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

Bits and Bobs (again)

It’s been a while since we last did one of these, so here are some of our most interesting finds from the past six months.

I love this plate, but really, how could you not?! A Roman soldier on a rearing horse standing on a plinth, very majestic. The Latin phrase in the maker’s mark Vincit Veritas translates as Truth Conquers or Truth Prevails, very fitting for the image. This phrase was used by C. and J. Shaw in all their marks, although it’s not known if they were the manufacturers of the vessels, or if they were retailers who applied their own mark to the wares they bought and sold. The pair seem to have been operating roughly between 1841 and 1850, making this plate over 150 years old! Image: C. Watson

Black beer bottles are one of the most common artefacts we find on archaeological sites (I know I promised you interesting finds at the start of this post, but they look so nice all lined up in a row). Black beer is a generic term applied bottles of this style. We divide that into four sub-types: tall, small, large squat and small squat to differentiate between the different shapes and sizes. Whilst they might be called black beers that doesn’t mean they contained beer, these were used as general bottles for all types of alcohol and spirits, along with non-alcoholic beverages and sometimes even condiments and essences. Image: C. Watson.

It’s always exciting when we find multiple plates with the same pattern- leads us to wonder if people were cleaning out their china cabinet, and if so, why? These plates are decorated with the Columbia pattern which was a serial pattern produced by a variety of manufacturers, meaning there’s lots of variations to the design (Coysh and Henrywood 1982: 90). Common elements of this pattern are the shrine, the trees, a central river, distant mountains, and figures in the foreground. These plates were made by Davenport, and due to the “2.65” mark we know they were manufactured in February of 1865 (Gibson 2011: 61). Image: C. Watson.

This style of button, known as a trouser button in Britain and a suspender button in America, was used to fasten work shirts and trousers (Lindbergh 1999: 52). The buttons were made from a single sheet of copper alloy and often have an inscription running around the edge- like this one! Image: C. Watson.

I think I may just like images of bottles all lined up in a row, as none of these are overly unusual either. I guess that’s because so many of the artefacts we find are just fragments, meaning when we have complete or near complete objects it’s always exciting, even if we’ve found them complete before. Here we have a selection of various sauce and salad oil bottles, my favourite is the one in the middle. Image: C. Watson.

How idyllic does the farmhouse depicted on this cup and saucer look. It seems very quaint and summery, possibly the perfect destination for a weekend getaway. Unfortunately, we don’t know who made the cup and saucer, or what the pattern is called, so I’m unable to offer any real commentary other than isn’t it lovely. Image: C. Watson.

This artefact is cool, even if I have absolutely no idea what it is. It’s made from leather and is folded into a roughly cuboid shape, although a crease running diagonally along the front face suggests it might once have been ovoid. There’s no stitching at all, although one side is open so there may have been and it’s worn away. But the thing that makes this artefact so interesting is the small wooden sphere which sits perfectly inside the hole- blocking it. Based on that, the running theory is that it was potentially some type of water bag or storage bag, but we’re really not that sure. The fun and games of finding weird objects! Image: C. Watson.

I assumed this pot lid was going to be for toothpaste when it first appeared on my desk. I was wrong. It actually held anchovy paste, which sounds absolutely revolting. When complete the pot lid would have read “REAL GORGONA/ ANCHOVY PASTE/ SO/ HIGHLY APPROVED OF/ FOR TOAST SANDWICHES &c”. I can certainly think of nicer things to put in a sandwich! Whilst there’s no brand name included on the lid it was most likely made by John Burgess who sold imported luxury foods, including anchovies that were caught by fishing boats off Leghorn, from 1760 onwards. Image: C. Watson.

If you’re into makeup then the brand Rimmel is probably familiar. Believe it or not the company was founded all the way back in 1834 by Eugene Rimmel and his son. Eugene Rimmel was a perfumer and we find these Rimmel perfume bottles relatively often, suggesting the brand was popular even back in the nineteenth century. Image: C. Watson.

Once again, I don’t know the maker of this bowl, or the pattern name. I just think it’s pretty. Image: C. Watson.

Clara Watson

References

Coysh, A., & Henrywood, R. 1982. The Dictionary of Blue and White Printed Pottery 1780-1880. Michigan: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1982.

Gibson, E. 2011. Ceramic Makers’ Marks. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.

