Wanganui Chronicle Features

The Meg

Often an object has a much wider story to tell than what can be seen at face value, as interesting as that can initially appear.  Part of the fun in researching it is uncovering the wider back story which helps to build up a bigger picture of where we stand at the present.

So with that in mind, how did a tooth from a megalodon end up in the riverbed near Whanganui?

2. Megalodon size

The Megalodon at the top, compared to a Great White Shark and a Human. Image sourced through Creative Commons.

The largest known shark, the Carcharodon megalodon lived from 16-2.5 million years ago. The megalodon was related to the Great White Shark of today but was huge. Fossil remains show the megalodon was an average size of 10.5 metres long but could grow up to 18 metres. An adult human could easily sand up in its jaws which measured over two metres wide.

The particular tooth in the Museum collection measures 13.5 centimetres high and 11.5 centimetres wide. It was found near Pīpīriki in a bank of sandstone estimated to be four to five million years old. Because of its marine past, Whanganui is a great place to find marine fossils, in particular fossilised shark teeth.

1. Megalodon tooth

The Megalodon tooth found near Pipiriki. WRM Ref: 1800.175

About 540 million years ago, New Zealand was being formed on the eastern edge of the supercontinent Gondwana. This continent included what we know today as Australia, Antarctica, India, Africa and South America.

Around 100 million years ago, hot rock began to accumulate underneath Gondwana and move towards the edges of the land, pulling it apart. This slowly made a giant rift which allowed the sea to flood in, and separated it from the mainland, thus creating the continent of Zealandia. After breaking away from Australia around 85 million years ago, Zealandia largely sank beneath the Pacific Ocean. What remains visible today is essentially the highlands of the continent, and the rift is now the Tasman Sea.

Zealandia sits across the edge of the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates and is slowly being broken up as they continue to move. The last 1.8 million years have shaped the land with tectonic movements, glaciers and volcanoes, altering the landscape. Whanganui, being on the coast of New Zealand and consisting of lifted sea beds, is more likely to reveal marine fossils.

The hinterland areas are fertile with volcanic ash at the core. The mountains in the north and west help to shelter the township and have created a wonderful climate, much warmer and drier compared to other coastal towns.

Before human settlement, this land was covered with forest: tōtara, matai, rimu, tawa and beech trees covered the landscape. The soft rock near the coast was easily worn down by water, and helped to create the Whanganui River, the longest navigable waterway in New Zealand, measuring 290 kilometres from its source at Mount Tongariro.

All this adds up to a beautiful place with fertile lands, fresh water, ocean access and a temperate climate, which made it perfect for settlement when Māori arrived.

 

Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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Ambrotypes

Another post here discusses photographic daguerreotypes, so let’s now look at the next step in the development of photography.

Whereas the daguerreotype produced a negative image on a metal base, an ambrotype created a positive image on glass. The ambrotype is a variation of the wet plate collodion method introduced by Englishman Frederick Scott Archer in 1851.

For the wet plate collodion method, a glass plate was polished and coated with a thin layer of iodized collodion before being dipped in a bath of silver nitrate solution for three to five minutes. Once it had drained and dried, it was placed in a plate holder with a dark slide to protect it from the light.

1. Woon Brothers

 Ambrotype of four of the sons of the Reverend William Woon
Date unknown. Left to right: Garland William, James Garland, Edwin Turner, and Richard Watson Woon. WRM Ref: 1988.35.1

The prepared plate was loaded into the camera while still wet and the dark plate removed to begin exposure, which could take as little as five seconds, or well over a minute, depending on the light and conditions of the day. Once done, the dark slide was replaced and the plate removed from the camera for immediate treatment – it could not wait or the image would be lost. It would be developed using a ferrous sulfate developer, and the image would be fixed with potassium cyanide or sodium thiosulphate solution before being rinsed and varnished.

The resulting image looked like an underexposed negative, but would appear as a positive when viewed against a dark background. The dark areas of the image appeared as clear patches on the plate while the lighter areas of the image showed opaque. The glass plates were often painted black on one side or mounted against black velvet to make the image easier to see. They were monochrome but could be hand coloured.

2. Mr Keen

 Ambrotype of Mr Keen, a stable keeper with premises on St Hill Street. 1869. WRM Ref: 1955.74.1

Another plate of glass would be mounted over the emulsion side before the plates were mounted within a metal frame and housed in a case, just as daguerreotypes were.

