Author: Whanganui Regional Museum

Women wearing the pants

Viewed from the liberal-minded 21st century, it is interesting to look at the stifling attitudes of the past, particularly relating to clothing. Men have shed the waistcoats and stiff collars required at the beginning of the twentieth century and women have cast out the corset and voluminous underwear. Some schools today are moving towards non-gender specific uniforms and allowing their students to wear whatever style they are comfortable with.

Today it is common for women to wear trousers, but a little over a hundred years ago a woman wearing trousers in public was scandalous, unless it was for a breeches role, in which case it was hilarious. Following the tradition of a young man playing the female roles in Shakespearean theatres, a breeches role involved a woman playing the role of a young man.

This developed into male impersonation, which became a popular music hall entertainment from the mid-nineteenth century. Female actors would dress in masculine clothes and act in an exaggeratedly stereotypical male fashion. They would perform scenes, tell stories and jokes, and sing and dance, either on their own or as part of a group.

The Museum holds a collection of postcards sent to the Nixon daughters of Whanganui, which contains a number of collectible postcards of famous male impersonators of the time.

Miss Vesta Tilley, dressed as a dapper gentleman.
WRM Ref: 2008.33.1 47C

Miss Vesta Tilley is dressed as a dandy gentleman. Born Matilda Alice Powles in 1864 in England, she made her stage debut at age three and performed her first male character at age six. She preferred male roles, stating she felt she could express herself better in male clothing. She adopted the stage name Vesta Tilley at age 11, by which time she was so successful that she was solely supporting her family. She married Walter de Frece in 1890 and died in 1952 aged 88. The sender of this postcard has written on the back, “How do you like this style? This girl is the highest paid actress in England. What a well-fitting coat she is wearing.”

Miss Tittell Brune in military uniform.
WRM Ref: 2008.33.1 15B

Miss Tittell Brune is wearing a military uniform. Born Minnie Tittell in 1875 in San Francisco, she had her first acting role as Little Jim in Lights of London at age four. Following this her mother placed her in a convent for a year but she continued acting afterwards, taking both male and female roles. She married Clarence Marion Brune in 1899. Although not well known in America she was a major figure in Australian theatres with her career peaking between 1904 and 1909. Minnie often claimed she felt conflicted working as an actress, while maintaining her devout Catholic faith. When she was widowed in 1935, she joined the Order of St Francis and lived a quiet life until her death in 1974 aged 99.

Miss Gabrielle Ray as a sailor.
WRM Ref: 2008.33.3 70D

Miss Gabrielle Ray is dressed as a sailor. Born Gabrielle Elizabeth Clifford Cook in 1883 in England, she had her first role at age 10 in London’s West End where her acting, dancing and beauty were quickly noticed. After experiencing great success in male and female roles, Miss Ray retired from the stage and married Eric Loder in 1912, but divorced in 1914 after his unfaithfulness. She briefly returned to the West End in 1915 before opting for provincial theatres, retiring again in 1924. She suffered from depression and alcohol abuse that lead to a breakdown in 1936 when she was institutionalised. She died in 1973 aged 90.

Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Haydn Beck, Child Prodigy

Haydn Beck was an acclaimed child prodigy from Whanganui. He was a talented violinist and performed publicly at an early age. Born in 1899, his first reported performance was in 1907. The Wanganui Chronicle wrote that he played J S Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor and, among other works, played a piece that he had composed. From here on, he gave many concerts in his hometown and in Marton, Palmerston North and Feilding. Later, he and his brother Harold performed throughout New Zealand and Australia. In 1909, a group of Whanganui citizens set up a trust fund to pay for Haydn to continue his musical studies in Europe.

