Author: Whanganui Regional Museum

The Mysterious Adzebill

New Zealand was once home to many flightless birds. Some, like the moa, are well-known, but others, like our flightless ducks, geese, and owlet-nightjar, are familiar mostly to palaeontologists. One bird that deserves to be better known is the mysterious adzebill.

1. Adzebill Martinson

A North Island adzebill (Aptornis otidiformis) eyes up a tuatara in a 2005 painting by Paul Martinson.
Photo: Te Papa / CC-BY-NC-ND

There were two species of adzebills, Aptornis otidiformis in the North Island and Aptornis defossor in the South. Both were huge. When their bones were first discovered, they were mistaken for a small moa. Fully-grown birds would have weighed perhaps 20 kg, larger than a swan or pelican.

Adzebills had massive heads with heavy down-curved beaks. The beaks tapered to a point, and Dr Richard Holdaway, who coined the name “adzebill”, once confessed to me that “pick-bill” would have been more accurate. The robust vertebrae in their neck would have anchored strong muscles and allowed them to deliver a powerful blow.

These birds also had massive feet, with strong tendons, that would have made them good at digging. For some time biologists debated what they ate. Did they dig up roots, pluck leaves or break apart rotten logs? Their beak wasn’t hooked like a bird of prey.

A technique called stable isotope analysis which lets us analyse animals from the composition of bone – you are what you eat – revealed that adzebills were carnivores. We can imagine them tearing open trees for huhu grubs, plucking lizards or baby birds off the forest floor, digging up giant earthworms, and excavating tuatara, or even nesting seabirds, out of their burrows.

A second mystery was what adzebills were, exactly. They didn’t resemble rails like the weka or takahē, and for some time were put in their very own family. Some ornithologists thought their closest relative was the flightless kagu of New Caledonia. Others thought it belonged with chicken-like South American birds called trumpeters. The debate continued fruitlessly for decades.

Alex Boast is a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland, working on ancient DNA. Improved techniques now allow us to recover and examine fragments of DNA from bones and eggshell of extinct birds, not enough for Jurassic Park cloning, but enough to construct a family tree and determine their nearest relatives. Alex analysed adzebill DNA and compared them to numerous other birds, and the results suggest that adzebills are not kagus, or trumpeters. They are flufftails.

2. Flufftail Keugelmans

The white-spotted flufftail (Sarothrura pulchra), painted by John Keulemans in 1894. This delicate little bird seems to be the adzebill’s closest living relative.
Ref: Wikimedia Commons

Flufftails (nine species in the genus Sarothrura) are secretive ground-dwelling birds about the size of a starling, rusty brown and spotted. They do indeed have fluffy tails. What’s unusual is that flufftails are all found in Africa, and on the island of Madagascar, nowhere near New Zealand.

Africa and New Zealand were once connected as part of the supercontinent Gondwana of course, and fossils tell us that adzebills have been here for millions of years, plenty of time for their ancestors to get here and evolve into a giant flightless predator. Intriguingly, the kiwi seems to have done the same thing. Its closest relative is another African species, the elephant bird of Madagascar. The difference is, while one flightless bird survived the arrival of human beings and became the symbol of New Zealand, the other was wiped out. The not-so-mysterious adzebill is now mostly forgotten.

 

Dr Mike Dickison is curator of natural history at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

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Wanganui Swankers’ Club

1. Swankers photo

Members of the Wanganui Swankers’ Club dressed in full Swanker regalia while engaged in a public fund-raising event. With them is a woman dressed in a Red Cross Nurse’s uniform and a bulldog, presumably a mascot. This dates to World War I when the Swankers focused on supporting the Red Cross and its nurses.  Ref: 1988.67.10

The Wanganui Swankers’ Club was formed during World War I to raise funds for patriotic purposes, supporting in particular the Red Cross and Red Cross Nurses; hence, the red cross is part of the Wanganui Swankers’ Club badge. The Club ran from 1915 to 1929, in its later years raising funds for a wider range of charities. Concerts, Mardi Gras and other functions were held where all members appeared in top hat and tails. Among its well-known members in Whanganui were Bert Fry, A Trelord and F Donaldson Senior. One member used to ride a horse to its functions but he still wore the official uniform of top hat and tails.

