Safety at the sawmill and that stack of bricks

Lately I have been doing quite a bit of Job Safety Analysis paperwork (because safety in the workplace is number one priority, folks), and that got me thinking about how the people of early Christchurch might have managed their own health and safety at work. And then that got me thinking about how health and safety practices might be represented in the archaeological record, which made me reminisce about that time when we excavated Booth’s Sawmill on Lichfield Street, and found that tidy stack of bricks… thought I’d share it with you.

James Booth established his Victoria Steam Sawmills and Timber Yard on half an acre of land between Lichfield and Tuam streets around 1866. An 1875 description of his business tells us that about 10 men were employed there, and that pride of place in the mill were two circular saw benches that were powered by a 15-horsepower horizontal steam engine. In addition, the sawmill had a vertical deal frame sawing machine, and machines for planing, tongueing, grooving, beading and bevelling, as well as a moulding machine for making fancy skirting boards and architraves. Oh yeah, there were also lathes and a jigging machine – (because what’s the point in having a whole lot of wood if you can’t indulge a quick jig- right?; Star 15/2/1875:2).

Booth tried to sell his business in 1877, but was unsuccessful. Two years later he mortgaged it to William Hargreaves, though he stayed on as manager for a bit. By 1880 Booth had left the business altogether, and after a couple of unsuccessful attempts by Hargreaves to sell the business after this time, the mill closed for good in 1895. It is suspected that soon afterwards Andersons Foundry occupied the mill building, though (on paper at least) they didn’t obtain the lease for the property until 1903.

We know from historic records that 19th century sawmills were notoriously dangerous places to make a living. Like other factories and workshops of the time that operated machines driven by belts connected to big noisy steam engines, there were often little or no measures in place to ensure the safety of workers. No safety guards, protective barriers, or emergency stop buttons, not to mention the mandatory wearing of personal protective equipment such as ear muffs and safety glasses. I was surprised to find out how often 19th century sawmill workplace accidents were reported in the daily papers, but also that sometimes quite gory details of these incidents were provided to readers.

I can’t help but share a few of these sawmill accidents with you, some serious, others fatal. A note of warning folks – skip this paragraph is you are a bit squeamish…

Mr Mortimer suffered a broken arm and leg when he was struck by a crane (West Coast Times 2/6/1882:2), and young lad Henry Brown had a middle finger cut off while working the circular saw (Thames Star 29/4/1891:2). Mr Henderson cut two fingers off his left hand while working the breast bench (Woodville Examiner 3/7/1891:3). Mr Powell was smacked in the face when a piece of timber came back on the circular saw. His wounds were sewed up and he was sent home (New Zealand Herald 18/2/1899:5). Mr O’Brien had a splinter pierce his cheek and tongue “transfixing them” and afterwards had to be fed through a tube (Marlborough Express 25/8/1880:2), while Mr Thompson lost his left arm at the elbow to the saw bench when he slipped shoveling sawdust (Hawera and Normanby Star 17/10/1884:3). Henry Ash was killed when his head was crushed between some logs (Grey River Argus 14/11/1884:2), Mr Faulknor got run over by a timber truck that crushed his stomach (Hastings Standard 12/2/1897:2).   Mr Anderson had his “brains knocked out” by a piece of wood that got caught in a circular saw (Wanganui Chronicle 16/3/1886:2), Mr Smith was killed instantly when he fell from a log onto the circular saw and got cut in half (Marlborough Express 19/4/1883:2) . And if you were to think that all 19th century sawmill accidents were related to being cut, squashed, or pierced, let us not forget poor 21 year old Norman McKay, who was scalded to death when the boiler at Campbell’s sawmill blew out. He died from his severe burn injuries two hours later (Oamaru Mail 4/3/1897:2).