Haydn Beck, violinist. Photograph by FJ Denton c1905. Sarjeant Art Gallery Collection Ref: 1965/1/5

Haydn came from a musical family. He was trained rigorously by his father, James Laurian Beck. Laurian, as he was known, taught violin, cello and musical theory from his premises named Harmony Hall in Bell Street. He had studied violin and theory in England and graduated from the College of Violinists in January 1894. Back in Whanganui, he taught all his children: Haydn on violin, younger brother Harold on cello and daughter Dorice on piano. Laurian organised concerts, gave violin recitals and composed, his most well-known effort being Zealandia Barn Dance. He was also leader of the Wanganui Orchestral Society.

Haydn’s mother Wilhelmina Susanne Beck died in April 1912. In October that year, Haydn and his brother Harold, along with their father, boarded RMS Remuera for England. From there Haydn crossed to Belgium where he attended the Brussels Conservatorium, achieving highest honours in the Second Prix and ranked as a senior student. World War I, however, interrupted his studies. He was visiting the city of Namur when nearby Liège was invaded by the German Army. The Wanganui Chronicle reported a series of incidents where Haydn was taken prisoner when he was sketching fortifications, suspected of being a German spy. He was released and ordered to leave Namur (which was besieged very soon after) and his violin was accidently crushed at the railway station as he tried to leave. He managed to reach Ostend and sailed for England, diverted by a British submarine on the way, from Dover to Folkestone. He continued his violin studies in England.

Haydn Beck concert advertisement, from the Wanganui Chronicle 5 December 1910.

By December 1915, Haydn was conducting a concert in His Majesty’s Theatre in Whanganui for the benefit of the Wounded Soldiers Fund to which £43 was added. He was reported to have “… [p]roved himself a master conductor, controlling the orchestra of 50 players with ease and precision”. In 1919, Haydn and Harold went on an acclaimed tour of the North Island. Haydn moved at some stage to Australia and his career successes were periodically reported in the press.

In March 1939, the Covent Garden Russian Ballet gave ten performances conducted by Antal Dorati where “the orchestra was led by the New Zealand violinist Haydn Beck.” Later he was leader of the Australian Broadcasting Company Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He became conductor of the Marrickville Municipal Symphony Orchestra in 1947. By 1953, he was leader of the Jay Wilbur Strings Ensemble, which broadcast on ABC twice weekly. Haydn married Adelaide Helena Barbosa Sottomayor Neuparth, from a Portuguese family in 1958. He died in Portugal in 1983.

Haydn, James Laurian, and Harold Beck in evening dress, c1910. WRM Ref: 1802.8733

Harold Beck was no slouch either. He joined the New South Wales State Orchestra in 1920. In 1922, he went to Christchurch where he became a highly respected and very active player and musical administrator. He was a member of the first Broadcasting Trio and conductor of numerous broadcasting ensembles. In 1926, Laurian Beck also moved to Christchurch and established a music teaching practice. He died there in 1932.

In 1937, Harold moved to Australia and in 1938 became principal cellist in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. After moving to England, Harold joined the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Philharmonia, and in 1949 became principal cellist of the Hallé Orchestra under John Barbirolli. In 1956, he became principal cellist with the London Symphony Orchestra.                                  

Libby Sharpe is senior curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

John Morgan – soldier, farmer, artist

John Morgan was born in Gillingham in Dorset, England, in 1829. He and his brother grew up seeing their father and friends struggle to meet the lease demands of greedy landowners and saw many a young man fail to establish a farm in what John viewed as a corrupt Crown leasehold system. They decided to try their luck in a thriving new colony and migrated to New Zealand aboard the Berkshire.

Pen and ink drawing of Balmoral Castle completed by John Morgan in 1901. WRM Ref: 1970.95.1

The brothers landed in New Plymouth in 1850 and worked as labourers, earning 3s 6d a day each; riches compared to the measly 1s a day rates in England. Their first venture in farming was unsuccessful with their land in Omata, Taranaki, producing a limited harvest. They sold up and purchased a larger block of land in Tataraimaka in Taranaki, which fared better.

