vineyard Cognac, ‘Boutelleau Manager’. It appears to have been a well regarded product, if that extract from 1877 is to be believed. The bottle was found on the same Lyttelton site as the gin bottle shown above – someone had good taste! Image: C. Dickson.

Jessie Garland

Just kidding around

Presenting a selection of children’s ceramic plates and cups excavated in Christchurch for your perusal, with commentary.

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It’s a bit blurry, this one (nothing but the best for the children!). If you can’t quite make it out, one image shows a woman sitting down and a child dancing or hopping or just waving its arms about and the other features a group of adults and children standing around outdoors in front of a tree. One of them may be a nun, or a ghost (you can see the fence through her – it’s – robes, a bit) or even a ghost nun, although the more I look at it the more I think that might just be the blurriness. Disappointing, in a way. A ghost nun would make things interesting. Image: J. Garland.

French farm

Lots of children’s ceramics featured the alphabet, functioning as a way to teach children their letters while still feeding them, I guess. These letters are often found on the rim (or marly) of plates or in a cluster on the side of cups. This ABC plate has been spiced up by the addition of a centurion (or a similarly be-plumed and be-shielded chap), with a spiffing blue painted robe. I have no idea what’s happening in the rest of the image, but I like to imagine that it features said chap with sword being defeated by a child with the power of pen and ink (old adages and all). Image: J. Garland.

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In which girls with umbrellas and boys with hoops get told off by adults. I think that’s what’s happening here (I may be reading too much into this). The look on the boy’s face as he stares down the man with the parcel is part defiance and part abject misery and his body language is very much “I do not want to be part of this conversation.” Hoop and stick, the game that he’s playing in the image, was a popular and common Victorian children’s pastime, the object of which was to keep the hoop rolling for as long as you could. Image: J. Garland.

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Yes, that does indeed appear to be a child being spanked by another child, with one arm in a sling, while adults look on. I don’t really have any explanation for this one. Image: J. Adamson.

T is for Tunnel

“T is for Tunnel, that’s under the bridge. Here the whistle is heard with a very long sound.” It turns out that this image was sourced from a mid-19th century book called “Cousin Chatterbox’s Railway Alphabet” (G. Law, pers. comm.), which explains the subject matter somewhat. Image: J. Garland.

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The depiction of children making themselves useful through work or trades is a relatively common feature of these ceramics. Instilling a good work ethic while they’re young and all that (hurrah, capitalism!). While I haven’t been able to trace this one any further, I have come across similar images – of children selling birds (yes, birds) and going to market. There’s even a series featuring ‘the little doctor’, ‘the little blacksmith’ and ‘the little cooper’ (Riley 1991). Note the overglaze paint colouring the image as well. Image: J. Garland.

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Another two ABC plates, this time featuring ‘THE VILLAGE BLACKSMITH’ print and ‘THE NEW PONY.’ Work AND play this time. The colouring of these two suggests that they might have been bought or sold together, perhaps as part of a children’s ceramic set. I am curious about why they only colour each figure’s trousers. And why they coloured them yellow. Yellow trousers seem so incongruous with what we think of the Victorians. Image: J. Garland.

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In which a suspicious looking character hides a letter in a tree for his lady love. I have several thoughts about this. First of all, that seems like a bad choice of hiding place. Unless you know she’s going to come and find it straight away (in which case, just wait for her and don’t be so suspicious), it’s not ideal. It’ll probably get damp, a squirrel or some other nefarious animal may abscond with it and, even if it is still there, there’s no guarantee that she’ll find it when she comes looking. Second of all, she’s right behind you. Image: G. Jackson.

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Dr Franklin’s Maxims does indeed refer to the one and only Benjamin Franklin, whose bits and bobs of wisdom were published in Poor Richard’s Almanac in the mid-18th century. They were then later adopted for use on children’s ceramics in the 19th century. This particular one, if complete, would read “Fly pleasure and it will follow you. The diligent spinner has a large shift. Now I have a sheep and a cow everybody bids me good morrow.” Wise words, Dr Franklin, wise words. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

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Ah, the old dressing up like foxes (is that a fox? It may be a cat) and lions and playing with riding crops. Note that the lion is wearing slippers and socks under his costume (which is better than the fashion crime of sandals and socks I thought I was looking at to start with). You young rogues! Come along! Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

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Enough now, enough. Image: J. Garland.