Why weren’t you wearing a safety helmet? Image: Wanganui Chronicle 16/3/1886:2

We have found no historical records to suggest that any serious accidents, fatal or otherwise, occurred at Booth’s Sawmill, which we excavated over two weeks in late June 2014 while working on the site of the new Christchurch Justice & Emergency Services Precinct. What began as a small area of paved brick exposed below fill layers of granular ash and rubble-filled silt turned into a much larger complex of paved brick that was revealed to be the main working floor of the sawmill building. In addition, we found other paved brick surfaces outside the building, stone and brick footings onto which we suspect the sawmill’s machinery was once fixed, as well as the foundations of the sawmill’s chimney and the likely location of the timber storage yard.

The first bit of brick floor exposed. This…

….eventually turned into this! Both images: Hamish Williams.

The floor was made of three layers of brick, some laid flat and others on edge – the thickness of the brick floor is testament to the fact that this floor was built to be hard wearing and durable. Some stretches of brick were well worn, suggesting that these parts had seen heavy foot traffic over the years, and the wear to the bricks in these areas we suspect represented the main routes between different activity areas in the mill. We got some idea of where the different machines were probably once located, based on where areas of brick had suffered disturbance when these heavy machines were eventually removed. Complicating our interpretations about these different activity areas, however, was the fact that in its last 8 years of life, the mill was repurposed as a place of metalworking activity, and at least some of the existing features and parts of the mill building were modified to reflect this change in use.

Booth’s Sawmill as fully exposed. Image: Hamish Williams.

Two of the brick and stone foundations for the fixed sawmill machinery. Image: Hamish Williams.

Whether associated with the last days of the building’s use as a sawmill, or that short period afterwards in which the mill became a foundry, for me one the most memorable archaeological features uncovered at Booth’s was a row of broken bricks stacked up out of the way against the degraded remnants of one of the mill’s timber-framed walls. It was clear that these bricks had once been part of the adjacent section of floor (because the top layer of brick was missing here), but on becoming dislodged and broken, had become little more than a tripping hazard. Because no one likes a tripping hazard or falling flat on their face (especially in front of co-workers), someone had taken the initiative to remove the hazard and stack these broken bricks up out the way against the nearby wall. What do you think about our interpretation?

The degraded timbers from the collapsed wall, with the stack of bricks adjacent. Image: Hamish Williams.

The neat stack of broken bricks after removal of the degraded remnants of the timber wall, (though in this photo the bottom plate has not yet been removed). Image: Hamish Williams.

This neat stack of bricks reminded  me that archaeology is not just about the stuff and things from the past, and that all this stuff and things can inform us about was happening on a site back in the day, but that first and foremost archaeology is about people. Specifically, what they left behind can inform us about past human behaviour – what might have been going on in people’s heads – their thoughts, feelings, and intentions.

Remember folks, situational awareness at all times – watch your step, and mind how you go.

 Hamish Williams

References

Grey River Argus [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].

Hastings Standard [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].

Hawera and Normanby Star [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].

Marlborough Express [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].

New Zealand Herald [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].

Oamaru Mail [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].

Star [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].

Thames Star [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].

Wanganui Chronicle [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].

West Coast Times [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].

Woodville Examiner [Online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed March 2017].

The Cater-Ring

Following on from last week’s blog post, when we discovered a tea set used by a local 19th century caterer – this time we will take a closer look at what catering may have been like for the Victorians.

Prior to this find, catering was one of those 19th century occupations that I’d taken for granted, or never given any thought to. It certainly surprised me to find such specific evidence of this industry, especially to glimpse a particular individual’s business. But hey, these are the things that keep our jobs interesting! Our bread and butter if you will…

When I first began to think about what this industry may have been like for L. J. Smith and his counterparts, I had visions of a primary school cook-off – in which everyone brings a pot-luck plate (made by their mum) to the local school gala day. But upon further research, I found that the industry was more established than this. Caterers were commonly used at many events, including children’s birthday parties, afternoon teas, garden parties, balls and dances, banquets, the races and A & P shows, to name a few.