A work trip to Whanganui and both brothers preparing to marry brought more change. On 21 December 1853, John married Mary Elvina Faull, who had migrated to New Zealand as a young girl in 1841. They began the move to Whanganui on 1 January 1854 and arrived eight days later, where they worked for John Treweek at Kai Iwi. They moved into town where John earned 5s per day at Taylor & Watt before heading back to New Plymouth briefly and finally coming back to Whanganui.

Pen and ink drawing published as a postcard, featuring photograph of the artist John Morgan, 1913. WRM Ref: 1802.8730

A successful farmer, John Morgan purchased the 700-acre estate Newtonlees near Lake Wiritoa in 1861, where he and Mary settled to work and raise their six sons and four daughters. They stayed on the land for 40 years before retiring and relocating to town.

Morgan was involved in the New Zealand Wars, taking the position of Ensign. As well as offering the paddocks and barn at Newtonlees as a training and accommodation site for the Alexandra Troops, he made a tidy profit from selling the meat from his beasts to supply them. His knowledge of the district also proved to be very useful to the military staff who were stationed to the area.

Back at home after the wars, Morgan was an advocate of applying science to farming and encouraged others to keep up-to-date with new farming technologies. He was the first farmer to introduce the Samuelson Mowing Machine to New Zealand, and the first in the district to import Hampshire Down sheep.

A floral postcard completed by John Morgan in 1909. WRM Ref: 1981.51.22

Morgan was actively involved in local and national politics, serving as the Whangaehu Member of the Wellington Provincial Council from 1868-1876. He also served on the first Agricultural Association, the first Wanganui Harbour Board, and helped to have the tolls on the Town Bridge abolished in 1882, which proved very beneficial to the region.

Personally, he was a faithful member of the Trinity Methodist Church, and was greatly respected as an honest man who kept his word and was well liked and trusted.

In his later years Morgan suffered from rheumatism and sciatica. As moving became more difficult he turned to more genteel pastimes and took up drawing. Pen and ink was his preferred media and he completed a number of well-received works before passing away on 1 May 1916.

Botanicals seemed to be his favourite theme, but he also sketched castles and other buildings from his home country. A number of his drawings were printed as postcards. Several painting remain with the family, and the Whanganui Regional Museum has 10 of his works in its collection.

Huia, a lost treasure

In the Whanganui Regional Museum collection is a rare and precious recording of a huia call, a bird that was last seen alive in the early 1900s. The recording is actually a man whistling, imitating the hauntingly beautiful sounds made by the bird. It forms part of a significant collection of huia-related taonga, including taxidermied specimens, huia beak jewellery and feathers, paintings and photographs of people wearing huia feathers in their hair and a wide variety of artefacts depicting huia.

The huia (Heteralocha acutirostris) was endemic to New Zealand and lived in forested mountain ranges of the central and lower North Island. The last official sighting of a huia was made in 1907, though some birds may have survived until the 1920s or even later. Everything we know about this precious species is pieced together from observations made a long time ago and from preserved specimens held in museums.

Pair of taxidermied huia, the male on the left, showing the distinctive differences in their beaks. WRM Ref: TO.549 & TO.550

Unlike other birds, male and female huia had very different shaped beaks that they used for feeding co-operatively. The male used his dagger-like beak to make holes in rotten tree trunks while the female used her long slender curved beak to extract the tasty grubs and insects from inside the trees. The impressively long, curved beak of the female was especially popular for making jewellery, such as brooches, in colonial New Zealand when brooches were a fashionable adornment item.


Taxidermied female huia in profile, showing the long curved beak. WRM Ref: 1800.297

Huia were very important to Māori, demonstrated by the widespread use of huia feathers worn in the hair to signify high social status. Huia feathers were stored in waka huia, intricately carved lidded boxes that could be suspended from the rafters of a whare (house) to keep the precious contents safe. Portraits in the Lindauer Gallery in the Museum show men and women wearing up to four huia feathers in their hair.