Ambrotypes were significantly cheaper to create than daguerreotypes. The plates did not need to be polished or fumed, which reduced equipment and material costs, and they were made out of much cheaper glass rather than expensive silver-plated copper. It was also possible to photograph more clients per day, due to the reduced exposure time.

There were, however, disadvantages. The technique required great dexterity as the whole process had to be completed within 10 minutes before the plate dried, so ambrotypists had to have a dark room immediately available. Travelling ambrotypists would take a tent or portable dark room with all the associated chemicals with them.

3. Unidentified woman

 Ambrotype of a young woman, with hand coloured background and jewellery accented with gold pigment. Date unknown. WRM Ref: 1977.33.19

The nitrate bath solution could leave stains on clothing and furnishing, and the plates could leave nitrate residue in the camera. An overload of nitrate could be potentially explosive.

The photograph fixer, potassium cyanide, was a powerful, deadly poison, and occasionally caused cyanide poisoning. It was even drunk by one photographer to commit suicide.

Ambrotypes were still relatively quick and significantly cheaper than daguerreotypes and became immensely popular between 1855 and 1865. There are many more ambrotypes than daguerreotypes surviving today, 32 of them in the Whanganui Regional Museum collection.

 

Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Portable Desks

When we travel these days, we pack a myriad of electronic devices to enable us to always be in touch with friends and family, store photos of places we have been and short videos of our travels. Phones, laptops and tablets are the way we communicate and share now.

For Victorians travelling abroad, things were not quite that easy. Writing letters, sending postcards and drawings by post were the only ways to share their travelling experiences. To facilitate this, they would travel with wooden writing boxes, generally known as portable desks, but also called lap desks or writing slopes. These boxes held all the accoutrements needed for writing.

3. Campaign box

Campaign Box with a secret drawer. WRM Ref: 1948.20

While there are records of writing boxes being used by travelling monks, the most well-known were used by officers in the British Army in the eighteenth century. These were known as campaign boxes. They had to be sturdy to withstand travelling over rough roads for long distances. They were banded with brass corners for extra protection and had steel screws to strengthen the joints. The boxes would open to reveal a leather or baize-covered double section on which to lay out all that was needed to write. Smaller compartments would hold quill pens, ink bottles, sand (for drying ink), sealing wax and a larger section for a pen rest.

Some also featured a secret drawer hidden in the bottom of the box. This was opened by removing a small discrete rod sunk into the side panel, which normally held the drawer closed. Other more elaborate hidden drawers were accessed by removing certain sections and releasing a hidden spring. These drawers were used for private or illicit correspondence, eyeglasses, snuff boxes, medicines or valuables.

1. Porcupine desk

A portable desk covered with porcupine quills. WRM Ref: 1962.178.4

As the British ventured to Europe on their Grand Tour journeys, the writing box became more widely used. Wealthy travellers would commission bespoke designs, inlaid with marquetry or ivory, and personalised with initials or monograms. Less commonly, dual purpose boxes were made, incorporating the writing function with perhaps a sewing box or a gentleman’s shaving tools.

The Whanganui Regional Museum has a collection of portable desks made from different species of wood. One of the more unusual has porcupine quills covering its outer surface and edges of inlaid ivory dots. Inside the lid is a hexagonal motif with twelve triangular sections of different wood species and an ivory circle with an elephant motif. The rest of the inside is elaborately decorated with swirls and flowers of inlaid ivory dots.

2. Interior porcupine desk

The interior of the porcupine quill portable desk. WRM Ref: 1962.178.4

There is also a heavy wooden campaign box which has interior compartments and a pull-out drawer at one end held shut by a brass rod sunk into a side panel. One side has a hinge which, when raised, holds the lid open at different angles. This was once the property of Mr E Hardcastle, Resident Magistrate in Whanganui, 1879.

One thing that hasn’t changed over the centuries is that we still wish to keep in touch and share our experiences with friends and family. Although we can now communicate in the blink of an eye, the beauty and the practicality of portable desks make us think about a return to the gentle art of sending letters and postcards. Are we missing the tactile satisfaction of opening and reading a letter, of selecting just the right postcard to send to a friend, of using our imagination to describe our experiences when we travel; or will pen and paper eventually become a thing of the past?

 

Kathy Greensides is collection assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum

Butterflies and Moths

In New Zealand there are 22 species of butterfly and over 1,700 species of moth. Eleven of these 22 butterfly species are found only in New Zealand. Some of the others originally came from overseas and are now resident here. Others occasionally arrive here, usually from Australia, on wind currents. Towns on New Zealand’s west coast, such as Whanganui, are often host to these wind-blown species.