Despite the number of events these guys must have attended, I only found one really sensational tale regarding the life of a New Zealand caterer, in which a well-known Wanganui professional slipped in the kitchen and slashed his wrist on broken glass, requiring emergency surgery (Marlborough Express 01/09/1900: 3). This is in sharp comparison to the bigger and more dramatic experiences of caterers back in Europe. London’s Evening Post regales us with tales about dodgy caterers being fined for serving cheap meats they claimed were delicacies, a mass poisoning at a medical congress banquet, in which 250 doctors became ill, and the caterer claimed he was framed by someone in a conspiracy to ruin his reputation (Evening Post 10/11/1894: 1, 03/08/1935: 28). Caterers were even being honoured at Windsor Castle for their edible menus (made of sugar tissue paper and cake frosting; Evening Post, 21/11/1906: 15).

All of this was entertaining to read, but what was it like to be a caterer in New Zealand during the 19th century? Like other occupations we have looked at on the blog, early caterers on our shores often had multi-faceted careers – chefs and restaurateurs, confectioners and bakers often moonlighted as caterers when opportunities arose, and successful proprietors were known to open up their own tearooms as a side enterprise.  Some of the professionals who appeared many times in newspapers had seemingly successful careers: one is described as “famous” in his obituary, and L. J. Smith himself is described as well respected (Auckland Star 23/06/1917: 5). A caterer’s name was also often announced in newspapers prior to an event, seemingly as a draw card to advertise the occasion, and they were subsequently thanked, sometimes with a description of the fare provided. So people were certainly interested in their work – I’m thinking the 19th century equivalent of posting a picture of your meal on Facebook?

But what kind of crust did these guys earn? I didn’t find any catering costings during my research, although I did find several bankruptcy notices, and occasions when community groups helped to sell off goods purchased for cancelled events, so the caterer wouldn’t make a loss (Taranaki Herald 11/02/1897: 2). We also know that they formed a union to raise the price of tariffs, which may have helped their profits (Grey River Argus 09/11/1907: 3). There was also always the occupational hazard of theft to consider – the poor guy in this story seems to have lost some equipment…

Auckland Star 05/08/1943:6

Auckland Star 05/08/1943:6

The equipment that some caterers served their fare on was alluded to last week in reference to the blue and white patterned tea set complete with the company logo. The quality and range of serving ware and equipment offered by a caterer, was no doubt related to the formality of the affair and the money spent by the patrons. One New York caterer made place markers for each of his guests in the form of recognisable caricature statuettes of them (Grey River Argus 13/07/1886: 4) – seems a bit over-the-top? More commonly, advertisements mentioned that marquees were available for hire, as well as boilers, tables, crockery, glassware, cutlery, etc. (Press 15/06/1907: 8). One proprietor even stated that her hands would never have touched the flour that made her bread, as she owned the most “up-to-date machinery” (Waikato Independent 18/05/1902: 1).

The formality and size of a catered affair would also determine if extra serving staff were required for an event. The photograph below shows the catering crew of the South Island section of the 9th contingent in which 480 people were said to have been served in four minutes!

Otago Witness 26/02/1902: 39

Otago Witness 26/02/1902: 39

If you thought that was impressive, this fun nod to old-timely sexism draws our attention to the preference of male wait staff over female waitresses for formal affairs. The author explains that women are less professional than men, and any guest conversation that a waitress might overhear will be subsequently turned into community gossip. Go figure.

Auckland Star 10/12/1926:7

Auckland Star 10/12/1926:7

Probably the most entertaining part of researching catering was determining what they may have served. Check out the ‘Bill of Fare’ for the Telegraph Dinner of 1862. Seven courses? And most of it French! Bon appétit!

Lyttelton Times 12/07/1862:5

Lyttelton Times 12/07/1862:5

I suspect not all menus were so elaborate. More humble fare may not have been as far away from what we might find at our modern equivalent of community events – like mini savouries, saveloys and fairy bread. In fact, many advertisements offered scotch pies and ‘fancy bread’, and strawberries and cream were always a special treat (Woodville Examiner 28/04/1911: 4). As many caterers also marketed themselves as confectioners, lollies (typically boiled, sometimes mixed with nuts) were on hand – and depending on the affair, a lolly scramble may have been warranted.

