The spoils of oils

We all know that fish oil is great for our skin and hair but does the use of whale oil tickle your moral compass? It was utilised for many household purposes during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries and today we will take a look at a couple of men who made a big splash in the whale oil industry.

Not too long ago, a miniature vial was found in one of our artefact assemblages from Christchurch’s Central City. This vessel had “Ezra Kelley” embossed on the base, which we traced to a 19th century watchmaker from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Ezra Kelley was a special fellow in the 19th century watchmaking and repairing scene, because he was the first maker to commercially use oil from the jaws of porpoises and blackfish (pilot whales) to lubricate watch mechanisms (Goodwin 2016). Prior to this, olive and vegetable oils were used instead. Oil extracted from the jaws of porpoises and blackfish had been used by carpenters to sharpen their tools without the risk of rust since 1816, but it wasn’t until 1829 that the sailor, Solomon Cook, sent the first batch of blackfish jaw oil to Kelley for testing (Goodwin 2016). Kelley found it superior to all other oils, as it didn’t congeal at low temperatures, nor did it rust brass, and its light and fine properties also gave it a low freezing point. This made it a suitable, year-round lubricant for delicate machinery such as clocks, watches, and sewing machines (at a lower grade, sperm whale oil was advertised as best for sewing machines, firearms, and telegraphs; Goodwin 2016). In 1884, Kelley began selling this new oil (supplied by the Cook family), for a whopping US $5-$15 per gallon, which converts to around US $111 – $333 in today’s money (Goodwin 2016). As a comparison, a barrel of modern crude oil, contains 42 gallons and sells for $90-$110 (Cherrybalmz 2017). Whale oil was so expensive at this time due to supply and demand, but also for one other key reason – it’s lubrication properties were worth it (Cherrybalmz 2017).

Ezra Kelley watch oil bottle found in the Central City. Image: C. Dickson.

Sperm Sewing Oil! Also found in Christchurch Central City, this bottle probably contained a lower grade of whale oil than what Kelley made. Image: C. Dickson.

Just like a fine wine, Kelley’s oil improved with age. The processing of his blackfish oil included a two-year aging stage after the oil had been gently heated to remove excess water. Processors then spread the oil out into thin layers and slowly froze it, causing any solids to precipitate within it, which could be later strained through a cloth. The more competently this process was carried out, and the fresher the oil was, the better the grade of lubricant could be produced – the premium Blackfish grades could operate reliably below -50°F (-45.6 degrees Celsius; Cherrybalmz 2017). So, you could be cold, but you’d always know what time it is.

Ezra Kelley oil advertisement c. 1890. Image.

It seems that Kelley’s major failing was that his oil sold too profitably. All his success didn’t go unnoticed by the rival oil seller, William Foster Nye, who originally dealt in other oil types, like burning oils, castor oil and salad oil. After witnessing Kelley’s success, Nye subsequently developed a method for processing “fish jaw oil” – capitalising on Kelley’s discoveries and managing to secure a British distributor six months after his first advertisement. Having captured the British market, Nye was able to undercut his predecessor’s prices by offering large discounts to his customers and he was so successful at this that he managed to absorb Kelley’s business by 1896 (Zabawski 2017). Within the year, the new company was responsible for nine-tenths of the global supply of fish jaw oil raw materials and it ran a monopoly of the industry that would last until the decline of whaling during the next century (Nye 2017, Zabawski 2017). However, the end of whaling didn’t spell the end for Nye -the fish jaw oil continued to be sold into the 1970s, but the threat of whale extinction and the technological advances of synthetic oils ended the company’s reliance on blackfish/porpoises and the era of synthetic fluids began (Zabawski 2017). Due to their ability to adapt, the Nye oil company remains in operation today (Nye 2017).

Nye advertisement. Date unknown. Image.

‘Watching’ an 1886 whale massacre… Image: Attic Paper.

Massachusetts, where Kelley and Nye were both based, was once a hub for whale oil production. Specifically, New Bedford Massachusetts was such a busy whaling port that it was known as “The City That Lit the World” and, “The Whaling City”, because during the 19th century, it was one of the most important whaling ports in the world, along with Nantucket, Massachusetts and New London, Connecticut (Huntington 2009). This American whaling industry had a strong focus on spermaceti (the waxy oil found in the head of sperm whales), named after an initial misconception that the substance was the coagulated semen of sperm whales… Unfortunate naming aside, this oil type was commonly used in candle manufacture and in oil lamps when distilled – its natural properties produced bright, clear flames when burnt, without excess smoke (McNamara 2017).