Jessie Garland

References

Riley, Noel., 1991. Gifts for Good Children: The History of Children’s China, Part 1, 1790-1890. Richard Dennis, Somerset.

The fascist punishment: a foul taste used for foul purposes

It’s made from plant seeds named for their resemblance to a tick and has been known through history as the ‘golden nectar of nausea’ and the ‘fascist punishment’, among other things. When combined with chlorine, it forms a “a substance of horny character” (immature as I am, I may have laughed at that) and its taste has been commonly described as repulsive. We find the distinctive cobalt blue bottles it used to come in on 19th and early 20th century sites throughout Christchurch, where it was used to traumatise young children in the name of good health for decades.

Got it yet?

I am, of course, talking about castor oil, the scourge of the bowels (apparently), lubricator of flying machines and converter of communists (I’ll explain later, it’s kind of awful). Castor oil, which comes from the seeds of the Ricinus communis plant, has been cultivated in Europe since at least the 16th century, and was used during the 19th and early 20th centuries for a plethora of things, some of them more dubious than others.

Castor oil bottles, commonly found on 19th century archaeological sites in Christchurch and throughout New Zealand. Image: J. Garland.

Castor oil bottles, commonly found on 19th century archaeological sites in Christchurch and throughout New Zealand. As well as a laxative and purgative, castor oil was used to prevent flies from landing around children’s eyes, as a way of preventing gun powder from getting wet, as a perfume base and a beauty product (with the slogan ‘Feed your face with castor oil!) and as a lubricant for early flying machines. it was surprisingly versatile. Image: J. Garland.

Primarily, it was used for personal health care, mostly advertised as a laxative and/or purgative for cases of constipation and diarrhoea, over eating or general digestive problems. One specific account describes it as “a medicament for putting the internal economy in order after bouts of overeating,” which is just the most delightful turn of phrase. It was often given to young babies, especially earlier in the 19th century, although this was later discouraged as an unnecessary and occasionally dangerous thing to do (there are several accounts of babies or young children dying as a result of the wrongful administration of castor oil, usually due to reactions with other substances). It wasn’t particularly dangerous for adults, unless there were other health complications, although there were some cases of people dying after mistaking acid or caustic disinfectants like Lysol for castor oil (yikes).

In which both babies and castor oil are old fashioned. Image: Auckland Star 31/05/1924: 18.

In which both babies and castor oil are old fashioned. Image: Auckland Star 31/05/1924: 18.

A very very high number of the articles and advertisements for castor oil were concerned with the taste. Some described it as repulsive, some as sickening. One writer even used the phrase “the smooth, mucilaginous, euphorbiaceous, nauseous castor oil” which manages to both be technically accurate (translated as ‘sticky nausea inducing oil from the Euphorbiaciae taxa of plants’) and convey an almost onomatopoeic sense of revulsion. Needless to say, there are numerous recommendations on how to disguise the taste, both for yourself and any unsuspecting victims (usually children) you might have.

Among the recommended ways of hiding the taste of castor oil are: mixing it with scrambled eggs; ‘floating’ it on milk; putting it in lemonade; orange juice or other citrus flavours; hiding it in candy (this seems particularly cruel); and mixing it with cocoa to form ‘castor oil chocolate’ (which sounds awful, to be honest). The chocolate is particularly interesting, thanks to one account of a court case in Christchurch in which a local chemist was prosecuted for selling a product labelled castor oil chocolate that actually contained mostly phenolpthalen, a weak acid also used as a laxative. So, yeah, laxative chocolates. Who knew. Also still a thing, apparently.

Castor oil taste

Top: Even Tom hated the taste of castor oil. Image: Tom and Jerry Cartoon “Baby Puss” 1943. Bottom: 1928 joke about disguising the taste of castor oil. Image: Evening Post 23/03/1924: 21.