Lolly scramble at a 1880s child's birthday party. Image: W. Crawford. Lolly scrambles were common at community picnics and children’s birthday parties (Swarbrick 2016).

Lolly scramble at an 1880s child’s birthday party. Image: W. Crawford. Tairāwhiti Museum, Te Whare Taonga O Te Tairāwhiti. Lolly scrambles were common at community picnics and children’s birthday parties (Swarbrick 2016).

One of the most commonly catered community events during the 19th century were picnics. Organisations such as firms, churches, unions, clubs and Sunday schools held annual or even more frequent picnics. The picnic would have been a more exotic affair, and required a different menu than a sit down full course meal. Such foodstuffs would need to be served cold and stored in picnic baskets, napkins and tin containers. Common items were sandwiches, cold cuts, cakes, biscuits, cheeses, jellies and pickled fruit. Beverages commonly included ginger beer or ale, lemonade and, of course, tea! (Mitchell 1995: 16). These events (for which the caterers were often paid for by fundraising) frequently required large amounts of food. A combined Thames Sunday schools’ picnic with over 1000 children in attendance required 120 lbs of cake, 1000 dozen buns, 100 lbs of bread, 25 lbs of lollies, 50 lbs of ham, 6 lbs of tea, 25 lbs of sugar, 10 lbs of butter, 6 gallons of milk and peaches (Mitchell 1995: 27).

Essentially, whatever was on the event menu would have included a great deal of MEAT. The European settlers attempted to recreate many of their traditional foods in New Zealand, such as the standard “meat and three vege” combination, which still has its place in many New Zealand homes today (Burton 2016). The main cuisine difference between the homeland and the new frontier was that the quantity of meat consumed by the pioneers significantly increased. The availability and comparative inexpensiveness of meat in New Zealand meant that meat could be eaten for three meals a day, and fish was much less common, due to its British associations with the working class (Burton 2016). Mr Cooper, editor of The Scotsman newspaper visited New Zealand in 1897, and stated that “the fault with [New Zealand hotels] is that they offer you too much meat” and “It was my firm belief that New Zealanders eat more meat and drink more tea than any other people in the world” (Nelson Evening Mail 10/06/1897: 4). There was a small 19th century vegetarian population of New Zealand, some of which were likely to have been part of the Canterbury Dietetic Reform Association (founded in 1882), which promoted the health benefits of a vegetarian diet (Burton 2016). However, these people probably wouldn’t have been too popular at a party, nor would a caterer have been if he left meat off the menu. As Homer Simpson once said: “You don’t make friends with salad!”

Colonial Goose. A great example of the adaption of traditional British cuisine to the New Zealand colony. (Spoiler – it doesn’t: contain any traces of goose!) Goose was hard to come by in New Zealand, so lamb or mutton was used in its place. Image Insureandgo.

Colonial Goose. A great example of the adaption of traditional British cuisine to the New Zealand colony. (Spoiler – it doesn’t: contain any traces of goose!) Goose was hard to come by in New Zealand, so lamb or mutton was used in its place. Image Insureandgo.

Chelsea Dickson

 References

Auckland Star [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Burton, D. ‘Food – Meat’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/food/page-1 (Accessed 16 September 2016).

Grey River Argus [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Evening Post [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Fielding Star [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Marlborough Express[online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Mitchell, I. 1995 ‘Picnics in New Zealand During the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries: An Interpretive Study’, MA thesis, Massey University.

Nelson Evening Mail [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

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

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

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

Swarbrick, N. ‘Birthdays and wedding anniversaries – Celebrating birthdays’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/photograph/38840/lolly-scramble (accessed 16 September 2016).