Swankers, as members were called, had a light-hearted approach to a serious purpose.The word swanker means a dashing, smartly-dressed or stylish man. Swankers wore a distinctive garb of top hat and tails, usually teamed with formal striped trousers and spats.

2. Swankers certificate

Swankers’ Club membership certificate accepting George Goldsack as a member, 1926. Ref: 1972.68.4

And anything for a laugh! For example, a Swankers’ Club membership certificate in the Museum collection has a comic drawing of a man in top hat and tails standing beneath the Swankers’ Club logo. Made out to George Goldsack, the certificate reads “This is to Certify that Mr G Goldsack has been duly accepted and admitted a member of the Swankers’ Club, he being a fully qualified, inveterate and accomplished Swanker”.  It is signed by “Ikan Kiddem, Swanker scribe”.

The Dominion newspaper edition of 15 November 1916 provides a brief, and facetious, history of the Swankers. Originating in London, the Swankers’ Club “found its way to Wanganui, where it was taken up by a number of good sports, who are really only waiting for avenues of usefulness outside the Avenue that divides the city into two halves.” It goes on to describe members as those who are too old or infirm to fight but who wish sincerely to support the war effort. They have no ties or obligations to the London Swankers; the allegiance they hold is to “… the Empire, and they mean to hang together until smiling peace glorifies the world once more”.

At this stage, in 1916, there were about 200 Wanganui members who had already raised over £1,000 for the Red Cross.

After the war, the Swankers were very active during the Influenza Epidemic of 1918-19. Members continued to raise money for the Red Cross and to establish and maintain the Wanganui-Waitotara Patriotic Society and support other charities. Swankers did themselves proud while raising funds as is evident in a menu designed to feed the dancers at a Charity Ball in 1922. Laid out in seven courses, the menu had several luxury dishes in each, including whitebait, oyster patties, sardine eclairs and Charlotte Russe. Soup was served as the guests departed.

3. Swankers badge

This nine carat gold badge was designed for the Wanganui Swankers’ Club. Five small imitation rubies are set within a cross flanked by two fern fronds, reflecting the Wanganui Swankers’ allegiance to the International Red Cross.  Ref: 2005.67

The Swankers’ fund raising events were very successful. In 1923, for example, their “Help the Blind” appeal raised £1,217, a considerable sum at that time. And in 1925 they assisted the annual YMCA street appeal, raising £121 2s 6d, which was equally divided between the Swankers’ Club and the YMCA. The Wanganui Swankers Club closed in 1929.

 

Libby Sharpe is Senior Curator at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Health and Beauty Movement

In the early decades of the 20th century, attitudes towards women’s health and beauty began to change. The growth of aestheticism in the 19th century had seen the advent of art appreciated for its beauty rather than its morality, and the belief that beautiful objects – including women – were there for the sole purpose of being admired.

But some women refused to accept such a passive role and the “new woman aesthete was born, a woman interested in experiencing art and beauty in a different and more active way. Mary Bagot Stack was one of these women.

In the early 1900s Stack spent time in India with her husband. She learned yoga and observed the differences in the way women moved when wearing the tight, restrictive European clothing, compared to the loose and free-flowing Indian garb.

She returned to England and attended Mrs Josef Conn’s Institute of Physical Training in London and learned about exercise as a way to stimulate health. Inspired by this and her experiences in India, Stack opened her own fitness centre in 1910, offering both private and public classes.

Post-war attitudes were changing and health professionals were beginning to acknowledge the benefits of exercise and changes in fashion on women’s health, which Stack had previously witnessed and understood. In the 1920s she developed her own system of exercise, set to music, a novelty for the time. This system was also meant to be a social event to help women recently bereaved by the Great War. The programme proved to be so popular that it grew from small classes to a mass movement, which in 1930, was named the Women’s League of Health and Beauty.

