Life Before Plastic: Final Thoughts

All good things must come to an end, and so this post marks the final blog in our Life Before Plastic series (here’s part one, two and three if you’ve missed any). Speaking of endings, today we’re going to be looking at what happens to the stuff we buy once it’s reached the end of its lifespan. Rubbish might seem simple but one man’s trash really is another man’s treasure, and it’s not always clear what is or isn’t ‘junk’.

Apart from the fact she’s a little bit broken, how could anyone think this beautiful porcelain doll/figurine was trash. Image: C. Watson.

In 19th century Christchurch there were a few different options available for getting rid of rubbish. Animal bones and food waste could be burnt in the fire or sold to the glue works. Rubbish could be buried in the backyard or used to infill an old privy or to level uneven ground. Rubbish could also be collected, similar to modern times. In April 1862 land was surveyed and set aside for a rubbish dump  and from January 1864 the Hadfield Brothers were contracted to collect refuse, slops, dry rubbish and ashes from bins left outside of houses. Prior to this, there was no organised, municipal collection of rubbish, and individual households or business had to deal with all their own trash. Whilst this rubbish collection was meant to be weekly, sometimes many weeks went by without collection, and there was little enforcement of making people use the collection service, hence why we find household rubbish pits with material dating later than the 1860s. Whilst rubbish collection eventually started to become more regular (we don’t bury our waste in the backyard these days…mostly) landfills themselves have problems of their own, namely that they contaminate the ground and that they eventually fill up. By the late 19th century Christchurch was facing these very problems, leading to the council investing in a rubbish incinerator known as the Destructor, which you can read more about here.

Most butchers and abattoirs likely sent their left-over bones to the glue factory, although as this advertisement shows glue works would accept bones from anyone. Image: Evening Star 27/05/1874.
Rubbish pits, one of the most common ways to dispose of waste in the 19th century. Image: J. Hearfield.
The middle black band you can see on the above stratigraphy is an old gully that was infilled in the 19th century with a mixture of foundry waste, household waste and commercial waste. Image: H. Williams.
Whilst rubbish collection did exist, it wasn’t as efficient as it is today. The writer of this article complains about the lack of collection from properties not located in the immediate city centre and business district, as well as the unsanitary conditions created by dumping waste in the backyard. Image: Globe 30/02/1881: 2.

19th century rubbish, whether it was buried in the backyard or carted away to a dump, almost always ended up in the ground. And the same is true for most of the rubbish created in the 20th and 21st centuries. From excavating 19th century rubbish pits we know that a lot of the material buried in the ground doesn’t break down quickly; we often still find organic material such as animal bones in perfect condition. In the 19th century the rubbish being generated was far less than it is today, both because of a lower population and because there was less single-use packaging. These days it’s estimated that New Zealanders currently generate 734 kg of waste EACH per year. There aren’t any statistics to compare back to the 19th century to see how much more that is but given that 734 kg was already a 20% increase from 2015, it’s safe to say that it’s a lot more. It’d be nice to think that burying waste in the ground means out of sight, out of mind, but given all the recent problems with the Fox River Dump it’s safe to say that that isn’t the case.

The introduction of recycling to New Zealand in the 1970s meant not all rubbish was going to landfills. These days paper, cardboard, plastic, aluminium, steel and glass are all able to be recycled into new products and reused again. Yet with China refusing to take any more plastic waste, material that could be recycled is once again being sent to landfills. Recycling, in of itself, has problems. New material is still being created, not everything that can be recycled is, and contamination means even when stuff gets recycled it can still end up in the landfill. In some ways that’s where our 19th century counterparts were ahead of us. The system of bottle reuse for example, where bottles were commonly washed and refilled, meant that not only were new bottles not needing to be made (or at least not at the levels they would be if bottles were single-use), but that there weren’t the contamination issues that exist with modern day recycling as all bottles were washed in the process. Yet the 19th century system of bottle reuse had nothing to do with reducing waste and everything to do with cost.

Money. I think that if we’ve learnt anything over the past four blog posts it’s that money is everything. Our Victorian ancestors might have made things to last a lifetime, but that’s because things had to last a lifetime as they were too expensive to be replacing every year. And as soon as things went down in price because of technological developments, people started spending and buying more. The reason we have a plastic waste problem is because plastic is cheap to manufacture. And because it’s cheap to manufacture it’s used for everything.

It’s pretty easy to feel helpless when thinking about the state of the world. Just walking down the supermarket aisles reveals how bad our plastic addiction has gotten. And here at UnderOver we’re just as guilty- we use plastic bags for all of our artefacts and despite writing a blog on Kmart culture we still ordered plastic trays from them.

The ultimate hypocrite: writing one blog moaning about packaging and another on Kmart culture and still ordering cheap trays from Kmart that came heavily packaged. Image: C. Watson.