World-wide, there are about 17,500 species of butterfly and around 160,000 species of moth. They form a significant portion of world fauna. Butterflies and moths are from the insect order called Lepidoptera. The name comes from the Greek words lepido which means “scale” and pteron which means “wing”. The scales on Lepidoptera wings give them their colours and patterns.

2. Tiger moth

These moths have spots and stripes on their wings and are from the family Arctiidae. The caterpillars of tiger moths are often covered in tufts of hair and are known as woolly bears. WRM ref: TA.418

Like other insects, Lepidoptera have three body parts (the head, thorax and abdomen) and the adults have two pairs of wings (one pair of forewings and one pair of hindwings). They also have a pair of feelers (antennae) on their head and six legs joined to their thorax. We can tell species of Lepidoptera apart by the patterns on their wings, wing shape and leg shape.

There are several basic differences between moths and butterflies. Moth antennae are usually feathery or pointed and butterfly antennae are usually clubbed. Moths tend to fly at night and butterflies tend to fly during the day. Moths usually rest with their wings flat and butterflies rest with their wings closed upward. Moth abdomens are usually plump and butterfly abdomens are usually slender.

There are four stages in a Lepidoptera life cycle. Egg, caterpillar (larva), cocoon (pupa) and adult moth. Caterpillars look different to adult moths. While they eat and grow, they will shed their skin (moult) several times. Eventually, the caterpillar will build a cocoon around itself. While inside its cocoon the caterpillar will undergo metamorphosis and emerge from the cocoon as a moth or butterfly.

There are advantages in being a Lepidoptera. Larval insects which are different to the adults can occupy different niches from the adults. This avoids competition for resources between the young and adults of a species. In addition, winged insects can travel greater distances than similar insects which do not have wings. This allows them to access the resources of more distant areas and increases their feeding and breeding ranges.

Collecting insects, especially butterflies, was a popular hobby from the late eighteenth century to the mid twentieth century, and is still enjoyed by many people today. As we learn more about the relationships between living things, we are discovering the unique role each plant and animal plays in its ecosystem and the wider natural world. The removal of one species from the ecosystem will have an effect on the remaining species. Because of this, many naturalists now collect photographs of plants and animals, including butterflies and moths, rather than collecting actual specimens of a species.

1. Butterfly collection

These butterflies are part of a much larger collection of Lepidoptera gathered by a member of the Edwards family of Whanganui. WRM ref: 1948.29.11

Lepidoptera have a strong presence within cultural history and art, providing a wealth of colour, shape and activity to our surroundings. They have often been used to decorate both every-day and special objects. References to Lepidoptera in poetry, fables, fairy tales, dance and theatre abound. Butterflies often seem to be the the goodies while moths are sometimes depicted as baddies or just plain foolish.

Metamorphosis has always been the greatest symbol of change for poets and artists. Imagine that you could be a caterpillar one moment and a butterfly the next. Louie Schwartzberg, 2014.

Moth: I gave you my life.  Flame: I allowed you to kiss me.  Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927).

 

Libby Sharpe is the senior curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Daguerreotypes – the first photographs

In the 21st century, most of us have mobile phones, and most of those phones come equipped with a pretty good camera. We can take a photograph, add a filter, crop and edit, then share it with the world within seconds. Photography has not always been so easy and readily available.

After centuries of painstaking carving and painting to capture a likeness, in 1822, French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce was the first person to make a mechanical image. He used a process called photo etching to create a permanent image on a metal plate, and was then able to use the plate to create copies of the image etched onto it.

2. Unknown child

Undated daguerreotype of an unidentified child. WRM ref: 1960.145.2

He worked with Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre to further the process before passing away in 1833, but Daguerre continued with the work. He finalised the process in 1837. In 1838 he took the first photograph of a person, by accident, while he was attempting to make a daguerreotype of a street scene in Paris. Moving pedestrians and carriages are too blurry to see, but one man who was having his boots cleaned on the street corner, stayed still long enough to be captured.

In exchange for a pension from the government he allowed France to present his method as a gift to the world. Daguerreotypes were very time-consuming and intricate to make. A plate of copper was coated with silver and polished to a mirror-shine, then exposed to halogen fumes to create a layer of light-sensitive silver halide which would bear the image. Initially, exposure could take up to 70 minutes, but was refined down to only a few seconds on a bright day.