As most Kiwis know, New Zealand was not exempt from what we now consider to be a barbaric industry. Eighteenth and 19th century whaling ships visited the waters around the country, and this natural resource began to be exploited off our coasts before New Zealand was even settled by Europeans. The industry began to decline here by the early 1840s, as over exploited whales became scarce and New Zealand’s new government imposed duties and port charges on whaling ships (Phillips 2006). Occasionally, American whaling ships still visited in the mid-1800s, the last of which was probably the Charles W. Morgan, in 1894 (Phillips 2006). However, pilot whales to this day are notorious for stranding on our beaches, and beached whales continued to be used as a resource in the 20th century.

Cutting up the blubber of beached pilot whales. New Zealand, 1911? Arthur James Northwood (1881-1949) Image.

Men boiling down blackfish blubber, Tokerau Beach. Taaffe, James Thomas Benjamin, d 1971: Photographs of the Far North district, Northland region. Ref: 1/2-026801-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23070974. Image. Date unknown.

Clearly, 18th and 19th century society didn’t share the modern distaste for the whaling industry. As you’ve seen, Kelley and Nye’s advertisements for their whale oil often pictured the graphic scenes depicting whales being caught and processed, and given how successful these companies were, this violence can’t have been a deterrent for sales. Herman Melville also provides us with insight into how revered whale products were – calling whale oil “as rare as the milk of queens” in his classic, Moby Dick, which was written in this era (Melville 1851). Essentially, the entire industry is a parallel to crude oil in today’s market, given the similarities in costs, peoples dependence on it and its range of applications.

These applications included not only lubrication and illumination, but also the manufacture of soaps, paint, varnish, margarine, and as a treatment for textiles and rope. “Whalebone” which was commonly found in corsets, was not actually what it describes – it was not bone, but baleen from whales (a form of keratin – the same material as human fingernails), and its purpose is to filter plankton into whales mouths. Baleen is strong but flexible (which are similar properties to that of plastic), and it was not only used in other attire like shirt collars and eyeglass frames, but also for buggy whips, hair and chimney brushes and umbrellas (Cherrybalmz 2017). It was also featured as a key component of early springs, including carriage, mattress, and piano springs (Cherrybalmz 2017). To continue with the industry comparison, in 1891 a pound of ‘whalebone’ was worth up to US $7 – that’s nearly $200 per pound today! (Cherrybalmz 2017). In 1882, a single whale produced 6000 gallons of oil and 2550 pounds of baleen, for a combined worth of $11,200 – or roughly a quarter million dollars in today’s money – and this was just from one animal! (Cherrybalmz 2017). Whale teeth (or ivory) were also marketable to whalers, but these yielded smaller profits than whale oil. Teeth were regularly carved by whalers in a practice known as scrimshaw, and they often featured intricate designs and nautical themes. Such artefacts are now collectors’ items and museum pieces, providing historians with a glimpse into the whaling industry through the depictions rendered by those who drove it.

A New Zealand example of scrimshaw depicting the whaling ship ‘Pacific’ and compass points, which were formed by intersecting harpoons. The tooth is inscribed with “28th January 1860, Captain Sherburd”. The reverse is inscribed with a poem reading: “Sudden death to our best friends. Success to their killers long life to our Sailors’ wives and greasy luck to the whalers.” This ship was reported in the Otago Daily Times as sinking on the 13th of February 1864 at Patterson’s inlet on Stewart Island in a heavy westerly gale. Image.

Thankfully, since the decline of the whaling industry in the late 19th century and the development of new technologies, most of the applications of whale oil have been replaced with superior products – margarine is now made with vegetable oil and lamps began to be filled with cleaner, less smelly, and cheaper kerosene. It was a relief to many in the 1920s when fashion moved away from women wearing corsets, but those who still want to add a little ‘boning’ support to a frock, now use plastic instead of baleen. The vocal anti-whaling sentiment is strong among New Zealanders today, and since 1978, whales within New Zealand’s 200-nautical-mile (370 km) zone have been protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act. A short time later, in 1986, the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on commercial whaling, which has all but eliminated the use of whale oil today. Cheers Greenpeace!

Chelsea Dickson

 

References

Cherrybalmz 2017. Gun lubricant history: Sperm whale oil. [online] available at: http://www.cherrybalmz.com/history-sperm-whale-oil

Goodwin, P. 2016. Ezra Kelley Watch Oil [online] Available at: http://educators.mysticseaport.org/artifacts/ezra_kelley_watch_oil/

Huntington, T. 2009. “Treasure Trove of Documents Discovered in Whaling Town,” American Heritage.