By the 1880s, huia were already becoming rare. There were plans to transfer pairs of huia to Kāpiti and Little Barrier Island reserves to keep them safe but they did not come to fruition. If huia were alive today, we would be putting the same tremendous efforts into saving them as we do for the kākāpō, hihi, takahē and other extremely endangered species.

Taxidermied male huia in profile.
WRM Ref: NO.1270

In Victorian times, public attitudes were very different and the increasing rarity of the birds made them even more strongly sought after. During just one month in 1863, Walter Buller recorded the collection of 646 huia from the Manawatū area. Between 1877 and 1889, Andreas Reishek, an Austrian naturalist, collected 212 pairs, which he sold overseas. Museums were especially keen to have a pair of these rare birds because the difference between the male and female beaks was so pronounced. Thousands of huia were exported, some for museum displays. Others were sold for their tail-feathers alone, which became a popular fashion item after a the Duke of York and Cornwall, later King George V,  wore one in his hatband during a visit to New Zealand in 1901.

The collection of taxidermied huia and related artefacts in our Museum is a sad reminder of what we have lost.

Margie Beautrais is the Educator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

The Savage Years

When the Whanganui Regional Museum settled back into its splendidly restored Watt Street headquarters after earthquake strengthening in 2019, a number of visitors commented that it is good to see it back in its “original” home. In fact, the stripped classical front building of the Museum was not its first location.

Wanganui Public Museum soon after 1895 when the building formally opened. Photograph by Dick Hofma Ltd, Wanganui, around 1900. WRM Ref: 1802.3363

The Museum actually had its origins in the front parlour of Mr Samuel Drew, jeweller, collector and taxidermist who, in the 1890s, was persuaded by Whanganui citizens, possibly led by his put-upon family, to close his private museum. The collection was sold at a considerable discount to a newly established museum trust to be put on exhibition in a purpose-built venue in Queens Park. When Drew hosted a preview of the new Wanganui Public Museum in 1894, the Wanganui Chronicle hailed it as “a valuable and comprehensive collection of exhibits, classified and arranged on the most artistic and yet practical system”.

Within 25 years, despite doubling in size, the Museum was plainly too small to contain the burgeoning collection and the crowds who came to see it. Funds were duly raised and the current premises opened to the public in 1928. The building left behind was now ready to embark on its surprising second act.

Dominion Savage clubs conference held in the Wanganui Savage Club hall. Photograph by Tesla Studios, 1948. WRM Ref: 2016.60.6

The first Savage Club was founded in London in 1857, named with heavy irony after a disreputable minor eighteenth century poet. It was a men-only social club with a particular emphasis on the literary arts and a tradition of members entertaining meetings with impromptu songs and recitals. An astonishing line-up of famous names joined the club at one time or another, including Charlie Chaplin, Dylan Thomas, Robert Falcon Scott, Harry Secombe, P G Wodehouse, Peter Ustinov and three British kings. More recently, the Duke of Edinburgh and Alex James from Britpop band Blur have been members.

Savage clubs travelled with the British Empire, arriving in New Zealand in the 1880s.The Wanganui [sic] branch was established in 1891, with Samuel Drew among its most active members. Expanding on the original model, it was based on an appreciation of music, art, drama, science and literature. Members were at the centre of the town’s gentlemanly club culture by 1933 when it was agreed by the Wanganui City Council that they should be offered the old Museum buildings. Stripped of Drew’s fantastical taxidermy the rooms might have looked a little drab, but the club set about making them their own. Before long, they were festooned with colourful murals and a remarkable array of caricatures of and by members.

Caricature of a Wanganui Savage Club Member, drawn by B Howell [undated]. WRM Ref: 2016.60.5

The extraordinary interior provided a dramatic setting for over 80 years of dinners, concerts, lectures and inter-club “raids”. In recent years, the Club’s decor caught the eye of documentary photographers including Lawrence Aberhart and Andrew Ross.

The Wanganui Savage Club wound up in 2016, and the buildings are now used by the Whanganui Musicians Club.

Frank Stark was director of Whanganui Regional Museum.

