Month: March 2019

Plugged in

With the predominance of mobile phones and portable telecommunication devices powered by numerous mobile networks in our lives today, it becomes increasingly hard to think back to, or in some cases, even imagine the time when any telephone conversation had was performed in a stationary location on a somewhat clunky contraption, which was firmly plugged into the wall.

1. Wall phone

 Ericsson Wall Mounted Telephone, 1880s. WRM Ref: 1993.23.2

The history of the telephone and its connected landline began in New Zealand in around 1877 when the news of telephony – the electrical transmission of sound – first reached our shores. In 1878 the Government set up wires between Dunedin and Milton to test the new invention, and thus the New Zealand telephone network began. In the very early days the Government demanded at least 30 subscribers for a telephone exchange to be viable, and by 1881, the first exchanges were introduced.

The new telephone system had wide appeal as a social tool, more so than the preceding telegraph operation, as it provided immediate voice contact and had no code to decipher.  Overhead cables began appearing across the nation connecting businesses and communities and the first telephone exchange system finally arrived in Whanganui in 1886.  Exchange operators were employed to sit and connect calls by inserting plugs into various sockets to connect calls.

At the time, telecommunications proved an important part of a newly emerging social fabric.  By the early 1900s the technology had advanced rapidly and the arrival of an automatic exchange increased the capacity of calls that could be made at one time. By 1919 New Zealanders had access to their first coin operated public telephones.

2. Pedestal phone

Upright pedestal or candlestick telephone, 1910s. WRM Ref: 1993.23.12

Most original phones were wall-mounted and furnished with timber and brass. By 1915 the upright pedestal or candlestick telephone was introduced. By the 1930s the square black Bakelite was a standard phone in most households

Also by the 1930s, all main centres in New Zealand were part of the national telephone network. Callers could contact the operator and pay a toll to connect between cities, and just about every home had subscribed to the network. By 1931 an international tolls service was extended for calls to Britain.

Interestingly, in 1939, New Zealand had more phones per head of population than any country except the USA, so the telephone was more or less a standard in every household, along with the specifically designated telephone table and chair.

3. Bakelite phone

Bakelite telephone, 1930s. WRM Ref: 1993.23.78

Despite growing rapidly in size, the telecommunications system remained more-or-less the same until the mid-1970s when the national network underwent a substantial upgrade to the STD (subscriber trunk or toll dialling) system. This meant a shift from the old party line, operator-based model to a more autonomous system.

The telephone models available still remained limited, but over time and by the late 1980s, the design and style of the humble telephone became more varied and increasingly more “modern” with push buttons instead of the circular rotary dial mechanisms. Likewise, telephones became design statements for any avid interior decorator, as the selection widened and they could be matched with décor.

Of course the arrival of mobile or portable phones in the mid-1980s was the early beginning of a massive wave of mobile device usage that we are all accustomed to today. Spare a minute to remember it wasn’t all that long ago when it was impossible to wander around the house while talking to someone on the telephone.

 

Rachael Garland is the Events Coordinator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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A Trick of the Eye

1. Stray Leaves

Stray Leaves by W F R Gordon, 1878. WRM ref: 1940.67.1

Stray Leaves is a dramatic drawing in pen, ink, watercolour and gold leaf. The drawing follows a particular art genre known as trompe l’oeil, from French, meaning to deceive the eye. It contains the realism of a photograph with a three dimensional visual depth and features over 70 different items, supposedly scattered on the artist’s table.

New Zealand artist William Francis Robert Gordon completed this remarkable work in 1878. Stray Leaves has been described as “The most remarkable still life drawing to have survived from colonial New Zealand” by Dr Roger Blackley, Associate Professor in the School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies at Victoria University.

2. Stray Leaves detail

Detail from Stray Leaves.

Each intricately drawn object is an insight into the artist’s interests and the events of the day. Some, like the inclusion of the title in Māori by Waata Hīpango, and a newspaper report of the sinking of the Avalanche in 1877 that had 25 Whanganui citizens on board, have specific local interest. Many of the objects reflect the means of communication of the era, contrasting strongly with television, mobile phones and emails of today.

Gordon worked in the Post Office in Whanganui at the time, and included correspondence and postal paraphernalia in this drawing. We can identify envelopes addressed to the Hon John Ballance, Member of the House of Representatives for Whanganui, and Sir Walter Buller, both notable local politicians and businessmen of that time. We can see newspapers and periodicals from around the world. Gordon, born in New South Wales, also left hints about his private life, such as the Parramatta steamer ticket used during his youth in that town.

Works in the trompe l’oeil style were a popular form of colonial art. Gordon first exhibited Stray Leaves in a Whanganui shop front in 1878 and later won prizes for it, including a gold medal, at industrial exhibitions in New Zealand and Australia between 1878 and 1904.

3. Bush attire

Sketch showing the Bush Attire adopted by Surveyors in New Zealand, by WFR Gordon, 1880s. WRM ref: 1935.59.25

He was known and admired for his cartoons and sketches. At one stage he worked as a draughtsman with surveying gangs in Taranaki and made a series of comic sketches of his workmates.

His most famous sketch, however, was of Te Whiti, the great Māori prophet and pacifist leader of the people of Parihaka in Taranaki. In 1880 Gordon attended a meeting at Parihaka where Te Whiti asked that no image of him be made. Gordon, however, surreptitiously sketched an image of Te Whiti on his shirtsleeve, later re-drawing it and filling in details. It was one of the few images of Te Whiti ever to be created.

Gordon was also a prolific photographer. A collection of his studio works of people, mainly from Taranaki, survives in Puke Ariki in New Plymouth.

Gordon died in New Plymouth in 1936. He bequeathed Stray Leaves to the Museum where it has been exhibited many times. In 2001 Dr Blackley curated an exhibition about colonial trompe l’oeil drawings in New Zealand at the Adam Art Gallery in Wellington. Stray Leaves featured in this exhibition, receiving national recognition and Blackley’s acclamation.

 

Libby Sharpe is Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.