McNamara, R. 2017. Whaling industry produced oil, candles, and household tools: whales were the raw materials for many useful objects In the 1800s. [Online] Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/products-produced-from-whales-1774070

Nye 2017. A History of Nye: The Beginning of Cilliam F. Nye Inc. [online] Available at: https://www.nyelubricants.com/stuff/contentmgr/files/0/582d6e5844567263cbd951ebdb44f573/en/nye_history_overview.pdf

Phillips, J. 2006. ‘Whaling – Ship-based whaling’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/whaling/page-1 (Accessed 14 September 2017)

Zabawski. E. 2017. Purposeful porpoise oil. [online] available at: http://www.stle.org/files/TLTArchives/2017/01_January/From_the_Editor.aspx

 

 

Classic! A look at transfer patterns inspired by the ancient world

Ceramic artefacts are some of the most common finds recovered from 19th century Christchurch archaeological sites. Teacups, saucers, plates, dishes, bottles, jars, jugs, chamber pots, wash basins…heaps of objects related to food and drink preparation, consumption and storage as well as hygiene or personal grooming habits. However, today, we’re not talking about forms and functions. We’ll go further…travelling through transfer printed decorations inspired by Neoclassical and Romantic designs.

Once upon a time, until the invention of transfer printing, the coloured decorations on ceramics were applied by hand. The technique of transfer printing, which originated in England in the mid-18th century, allowed potters, for the first time, to mass-produce identical detailed images on ceramic vessels. Blue and white designs dominated the wide world of transferwares, although black, brown, green, grey, purple and red colours were also used in the second half of the 19th century as we’ll see.

A perfect explanation of the invention of transfer printing. Press 10/07/1935

Potteries offered a variety of patterns that reflected social and decorative trends of the time. It was well-known by everybody that the finest ceramic was imported from China. It is not a surprise, then, that Chinese designs were copied or adapted and used as inspiration. In fact, patterns like Asiatic Pheasants and Willow became very popular and they are found on Christchurch sites quite often.

Asiatic Pheasants (left) and Willow (right) plates. These designs are still in use on modern ceramics, confirming their success among consumers. Image: J. Garland and M. Lillo Bernabeu.

However, the search for more interesting and original decorations began quickly. European scenes based on neoclassical and romantic themes became inspiration for decorative designs in the mid-19th century and were sold as an exotic counterpoint to the similarly popular scenes of British landscape and architecture.

By the late 18th and early 19th centuries neoclassicism had infiltrated the arts and historical tradition. Ancient Greece and Rome were the inspiration. Transfer prints and stylistic trends were influenced by archaeological discoveries at ancient cities such as Pompeii, Herculaneum or Athens. Designs were dominated by horizontal and vertical lines and symmetrical proportions reflected the virtues of  antiquity, like harmony, clarity and universality. Ceramic patterns displayed temples, columns, urns, sculptures, draped figures, acanthus leaves and Greek or Roman ruins in an effort to emulate these glorious past civilizations. Neoclassical patterns are relatively common finds on archaeological sites in Christchurch, some more frequently than others.

To be honest, it was difficult to choose just a few patterns to show you today. But, finally, here we are with a selection of some of my favourite neoclassical inspired patterns uncovered on Christchurch sites!

ANTIQUE (left) and ITALIAN (right). Both patterns featured a bunch of antique vases in a central scene. The Greek vases sold to the British Museum by Sir William Hamilton attracted considerable attention over the years and were probably the inspiration for these decorations. Image: J. Garland.

ETRUSCAN was a popular name used for transferware designs showing classical vases and ewers. We know if was popular as several variations have been found in Christchurch, all of which featured a border with the repeating Greek key motif and/or an arrangement of vases in the centre of the scene. Image: J. Garland.

From the late 18th to the mid-19th centuries romanticism arose in Europe as a reaction to modernity, increasing industrialisation and rationality in general, and as a rejection of the neoclassical virtues of order, calm and harmony in particular. This artistic, cultural and intellectual movement played on the emotions, individualism and the glorification of the past and nature. Given the interest in nature, these designs often contained landscape scenes. Romantic imagery is easily identifiable on transferwares because it always follows this formula: water source as a central feature (river, lake), stylised buildings in the distance and small human figures and/or animals to provide sense of scale. Nature is also present through trees, mountains and valleys.