Lindbergh, J. 1999. Buttoning Down Archaeology. Australasian Historical Archaeology, 17, 50–57.

Around the world in seven plates

Have you always wanted to travel the world? See the famous cathedrals of Europe? Smell the streets of China? Taste the spices of India? But travelling is expensive and everything’s just so damn far away, right? Well have we got the blog post for you. Sit back, relax (maybe even make a cup of tea), and prepare to go all the way around the world without even stepping out the front door.

We start our wild adventure around the globe in a country that may be familiar to some: England. Depicted on the plate below we can see the charming views of Nuneham Courtenay Park, located five miles south east of Oxford. Nuneham Courtenay was one of the most famous 18th century gardens, described by Horace Walpole as “the most beautiful in the world” (Coysh and Henrywood 1982: 399). The central scene of the plate is one which will be instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with England: a canal with a bridge and a lock-keeper’s thatched cottage. A riverside walk ran along the canal, allowing visitors to get the full experience of the quaint landscape. In the background on the left side is the Nuneham Park house, the seat of Earl Harcourt, whilst in the centre is a building that was never actually built. A gothic tower was designed to be built on the hill but the building never eventuated, meaning the plate shows what could have been, but never was. The gardens are still there if you fancy seeing them yourself!

Wild Rose patterned plate. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

From England we travel to the continent and the charming Swiss city of Lucerne, located on the banks of the River Reuss where it flows out of Lake Lucerne. In the background of the image is a building with two pointed spires. This is most likely the Church of St. Leodegar, named for the city’s patron saint. The church sits on the banks of Lake Lucerne, with a charming Swiss chalet standing on the opposite bank. The view on the plate depicts Lucerne as the ideal getaway spot, a nice quiet holiday location with stunning scenery.

Lucerne patterned plate. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

Is it really a European holiday if you didn’t go to Greece? The cradle of civilisation, founder of democracy, home of Euripides, Aeschylus, and Homer. In the chamber pot below you can explore the wonders of the ancient city of Corinth, with ruins of Greek temples located in the foreground. Classical ruins not really your thing? Then hop across to the gothic city, located just over the body of water. Does modern day Corinth have classical ruins lying next to Gothic buildings? Not according to a google image search I did, but hey, what more do you expect from travelling somewhere via a chamber pot. I’m sure if we were looking at Corinth from a plate there would be more classical temples and less medieval cities.

Corinth patterned chamber pot (it’s not a plate, but around the world in six plates and a chamber pot doesn’t sound as catchy). Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

Whilst Europe might be ideal for viewing gothic style churches and classical architecture, it’s a road well-travelled for us Kiwis. This trip around the world is meant to be an adventure, full of far-flung spots around the globe. Enter Saudi Arabia. We’ve now travelled to Medina, located about two hundred miles north of Mecca. Medina is a holy city, containing the tomb of Muhammad in its main mosque, and attracts many pilgrims who visit the city on their way to Mecca. As you can see from the scene depicted on the plate, it features everything you would expect to see in the Middle East: mosques in the background, palms trees in the foreground, and most importantly camels!

Medina patterned plate. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

Now, let us go east. East to India! On the plate below, we can see four exotic birds flying around and landing on a willow tree. Rather than showing us a place, this plate evokes a feeling of exoticness, displaying flora and fauna we wouldn’t see at home. From the name of the pattern we can deduce it refers to the Indian city of Madras (modern day Chennai). Madras was the location of an East India Company outpost, Fort of St. George, which became the main administrative centre for the British in India. No doubt tales of the city by soldiers and traders inspired the potters back in England to recreate the essence of India in dinner ware form.

Madras patterned plate. Image: C. Watson.

India not far enough east for you? Then let’s go further along to China. The delightful scene depicted below is inspired by the city of Amoy (modern day Xiamen). Amoy is located in the Fujian Province, beside the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese port city was captured by the British in 1841 during the First Opium War. The Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 made Amoy one of the first five ports opened to British trade. The scene shown on the tea wares below was made in 1844, only a few years after the arrival of the British (Coysh and Henrywood 1982: 21). The scene shows two Chinese figures resting beneath a parasol, with exotic flora surrounding them.