Taranaki Herald [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Waikato Independent [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Woodville Examiner [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Death and Taxes

Link

He is bed maker to the dead. The pillows which he lays never rumple. The day of interment is the theatre in which he displays the mysteries of this art.

Thomas Lamb 1811.

 

Nothing in this would can be certain except for death and taxes. Benjamin Franklin’s proverb was never more true than in the case of John C. Felton, a cabinet maker/undertaker from Rangiora who went bankrupt just before the turn of the 20th century. In fact, a site that I was working on recently was occupied by a string of undertakers who moonlighted as carpenters of some description during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The men in question – George Dale, John C. Felton, and J. M’Auliffe – left little evidence of their macabre craft behind, save a chisel and a few nails and bolts. But this was not unexpected – it isn’t often that we find artefacts which form an obvious link to a more ephemeral business like undertaking (we do find the odd ‘mummified’ cat underneath demolished houses, but that’s a bit different). In cases like these, we rely heavily on historic records of land ownership and newspaper reports to connect archaeological assemblages to their 19th century owners.

New Zealand Tablet 2/2/1894: 32

New Zealand Tablet  2/2/1894: 32

Despite the fact that humans have been dying for as long as they have been alive, ‘the undertaker’ is a relatively new profession. Before the mid-19th century the term ‘undertaker’ referred to anyone who undertook a task or enterprise, and the ‘laying out’ of a corpse in preparation for burial was a task generally carried out by female family members of the deceased, or by individuals with other nurturing roles, such as mid-wives. This role eventually transitioned into a male dominated one, in conjunction with the rise of the ideas of feminine sensibility and Victorian female respectability (Burrell 1998).

 

The profession developed as a part-time industry, associated largely with cabinet makers and carpenters, who used their skills to build coffins on the side – Dale and Felton were also both cabinet makers/carpenters – and because of the early undertaker’s associations with furniture dealing, these individuals were probably more familiar to their clients and neighbours as handymen rather than being associated exclusively with death. This early picture of the undertaker developed as populations and commercial specialisation grew – as a result, undertakers were able to dedicate all of their time and effort to the one profession (Burrell 1998). As mourners required evermore elaborate funerary displays, as characterised by the mourning obsessed Victorian era, livery men joined the funerary procession. This group of merchants acted as the suppliers of the horses and carriages to transport the deceased. This in turn gave rise to the hearse bearing undertaker (Polites 2011).

Typical turn of the century Brisbane undertaker (1902).

Typical turn of the century Brisbane undertaker (1902). Image: Polites 2011

All of this sounds relatively profitable, right?  Multifaceted business ventures in an industry which theoretically had a steady and very reliable stream of potential clientele – particularly as the world was still coming to grips with the concept of germ theory (Tremlett 2016)… But alas, John Courtney Felton went bankrupt nonetheless (Star 20/11/1899: 2). One can only speculate as to why his business was unsuccessful.

Figure 3. Hard times for the undertaker (New Zealand Herald 15/09/1923: 3)

Hard times for the undertaker (New Zealand Herald 15/09/1923: 3)

 

The same fate was not met by another notable 19th century Christchurch undertaker – a prosperous business man: Herman Franz Fuhrmann, who was German. We have met Herman Franz Fuhrmann on the blog before, and it’s possible that his business success could be related to the catchiness of his name – it sounds like it was just made for a jingle! – but regardless, he managed to expand his own undertaking and cabinet making business to include a saddler, branched out into insurance, and made a killing in the sale of the Molesworth station in Marlborough.

 

Figure 4. Rhyming makes ads cooler (Free Lance 29/03/1902: 21 ) - Is it just me or do the finials on this hearse look like shrunken heads on spikes to anyone else? Creepy!

Rhyming makes ads cooler (Free Lance 29/03/1902: 21 ) – Is it just me or do the finials on this hearse look like shrunken heads on spikes to anyone else? Creepy!