1. Poster

 Poster advertising a Demonstration of Health Exercises and Revived Greek Dancing, 1930s-1940s. Ref: 2017.18.8

The exercises were based on the understanding that movement was essential for a healthy life and generated beauty from within, without the need of extensive make-up and other common beauty trappings. The 12 sequences drew from dance, callisthenics, remedial and slimming motions, and rhythmic exercise, and often incorporated Greek dancing and poses. The poses required women to replicate the positions held in classic Greek statues, generating empathy for the work of art and embodying the balance and beauty of it within themselves.

The League’s popularity spread throughout the United Kingdom, then further out to the Commonwealth. Millicent Ward trained as a Health and Beauty Teacher under Stack before immigrating to New Zealand in 1937, settling in Auckland. Ward ran demonstrations and classes, which were very popular among young businesswomen, and was even called upon by some larger companies to offer classes specifically for their female employees.

Demand grew and there was a call for further classes to be opened elsewhere in the country. Ward trained new teachers and the programme spread throughout New Zealand, known here as the Health & Beauty Movement. When invited to the 70th Anniversary Celebrations, Ward recalled her time training new teachers, and in particular mentioned Wynn Newsome who taught classes in Whanganui.

2. Street parade photo

 Photograph of a street parade in Whanganui, with the float of the Health & Beauty Movement in the procession, 1940s. Ref: 2007.19

At the outbreak of World War II many classes around the country were forced to close, but the Whanganui branch remained open. A Whanganui Regional Museum volunteer recalls attending classes in the 1950s, held on Saturdays in the McGruer’s building on Guyton Street, wearing a uniform of white shirt and black sateen romper shorts.

Mary Stack died in 1935 from thyroid cancer, but her daughter, Prunella, took on her work and continued its popularity and growth. Mary Stack’s legacy lives on today with the movement now known as the Fitness League with the motto “Movement Is Life”.

 

Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Moths and the night

Spring is here, and the moths are emerging. Overwintering as a pupa, they emerge when the temperatures rise, to mate and lay eggs so their caterpillars can spend summer and autumn feeding and growing. A month ago, a light trap at Gordon Park would attract just one or two moths, but now, after an hour, the white sheet is covered with moths large and small, wasps that parasitise moths, flies, beetles and other nocturnal life. New Zealand has over 1,700 species of native moths, many barely known or still undescribed, and Robert Hoare at Landcare Research is the only full-time researcher working on them – his plate is pretty full.

2. light trap

Light Trap: Using LEDs in the blue and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum shining on a white sheet attracts nocturnal insects, which confuse it with the moon—the only bright light they’ve evolved to deal with. Photo: WRM.

While waiting at a light trap, being savaged by mosquitoes, you’ll occasionally hear a loud rustling and flapping as a huge pūriri moth (Aenetus virescens) or pepetuna, blunders into the sheet. Adult pūriri moths have beautiful mottled green wings, but they have no mouthparts and don’t feed, living on stored fat for the few days it takes them to find a mate and reproduce. In contrast to their brief adulthood their caterpillars, called mokoroa, live for years in holes bored into tree trunks; wētā will often move into the vacated tunnels. Once very common in North Island, pūriri moths are now only seen around native bush. In times past, swarms would emerge and fly into houses, extinguishing lamps and candles.

1. puriri

Pūriri moths emerge on damp nights in September and October to mate, lay thousands of eggs and die. Photo: WRM.

The decline in moth numbers is something that’s been noticeable, even in my lifetime. When I was a child, long drives at night left the windshield plastered with insects, but hardly ever so today. True, cars are more aerodynamic now, but the decline is certainly real, at least in Europe where it’s been carefully measured. Scientists, managing annual light trapping in Germany since 1989, have measured real declines in the numbers of nocturnal insects, down on an average of 45%, or 80% in some areas. There’s been no funding for this sort of long-term monitoring in New Zealand, so we have to rely on anecdotes about windscreens.

3. forest looper

Also known as the conifer flash (Pseudocoremia leucelaea), this moth is common in native bush in spring. Its caterpillars feed on tōtara and miro leaves.  Photo: WRM.

This insect decline has multiple causes: deforestation of course, the switch to intensive agriculture reducing the diversity of habitats in our farmland and the widespread use of pesticides. Systemic pesticides like neonicotinoids are restricted in Europe but widely used in New Zealand, and most discussion of their impact is around their effects on honeybees, not our thousands of native species.