I think at the end of the day there’s two things we can take away from this blog series. Firstly, if money is the main driver for plastic consumption, then as consumers we can take profits away from companies by choosing to only purchase from businesses that are environmentally friendly. Secondly, we can remember that there was life before plastic. Plastic has only been around for just over 100 years, for the rest of human history there was no plastic. And whilst life might be a little bit less convenient without it, surely giving up some convenience is worth saving the planet.

Clara Watson

References

Globe. Available online: paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Press. Available online: paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Lyttelton Times. Available online: paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Life Before Plastic: Kmart Culture

Last time on the blog we talked about packaging and how our Victorian ancestors made do without plastic trays to wrap their cans of coke in (and all the rest of it). This week we’re going to take a closer look at plastic in the household. Plastic in the household isn’t quite as bad as plastic in the supermarket, but there still is a lot of it. There’s the plastic laundry basket, the plastic on the fridge door handles, the polyester clothes in the wardrobe and the plastic bucket in the laundry, to name a few.

If we were to go back in time to a Victorian house, we wouldn’t see any of those things. The clothes would be made of wool, or cotton, or linen, the bucket of metal, there wouldn’t be a fridge and the laundry basket would be an actual wicker basket. Now I could go through object by object and compare what we have today to what the Victorians used, but that would get a bit repetitive and boring. Instead what I want to do is take a look at the bigger picture and the different social and economic systems between now and 150 years ago. (A quick note, I make some big generalisations about purchasing habits in the next few paragraphs. Obviously, people’s purchasing habits are completely dependent on their individual economic situation and personal beliefs, and not every single object out there is cheap plastic junk. I’m just generalising to make a point about a certain type of behaviour).

A 19th century bone toothbrush and its modern-day plastic equivalent. Image: C. Watson.

Something you hear all the time is that things aren’t made to last like they used to. It’s a cliché, but it’s also true. As we discussed when talking about packaging, the main benefit of plastic is that it’s cheap to manufacture, meaning that plastic items are cheap to purchase. In the current economic climate, where manufacturers are focused on maximising profit and lowering the bottom line, plastic is often the most economical choice for goods to be made of. For some manufacturers that are using plastic the focus isn’t on making a high-quality product that will last a lifetime, but on making money. If we want to be really cynical, manufacturers benefit when products have a short lifespan as it means the customer has to keep purchasing the same product over and over again.

These cheaply manufactured plastic objects can be purchased from many stores, but I’m going to use one store that’s very popular at the moment to illustrate my point- Kmart- and what I’m going to refer to as “Kmart Culture”. If you’ve been paying attention on the internet for the past few years, you’ll have seen people going absolutely nuts for Kmart homewares. From the throws to the cushions, candles, and wall prints, there’s always a new trend.

Just a few of the many Kmart memes that exist on the internet. Image: Google.

Kmart Culture is completely focused on what’s new, because there’s always something new. There’s no consideration of the fact that there’s only so many places in the household that can be decorated with a throw blanket and a cushion. Instead new cushions are purchased, the old cushions are put in a cupboard, and they sit out of sight until there’s a Marie Kondo inspired cleaning spree and they go to the tip.  And the thing that facilitates being able to purchase new home décor, despite already owning various homewares, is the cheap price point, which is only possible because of plastic. You might be picking up on the fact that there’s a bit of a cycle going on here. Plastic makes goods cheap. People can afford to purchase non-essential items (eg. Home décor) because it’s cheap. People can afford to purchase even more non-essential items, even when they already have those items at home, because it’s cheap. People have no qualms about throwing out the old items, because they were cheap. Cheap plastic items end up in landfills.

With that pattern of behaviour in the forefront of our minds, let’s jump now to 19th century Christchurch where there was no plastic. By the mid-19th century the industrial revolution was in full swing. The introduction of mass-manufactured goods through the development of factories in Britain, combined with the discovery of new resources through world exploration and the creation of a global trade market through British and European colonisation meant products were cheaper than in previous centuries and there was a wider variety of things that could be bought (Rafferty 2019). This growth meant people had more money and there was a shift from people making things at home to purchasing them from shops.

All of this sounds relatively similar to modern times, and that’s because, in a way, it is. In the 19th century we see the beginning of the social and economic systems that led to modern day Kmart Culture. Whilst things weren’t as cheap as they are today, they were still cheaper than they had been in the past. In some ways it’s hard to compare the cost of goods in the 19th century with the cost of goods today. Whilst we can compare prices and index them (see here if you’re interested in more detail), in many ways it’s comparing oranges and apples. How do you compare the cost of a kettle in the 19th century, made of cast iron and designed to be heated on a range, with a modern electrical jug? And which electrical jug would you even choose to compare it with, the $10 one from Kmart or the $270 Breville one from Briscoes? Even if you chose to compare it with a cast iron jug they range from $30 to over a $100 in price.