This more capitalist version of undertaking brings us a little closer to some of the more recent attitudes toward modern funerary directors. Exposés starting in the 1960s tackled the controversy of the idea of the modern undertaking and funeral industry as a profit-driven empire – making a commodity out of death, and manipulating mourning people at their most vulnerable (Mitford, 1983). This is a large and complex debate that won’t be covered here. No price lists were found for any of the undertaking services of Felton, Dale or M’Auliffe, and their advertisements and others like them from this era seemed to focus more on being sanitary, speedy and available on short notice.

 

M’Auliffe is the only one of the three undertakers in question who also advertises an embalming service (Press 3/07/1903: 8). The idea of embalming corpses (the science of preserving human remains intact, for the sanitation, presentation and preservation), can be traced to at least 5000-6000 BC and the Chinchorro culture in present day Chile and Peru (Brenner 2014). Modern embalming began in the 17th century but really didn’t take off until the American Civil War, which saw soldiers dying far from home and their families wishing their bodies to be returned home for burial. The long journeys presented the need to slow down decomposition, and led to injecting various solutions into arteries of a corpse to prevent this natural process (Chiappelli, 2008). During the 19th century, arsenic was the most favoured embalming fluid, although it was eventually replaced with less toxic chemicals in the 1900s. This occurred in order to alleviate growing concerns about ground contamination from buried embalmed bodies seeping into local water supplies – not to mention the possibility of homicide cover-ups in which any evidence of arsenic poisoning could be disguised by embalming fluid (Mettler 1890). Formaldehyde eventually replaced arsenic as the favourite solution and is still used today.

 

M’Auliffe’s multifaceted service also appeared to have run more successfully than his predecessor Felton’s, although he also had his share of hiccups. M’Auliffe may have been a funerary director who harboured a death wish, as he was charged with riding bicycle in the street in the dead of night without a light, and a mysterious fire broke out at his premises in 1912 (also in the middle of the night), destroying his house and workshop. Luckily, the property was insured (Star 21/10/1902: 3, North Otago Times 16/10/1912: 3). Dazzling reports described a scantily-clad Mrs M’Auliffe having to make her way to the ground by a rope fire escape, “with a three-year-old child clinging to her neck. Fortunately, before making her descent she had the presence of mind to throw down a mattress, otherwise the child, who let go its hold when eight or ten feet from the ground, might have met with injury” (Star 15/10/1912: 3). I can only imagine how creepy it would have been to witness the local funeral home or mortuary burning down at the start of the 20th century!

Here’s a picture of another enterprising dame escaping from a building via bedsheet rope- not the same incident, but you get the idea.

Here’s a picture of another enterprising dame escaping from a building via bedsheet rope- not the same incident, but you get the idea. Image: The Amateur Examiner

But even without the burning building, why do we generally find the concept of an undertaker creepy, particularly one from ‘olden times’? When I hear the word ‘undertaker’ or ‘mortician’, the picture of a solitary guy in black and white, with a bit of a mad scientist vibe comes to mind. Pop culture, through the horror novel and film industry, is probably largely to blame for the demonisation of the profession, but the concept of ostracising those who handle the dead is not a new one. It can also be explained by human desire and the need to survive by disassociating one’s self with dead bodies and death. The idea has been explored by acclaimed social anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski, making reference to the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793, where the townsmen charged free blacks with the responsibility for picking up the dead and then “shunned them as infected, vilified them as predatory” (Burrell 1998).

 

Well that brings me to the end of this undertaking… Until next time…

 

                                                                                                                                                                Chelsea Dickson.

 

 

References

 

Burrell, D. 1998. Origins of Undertaking: How antebellum merchants made death their business. Seminar in Early American History.

Brenner, E. 2014. “Human body preservation – old and new techniques.” Journal of Anatomy. Vol. 224: 316-344.

Chiappelli, J. 2008. “The Problem of Embalming”. Journal of Environmental Health 71 (5): 24.

Lamb. T. 1811. “On Burial Societies, and the Character of an Undertaker.” The Reflector: A Collection of Essays on Miscellaneous Subjects of Literature and Politics. Vol. 2. London: 1812. 143.