4. cranefly

There are over 600 species of craneflies in New Zealand. Sometimes mistaken for a gigantic mosquito, they are harmless.  Photo: WRM.

Even artificial lighting might be a problem. Everywhere, including Whanganui, old high-pressure sodium street lighting is being replaced with modern LEDs, which are brighter and far more energy efficient, saving councils millions of dollars annually in electricity costs. The problem is that sodium lights were orange, whereas LEDs shine in the blue end of the spectrum, like those in my fancy new German light trap. Blue lights are far more visible and confusing to insects. In the name of energy efficiency, we’re busily lining our streets with thousands of high-powered insect traps, without much thought about the effects on nocturnal pollinators like moths.

Human beings have transformed the night, replacing the moon and stars with so much artificial light that we’ve forgotten what darkness is. When I lead night walks at Bushy Park we stop and do a simple exercise of turning off all our torches. Some of the children in the group are then in complete darkness for the first time in their lives. For many of the creatures of the bush, the night is their habitat, the place they can’t be seen by predators. They evolved in a world that had darkness, and in just a few hundred years we’ve driven that away.

 

Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

The Architect and the Artisan

With the refurbishment of the Whanganui Regional Museum now approaching half-way, considerable attention has been paid to the design and construction of its buildings. The 1928 building’s stripped classical architecture and pre-Napier construction have caused the bigger challenges to seismic performance, with a lot of steel and timber bracing now installed.

The Māori Court building, designed by Don Wilson, has also received earthquake upgrades, but mainly it is undergoing repair and restoration of many of its original features. Wilson’s Whanganui work, including the Museum, was celebrated in a well-received talk by architectural historian Mark Southcombe at the Davis Theatre on Tuesday 19 September. Investigation of the building’s origins has also revealed fascinating stories about the people who worked on it.

1. Basil Benseman

Basil Benseman

An important collaborator with Don Wilson, and a key contributor to the structure and appearance of the 1968 building, was master brick and block layer Basil Benseman. Bas arrived in Whanganui as a child and after leaving school, worked as a truck driver. He served as an anti-aircraft gunner and truck driver during WWII in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia and Italy before returning to an apprentice training scheme in Wellington. Before long, he had established B E Benseman Bricklayer, which from 1946 to 1985, built a significant portion of Whanganui. Bas worked on many landmark buildings around the city including the Embassy Cinema, St Marcellin School, Whanganui Intermediate, the Government Life and State Insurance buildings, the War Memorial Hall, Power Board Building, Queens Park steps and the Whanganui Regional Museum, among hundreds of others. He didn’t spend much of that time in the office; he was too busy on site, laying hundreds of thousands of bricks and blocks himself.

Don Wilson’s modernist architecture made frequent, often innovative, use of brick and concrete, and Bas often provided the craft needed to realise his designs. The Museum project used conventional blockwork in many parts of the structure, as well as stone facing around the Davis Theatre, an unusual, vertical application of decorative brick on the exterior walls and a lattice of stacked breeze blocks on the end wall, echoing a similar pattern on the War Memorial Hall across the square. Don Wilson, though, had an even more challenging role in mind for his long-time collaborator.

2. Mural

The Whanganui Regional Museum mural, made of Italian glass tiles.

The south side of the building presented a new face to the city and Wilson wanted to make the most of it. He designed a mural, based on rock drawings, to be rendered in Italian glass tiles. The biggest problem was the lack of anybody in 1968 Whanganui with the technical know-how to realise it. With complete confidence he turned to Bas who, despite his protests that he had never attempted such a thing before, was eventually persuaded to set to work in yet another medium. Over 10 months of painstaking work he invented his own mosaic technique which has weathered 50 years of Whanganui rain and sun and remains a shimmering tribute to a great partnership – the architect and the artisan.

 

Frank Stark is Director at Whanganui Regional Museum.

A sampling of samplers

The term “sampler” comes from the Latin word exemplum, meaning an example to be followed, a pattern or a model. Pictorial samplers began life as plain samples of different stitches worked onto a single piece of fabric. A girl would add to it as she learned different needle work techniques, a standard part of her education.