Another way to compare is not looking at the cost of goods, but at what was thrown away. In Kmart Culture old items are being replaced by new items, despite the fact the old items are still useable. Think back over the past ten years, what household items have you thrown out? Nic nacs? Ornaments? Paintings? Cushions? Furniture? Clothing? Utensils? Pots and pans? Plates? If I think of my parents house 20 years ago and compare it to now, nearly everything in it has been replaced over the past two decades.

When we look at the archaeology of 19th century Christchurch, and in particular at rubbish pits and what people were throwing away, there’s two big patterns. Firstly, we don’t find homeware items that often, but we do come across them. We’ve found things like kettles, pots, cast iron ranges, irons, and bed knobs, but they’re rare and we definitely don’t find them in every site. There are other household items that aren’t rare, but we don’t find in every site. Things like cutlery, knives, vases and ornaments.

Some of the more unusual household items we come across. Image: C. Watson.

The relative scarcity of these objects in the archaeological record suggests there wasn’t a 19th century Kmart Culture around their purchase. People purchased these items and held onto them until they broke. In fact, a lot of the items shown in the above photograph came from a site where the occupants both passed away and we think the objects were thrown out by their children preparing the house for sale- proving that some things were intended to last a lifetime.

What we do find in nearly every single rubbish pit we excavate are ceramics. Plates, side plate, cups, teapots, platters, sugar bowls, tureens, jugs, chamber pots, bowls, basins, ewers- you name it and we’ve found it a thousand times over. And we find them in every form possible, from a single rim sherd to half a vessel that can be refitted to a fully complete item. It’s likely that a lot of the vessels we find are things that people have dropped or knocked and they’ve broken, and that’s why they’ve been thrown out, but given the quantities that we find either the 19th century residents of Christchurch were the clumsiest people in the world, or there was another reason why things were being thrown out.

Some of the many, many ceramic vessels we find in Christchurch archaeological sites. Image: C. Watson.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Kmart Culture of the 19th century: ceramic dinner sets and tea sets. The industrial revolution led to pottery factories in the Staffordshire region of England producing large quantities of ceramic vessels for the export market. The scale of production meant it was possible for a range of different designs to be produced, and different fashion trends are apparent throughout the century. As new styles of ceramics became popular, people threw out their old sets and replaced them with new pieces.

19th stores were constantly advertising the arrival of new tea and dinner sets in the latest fashions. This 1893 advertisement shows both the availability of new ceramic vessels and the price range. Image: Star

Just a few of the ceramic pattern styles popular through the 19th century. The top left is the Willow pattern, an example of the Chinese inspired designs popular at the beginning of the 19th century (with Willow pattern itself popular throughout the 19th and 20th centuries). Top middle is the Asiatic Pheasants pattern, a floral pattern with Chinese influences. On the top right is the Rhine pattern, an example of the romantic landscape designs inspired by European scenery and buildings, popular around the middle of the century. The bottom left is the Cairo pattern. The style of the Cairo pattern, with a design that breaks the pattern of ‘central scene with border’ shown on the plates in the top row, was inspired by the Aesthetic Movement of the 1870s. Bottom centre is the Albert Star pattern, with a simple design featuring a central motif and a border pattern. Bottom right is a simple banded design, seen on plates and cups from the end of the century. Image: C. Watson.

When we take this concept of “Kmart Culture” and compare modern purchasing habits to Victorian era ones, we see they’re not all that different. When people’s wages are high enough to allow for casual spending, and the goods they’re purchasing are cheap enough, then people will buy stuff. In the 19th century not every item met these criteria- cups and plates might have but not furniture, and that’s one of the reasons why we find tea wares and table wares in nearly every archaeological site but not table-tops and chair legs. In modern times almost everything can be bought cheaply, meaning that we can throw away nearly everything, and if our Victorian era ancestors had been able to buy a new kettle for $10 (or the equivalent of $10), then I’m sure we would be finding kettles in the archaeological record as well.

Clara Watson

Life Before Plastic: Packaging

Last time on the blog we introduced our Life Before Plastic blog series, and today we’re continuing the series by discussing packaging. A lot of what we find in the archaeological record are containers, which are a form of packaging. These include glass and ceramic bottles that held beverages, foods, medicines, or household products.

A few of the many different types of glass and ceramic containers we come across. Top row, from left: ginger beer bottle, syphon ink bottle, Bordeaux bottle, Lamont patent aerated waters bottle, wide mouth pickle jar. Bottom row: penny ink, jam jar, capers bottle, Ayer’s hair vigour, Eno’s Fruit Salts. Image: C. Watson.