Free Lance. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed June 2016].

Mettler, L. Harrison. “The Importance, from tire Medico-Legal Standpoint, of Distinguishing Between Somatic and Molecular Death.” Medico-Legal Journal 8 (1890): 172-79.

Mitford, J. 1983. American Way of Death. Fawcett.

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed June 2016].

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

North Otago Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed June 2016].

Polites, T., M. 2011. The Undertaker Undertakes [online] Available at: http://taylorpolites.blogspot.co.nz/2011/11/undertaker-undertakes.html. [Accessed June 2016].

Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed June 2016].

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

Tremlett, L. (2016). Medical Buildings and Medical Theory: An Archaeological Investigation of Ashburton Hospital, New Zealand. MA Thesis, University of Otago.

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].

 

 

Let’s paint the town, shall we?

So much of the archaeology that we deal with on a daily basis, particularly from an artefacts perspective, is associated with the everyday domestic lives of Christchurch’s 19th century residents that it becomes quite easy to forget about the other industrial and commercial aspects of life in the city in the 1800s. Every now and then, however, we are reminded that – as is the case today – there was another side to Christchurch that was just as important, if not quite as archaeologically obvious.

On that note, while working through a box of artefacts recently, I came across several stoneware jar stoppers with DAVID STORER AND SONS / GLASGOW impressed on the top, circling the image of a bell. As it turns out, David Storer and Sons were oil and paint manufacturers operating during the latter decades of the 19th century. They made all kinds of paint, oil and varnishes, from olive and linseed oils to white lead paints, yellow ochre paints and several types of varnish. Presumably, some of these were intended as artist’s paints, while others were made for more utilitarian or structural purposes (still artistic in a way, though, right?).

David Storer and Sons stoneware lid. Image: J. Garland.

David Storer and Sons stoneware lid. Image: J. Garland.

Their products show up in shipping manifestos and advertisements from the 1870s well into the 1890s, despite a plethora of notices in 1887 that the company ‘failed’ (i.e. went bankrupt). I have no idea what happened after this point or how their products continued to be sold in the 1890s – the aftermath clearly wasn’t as sensational or newsworthy as the failure. The lids that we found are likely to have belonged to one (or several) of the builders, carpenters and painters located on the site during the latter decades of the 19th century. The paint, oil or varnish contained within those jars could have been used to paint houses, furniture, cabinets, paintings, fences, machinery and who knows what else.

And, it got me thinking. Researching the life and times of David Storer and Sons led me to wonder about 19th century paint in general: how it was made, what it was used for, whether we have other archaeological evidence for its use in Christchurch. It’s not something we normally think about, archaeologically, but  – as it is today – it would have been everywhere back then.

A paint joke from 1890. One of the many strange results discovered during the research process. Image: Evening Star 3/11/1890: 2.

A paint joke from 1890. One of the many strange results discovered during the research process. Image: Evening Star 3/11/1890: 2.

As it turns out, there were several types of paint available to New Zealand residents in the 19th century, from lead and zinc based mixes to paint made from iron oxide, asbestos (yes, you read that right), hematite, rubber, potatoes and skim milk. Some of these were available wet, while others arrived in the country in powdered form (just add water!). There was luminous paint (used on buoys), sanitary paint (not what you think, or, at least, not what I thought…), disinfecting paint, heat sensitive paint and even fire-resistant paint. Several articles and advertisements detail experiments undertaken to see how well certain paints helped to prevent fires, most of them surprisingly successful.

Advertisements also suggest that a range of colours were also available, from yellow ochre to red and white lead paints, white zinc paints and ‘Prussian blue’ (apparently made from the ashes of horses hooves). Lead based paints were very common and, as you would expect, sometimes affected the health of those around them. One account tells the story of a whole family who suffered from lead poisoning thanks to a painter who lost his lead paint covered brush at the bottom of the rainwater tank and contaminated their drinking water.

