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

 

 

An archaeological treasure trove!

As explained at length in the past, archaeologists don’t much like the use of the word ‘treasure‘. But this really is an archaeological treasure trove – lots and lots of artefacts, from which we shall learn lots and lots of fantastic information. Angel is responsible for this beautifully excavated feature, which we think was probably associated with the London and Paris House, a fancy goods store on Colombo Street in the 1860s and early 1870s. Enjoy!

The beginning… Image: A. Trendafilov.

This brick-lined feature was, as you can see, chock-full of artefacts, most of which were concentrated at the top of the feature, indicating that there were at least two deposition events. Image: A. Trendafilov.

A slightly different view of the feature. Image: A. Trendafilov.

A fabulous water filter, from London (it’s the second one of these we’ve found, but this one’s far more complete). Image: A. Trendafilov.

The base of that fabulous water filter. Image: A. Trendafilov.

Barry’s Tricopherous… Image: A. Trendafilov.

Ceramics, waiting to be excavated. Image: A. Trendafilov.

A cup, possibly bearing a message for a child? Image: A. Trendafilov.

All done! Well, nearly. Next up: analysis and research and more great stories! Image: A. Trendafilov.

A happy archaeologist! Image: H. Williams.

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].

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

The world is your oyster – a tale of talking molluscs, bar brawls and Victorian vice…

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like oysters – they’re slimy, they look weird and they taste like the sea. So perhaps I was affected more than your average person when I recently had the task of analysing an assemblage of artefacts that provided an abundance of similarly decorated stoneware jars. These jars were all the same form, one which I had never come across before. A quick internet search determined that some collectors refer to these as ‘oyster jars’ – this was an unfamiliar term for me, and it piqued my curiosity. Further research revealed that the canning and pickling of oysters was a common enterprise in 19th century Canterbury and around the world!

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The stone ware jars. Image: C. Dickson.

Now, not being a fan of them, the idea of other people not only eating oysters, but eating old oysters, wasn’t appetising. But I looked at a few recipes online and, actually, the concept didn’t seem so bad – vinegar and cayenne pepper form a part of my regular diet…

Pickled Oysters recipe from 1884 – Mrs Lincoln’s Boston Cookbook.

Pickled Oysters recipe from 1884 – Mrs Lincoln’s Boston Cookbook.

Normally, it is difficult to determine the original contents of a vessel without manufacturer labels. In fact, jars and bottles with wide mouths like the ones from my assemblage may have been used to store or pickle any number of food or condiment varieties, or even viscous household items like glue or shoe polish. This being said, the large number of oyster shells that were found in the rubbish pit alongside the jars did suggest that these two items were related in this instance – and it is possible that the 19th century family that lived in the associated Rangiora house pickled their own oysters.

 A more common 19th century oyster jar shape.

A more common 19th century oyster jar shape.

The canning and preserving of oysters has taken place since 1850 (Hunt 2010), and oysters have been a commonly consumed fresh food resource here and around the world since ancient times – their consumption can be traced to the ancient Greeks and Chinese, and they are commonly found in early Māori rubbish deposits (referred to by Māori as tio). European industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries made these slippery morsels readily available to everyone and saw them become the great unifier – enjoyed by the wealthy and the poor. It was during this period that New York became the oyster capital of the world and it is said that in any day during this late 19th century, six million oysters could be found on barges tied up along the New York harbour waterfront (Happillion 2016). The catch was sold to New Yorkers everywhere from street corners to high class restaurants and in every way imaginable – in the half shell, roasted and in stews.

So ingrained were oysters in 19th century popular culture they can be seen everywhere – we witness the lure of an oyster meal for both the working class and the upper class alike in Lewis Carroll’s 1871 The Walrus and the Carpenter poem, from Through the Looking Glass. In this classic children’s story, we see the overweight and well-dressed walrus swindle the hardworking carpenter out of his oyster meal, while tricking the unlucky and naïve oysters into taking part in a buffet where they’re on the menu. Perhaps not all of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland were based on nonsense?

An oyster buffet - before and after.

An oyster buffet – before and after. Image: Wikia and Classics Illustrated.

From the 1860s oysters were increasingly popular among European settlers in the colonies, and by the 1880s New Zealand joined the oyster craze with the emergence of the oyster saloon – otherwise known as the ‘oyster bar’, the ‘oyster house’ or the ‘raw bar’. Such establishments sought to offer the freshest and tastiest oysters available – generally claiming to provide fresh stock daily (New Zealand Tablet 7/8/1896: 14). Now this may not always have been the case – oysters were available locally in Christchurch and Lyttelton, but the ever popular Stewart Island beds were also supplying to Canterbury during this period (Star 17/4/1875: 1). It was during this time that Christchurch saw the emergence of several fine dining oyster options – Cashel Street’s Café De Paris provided not only the finest oysters night or day, but also quality beverages, operatic entertainment and a separate section for ladies. The establishment claimed to be ‘the best in the colony’ and its success lasted well into the 20th century.

Fresh! Press 10/3/1896: 1.

Fresh! Press 10/3/1896: 1.