Amoy patterned tea wares. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

Sometimes the best part of an overseas adventure is coming home. Therefore, we end our journey where we started it –  in New Zealand. This plate shows the Defiance Pattern (see a complete version here).This plate was part of a set of patterns made by Grimwades in the 1930s, referred to as “Maori ware”. The patterns show idealised scenes of Māori life, with Māori in traditional dress standing in front of whare and performing actions such as hongi or whakairo (carving). Whilst Māori ware appears very kitsch to modern tastes and raises questions about the appropriation of indigenous culture for souvenir items, it is part of a wider theme of depicting exotic views on table wares, one which began in the century before.

Defiance Pattern, an example of “Maori ware” by Grimwades. Image: C. Watson.

The vessels shown on the blog today were manufactured in England and probably designed by people who had never visited any of these countries. Instead designs were often based off the drawings or accounts of people who had. The eastern-most cities, Madras and Amoy, were British outposts, showing how the expansion of the British Empire inspired the imagination of the people back home. I think it’s quite interesting we get transfer ware depicting exotic scenes in New Zealand, arguably a location which in itself was very exotic for 19th century settlers. Whilst there are patterns such as Wild Rose which depict scenes of England, those are far outweighed by the patterns depicting classical, medieval, and exotic places.

What does this all mean? Why do we find so many dinner wares decorated with images of exotic places? I think you can look at it in two ways. Firstly, perhaps the people coming to New Zealand had an internal adventuring spirit, a hunger for the exotic. Even though they already found themselves in a country unfamiliar to the one they grew up in, they were excited by the thought of distance lands and intentionally purchased table wares depicting far-off countries. Alternatively, it could all be a case of availability and popularity. In our adventure around the globe we did not visit America, despite the fact there were many different American inspired patterns manufactured by the Staffordshire potters. The lack of any American views in our finds from Christchurch would suggest American themed dinner wares were not shipped to New Zealand, and instead were manufactured specifically for the American market. We don’t know yet if there were patterns made specifically for the New Zealand market, but its likely there was a limited range of patterns available at least when compared with what was being manufactured in England. In regards to popularity, British expansionism in the 19th century led to great interest around foreign cities and cultures, with that interest inspiring new trends in ceramic design. It may be that the owner of the Medina patterned plate purchased it simply because it was trendy, and not because they liked to picture themselves riding on a camel towards the sunset.

So many things to ponder, clearly the sign of an excellent trip. Travelling broadens the horizons, exposes us to new and different cultures, and forces us to reflect on our own culture –  often leading to questions of why we do things the way we do. Whilst we may have only travelled through plates (and a chamber pot) today, we are still left with the same questions regarding our own culture and history, and how we fit in a global world.

Clara Watson

References

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

 

 

 

Early Christchurch women, breaking the rules: the exhibition.

The ideal Victorian woman

In Victorian society, a woman was to be meek, mild, virtuous and peaceful (Whiteside 2007). She was expected to marry and have children. She would stay at home, looking after her children and her husband and keeping the house perfectly. Public affairs were men’s matters, although a woman might engage in charitable or other social works, but nothing that could in any way be construed as ‘masculine’. She was selfless – everyone else always came first. She certainly wasn’t involved in politics, and nor did she run a business. At least, that was the theory!

Left: M Heslop & Co (Christchurch) fl 1870s: Portrait of unidentified man, woman and child. Ref: PA2-2063. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23056667. Right: well, it would be an alternative middle class family! Image: Observer 14/11/1903.

In fact, this standard was mostly applied to middle class women, and it seems to have been much less unusual for working class women to, well, work. But there were middle class women who broke these ‘rules’ of Victorian society too, in a range of ways. Discovering the lives of a number of these women in 19th century Christchurch – and our fascination with their ‘hidden’ lives – has led us to curate an exhibition: Women breaking the rules. You can see the physical display at Rewind at Ferrymead Heritage Park on Sunday 14 October, and also follow these women’s stories online via our Instagram exhibition @womenbreakingtherules.

Designed by A. Gibson.

But regardless of class, women were always defined in relation to the men in their life, whether father, brother or husband. So, being a spinster could be difficult and challenging. Much as we might not like it in this day in age, men provided often critical financial security for the women in their lives, particularly in a world where there was no pension or unemployment benefit, let alone a domestic purposes benefit. In fact, there was no state support of any kind in New Zealand until the end of the 19th century, and the poor were reliant on charities for support.