The things you can do with milk. Who knew? Image: Bruce Herald 18/09/1900, p. 2.

The things you can do with milk. Who knew? Image: Bruce Herald 18/09/1900, p. 2.

Interestingly, New Zealand appears to have had its own paint manufacturing industry fairly early on, with the New Zealand Hematite Paint Company established operating in the 1880s with factories in Nelson and Collingwood. A Mr Louisson was making hematite paint in Timaru in the 1860s or 1870s (later bought out by the NZ Hematite Paint Company), and another paint manufacturing company based in Thames made oxide of iron paint in the 1880s. Smith and Smith, now a name synonymous with window glass repair, were also active as paint manufacturers and distributors from the early 20th century onwards (often with slightly less than PC advertisements).

Despite the strong local industry, still more types of paint were imported from overseas, with shipments coming from America (Vulcan paint!), Australia and the United Kingdom. Scotland does appear to have had its fair share of paint exporters, with several advertisements for Scottish paints appearing in contemporary newspapers.

The uses of paint in urban life haven’t changed much over the years, although there are perhaps fewer articles now suggesting that we should paint all our ships with luminous paint to prevent collisions. Hematite paint was used on everything from railways to most metal structures (it was less corrosive than lead paint on metal). Sanitary paint, despite it’s name, was used for internal walls and “all outside work in wood, irons or stone, from a steamship to a golf ball.” Other uses noted included priming, machinery, bridges and barns, agricultural implements and branding sheep.

Some of the proposed uses for luminous paint in the 19th century. Image: Evening Star 17/03/1883, p. 3.

Some of the proposed uses for luminous paint in the 19th century. Image: Evening Star 17/03/1883, p. 3.

Unfortunately, when it comes to archaeological evidence of paint use in the past – other than the occasional container lid – material is scarce, especially on 19th century buildings. Many buildings are, of course, repainted over the years (it would be very unusual to find the original coat of paint without any later layers over the top). Interior and exterior decoration of houses adapted to match the changing fashions of the last century and a half, so it stands to reason that very little evidence of 19th century house paint remains, particularly on external walls and weatherboards.

Additionally, in our experience, a lot of 19th century houses used wallpaper rather than paint as interior decoration. We occasionally find paint on skirting boards and trim (under several layers of later wallpaper and paint), but it doesn’t appear to have been used much on the internal walls themselves. Sometimes, we’ve come across instances where the floors or stairs of a building have been painted – often on either side of a rug – but it’s difficult to tell whether this is Victorian or not. Other times, we’ve seen paint used as a decorative element in the interior design – used to colour a ceiling rose, for example, or stencilled on to the ceiling.

A painted staircase. Note the unpainted strip in the center, where the rug would have gone. Image: K. Webb.

A painted staircase. Note the unpainted strip in the center, where the rug would have gone. Image: K. Webb.

A painted ceiling rose. Image: K. Webb.

A painted ceiling rose. Image: M. Hennessey. 

The relatively infrequent use of paint in the interior of houses may have been partly a cost or fashion issue, but was probably largely a result of the materials used to form the walls. Lath and plaster, for example, is far more suited to wallpaper than to paint, as is scrim – both of which were often used on internal walls. Tongue and groove match lining could sometimes be painted, but is far more likely to have been varnished instead. In truth, it seems like paint would have been used most often on exterior walls – which, of course, we’re unlikely to see. It’s weird really – for something so visible, paint is strangely invisible in the archaeological record.

There’s so many aspects of life that we take for granted – both in the past and now – things that are all around us all the time, which form the fabric of our material worlds and set the scene for the stageshow of our lives (to get all melodramatic and Shakespearian on you). The relative archaeological obscurity of something like paint is especially ironic, given the purpose for which it is intended. It’s just not something I thought about, until an unknown Scottish company and a small stoneware lid reminded me to look for it. Yet another reminder that the smallest of objects can have the greatest of stories to tell.

Jessie Garland