At the opposite end of the etiquette scale, the more typical oyster saloon quickly became synonymous with drinking – being one of the only places to purchase cheap food late at night, as an accompaniment to beer. The phrase ‘red light’ district’ was derived from New York oyster bars, which put up red balloons to indicate that the oysters had arrived, and in London, the lighthouse building at King’s Cross flashed a beam from its turret (Smith 2015). Unsurprisingly, these establishments also developed a reputation as houses of vice – news reports from this era are frequently linked to crime –anything from publicans supplying liquor without licences (Press 2/11/1901: 7) and the use of obscene language (Star 27/7/1885: 3) to violent encounters between patrons – male and female (Press 15/7/1881: 2). There are even reports of violence between patrons and establishment owners – take this report for example: three individuals named Maloney, Larsen and Creasey (these names reminded us of some sort of gangster pantomime), got into an altercation with an oyster bar proprietor, who stabbed Maloney in the side and wounded his side-kick (Grey River Argus 26/5/1898: 4). Such reports are accompanied by letters from concerned Cantabrians, who write into the paper questioning the appropriateness of such establishments being located “under the shadow of the cathedral spire” (Star 14/3/1882: 2).

Oyster bar associated with gluttony? (New Zealand Herald 1/4/1939: 5).

Oyster bar associated with gluttony? (New Zealand Herald 1/4/1939: 5).

Further connections were made between the oyster’s aphrodisiac qualities and Victorian vice in the popular 19th century erotic magazine The Oyster, which was printed and distributed privately in London from 1883. This publication and its predecessor, The Pearl, were banned, and its author was prosecuted for the risqué content – which you can see for yourself did not consist of mere pictures of ladies’ ankles (reproductions of the issues are still available on Amazon. This is interesting stuff from before the times when science made the link between oysters being a food source high in zinc (which raises testosterone levels), as well as a source of rare amino acids that increase levels of sex hormones in men and women. Such nutritional values were also possibly known to 18th century Casanova – who reputedly consumed 50 oysters for breakfast daily, and claimed to have seduced 122 women. Or perhaps he was part of the tradition that saw oysters as an aphrodisiac due to their visual similarities with their form and that of the female anatomy…? (Schulman 2008).

Looking back further – Aphrodite (goddess of love and sex) was born from a mollusc shell and the ancient Roman physician, Galen of Pergamon, described oysters as aphrodisiacs because they were a food that was moist and warm… This being said, Galen said the same for all ‘windy’ foods (those which produce gas – if that’s what you’re into), and going even further back, Babylonians looking to increase sexual appetites bit the heads off partridges, ate their hearts and drank their blood, while the ancient Greeks dined on sparrow brains to produce a similar effect (Thring 2011; Camphausen 1999; Hoppe 2015). But I digress…

Aphrodite and her mollusk shell. Attic Red Figure, ca 370 - 360 BC, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Salonica, Italy.

Aphrodite and her mollusc shell. Attic Red Figure, ca 370 – 360 BC, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Salonica, Italy.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, the reign of the humble yet hazardous oyster saloon was not to last. One can still frequent bars that specialise exclusively in oyster delicacies in cities larger than Christchurch, but over-consumption and the subsequent depletion of our local marine resources saw the end of the oyster as an abundant, ‘cheap and cheerful’ food source.  Our government began to intervene as early as 1866, with the Oyster Fisheries Act, which introduced licencing, a fishing season and the creation of artificial beds (New Zealand Parliamentary Debates 18/8/1865).

As a result, oysters eventually claimed their modern status as a luxury item, to be afforded and consumed by the wealthy, or saved for special occasions. The basic idea of the oyster saloon itself evolved into what we now think of as the fish and chip shop, where we are provided with a bevy of convenient and inexpensive (and fried) seafood options. So the tradition isn’t completely dead… But maybe don’t start a bar fight on your next visit your local fish n’ chippy.

Chelsea Dickson

References

Anonymous 2016. The Oyster Vol. 1: The Victorian Underground Magazine of Erotica (online) Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Oyster-Vol-Victorian-Underground-Magazine-ebook/dp/B000MAH5H4.

Camphausen, R. C. 1999. The Encyclopaedia of Sacred Sexuality. Inner Traditions International, Rochester.

Grey River Argus. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed May 2016].

Happillion, C. 2016. The History of Oysters. [online] available at: http://theoystergourmet.com/the-story-of-oysters.

Hoppe, D. Aphrodisiacs in History. Diana Hope, M.D., INCS. [online] Available at: http://www.drdianahoppe.com/aphrodisiacs-in-history-part-1/

Hunt A., L. 2010. Fruits and Vegetables, Fish, and Oysters, Canning and Preserving. Nabu Press, Charleston.

Lincoln, M., J., B. 1884. Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book. Roberts Brothers. [online] Available at: http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks/books/mrslincoln/linc.pdf

New Zealand Parliamentary Debates 18 August 1865 P326

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

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

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

Shulman M., 2008. The Science of Aphrodisiacs In U.S News & World Report 19/05/2008. [online] available at: http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/sexual-and-reproductive-health/articles/2008/08/19/the-science-of-aphrodisiacs [Accessed May 2016]

Smith, D. 2015. Oyster: A Gastronomic History (with Recipes). Abrams, New York.

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

Thring, O., 2011. Aphrodisiacs: the food of love? In The Guardian. [online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2011/feb/11/aphrodisiacs-food-of-love. [Accessed May 2016]