The latent image was revealed by exposing the plate to mercury fumes.  Although known to be dangerous, very little protection was taken when handling the mercury and there were reports of inattentive daguerreotypists developing mercury poisoning from it.

The plate was toned with gold chloride before being rinsed and dried, and the daguerreotypist could add colour washes to clothing and skin or gold tints to jewellery. The plate was then sealed behind a layer of glass and bound in a brass mat, before being housed in a wooden case covered with leather and padded with velvet or satin.

3. Unknown man

Undated daguerreotype of an unidentified man. WRM ref: 1802.8612

The resulting image could be seen as a positive or a negative, and had a high-shine finish, made easier to view by the padding in the case. It was a single-use image and it was not possible to make copies without creating a whole new daguerreotype. It was also quite expensive. In 1882, an advertisement for the process in the newspaper, The New Zealander, stated the daguerreotypist could take a photo in only five seconds; he charged between 10 shillings and two guineas, equivalent to $60 – $260 today.

1. Mrs J Allison

Daguerreotype of Mrs Allison, relative of Dr James Allison. WRM ref: 1975.43.19

Although it was expensive, the daguerreotype was the first publicly available photographic process. Its peak popularity was from the early 1840s to the mid-1860s. The Whanganui Regional Museum holds six in the collection, only one of which is named. This is Mrs J Allison, a relative of Dr James Allison who arrived in Whanganui from Glasgow in 1840.

 

Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

The School on the Hill

Queens Park School was known as the school on the hill because of its situation on Pukenamu, or Queens Park. Its proud motto was, Esse Quam Videri (To be is better than to seem to be).

1. Queens Park School Banner

Queen’s Park School banner, 1921. WRM ref: 1802.1719

The first school on Queens Park seems to have started in 1875. Then Girls High School was built on the site in 1879, opening in 1880. The term “High School” was used at the time to differentiate “Infant” schools from schools that taught older children, possibly from Standard 3 (Year 5) upward. In 1901 Girls High became a District High School for girls, combining some classes with classes from the Boys School. The early records of the school were destroyed by fire in 1905 which means there are not many details of those formative years.

The local Education Board started looking at the possibility of building a primary school in 1904. The fire of 1905 that burnt two classrooms in the Wanganui District Girls High School seems to have been the impetus for change. The Girls and Boys District High Schools were merged into the Wanganui District High School. Later in 1905, the old school was renamed Queens Park School and taught pupils up to Standard 6 (Year 8), both boys and girls. New single-seat desks were introduced that year too – Queens Park was the first school in New Zealand to have them! The School was noted for its strong Cadet group that started in 1906 and the talented Band, formed in 1916.

By the end of World War I, many Queens Park School boys had served and been wounded. A Queens Park School Roll of Honour lists 24 names of Old Boys who were killed while on active war service.

3. Queens Park School 1939

Queens Park School with Memorial Gates. Photo by FH Bethwaite, 1939. WRM ref 2005.56.32

A fire in 1917 destroyed many of the wooden school buildings. In 1920 a new brick building opened, and the pupils marched from their temporary home in the Methodist Church Hall, up the hill to the new school.

In 1926 Queens Park School pupils raised funds to build the Memorial Gates, in honour of past pupils who gave their lives in the War of 1914 – 1918. These gates still stand on their original site, the only visible reminder of the school on the hill.

From 1933 only pupils from Primer 1 to Standard 4 attended the school. Standards 5 and 6 pupils were sent to the newly established Wanganui Intermediate School, only the third intermediate school in New Zealand at the time. Queens Park School closed in 1972 and was demolished in 1977. A centenary was held in 1979, and surplus funds from the event were donated to repair and restore the Memorial Gates.

2. Queens Park School 75th Jubilee Plaque

Queens Park School 75th Jubilee Plaque. WRM ref 1984.8.3

 

Libby Sharpe is Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Sun Smart

Summer may be over and Winter approaching here in New Zealand, and many people will be lamenting the impending loss of their tan.  But it wasn’t so long ago that being in the sunshine was something to be avoided.

Before the 1900s a tan was a stigma – the working classes had tans from their long hours of labour in the sunshine, so being pale was thought to indicate wealth, refinement and beauty. The fashions depicted in artworks and advertisements show full length trousers, skirts and sleeves, and even swimwear and sportswear covered most of the skin.