Dad’s Spinner

Not long after I started working at the Whanganui Regional Museum, my father Haimona Reweti was champing at the bit for a tour through the newly refurbished collection store, which he remembered from years back.

We descended two flights of stairs into the vast underground storeroom. I flicked on the lights and in a second, the collection was illuminated. One of the very best historical museum collections in Aotearoa.

As we walked through the aisles, we saw a massive hammerhead shark, a baboon, a tiger skin rug with teeth gleaming in the semi darkness. An old ginger cat was lurking on a shelf. On closer inspection, I saw its label marked “Samuel Drew’s cat”. Drew was a jeweller, a watchmaker and the first curator of our Museum. He stuffed his own cat!

The objects began to change. We saw old washing machines and elaborately carved furniture. Suddenly, Dad stopped and shouted, “That’s mine! I gave it to the Museum”.

The miniature model of Richard Arkwright’s 1769 water-driven thread-spinning throstle, made by Bob Hatch in 1990s. WRM Ref: 2017.15

We craned our necks to get a better look. The object in question was a miniature model thread-spinning throstle from Cavalier Spinners. During the early 1990s, an Englishman by the name of Bob Hatch was the production manager at Cavalier Spinners. He was also a keen model maker and wood worker. He carved the model and kept it proudly on his desk.

The model is of a water-powered spinning frame, which, in its heyday, was a simple and fast way to make cotton thread. It could spin 128 threads at the same time and was first used in 1768. It was developed and patented by Richard Arkwright, who later in life was known as the “Father of the Industrial Revolution”. By using water to power his machine, he was able to mass-produce a stronger and thicker thread. This contributed greatly to the creation of the modern factory system. His mill at Cromford, Derbyshire, was preserved as part of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site.

Haimona Reweti with the thread-spinning throstle he donated to the Museum in 2017.

When Bob Hatch retired from Cavalier Spinners, he gave the model to his colleague, Jim Metekīngi. When Jim left Cavalier, he gave the model to my father. Dad kept it in his workshop at home for over a decade before donating it to the Whanganui Regional Museum in 2017. He was absolutely delighted to see the model nestled on a shelf filled with other interesting objects. In fact, so delighted he insisted that I take a photograph! One fine day, this beautifully rendered model will go on display.

Lisa Reweti is the public programmes presenter at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Receipt to Cure or Prevent Smallpox

When preparing to move to a new country, immigrants carefully packed all they would need: clothes were necessary, tools and books were useful, and recipes helped to provide the comforts of home. As well as favourite dishes and treats, recipes for medicines were packed to help combat ailments in the new lands.

A recipe for the Cure and Prevention of Smallpox has been uncovered in the Archives. Aware of the effects of this ravaging disease, the receipt, as it was called, was brought from England to Whanganui by William John Holder when he migrated in 1842.

The original hand written receipt (recipe) to cure or prevent smallpox, brought to New Zealand by W J Holder in 1842. WRM Ref: 1978.66.2

Smallpox was a devastating disease. It was highly contagious and easily caught by close contact with an infected person. An infected droplet could be inhaled from two metres away. It could also be spread by contact with infected body fluids on sheets, clothing or utensils.

After 10-14 days of incubation, the disease began with a sudden onset of fever, malaise, muscle aches and headache, and was followed by mouth sores and a rash, vomiting and diarrhoea. The distinctive rash of fluid-filled bumps with a central dent could cover the whole body.

Nearly one third of those who caught the disease died. Fatalities were much higher among the young. One third of those who survived were rendered blind, and nearly everyone was left with scars from the scabbed pustules. In the 18th century alone, it is estimated that around 400,000 deaths per year occurred from smallpox.