By the mid 17th century, decorative samplers with borders were considered to be a mark of refinement. They were worked with horizontal bands of stitching, featuring letters, numbers and traditional motifs, such as the dove of peace. Later, poetry or religious quotations were added, and ornate borders became common.

The stitching of samplers was believed to be a sign of virtue, achievement and industry, and girls were taught the art from a young age. Samplers are still stitched today and are often worked to celebrate a joyous occasion, such as a birth or baptism.

1. Hanner Passell

In 1806 Hanner Passell stitched a sampler of fine coloured wool threads on linen.  This sampler is very fragile and damaged, but you can still see her mistakes – she has not allowed enough room for the word “away” in the third line of the verse. The verse has a dire warning about wasting time:

Exonerate your mind of worldly cares

Spend each Lords Day in Spiritual Affairs

Such wretched souls as squander that aw[ay]

Repent it sorely at their dying Day

And in very faded thread at the bottom we can read: “Hanner Passell Made this in the 11th year of her age”. Hanner is an unusual spelling for the name Hannah. It could be a family name, but it might be that Hanner was a poor speller. Genealogy records show that a Hannah Passell was born in Sussex in 1795 – that might fit.

2. Grace Combe

 

 

While Grace Combe’s sampler is faded, you can still see the skill and charm of her work. Silk threads on fine linen demonstrate cross, feather, herringbone and satin stitches. Sample sewing of the alphabet, homilies and designs of flowers, crowns and geometric motifs all feature. And only just visible under a strong magnifying glass at the lower edge is “Grace Combe March 24 1724.”

 

3. E Gregory

 

E Gregory’s sampler was made in England in 1820 and comprises images of grand buildings and floral motifs, all delicately hand stitched in cotton thread. While we don’t know who E Gregory was, or if and when she came to New Zealand, it is an excellent example of the sampler craft. For new arrivals to New Zealand, samplers were a reminder of family left behind and a way of making a new house more comfortable. A few home comforts transported across the world helped mitigate the hardships of settling in.

 

4. Caroline Hopwood

 

Young Caroline Octavia Hopwood made a simple sampler of wool thread on fine canvas in cross stitch. Lines of the alphabet are repeated in different colours; there is also a line of numbers and small motifs comprising a bunch of grapes, two dragons, a flowering plant in a basket and a deer. The whole is surrounded by a vine with geometric leaves attached. Caroline has stitched her name and age, a mere eight years, at the bottom of the sampler. You can see why it is simple – she is just learning.

 

5. Hannah Hopwood

The very old sampler on fine, natural-coloured linen was completed by Hannah Hopkins in 1729. The deep flower and leaf border is stitched with two strands of twisted silk thread in satin stitch, French knots and cross stitch. The centre panel spells out the great Psalm XXVII, proclaiming absolute faith. It is easy to recognise what sort of beliefs Hannah’s family had:

The Lord is my Light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear, the Lord is the strength of my life of Whom shall I be afraid.

The eccentric punctuation of the lettering is matched by the eccentric switch from rose red to yellow thread, which is very faded and hard to read. Perhaps Hannah ran out of the red and only had yellow left to match the rest of the sampler.

 

Libby Sharpe is the Curator at the Whanganui Regional Museum.

Fashion in the Sixties and Seventies

Fashion is influenced by many factors but often reflects what is happening in society at the time. The textile collection at the Museum includes garments that reflect these changes.  An exciting time of change was the 1960s and 1970s when the way people dressed was an obvious sign of shifting attitudes.

1. Merle Higgie dress

 Mrs Merle Higgie wore this evening dress of orange chiffon with stitched orange flowers on the sleeves in the 1970s. It was created by Camette, a New Zealand design company based in Auckland.
Ref: 1995.60.2

In the early 1960s, Western economies and populations were booming. Young peoples’ income was the highest it had been since the end of World War II. This increased economic independence for youth, fuelled a new sense of identity and the need to express it. The dramatic changes started largely in the USA and Europe with styles influenced by the youth sub-cultures of the Beatniks (who rejected the mainstream in favour of artistic self-expression) and the Mods (because they listened to modern jazz music). The Mods in particular helped focus the tastes of young people everywhere, and inspired the look of bands like The Who and The Beatles. The fashion industry quickly responded by replicating their styles, creating designs for the young fans to imitate their heroes. This decade was the first era when young peoples’ clothes were different from those worn by their parents.