A wide variety of romantic patterns are commonly found on Christchurch sites, but again (sorry for my obsession today!), I chose those inspired by classical themes, which completed the romantic formula that we know with classical buildings, fountains, urns or pillared balconies. Some of these patterns, as you’ll see, were named after historical places or influential figures in the past. Designs were sometimes associated with the name or place, but were sometimes not…

MOREA was the then name of the Peloponnesus, a peninsula in Southern Greece, so-named because it is said to look like a mulberry leaf in shape. The pattern depicted classical ruins with columns close to a river. The scene is framed by flowers and trees. A distant building with towers are visible on the distance. Two people on a path were also represented, one of them walking and the other one riding a horse. Image: J. Garland.

MYCENAE was the center of Mycenaean civilization, the culture which dominated Greece, Aegean islands and the coast of Asia Minor during the late Bronze Age in the II millennium BC and one of the most important archaeological sites of Greece. This example of Mycenae pattern featured an urn with two handles in the centre of the scene decorated with a variety of sculptures and musicians in separated vignettes along with floral and geometric designs. Water, buildings and mountains completed the landscape surrounded by trees. J. Garland.

RAVENNA is an Italian city, which was the capital of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. The pattern combined a classical garden with a woman’s statue on a pedestal, a balustrade, a vase, a river and again, distant classical buildings and mountains among a cloudy sky. Image: J. Garland and M. Lillo Bernabeu.

As I mentioned, pattern names occasionally don’t match with the subject portrayed and for me, Sappho is a perfect example. I chose it because of who it refers to…

SAPPHO is a geometric pattern consisting of repeating elements on the border and a medallion in the centre of the vessel. On top right, among the earthenwares offered to consumers, Sappho dinner services were listed as an available pattern in 1863 (Press 5/08/1863: 2). On bottom right, there is a picture of Sappho, who inspired this ceramic decoration. She was a Greek lyric poet from the island of Lesbos, particularly famous for her love poems. Image: J. Garland and Wikimedia Commons.

Given the topic for the blog today and taking advantage of that, I would like to show you other Romantic patterns based on real or imaginary European themes, referring to Spain and its medieval past. Yes! Here in Christchurch we have found these beautiful vessels…

ANDALUSIA is a region in the South of Spain. This Andalusia patterned plate features Spanish friars or monks, praying in front of a monument. The border has vignettes with alternating sprays, floral and foliage elements. Image: J. Garland.

Sometimes, we find ourselves unable to trace the name of a specific design, although many of the elements may be known and/or resemble other ceramics decorations. For example, although it was impossible to figure out the name of this ceramic pattern, I can’t resist the temptation to suggest an idea…

The pretty chamber pot on top uncovered on Tuam Street features an architecture quite familiar to me. It reminds me of the Alhambra in Granada. And I promise you that it is not a crazy idea! Look the image on right! The name Alhambra means “the red fortress”. Alhambra is one of the most emblematic examples of Islamic architecture in Spain, later completed as a fortress and palace. The place in which the fortress is located has plenty of running water, fountains, cascades and gardens. It was the last bastion of the Moors, who were forced to leave Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. Image: J. Garland and The Telegraph.

While Romantic transfer prints based on classical inspirations are relatively popular on 19th century Christchurch sites, those inspired by the Middle Age in Spain are uncommon finds so far. It is likely that Spain was more exotic and unusual for the New Zealand consumers, rather than Greek and Rome revivals.

The presence of these fashionable items within the home, displaying exotic scenes of faraway places, conveyed messages and knowledge of culture and history. Certainly, potters made wares decorated with certain patterns to supply the consumer’s demand. But beyond that, ceramics were a vehicle by which the myths and ideas from these places could travel across the world wherever the vessels were sold. These neoclassic and romantic transfer prints could make people believe that they were intrepid explorers travelling to ancient Europe, through their vessels. The scenes on their plates would become their image of Greece or Rome and Spain, whether or not it was realistic. The symbolic power of transfer prints was also important in the formation of new identities and the emergence of new national ideologies throughout the 19th century, as we discussed in a recent post talking about commemorative designs.

Neoclassical and romantic decorative styles, which inspired both my post today and ceramic makers during the 19th century, had decreased in popularity by the late Victorian era, while the standard Willow and Asiatic Pheasants remained in production for some time. After the decline of neoclassical and romantic designs, patterns with repeating and floral borders became more popular. However, that’s a story for another day!