Unlike spinsters, widows seem to have had far more freedom and to have been more ‘respectable’ than unmarried women. While their situation might have been financially difficult, the range of jobs society approved of them taking on was broader than the range available for single women. And widows – as in some of the stories here – often ended up running their husband’s businesses, meaning they took on a variety of professions (Bishop 2012).

Women and work

Yes, women did work in the Victorian era! And not just as domestic servants – although this was far and way the most common occupation for women. In fact, some women ran businesses of their own. The jobs that women took on, though, and even many of the businesses they ran, tended to involve caring, or to be domestic in character. Jobs like teaching or nursing were both acceptable for middle class women (Bishop 2012).

Working class women could take on quite a range of work: dressmaker, needlework, hotelkeeping, storekeeping, confectionary, haberdashery, drapery and so on. Women could also earn money by taking in boarders, doing laundry or by looking after other women’s children. And let’s not ignore that they could be prostitutes. These were all ways of earning money that might fly under the radar and not be recorded officially (Bishop 2012).

Just relaxing under a tree, along with other women, working in the seaside or the countryside, riding a horse… working women and classy ones, all sort of women depicted through the artefacts! Image: J. Garland, C. Watson and M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Telling women’s stories

As regular readers of the blog will know, researching the lives of most people who lived in 19th century New Zealand is tricky – official records can be patchy or may not even exist (Minchinton 2017). People only turned up in the newspapers if they were famous, got in trouble or were advertising for servants, leasing or selling properties. Unless someone has a really unusual name, you often can’t be certain you’re researching the right person.

Mary Portelli, the antithesis of the Victorian ideal, a woman in endless trouble! Images. Right: Star 29/05/1895: 3. Left: Southland Times 20/09/1906: 2.

Studying women’s lives is even harder. For one thing, they changed their surname when they married. Then, they were often referred to only as Mrs…, without their first name, or including their husband’s name instead – for example, Mrs L. J. Smith. Women who ran businesses often traded under their husband’s name, or didn’t advertise at all (Bishop 2012). And, in general, women’s activities meant they didn’t end up in the newspaper.

The branded china L. J. Smith – and presumably Elizabeth, L. J. Smith’s wife – used at events he organised as caterer. Image: C. Dickson.

Despite these difficulties, archaeology and history reveal the lives of six Christchurch women who, in one way or another, broke the rules of late 19th and early 20th century society: Fanny Cole, prohibitionist; Elizabeth Robinson, chemist; Sarah Gault, dressmaker; Elizabeth Smith, caterer; Caroline Rantin, timber and coal merchant; and Mary Portelli, woman in trouble.

There are no Māori women in this exhibition, unfortunately, because we’ve not found any record of Māori women living in 19th century Christchurch. This isn’t to say that they weren’t, just that we’ve not found them yet. If you want to learn more, we highly recommend checking out the book He Reo Wāhine: Māori Women’s Voices from the Nineteenth Century.

Why are these women important?

These six women were not the only exceptional ones who broke the rules. It turns out that there were many more women pushing the boundaries of Victorian society than we initially expected. The six women we’ve featured in this exhibition serve to highlight the lives and occupations of all these women, along with their concerns and daily battles and how they struggled against what was accepted and respectable (Whiteside 2007), whilst working within the confines of the ideals of that time. But slowly, slowly, pushing these boundaries would come to change society as a whole. So, let’s look at the archaeology and the historical record and bring women into the picture!

This exhibition is a joint production between Underground Overground Archaeology and the Christchurch Archaeology Project.

Katharine Watson and Maria Lillo Bernabeu

References 

Bishop, Catherine, 2012. “Commerce Was a Woman: Women in Business in Colonial Sydney and Wellington.” PhD thesis, Australian National University.

Minchinton, Barbara, 2017. “’Prostitutes’ and ‘lodgers’ in Little Lon: construction a list of occupiers in nineteenth-century Melbourne”. Australasian Historical Archaeology, 35, pp. 64-70.

Whiteside, Heidi, 2017. “’We Shall Be Respectable’: Women and Representations of Respectability in Lyttelton 1851-1893”. MA thesis, University of Canterbury.

A tea cup as a symbol of political change

As a 90s baby millennial, Helen Clark was Prime Minister from the time I started primary school to the time I started high school. I grew up in a world where in the eyes of a child there was never any doubt that a woman could be Prime Minister, and that if I wanted to be Prime Minister when I grew up then I could be. For me, being a girl was never a limitation. I’m lucky that I was born in the 1990s. If I had been born in the 1890s, my opportunities, and likely my own beliefs about what I was capable of, would have been far more limited.