New Zealand was usually several years behind the world in terms of fashion, but with the advent of television, young Kiwis were immediately able to copy what was happening overseas. In 1962 there were only 23,000 television licence holders nationwide, but this increased to more than half a million by 1968. Television shrank the world, and by the mid-1960s, New Zealand young folk were wearing the same styles as their contemporaries overseas.

This decade saw traditional dress codes broken with women wearing trousers and showing more and more leg. The mini-skirt, popularised by English designer, Mary Quant, quickly earned its place as the decade’s most iconic look. Others chose to bare very little by choosing the maxi skirt. By the 1970s skirt length had become the midi; mid length, around the knee.

It was not just the hem line that changed. Colour in clothing also went to extremes. What had been a muted or pastel colour pallet until the late 1950s became bright and bold, and many people were wearing combinations of colours and patterns that intensified their startling effects.

The late 1960s saw the beginnings of the hippie movement when bellbottom pants first came into fashion, becoming even more popular during the 1970s. The styles from the later 1960s tended to be more androgynous and quite free flowing. They mimicked the social mind-sets of the era and were inspired by eastern cultures and political activities, such as the Vietnam War.

The 1960s also saw a move to incorporate the new man-made materials developed during World War II and for the space programme. Perspex, PVC, polyester, acrylic, nylon, rayon, Spandex, vinyl and others were fabrics of choice for new young designers wanting to create easy-care outfits that were eye-catching and fun.

Whanganui produced some of its own designers who became influential, on the world stage, as well as nationally. Whanganui-born Philip Shortt entered the Benson and Hedges Fashion Design Awards, New Zealand’s major competitive fashion event that ran for 34 years between 1964-1998, three times, from 1969 to 1971, all with success; he received merit awards in 1969 and 1970 and won the Supreme Award in 1971. Shortt studied at the Fashion School, Royal College of Arts in London. As he established his career he went on to dress Margaret Thatcher and designed the women’s uniform for the British Constabulary.

Rosalie Gwilliam, also from Whanganui, entered the Benson and Hedges Award competitions throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with considerable success. She is well represented, with 26 examples of her work, in the Eden Hoar collection of New Zealand fashion; this was developed by a farmer from Nasby and was the largest private collection of New Zealand fashion in existence.

2. Annette Main dress

 This black crepe and gold thread cocktail gown was created by Michael Mattar of Taumarunui, and was purchased and worn by former Mayor of Whanganui, Annette Main, in the 1960s.
Ref: 2013.9.2

The fashion industry of the 1960s not only changed what was worn, but how clothing was purchased. Old-style department stores were abandoned for boutique experiences. At the same time, there was more mass production, which made keeping fashionable more affordable. Whanganui businesses catered specifically for the new youth market with two new shops called Teen Scene and La Boutique, both in Victoria Avenue. Taumarunui could also boast a top-class fashion store, that of Michael Mattar’s Haut Couture boutique. At the height of his fame in the 1960s, women would travel from Auckland and Wellington to purchase his exquisite cocktail gowns.

 

By Trish Nugent-Lyne, Collection Manager at Whanganui Regional Museum.

The Wilson Pill Company

In the early 20th century, Mr Samuel Wilson held a secret. His ancestors lived in a small village in England where a local doctor was not available at short notice so it was up to the residents to keep themselves and others healthy. They developed a medicine which proved to be useful in preventing a number of ailments.

Mr Wilson inherited the recipe and brought it with him when his family came to New Zealand. He made it for his family, and their health and strength generated interest amongst friends and associates, so he started making it for them as well. Several locals were so impressed with the panacea that they implored Mr Wilson to sell it, but he refused, insisting on making it himself and providing it free of charge.

After living for about two years in the Whanganui district, Mr Wilson finally agreed to put his pills on the market. A syndicate was put together, and James Alfred Young began the process of sourcing quotes to have the pills manufactured and packaged ready for the market.