These are items where the packaging is essential to the transport and storage of the item. Things like liquids, jams, and pickles need to be contained within something; they physically can’t be transported by just being carried in cupped hands (or at least there’s not going to be much left over if they are). I tried to think of examples of packaging that we find in the 19th century archaeological record where the packaging isn’t essential but struggled to think of any. There are tin cans, matchboxes and hoop iron from barrels- but similar to bottles they’re generally essential for the transportation and storage of the products they contained.

More packaging: tin cans, matchboxes and hoop iron from barrels. Image: C. Watson.

The contrast to modern society is significant. These days, almost everything we buy is packaged, whether it needs to be or not. The packet of biscuits, the box of pens, the cellophane wrap around a birthday card, the plastic container with the new plug for the bathroom sink- try to think of an item you bought recently that wasn’t packaged. Sometimes that packaging is essential, but a lot of the time it’s not.

 

There are a lot of ridiculous packaging examples on the internet, but I think this one is the worst. Image: Bored Panda.

When we compare 19th century packaging to packaging today, one of the big differences between the two is that there is a lot more non-essential packaging today than there was 150 years ago. We can look at packaging as fulfilling a number of roles. Some of these are essential- they make the transportation and storage of items possible, e.g. bottles or barrels that held liquids or products like flour that need containment. Some of these are non-essential- they make the transportation and storage of items easier, e.g. the cardboard box my laptop came in protected the laptop from being damaged during transportation, made transportation and storage easier as it could be stacked with other boxes of laptops, and kept components such as the power cable and user manuals together with the laptop, but the laptop could have been transported and stored without it. There are also other roles packaging plays that we view as being essential, such as the packaging of medical equipment in plastic to keep it sanitised.

The other big difference between 19th century packaging and packing today is cost. Prior to 1846 tin cans were manufactured at a rate of six per hour. After that it was at a rate of 60 per hour. In 2016 Ball Corp. was producing six million cans a day, at an hourly rate of 250,000. After 1879 cardboard boxes could be produced at a rate of 750 sheets an hour. I couldn’t get a precise statistic on cardboard box production rates nowadays, but in 2017 about 240 billion square metres of cardboard packaging was produced. Today packaging is mass-manufactured on an extraordinary scale, making it extremely cheap. In the 19th century packaging was either manufactured by hand or in rudimental factories, likely making it much more expensive.

The expense of packaging meant that unless items needed to be contained, they weren’t individually packaged. Packaging still occurred, but in a very different system to today. Products like flour were transported from the mill to the general grocers store in barrels for most of the 19th century, which were replaced by sacks in the latter half of the century. Many products – e.g. flour, biscuits, grains, rice –  could be purchased from stores in bulk: either by the barrel or sack, or weighed out into a smaller amount that was wrapped in paper and placed in a basket to carry home. Once home these were unwrapped and placed in various tins, containers and bins for storage. Meat was also sold wrapped in paper. Items that weren’t foodstuffs were generally sold loose – blankets, cooking pots, knives, etc – weren’t packaged like they often are today.

There are still aspects of that system today. Most of our fruit and vegetables are sold by weight or quantity at the supermarket and placed into bags that we take them home in. If I go to Bin Inn or a wholefoods shop, I can buy flour and grains by weight, and I can still buy things like towels and saucepans loose at Briscoes. However, for the most part, most items I buy are individually packaged, and I then place those individually packaged items in a bag to take home. Once I get home I either keep the items in their packaging and use them from that- for example my bag of flour sits on a shelf in my pantry, or I take the item out of the packaging and throw the packaging away, like the cardboard box my new electric blanket came in.

The low cost of packaging means we’ve created a system where the cost of packaging an item is such a minute contributor to the overall cost of the item that we can justify packaging absolutely everything. Which would be fine, except that most of that packaging is plastic that won’t decompose for thousands of years.

The second most ridiculous packaging example I found. Because avocado skin is apparently not good enough packaging in Canadian supermarkets. Image: Bored Panda.

In the 19th century packaging was expensive, meaning every effort was made to reuse containers. The various crates, barrels, sacks and bags that items were transported in were used and reused over and over again. A really good example of the reuse of containers in the 19th century is the glass bottle reuse system. Prior to 1922 there were no bottle manufacturing factories in New Zealand, and all glass bottles were imported into the country from overseas. This meant there were a limited number of bottles in circulation in New Zealand for the entirety of the 19th century. In addition to only having a limited number of bottles, bottles were expensive to manufacture. The cost to manufacture a bottle was anywhere from two thirds to double the cost of the beverage it contained (Woff 2014:17).