Nineteenth century sentiments surrounding the role of women in society seems simply outlandish today. Image: Wright 1902.

On this day, 125 years ago, the Electoral Act 1893 was passed giving all women in New Zealand the right to vote. The success of the suffragettes was only the start of gaining equal political rights for women. It took until 1933 for the first woman to be elected as a Member of Parliament, until 1941 for women to have the right to sit on the Legislative Council and until 1997 for there to be a female Prime Minister (Ministry for Culture and Heritage 2018). Today 38 percent of our Members of Parliament are women, the highest number ever elected.

The 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage is an important marker in the campaign for women’s rights. It gives us an opportunity to look back and reflect on how far we have come as a society, but also to remember the women who campaigned for suffrage. One such woman was Ada Wells. Ada Wells was a prominent Christchurch suffragette, the first secretary of the National Council of Women of New Zealand, the co-founder of the Canterbury Women’s Institute and the first woman to be elected to the Christchurch City Council (Fogarty 1993). To put it simply, she was a bit of a bad-ass. Ada came to our attention as we recently excavated the property she was living at during the 1890s suffrage campaign. In celebration of the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage, we are dedicating this blog post to Ada Wells and will be discussing her life along with what we found of her in the archaeological record.

Ada was born as Ada Pike on the 29th of April 1863, in Shepherd’s Green, Oxfordshire, England (Fogarty 1993). When she was ten years old she travelled on Merope with her parents, three sisters and one brother, arriving in Lyttelton on the 31st October 1873. She attended Avonside School for two years before switching to Christchurch West School where she went on to work as a pupil-teacher between the ages of 14 and 18. Ada was naturally intelligent and had a great interest in languages and classics. In 1881 she was awarded a university junior scholarship and went on to complete the first stage of her BA at Canterbury College. From there she was employed briefly as an assistant teacher at Christchurch Girls High School (Fogarty 1993).

Photograph of Ada Wells taken circa 1910 by an unidentified photographer. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library .

When she was 20 years old Ada married organist Harry Wells. They went on to have three daughters and one son. Despite being a prominent Christchurch musician, Harry was a drunkard with a volatile temper and was unable to hold down a steady job (Fogarty 1993). Harry’s drinking meant Ada had to support the family, taking on teaching positions and accepting private patients for massage and healing. In the late 1880s Ada became involved with the suffragette movement. She had always held strong beliefs on women’s rights and the campaign allowed her to put those beliefs into action. Her organisational talents and passion for the cause meant she played a critical role in the success of the movement (Fogarty 1993).

Ada Wells’ signature on the 1893 Suffrage Petition.

For Ada, the 1893 suffrage campaign was only the start of a long life of campaigning. The year prior to women winning the vote she had founded the Canterbury Women’s Institute, of which she was president for many years. She became the first national secretary of the National Council of Women of New Zealand in 1896, and in 1899 was elected to the Ashburton and North Canterbury United Charitable Aid Board (Fogarty 1993). She argued in favour of free kindergartens, universal access to secondary education, the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act 1869, as well as the reform of local government, the charitable aid system and prisons. In 1917 she became the first woman to be elected to the Christchurch City Council (Fogarty 1993).

National Council of Woman, Christchurch, 1896. Ada is the woman seated on the floor on the left. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library.

Ada passed away in 1933, ending a life time of fighting for women’s rights. Her role in the success of suffragette movement cannot be over-stated. Philippa Fogarty (1993) says it best when she writes, “She played a pivotal role in the advancement of women and was a tireless campaigner in the fight for women’s equality and economic independence…Wells’s contribution to Christchurch, especially in the interests of women and children, was invaluable and sadly is often overlooked.”

Between 1892 and 1898, Ada and Harry Wells were living at a property on Mays Road. During our excavations at the property we uncovered three features containing artefacts which were likely deposited by the family. These features were all rubbish deposits. The assemblage was notable in that it was dominated by ceramic artefacts, many of which could be refitted.

Broseley patterned tea ware vessels. Image: C. Watson.

Asiatic Pheasants patterned table wares and serving wares. Image: C. Watson.