By Maria Lillo Bernabeu

References

Brooks, A., 2005. An Archaeological Guide to British Ceramics in Australia 1788-1901. The Australasian Society for Historical Archaeology & La Trobe University, Australia.

Coysh, A. W. and Henrywood, R. K., 1982. The Dictionary of Blue and White Printed Pottery 17801880, Volume I. Antique Collectors’ Club, Suffolk.

Encyclopedia Britannica, 2017. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/ [Accessed 23 June 2017]

Lucas, G., 2003. Literature and Transfer-Printed Pottery in the Early Nineteenth Century. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 7 (2): 127-143.

Samford, Patricia M., 1997. Response to a market: Dating English underglaze transfer‐printed wares. Historical Archaeology 31 (2): 1‐30.

Transferware Collector’s Club, 2005-2017. [online] Available at:  http://www.transcollectorsclub.org/ [Accessed 23 June 2017].

 

 

The sad story of the secret staircase

The thing about being a buildings archaeologist is that even though some houses might look the same, the story of their occupants and occupation is always different. These stories of occupation are not always revealed in the archaeology of the buildings themselves, and are usually unearthed by our team of historians. When recording a house in the central city, we were confronted with a building that was most intriguing from a buildings archaeology perspective and had a sad story to match.

A house with a sad secret. Image: P. Mitchell.

What made the house different was a ‘secret staircase’ located in the kitchen wall. From a buildings archaeology point of view this staircase didn’t appear to be an original feature, as its installation meant that one of the rooms in the house was unusable. Nor did it appear to have been used for some time, as the floorboards had been replaced where the stairs had once exited on the second floor, and the wall in the second-floor room where a doorway associated with the stairs had been located had been relined in the late 19th century. So why was it there?

A cupboard in the wall? Image: P. Mitchell.

Perhaps. Image: P. Mitchell.

Or perhaps not. Image: P. Mitchell.

There be stairs. Image: P. Mitchell.

The floor of the nursery looks a bit suspicious. Image: P. Mitchell.

Archaeological investigation. Image: P. Mitchell.

More questions than answers. Image: P. Mitchell.

The difference in wall lining is a clue. Image: P. Mitchell.

The other side of the wall. The upright timber is a clue. Image: P. Mitchell.

This notch in the upright timber indicates that it was part of a door frame. Image: P. Mitchell.

With various holes cut in the wall the picture becomes clearer. The red dotted line outlines the doorway. Image: P. Mitchell.

Historian Chelsea Dickson was tasked with uncovering the story of the construction and occupation of the house. What she discovered, and how it meshed with the buildings archaeology, is related below in the ‘Sad Story of the Secret Staircase.’

When Henry Wilkinson, a cobbler and shoe merchant, purchased the relevant land parcel from Cyrus Davie in 1872 he was looking to build a home for himself and his family. His wife Anna Maria, two daughters Laura (the eldest) and Louisa, and his son James Walter were no doubt looking forward to the prospect of living in a brand new home close (but not too close) to town, with the river nearby and Linwood East School just a short walk up Barbadoes Street.

Building started soon after the section was purchased, and the house was complete and the family had moved in by December 1872. Unfortunately, the reason we know that Henry and his family were in occupation of the house at the time is because of the funeral notice for the middle child, Louisa, who passed away in the house aged 7½ (Press 2/12/1872). This tragedy was followed 18 days later when the youngest child, James Walter, passed away aged 4 years (Press 20/12/1872).

By September 1873 Anna Maria had also passed away, aged 37, leaving only Henry and Laura at the house.

In 1874 Henry advertised the four front rooms of the dwelling to let as “the front apartments, four rooms, for a respectable family, of three to four adults, next to Mrs Cyrus Davie’s” (Lyttelton Times 9/4/1874: 4). In order for the tenants to access the kitchen, which was located in the rear of the building, Henry had a staircase built into the wall between the kitchen and the parlour, which provided access from the front upstairs bedroom to the kitchen.

This is the ‘secret staircase’.

Presumably the secret staircase went out of use when Henry ceased letting out the front four rooms of his house, probably in 1875 when he married Annie Martha Griffiths, and hopefully lived happily ever after.

Peter Mitchell

References

LINZ, 1850. Canterbury Land District Deeds index – A – Town sections and town reserves register.

LINZ, 1860. Canterbury Land District Deeds index – A/S 1 – Subdivisions of town reserves register. Archives New Zealand, Christchurch office.

Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed May 2017].

Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed May 2017].

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.

 

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].