While in town on 10 July 1907, Mr Wilson was thrown into a lamppost on Victoria Avenue when his horse shied. He died the next day, but his wife Lavinia took on the project and worked with Mr Young to continue marketing the pills.

Mr Young was sure the pills would bring great riches. His sales pitch was so effective that he raised too many investors, and the syndicate was legally required to become a registered company.

1 Benoni White ad

The advertisement designed by Benoni White, as appeared in the Wanganui Chronicle on 16 January 1908, p7

While waiting for official registration, Mr Young ordered the first batch of pills from the Dunedin branch of Kempthorne Prosser and developed a marketing plan. He commissioned artist Benoni White to design an advertisement and was in contact with 40 newspapers about advertising.

Another tactic offered a more personal approach, outlined in a letter dated 16 July 1907. “It has occurred to me that a good idea to work Wilson’s Pills would be to get a really smart girl, who could talk, to interview each store, chemist etc … It seems to me that a ‘taking’ young woman could do this work better than a man and what is of very great importance she would not cost so much.”

The Wilson Pill Company finally began business on 18 November 1907 with 70 shareholders, £5,000 of investments and no debt. The pills were distributed to shops and pharmacies throughout the North Island, accompanied by an intense advertising campaign.

The pills claimed a myriad of cures: biliousness, constipation, boils, carbuncles, eczema, backache, indigestion, liver troubles, headache, dyspepsia, lumbago, rheumatism, as well as curing blood and stomach disorders and stimulating the liver and kidneys. The original recipe no longer exists, so testing these claims is not possible.

2 Medicine ad

An advertisement for Wilson’s Pills ‘backed by high modern medical testimony’, Wanganui Chronicle 6 January 1908, p2

In January 1908 Mrs Ramsay became the Company’s Lady Canvasser and distributed the pills to throughout the North Island, earning £2 per week (around $330 today).

By the end of 1908 the Company was chasing debts. Mrs Lavinia Wilson had moved to Perth to live with family there, and received a letter from the Company stating there was little demand on the market for her family’s pills and they had not sold enough to cover marketing expenses.

Things went from bad to worse. In June 1910 the Wilson Pill Company was summonsed to a legal hearing over incomplete registration of their annual list and summary with the Joint Stock Companies. The matter was eventually resolved but some expenses were incurred.

The Company encountered problems with employees claiming for advertising work they had not completed, and then had to write off over £19 ($3,000) of bad debt for goods dispatched to their canvasser who then disappeared. Shareholder meetings were not meeting quorum and the Company was only gaining 6p per box of pills sold, with their total income at the end of 1913 sitting at a little over £17.

The Directors were loath to spend any more shareholders investments. The Wilson Pill Company was formally wound up on 26 May 1914 with £214 in the account which, after paying legal fees, was returned to shareholders at around 10s per £1 invested. The remaining stock and the rights to the formula were sold to the Manager of the Wanganui Chronicle for £17/2-.

 

Written by Sandi Black, Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Cycling Ladies

The development of new technology often brings about the greatest changes in fashion. In the 1890s, the introduction of the bicycle led to significant changes in women’s fashion. Prior to this decade, women had always worn skirts or dresses whose design followed strict rules regarding appropriateness and modesty, and which were often very heavy and restricting.

Many women wanted to ride bicycles but this was considered unsuitable. While it was acceptable for women to ride side-saddle on a horse, riding a bicycle was deemed almost indecent, certainly shocking!

3. Lady on bike

Illustration of a woman cyclist wearing a tailored jacket and split skirt, 1894.  Ladies Standard Magazine, April 1894.

The first women to ride bicycles in New Zealand were twins Bertha and Blanche Thompson who in 1892, along with several other young adventurous women, formed the Atlanta Cycling Club, especially for women, in Christchurch. Suffrage leader Kate Sheppard, then in her forties, became a member and she and Bertha also served on the ACC committee. Christchurch did not view the ACC with approval; at times, the twins’ older brothers had to accompany the women cyclists to ward off stone-throwing spectators.