Extract from a letter written to William Watt by Alex Pirie on 9 February 1837, five years before William Holder immigrated to New Zealand. The letter states the town of Dundee in Scotland was losing 130 people a week to smallpox, measles and influenza. WRM Ref: 2011.110

William Holder’s handwritten recipe gives the instructions to mix thoroughly one grain of sulphate of zinc, one grain of foxglove and half a teaspoon of sugar with two tablespoons of water. This solution was then further diluted. Adults were instructed to take one teaspoon of the tincture every hour, and children were to take less according to their age.

But would it have helped to fight such a virulent disease?  The measurements are small. A one-grain measurement as directed is equivalent to 65 milligrams.

Sulphate of zinc works to reduce the number of bowel motions particularly while suffering diarrhoea. A dose of 20 milligrams per day is sufficient to help a child recover, and adults are not recommended to take more than 40 milligrams per day. Too much zinc can cause abdominal pain, vomiting, and increase the heart rate.

Digitalis, the medical extraction of foxglove, increases the amount of calcium in the heart’s cells which strengthens the force of the heartbeat. It helps a weakened heart to pump harder and combats abnormal heart rhythms. Too much, however, can cause heart beat irregularities and even be fatal.

Sugar is essential in rehydration, particularly during and after diarrhoea. It can also act as an antioxidant and would have helped with the flavour. The water acted as the carrier and would certainly have helped with hydration during such an illness.

This medicine would not have helped William’s immune system to fight off the smallpox. It would have helped reduce his diarrhoea and kept him hydrated and his heart pumping while the disease ran its course, assuming he made it correctly and did not take too much.

Smallpox quarantine notice published in the Wanganui Herald on 9 February 1869, after one man arrived in Whanganui with the disease.

We do not know if William actually needed to make this recipe himself, but nearly two centuries later we have no need of it any longer. A very successful global vaccination programme saw the last naturally occurring case of smallpox diagnosed in October 1977, and the World Health Organisation declared the disease globally eradicated in 1980.

Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Off the sheep’s back

In New Zealand, sheep were originally farmed mostly for wool. Exporting a product used throughout the world provided much-needed cash for local farmers. Wool was transported from farms to the nearest port or, from the early 1900s, the nearest railway, in 90-pound fadges (woolsacks) by packhorse. Larger bales were carried by horse and wagon or on the deck of a Whanganui River paddle steamer.

The New Zealand Spectator and Cooks Strait Guardian of March 1848 wrote, “Wool promises soon to become one of our staple exports.”

The Sheep Act 1878 aimed to control the disease called scab by imposing penalties for the possession of infected sheep and restrictions on sheep movement and disposal. By 1890, scab had been brought under control. Some farmers were inventive in their treatment for scab. In 1884, James Higgie of Fordell recorded his recipe:

60 lbs Sulphur

30 lbs Quick lime

60 Gals water

Boil and keep boiling for 10 minutes when a clear orange solution will appear. Add this to 180 gals water make a bath heated to 100 degrees Fahr and bathe the sheep for at least one minute.

He also noted on 2 August 1884, “The lambs are still suffering from the effects of sulphur. I have lost 14 and think I shall lose about 12 more.”

This Fair Isle patterned vest was knitted in England by Mrs Gladys Turner, during World War II. The fawn wool came from unravelled socks and the coloured wools from darning samples. It was worn first by the donor’s sister, then the donor herself. WRM Ref: 1997.51.1

From around 1890 until his death in 1904, W T Owen manufactured Owen’s Sheep Dip at Mākirikiri. He sold gallon drums for £1 and five gallons for £4-10. One gallon of sheep dip made 400 gallons of the mixture.

In an oral history recording in 1993, Margery Varley who farmed in the Turakina Valley had this to say about dipping sheep: “You had to put each sheep in, especially old ewes, they got cunning, they know the smell of the dip and they can cling to the concrete.”

Frank Stubbing ran a station at Karioi, midway between Waiouru and Ōhākune. In 1897, the station ran 47,000 sheep. Stubbing had established a wool wash in 1882. It cleaned wool from surrounding farms for almost 20 years. Fleeces were washed to remove ticks, dirt and twigs in the cold water of the Tokiahura Stream that was diverted for the purpose. About 1,200 bales of wool could be washed in a season.