As a result, once a bottled product had been purchased and consumed, that bottle was returned to the company it was purchased from or sold to a bottle merchant. From there the bottle was washed, refilled, then sold again containing a new product. Paper labels were placed on the bottles to advertise the product they contained. Some bottles were reused for many different products, such as black beer bottles and ring seal bottles. Other products needed a specific type of bottle, such as aerated water bottles.

The lifecycle of a glass bottle. Image: B. Woff (2014: 15).

Due to the carbonation of aerated waters, these couldn’t be contained in normal black beer and ring seal bottles. Instead they were bottled into the likes of torpedo, Lamont and Codd bottles that were specifically designed to hold carbonated products. As these bottles were presumably more expensive to purchase, aerated water manufacturers did not want bottles they had purchased being used by competitors. Bottles were trade marked to indicate they belonged to specific aerated water manufacturers and that they were to be used only by that company and not anyone else.

Half of a J. Whittington aerated waters bottle. Whittington used a ship as his trade mark on his bottles. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

When we compare 19th century packaging to packaging today there are both positives and negatives to the way things used to be done. The biggest positive would be that most forms of packaging were reused over and over again. Of course, at some point they were thrown away, that’s why we find them in the archaeological record. But for the most part that wasn’t after only one use. Today so much of our packaging is single-use, and it simply gets thrown away after it’s served its purpose. You could say the 19th century system of reuse is somewhat similar to our modern system of recycling, but in recycling new packaging is still being made and packaging is still single-use. The biggest negative to 19th century packaging is how unhygienic it could be. Imagine buying biscuits from a barrel at the store but knowing that they’d probably been touched by every hand that had dipped into the barrel to purchase biscuits before you. Having things stored in packaging that wasn’t airtight would mean products were more likely to be contaminated with bacteria and mould, or for weevils to get into the flour. As I said earlier, there’s a good reason that modern medical equipment is packaged in plastic to keep it sanitised.

A possible example of bottle reuse in action. I say possible as both labels on the bottle were for Robert Porter, a London bottler that sold Bass Pale Ale Light Beer for export (Hughes 2006: 119). But that doesn’t mean they were placed at the same time. This bottle may have been reused multiple times for Bass and Co.’s beer. Image: C. Watson

It’s hard to imagine our society ever going back to a system where most packaging was reused. There are little incentives for corporations to put in place packaging reuse systems when packaging is so cheap to manufacture. In addition to the expense of a reuse system, individual packaging allows companies to easily brand their products. These days single-use packaging is marketing, and the containers that hold products are cleverly designed to entice us to buy them. It’s hard to imagine companies being willing to give up packaging if it’s going to affect their marketing strategy and potential sales. But when we see images like the one below, perhaps we need to consider if costs and sales are what’s most important.

A sea of packaging. Image: The Jane Goodall Institute New Zealand. 

Clara Watson

 

References

Hughes, D. 2006. A Bottle of Guinness please: The colourful history of Guinness. Phimboy, Berkshire.

Woff, B. 2014. Bottle Reuse and Archaeology: Evidence from the Site of a Bottle Merchants Business. Unpublished honours thesis Archaeology Program, La Trobe University, Melbourne.

Life Before Plastic: An Introduction

‘Rubbish’ is the most common thing we find on our 19th century archaeological sites. I have ‘rubbish’ in quotation marks because to us what we find isn’t rubbish, it’s the material evidence of what life was like in the early years of colonial New Zealand. The everyday items and the more unusual objects that help to tell us more about the successes and struggles of New Zealand’s first settlers and their families. Yet, to the people these items belonged to, they were rubbish; products that had served a purpose and were no longer needed. As archaeologists, it’s exciting that we’re finding 150-year old rubbish. As humans living at a time where global warming is an imminent threat to our own society, it’s concerning we’re finding 150-year old rubbish.

In the 19th century people would often dig holes in their backyard to dispose of rubbish. These rubbish pits are one of the most common features we find on archaeological sites in Christchurch. Image: T. Anderson

This is the first of a series of blog posts looking at the archaeology of 19th century Christchurch through the modern lenses of climate change and the growing problem of plastic pollution. Normally, when we write on the things we find we use an archaeological lens, asking questions like why were these artefacts disposed of? Who do they belong to? Where did they come from? Were they common or rare? What do they say about the people who disposed of them? Can they tell us more about what life was like in Christchurch in the 19th century?

In this blog series we’re going to take a different approach, asking questions like what did people use when they didn’t have plastic? How does life in the 19th century compare to now? What materials, objects and practices were present then that don’t exist now? Were these precursors to current ways of doing things? Were they better for the environment? Can we look to the past to help us now in the present? We’re still going to be looking at the archaeology of Christchurch, just interpreting it in a slightly different way.