Top Row: Pompadour patterned plate, Bo’ness Daisy Chain patterned side plate. Bottom row: Madras patterned plate, European porcelain can, Frightened Ducklings patterned pitcher (Frightened Ducklings is an excellent pattern choice as who wouldn’t want to look at baby ducklings being attacked by giant flying insects while eating dinner). Image: C. Watson.

These ceramic artefacts were vessels connected to taking tea or eating food, with many of the tea serving vessels decorating in the Broseley pattern, and many of the dining vessels decorated in the Asiatic Pheasants and Pompadour patterns. This suggests to us that the Wells family, presumably Ada specifically, were using sets of vessels rather than mismatched pieces when serving tea or food. Having ceramic sets in fashionable patterns was just one of the many components of keeping a good house in Victorian era New Zealand. Ada was no doubt often entertaining guests at her house as part of her campaigning efforts, and likely put in special effort to portray the image she kept a good house so as not to let her critics argue that her life in politics was at the detriment of her role as a mother and wife. Whilst we can’t know for sure, the completeness of many of the vessels suggests they were thrown away intact. The 1890s was a particularly successful period for Ada, and it may be that during this time she purchased new sets, throwing away the older ones.

Harry Wells’ drinking was likely a strong motivator for Ada in her political work. Women in the nineteenth century were tied to their husbands, even if their husbands were abusive. Domestic abuse was a strong motivator for women to join reform movements, with many involved in both the temperance movement and the suffragette movement. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union united the causes and many suffragettes were also supporters of temperance. We found alcohol bottles in the Wells’ assemblage, suggesting that despite Ada’s efforts politically, Harry probably still consumed alcohol at home. Interestingly though, these bottles were all smaller pint sizes. It is possible that Harry was purchasing alcohol in smaller bottles, which were easier to conceal, and was only consuming alcohol at home on the sly. Alternatively, the bottles may not have held alcohol at all, and could have been reused for a completely different substance as was sometimes done in nineteenth century bottle reuse.

Alcohol bottles found at Ada and Harry Wells’ property. Image: C. Watson.

Along with all her work politically, Ada was also a mother. Ada’s role as a mother was seen in the archaeology through the presence of children’s toys. The doll’s head we found at the property was unique in that it had an additional piece of ceramic inlaid inside the head to give the appearance of teeth. The detail of the teeth would indicate that it was probably a rather lovely doll with lots of unique features. However, in its current state, with the missing eyes and sharp pointed teeth, it looks rather terrifying.

What was once likely someone’s treasured toy now resembles something out of a horror movie. Image: C. Watson.

Ada Well was a strong activist for women’s rights, and her work, along with the work of her fellow suffragettes, helped to shape society to how it is today. I think it can be quite easy to be complacent about how much society has changed in the past 125 years. So much of the Victorian material culture we deal with is instantly recognisable to us. We see artefacts like plates, bottles, tea cups, and instantly know what they are because they are objects we use every day. There is a danger to that instant recognition, as we associate the objects with how we would use them and in doing so can forget there would have been different uses for objects, and different social customs surrounding that use. It also easy to forget that people had agency and were not passively constrained to their position in society. Ada Wells and her fellow suffragettes were active agents in changing the role of women in society, using and manipulating material culture in the process of doing so. Are Ada Wells’ teacups simply vessels used to serve tea in? Or, are they symbols of political change, sipped from during meetings discussing how to change the lives of New Zealand women for the better?

Suffrage 125 reminds us that nineteenth century New Zealand was a vastly different place to modern New Zealand. The work of suffragettes such as Ada Wells helped to change the role of women in society, a role which is still changing and being re-defined today.

Clara Watson

References

Fogarty, P. 1993. ‘Wells, Ada’ in Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara- the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. Available: https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2w11/wells-ada (accessed 19 September 2018).

Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 2018. Women’s Suffrage Milestones. Available: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/womens-suffrage/suffrage-milestones (accessed 19 September 2018).

New Zealand. General Assembly Library. National Council of Women, Christchurch. Ref: 1/2-041798-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22694035.

Photograph of Ada Wells from Woman Today magazine. Ref: 1/2-C-016534-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22728937.

Wright, Henry Charles Clarke. 1902. Notice to epicene women. Electioneering women are requested not to call here. 12706-Alex Ferguson, Printer, Wellington. Available: http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=24361&l=en.