The wool is being laid out to dry at Karioi before being transported by packhorse. WRM Ref: 1805.346.1-59b

Wool was a domestic commodity for clothing and bedding as well as an export money-earner. Settlers from different parts of the world brought distinct knitting skills and styles with them. Girls learned very early to sew and knit. While combing, carding, spinning and weaving or knitting locally produced wool was largely women’s work, Scottish boys were often taught to knit alongside their sisters, as were some northern English men. Knitting came into its own during both World Wars. Families at home knitted piles of socks, hats, gloves, vests, scarves and jumpers to post overseas with other comforts. Knitting gave friends and relations at home a meaningful way to help servicemen – soldiers on active service were said to wear out a pair of socks every fortnight.

Her Excellency’s Knitting Book. WRM Ref: 1966.83.4

Lady Liverpool, wife of the Governor of New Zealand, set up a patriotic fund during World War I. In March 1915, she challenged the people of New Zealand to knit two pairs of socks for every member of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Women knitted furiously at home while schoolboys and girls knitted in their classrooms. New Zealand’s first locally published knitting book, Her Excellency’s Knitting Book, contained patterns for socks, balaclavas and gloves. Within six months, 30,000 pairs of socks had been made for the servicemen.

Libby Sharpe is senior curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Prior to Plastic

A growing number of people in New Zealand and around the world are trying to reduce the amount of plastic in their lives. For many it is prompted by the horror of the huge mountains of plastic accumulating on the planet. Plastic is turning up in the stomachs of dead whales and other sea creatures. Scientists have found evidence of plastic in the deepest parts of the ocean. Researchers have discovered microscopic plastics in the fish we eat in our food, in our drinking water and in the soil. It’s everywhere around us.

Plastic is ubiquitous. We use it for a multitude of different purposes because it is so versatile: containers, bags, clothes, accessories, furniture, phones, computers, car parts, appliances, toys, playgrounds. Everywhere we look, there is plastic. Even your bed with its cosy quilt and comfy pillow is made soft and comfortable with plastic foam and fluffy plastic fibre.

For young people, it may be hard to imagine a life without plastic, but a trip to your local museum or a conversation with an older person will provide many instances of a plastic-less world. The Whanganui Regional Museum has a quilt made of empty salt bags stuffed with sheep wool. It was made back in the days when material was expensive, but salt, flour and sugar were sold in cloth bags and raw wool was readily available in rural areas. It was probably heavier than a plastic fibre quilt but every part of it is biodegradable. Moreover, it would have been warm.

1. Salt bag quilt
A plastic-free quilt, made from salt bags and foraged wool scraps. Warm and waste-free. WRM Ref: 2007.73.1

Go further back in time and take a walk around Te Ātihaunui-a-Pāpārangi, the Māori Court in the Museum where you can see some great alternatives to plastic containers. On display is a range of containers of different sizes: tahā wai for water and tahā huruhuru for meat. The hue (gourds) used to make these containers were grown in gardens over summer and dried out during the winter, leaving a hard-shelled, hollow container. They are more breakable than plastic containers and plastic drink bottles but once cracked, these organic containers would rot back into the soil. Around each tahā is a carefully woven kete (basket), made from harakeke (New Zealand flax). The kete encloses the container to keep it stable and enable it to be carried. Like the tahā itself, the kete, when worn out, will rot naturally back into the soil. These beautiful and useful containers weren’t produced in a factory using fossil fuels. They were hand-made using totally renewable, sustainable, biodegradable natural resources. How clever!

There are hundreds of other examples throughout the Museum of how people managed without plastic. As more and more of us seek alternatives to plastic, some of these examples from the past could point the way to a more sustainable and less polluted future. We can go back to using more glass, wood, metal, natural fibres and maybe some of us can even have a go at growing our own gourd containers.

 Margie Beautrais is the educator at Whanganui Regional Museum.