I have multiple reasons for wanting to do this blog series. I’m 24, climate change is going to affect my life and it’s definitely going to impact on the lives of any children I have: it’s in my best interests to start debate on the topic and provide new ways of approaching it. I also want to write on this topic because it is current. One of the things we face all the time as archaeologists is having to justify our work. There are so many people out there who don’t understand what we’re doing/don’t see the value of recording our heritage/think that it’s a waste of time. When we can take what we find and put it into a framework that uses archaeological evidence to tackle modern problems then that adds even more value to the (already valuable) work we do. Finally, I want to write on it because I’ve never lived in a world where plastic doesn’t exist. Plastic has played a role in every single thing I have done in my life, from the plastic car seat I went home from the hospital in, to the plastic drink bottle I’m sipping out of now. I don’t think there’s been a single day of my life where I haven’t used a plastic object, so I think that looking at life before plastic is really interesting because modern society is untenable without it.

Count the plastic in the picture. I can see at least 25 items made of plastic, many of which I use daily to do my job (the Favourites are definitely essential). Image: C. Watson.

The Victorian era is a particularly interesting period to look back at through this modern lens of plastic pollution because it was during this time that so many of the things we now take for granted were invented. The Industrial Revolution began roughly a hundred years before the Victorian era. Technological developments in the textile industry led to more technological developments that could be used in other industries which led to even more technological developments and before you know it we went from writing with ink and quill pens in 1750 to typing on laptops in 2019 (John Green does a far better quick explanation here).

A few of the many things invented just prior to and during the Victorian era are:

  • Tin cans: In 1810 Peter Duran patented the idea, in 1813 the first commercial canning factory was opened and in 1846 mass-manufacture of tin cans began.
  • Cardboard boxes: Single sheet cardboard boxes were in use around 1817, although the exact inventor of them is not known. Corrugated cardboard was invented in 1856 and in 1871 Albert Jones patented an early style of cardboard box. It wasn’t until 1879 that the single sheet cardboard folded boxes that we use today were invented.
  • Paper bags: In 1799 Louis-Nicolas Robert invented a machine that produced rolls of paper. These were used to make rudimentary folded bags, but it wasn’t until 1852 that envelope-style paper bags were invented. These were surpassed in 1871 when Margaret Knight patented her machine that produced flat-bottomed paper bags, similar to what’s available today.
  • Plastic (kind of): The first man-made plastic was invented by Alexander Parkes who displayed it at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. Called Parkesine after Parkes, it was derived from cellulose. Another early plastic was celluloid, invented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1868 as a substitute for ivory in billiard balls. Further advances took place at the end of the 19th century, with Bakelite invented in the early 20th

What’s notable when we look back at the Victorian era is that many of the things we now view as being more environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic were only just being invented. We predominantly excavate archaeological sites that date between 1860 and 1900. These sites were occupied throughout these years of invention, meaning we can see what people used prior to new technologies being developed, the adoption of new technologies, and then their success as they became widespread and mass manufactured. You may have picked up that all the new technologies I’ve listed above are forms of packaging. That’s because in the second part of this series we are going to look specifically at packaging, what we find in the archaeological record and how it differs to what is used today.

The second half of the 19th century strikes me as an exciting period to have lived in. It was a time of possibility: new things were being invented regularly and people were wealthier, healthier and better educated. All of this is similar to the period we live in now. Yet for the people of the 19th century there was a cost to this development, particularly for those who worked in large industrial factories and lived alongside them. In the same vein, whilst we might be benefiting from the technological developments of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, we’re currently having to deal with the consequences of those developments.

Plastic pollution is just one of these consequences, and it’s something us archaeologists see all the time. Whilst we only investigate features that were created prior to the year 1900, we come across lots of 20th century rubbish pits. Many of these 20th century pits contain plastic objects, and these objects don’t look like they’ve aged a day. When we put plastic into the ground it’s going to be there for hundreds of years- no doubt future archaeologists will study plastic artefacts in the same way we study ceramic and glass now. By looking at life before plastic hopefully we’re able to imagine a future without it.

Spot the plastic. Image: A. Trendafilov.

Clara Watson

 

The Ng King Brothers Chinese Market Garden Settlement

Today on the blog we’re talking about an exciting project that we’ve been involved with over the past few months. In 2013 the Ashburton District Council took over stewardship of the Ng King Brothers Chinese Market Garden Settlement on Allens Road, Ashburton, making a commitment to administer the land as a reserve and to preserve the heritage values of the property. The Ng King Brothers were Chinese market gardeners, owning and operating the largest market garden in the South Island. In its heyday the gardens served people across the Ashburton district, with over 80 people lived at the property. Today it appears to be the only Chinese market gardening settlement with original buildings still intact in New Zealand (Baird 2017: 22).

Buildings from the Ng King Brothers Chinese Market Garden Settlement. Image: Baird 2017: 36.