Apparently, a lot of these methods didn’t actually do a whole lot to disguise the taste of the oil. Neither did the ‘tasteless’ castor oils advertised actually manage to do what they claimed. Castor oil continued to taste bad enough that the taking of it was considered a punishment, especially by children. In fact, it was administered as a punishment, and this is where it gets interesting. And political. And a bit sinister. Because castor oil wasn’t just given as a punishment to school children (which is bad enough, when you think about the laxative properties…) but, particularly during the 20th century, was also forcibly given or used as a threat against adults – specifically and most commonly by fascists.

In which the Scottish lag behind the Americans in

In which the Scottish lag behind the Americans in methods by which to punish school children. Image: Auckland Star 7/06/1884: 4.

The first mention I found of this was a notice in the newspaper stating that several men had been imprisoned for “administering castor oil to communists,” which seemed a bit weird but kind of funny. Then I read some more and, yeah, not so funny. Castor oil was used by the Fascisti in 1920s and 1930s Italy to punish dissenters, subversives and enemies of fascism, basically by holding them down and forcing them to suffer from uncontrollable diarrhoea that could last for days. It served the purpose of exerting control over individuals, humiliating them and immobilising them, or at least restricting their movement (Strange History 2014). “Castor oil cudgels” became so synonymous with Mussolini and the Italian fascists that George Bernard Shaw had to write a defense of fascism in 1937 to explicitly state that the success of the ideology wasn’t just due to the use of castor oil.

In which a fascist Pinnochio forces

In which a fascist Pinocchio forces castor oil down the throat of a communist. Image via Overland Journal.

The use of castor oil in this way was adopted by other extremist political groups during the first half of the 20th century. The Nazis used it as a threat against newspaper editors who might consider attacking them in print; royalists in France used it in combination with tar to attack anti-royalist deputies; fascists in England used in an assault on a journalist; secret police in Cuba allegedly forced newspaper staff to drink it at gunpoint in 1934 to “forestall revolutionary outbreak” and it was used by the rebels in Spain in the late 1930s. It was, as it turns out, an exceedingly common tool of political punishment.

nazis and castor oil

In which the Nazis use castor oil to threaten the freedom of the press. Image: Auckland Star 5/11/1930: 7.

You can actually sort of see the beginnings of the use of castor oil in this way during the earlier 19th century: although not explicitly used as it was in the 20th century, it’s mentioned occasionally as a kind of social purgative, playing on the perceived purgative and laxative qualities of the product and applying them to society or sub-sets of society in general. One account talks about administering castor oil to the entire Department of Public Works, another of using it to “sweep away the all highly paid noodles and useless sinecurists” in the Railway Department. Another example attempted to solve the drunk ‘problem’ in America by offering drunkards a choice of castor oil or gaol (which kind of seems like a non-choice to me, but I guess not). The same principle was applied in Italy again during the 1920s, where it was less of a choice and more of a ‘if we catch you drunk, we will forcibly feed you castor oil to sober you up, totally for the good of society.’

In which drunkards are given a choice. Image:

In which drunkards are given a choice. Image: Press 1/12/1936: 11.

Now, there’s no evidence to suggest that the castor oil bottles we find in Christchurch were used for anything outside their health or mechanical-related functions, but it does make you think about a whole field of things our archaeological experience doesn’t usually touch on. I spent a while wondering if the use of castor oil as a political punishment was equivalent to the New Zealand trend of throwing random things at politicians, but I don’t think it is. It’s far more insidious than that, far too related to those characteristics of ‘purging’ – and not just because of the association with fascism and the abuses of Mussolini and Hitler. It’s the subversion of a household product – of the function of a household product – into a tool for social oppression and control. Proof that anything can become an instrument of torture (not to put too fine a word on it) if you add enough violence and a dash of radical ideology. It’s been over half a century since this particular form of that was popular, but don’t tell me that the thought’s not still a bit terrifying.

(I tried to think of a way to end this on a lighter note and get us back to the chocolate flavoured drugs and ‘substance of horny character’, but I couldn’t figure it out. Sorry. Blame fascism.)

Jessie Garland.

References:

Strange History, 2014. Mussolini’s Secret Weapon: Castor Oil. In Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog. [online] Available at: www.strangehistory.net. 

Tiso, G., 2014. Making real a fascist puppet. In Overland. [online] Available at: www.overland.org.au.