Women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries wore very long skirts, which were not only difficult, but dangerous to wear while cycling. Many early lady cyclists had bad accidents when the hems of their skirts caught in the bicycle chain. A solution had to be found. Since decency, at that time, dictated that a woman’s legs had to be covered, many cyclists adopted a split-skirt. This was an adaptation of a garment designed by Mrs Amelia Bloomer, one of the pioneers of the Dress Reform Movement, in the mid nineteenth century. Mrs Bloomer was ridiculed when she and other women attempted to introduce healthier and more practical styles of clothing for women such as knickerbockers, or bloomers, for women engaged in active pastimes.

2. Split skirt

Split skirt from the cycling costume.  Ref: 1973.88b

The split skirt gradually became acceptable as a cycling garment because it was designed to look like a regular skirt. The split skirt was further adapted over time. Later versions began to resemble trousers, never worn by European women before.

1. Cycling costume

Lady’s cycling costume, 1890s. Ref: 1973.88

The Museum has in its collection a wonderful woman’s cycling costume, made in the 1890s. It is a smart and practical outfit for the new activity of cycling. The costume comprises a tailored jacket and divided cycling skirt, both made of dark charcoal wool twill, fully lined with heavy black silk. The costume was professionally fitted and sewn; there is no maker’s mark in either the jacket or the skirt. It’s in excellent condition; perhaps it wasn’t used very much.

 

By Libby Sharpe, Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Dandelion Coffee

Dandelion coffee is actually an infused tea, but it is used as a coffee substitute, having the appearance and, to a degree, the taste of coffee. It is made from the dried, roasted and ground root of the dandelion plant. It is important that the right dandelion roots are used, from the Taraxacum species, distinguishing it from other weed plants that look like yellow daisies. The roots of large healthy dandelions plants are harvested and processed into coffee. It has become a popular health or tonic drink, sometimes as an alternative to true coffee, especially in the USA.

Dried dandelion root coffee was being produced commercially at Ūpokongaro in the nineteenth century by farmer William Caines. In 1853 Caines had acquired 105 acres of land on what is now the Kaiwhaiki Road. He cleared the heavy bush gradually and ran sheep and cattle. He used a punt and waka for transportation between his farm and Whanganui.

1. Dandelion Coffee Tin

A tin of Taraxacum, Dandelion Coffee, made by William Caines of Upokongaro 1880-1890 (ref: 1951.41.3)

Finding ways of ensuring a cash flow was important for settler farmers in the district. Brick-making was another source of income for Caines. His bricks were made of clay from his property and rammed by hand into wooden moulds. He also made white-pine roofing shingles, and later tōtara shingles, sold for 12/- per thousand, delivered.

And the coffee seemed very promising. Caines grew the dandelions in rows in his garden, just like any other crop. After the plants had flowered they were dug and the roots dried. They were then ground in a hand-operated wheat mill, said to have been brought to New Zealand by one of the British Army regiments stationed in the district. A large iron flywheel was attached to give momentum to the actual grinder on the main shaft, the raw material being fed through the funnel as the grounds dropped from the mill chute. The machine could be operated by one person at the crank-handle.

The mill is in the Museum collection, as are two one pound tins of the coffee, which is a deep brown colour and has still has a distinct “coffee” aroma. Tins of “Pure Dandelion Coffee” were produced from 1880 to about 1890, sold for the most part in the Ūpokongaro area. Although there is no record of the amount produced, it appears that there was a reasonable demand for it.

2. Dandelion Coffee Label

An unused Taraxacum label (ref: 1802.1110.2)

The coffee product was named “Taraxacum”, Taraxacum officinale being the botanical name of the dandelion. The label, printed locally by A D Willis Printers of Wanganui, states that the product was grown and prepared by “William Caines, Pikopiko, Upokongaro, Wanganui.” The label also declares that the dandelion coffee as prepared by Mr. William Caines, “Contains all the medicinal virtues pertaining to the plant, which are of an opening and cleansing quality and therefore very effectual for obstructions of the Liver, Gall and Spleen, and Diseases that arise therefrom. It is also beneficial in cases of the Urinary Organs, being powerful in cleansing imposthumes and inward ulcers in the urinary passage and, by its drying and temperate quality, heals them. In Progressing Consumption, the use of the Pure Dandelion Coffee will give the sufferer great relief.”

 

Libby Sharpe is Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.