The Ng family were a group of brothers from Taishan in the Guangdong province, China. The family settled in Gore in 1905, opening a laundry and a market garden, with more family members arriving from China in 1917 (Baird 2017: 7). Market gardening had become a common occupation for Chinese following the end of most goldmining in the 1890s. The Chinese adapted the gardening skills they had brought with them to the New Zealand climate, purchasing or leasing land to grow fruit and vegetables on that they then sold at markets or in shops.

The arrival of the Ng family to New Zealand came after the main period of early Chinese immigration that took place during the 1860s Otago goldrush. Chinese miners had gained a reputation on the Australian goldfields for working hard and living frugally and were invited to the Otago goldfields following the initial rush. The first Chinese miners arrived in Otago in 1865, providing a new workforce for the region after many of the original miners had moved on to goldfields in Hokitika and Nelson. By 1872 there were 4,700 Chinese in New Zealand, with many coming directly from China rather than via the Australian goldfields (Baird 2017: 7).

The move to a foreign country with a different people, language, culture and customs must have been daunting for the Ng family. This move was likely made even more difficult by the open hostility of New Zealanders towards the Chinese.  Despite the Chinese being invited to New Zealand in the 1860s, anti-Chinese sentiments had developed within the mostly white New Zealand population over the following decades. In 1881 the New Zealand government introduced a poll tax of £10 per person to discourage further Chinese immigration. This increased to £100 per person in 1896, with a reading test introduced later as well (Lam et al. 2018: 12). Further anti-Chinese legislation was introduced during the twentieth century, with a 1908 act denying the Chinese the right to become naturalised. This act remained in place until 1951, and under it Chinese had to register and report any changes to their name, address or employment with the police. Anti-Chinese settlement was strong at the start of the twentieth century, with organisations such as the Anti-Asiatic League, Anti-Chinese League, and the White New Zealand League appearing (Lam et al. 2018: 14).

A common sentiment among anti-Chinese groups was the perception that Chinese market gardeners were taking business away from European market gardeners. This view, expressed in newspapers of the time, was somewhat unfounded given Chinese fruiterers and greengrocers always made up less than half of the total fruiterers and greengrocers in New Zealand between 1874 and 1945 (Lam et al. 2018: 16). Image: Observer 12/12/1896: 11.

Following a flood that damaged their gardens in Gore, the Ng family moved to Ashburton in 1921 and established a market garden on Allens Road, trading under the name of King Bros. The name ‘King’ came from a mixture of the European pronunciation of Ng as ‘Ning’ and the name ‘Kane’ which was the middle part of four of the Ng brothers birth names (Baird 2017: 9). The King Bros were highly successful, and their garden became the largest in the South Island. The brothers travelled by horse and cart around the district to sell their vegetables, also running a store from one of the sheds in the yard on Allens Road. The horses and carts were replaced with trucks in the 1940s, with these travelling to Mt Somers, Mayfield, Chertsey, Rakaia, Hinds and Methven once a week to sell vegetables to the farms there (Lam et al. 2018: 113). In 1945 the King Bros established a fruit shop in Burnett Street. With the expansion of the business they began travelling to Christchurch to buy additional produce to sell at the store.

The King Bros partners in the 1930s. Image: Ashburton Museum and Historical Society Collection and Ng Family (Baird 2017: 7).

In 1964 Young King, along with his sons Yep, Hong and Tong, formed a partnership and took over the King Bros fruit shop in Burnett Street (Lam et al. 2018: 114). Young King was one of the original Ng brothers who formed the King Bros partnership. He came from the Wing Loon village in Taishan at age 15 to join his brothers in New Zealand. Like the rest of the Ng family members that were living in Ashburton, Young had a wife and children back in China, and he made several trips back to Taishan to visit them during the 1930s and 1940s. The poll-tax and other anti-Chinese legislation prevented Young from moving his family to New Zealand.

In 1938 the Japanese forces, that had previously invaded China in 1931, moved into southern China attacking the home villages of the New Zealand Chinese. Young’s family village was in the south and his family were living with the threat of the Japanese. After appeals by the New Zealand Chinese Association and the Presbyterian Church, the New Zealand government allowed Chinese refugees to flee to New Zealand. Between 1939 and 1941, 249 women and 244 children made the journey to New Zealand, joining their husbands and fathers that had previously been living alone (Lam et al. 2018: 17). In 1949 Young’s family was allowed to immigrate to New Zealand as war refugees and, following the legislation changes of the 1950s, the family became New Zealand citizens in 1963. The reuniting of families resulted in a new generation of Chinese New Zealanders that were born in New Zealand during and following the war years.

By the mid-twentieth century New Zealand perceptions of the Chinese had changed, and some of the outright racism seen in earlier decades had disappeared. During the war there were Chinese who enlisted to fight overseas, whilst others served the country by producing food for troops. In the 1950s the New Zealand government changed its stance on the Chinese, allowing them to become naturalised again. However, it wasn’t until 1986 that the immigration status of Chinese and European migrants was made equal. In 2002 the New Zealand government apologised to the Chinese people for the racist legislation that was enacted during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and established the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust as compensation.

View of a Chinese market garden during World War II. Ref: 1/4-001319-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.  /records/23130866.

The 1964 partnership between Young King and his sons Yep, Hong and Tong resulted in a new period of prosperity for the business. After they had taken over the shop on Burnett Street, the father and sons gutted and refitted the store, with the 1965 grand reopening reported in the newspapers. In 1966 they expanded, opening an additional store on Harrison Street. Young and Yep managed the daily running of the shops, whilst Hong and Tong bought produce at the markets to supply the shops, wholesale orders and the country runs (Lam et al. 2018: 114). The King Bros dominated the Ashburton market, supplying hotels, dairies, grocery stores, hospitals, boarding-houses, ski lodges, shearing gangs and Ministry of Work camps with fruit and vegetables (Lam et al. 2018: 115).

Richard Yee (left) and Young King (right) in a 1957 parade. Image: Ashburton Museum and Historical Society Collection and Ng Family (Baird 2017: 9).

The King Bros were one of the most well-known businesses in Ashburton and generations of Ashburtonians purchased their vegetables from the shop on Burnett Street. However, with the advent of supermarkets, business slowed. Hong left the partnership in the early 1980s whilst Tong managed the shop on Harrison Street until it sold in 1986. Family members moved into other ventures, with several shifting out of Ashburton. Yep King continued to run the shop in Burnett Street until his retirement in 2006 (Lam et al. 2018: 116).

The settlement on Allens Road played an important role in the development of the King Bros business. Buildings on the site included bedrooms for single men, houses for families, communal eating and dining rooms, a kitchen, an office, food storage sheds, garage and work sheds, a laundry and washroom, a school room and, of course, the shop. It was the home of various generations of the Ng King family and was once a busy and vibrant community. With the closing of the business and various family members embarking on other ventures, the settlement now sits empty.

As part of the Ashburton District Council’s stewardship of the property, the council has agreed to preserve the heritage values of the site. From this, Heritage New Zealand became involved in the project, and through them we were asked to volunteer our time. Whilst the Ng King Chinese Market Garden Settlement might not meet the definition of an archaeological site under the 2014 Pouhere Taonga Heritage New Zealand Act, it is still an archaeological site in its own right. Archaeology is the study of human history and culture through material remains, and is not limited to a specific time-period. Anything and everything from stone tools created by early hominids to flip-top cellphones from the early 2000s is and can be considered archaeology.

The Ng King Brothers Chinese Market Garden Settlement is significant for many reasons. It’s important to the descendants of the family, many of whom have fond memories of the place, it’s important to the Chinese community as the only known Chinese market gardening settlement that still has buildings intact, it’s important to the Ashburton district with the King Bros playing a prominent role in the history of the town, and it’s important to anyone who has a passion for local history and believes in the recording and protection of heritage. Treating the settlement as an archaeological site and using archaeological methods means that objects, that might be seen by some as old junk, are viewed as being part of the social fabric of the site and are properly catalogued and researched.

Our role in the project has been doing just that, cataloguing the objects that were found during some of the works at the site. We’re still in the middle of analysing the artefacts, and we’ll likely write a follow-up blog post later on in the year that goes into more detail on what exactly was found. But so far one of the most interesting classes of artefact material that we’ve found has been shoes. Lots of complete shoes, 29 so far, were recovered from the site, along with fragments from at least another 40. Shoes are one of those interesting artefacts as they’re so personal. Everything from the style of shoe to the wear patterns on the sole and if it’s been repaired speaks to the choices and actions of the person who wore it. It’s like that saying, “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”. Whilst the King Bros are still well-remembered by current Ashburton residents, that won’t always be the case as more time passes. By preserving the King Bros settlement, future generations may be able to walk around the buildings, look at items like the shoes and wonder what it was like to be a Chinese worker at a market garden in the mid-twentieth century.

Some of the many shoes found at the Ng King Brothers Chinese Market Garden Settlement, each able to tell a different story about the person who wore it. Image: E. Warwick.

Clara Watson

 Acknowledgements

Thanks to members of the King family for their feedback on this blog post and support of the project.

References

Baird, A. 2017. Ashburton Chinese Settlement Allens Road, Ashburton: Heritage & Restoration Assessment. Unpublished report for the Ashburton District Council.

Lam, R., B. Lowe, H. Wong, M. Wong, C. King. 2018. The Fruits of Our Labours: Chinese Fruit Shops in New Zealand Volume 1. Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust, Wellington.