1. Outing

 Preparing for a summer outing in 1907, complete with hats, parasols, and very little skin exposed to the sun. WRM ref: 2015.93.6

On top of this, women dared not leave the house without a wide-brimmed hat and parasol to shield the sun’s rays. Rudimentary sun screens were available, consisting of petroleum jelly mixed with magnesium, zinc oxide or bismuth, which coated the skin and prevented sun burn and freckles. If colour did start to show they could purchase one of the many bleaching creams or powders designed to whiten skin.

During the 1890s medical studies discovered that sunlight killed the Tubercle bacillus (TB) and prevented microorganisms from growing, and a lack of sunlight caused Rickets Disease. The sun became a provider of health. UV radiation, otherwise known as sunbathing, became a treatment for many conditions including lupus, anaemia, Hodgkin’s disease, renal failure, syphilis and septic wounds.

2. Parasol

 A black and purple brocade parasol, made 1890s. WRM ref: 1975.43.27

In 1910 medical journal The Lancet published the statement, “the face browned by the sun is regarded as an index of health”. Having a tan was no longer a social stigma, and by 1930 was publicly regarded as healthy. Mothers were told to put their children in the sunshine every day to keep their bones and teeth strong. UV radiation lamps were used in hospitals to decrease blood pressure, increase appetite, and promote wellbeing. Models for the home soon followed.

Alongside this, society changed. Work hours were reduced and people had more time to experience the outdoor leisure centres that were being built. Fashions were shortening and more skin was being exposed to the sun, particularly in leisurewear.  Hats and parasols became unwanted trappings of the past.

The Industrial Revolution led to changes in many work environments, from outdoor to indoor. The working classes grew pale, while having a tan indicated having money and leisure to travel. The desire to tan was increased with fashionistas like Coco Chanel declaring “a golden tan is the index of chic”.

But it wasn’t all fun in the sun. As early as 1894, dermatologists noticed that those who worked outside were more likely to develop skin cancers, especially on areas that saw the sun frequently such as hands, faces and necks.

3 Hat

 A black afternoon hat, with brim and lace covering, made around 1880. WRM ref: 1980.47.2

The term “sun cancer” was first coined in 1933 but the initial causal links were largely ignored by the wider medical community and the public. In the 1940s a link between tanning, sunburn and skin cancer was confirmed and the name “melanoma” became commonplace. Knowing UV radiation was dangerous helped to improve sunscreens, but the desire to be tanned and beautiful was stronger. Between 1930 and 1970 the rates of melanoma over the world increased 300-400%.

In New Zealand around 4,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma every year, and around 300 will die from it. We have the highest incidence of melanoma in the world.

So enjoy the sun, but be safe and remember your hats, sunscreens and parasols.

 

Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Dear Santa…

Christmas has been and gone but many children will already be planning their wish list for later this year.  Reaching for a tablet or smartphone they could sneakily message Saint Nick another gift for their wish list, while a frustrated parent threatens to email Father Christmas and tell him to cancel the toys because of too many tantrums.

2. Santa Claus's visit

 Postcard of a child waiting for Santa Claus to fulfil her wish list, while her father offers advice about not being too greedy, presumably. WRM ref: 1978.77.5 73c

In today’s world of digital communication, it is quick and easy to get an instant message to Santa through any of the websites the Google elves offer. But what about the hand-written and illustrated letters that used to be sent by post?

The following report appeared in the Wanganui Chronicle on Wednesday 24 December 1952:

 “Father Christmas, No.1 Cloud, Iceland”, so the address proclaimed. The blue envelope with its tuppence-ha’penny stamp rested in the trained hand of the postal sorter. All round him stretched the pigeon-holed sorting bays of the overseas mail floor at London’s General Post Office.

“Well, well,” said the sorter, turning to his companion, “Christmas must be closer than I thought. Here’s the first of the Father Christmas mail. A good one, too.” He put it aside and returned to his stack of letters with a shake of his head, a smile and a thought of Christmas and the children.

That was way back in September. But as the mail sorter said, it meant that Christmas was on the way.

1. Christmas toys

 Postcard of a child’s Christmas wish – fruit, biscuits and toys. WRM ref: 1978.77.5 34b

The letter, with its fairy tale address and childish scrawl, was the first of about six thousand of its kind to pass through London General. They came in from overseas as well as from all around Britain. It is a law of the Post Office that a letter must get as near to its destination as possible. And a request to “Santa Claus, Snow Cottage, Iceland”, which might have been posted in Fiji, comes first to London on its way to Iceland.

The Post Office in Iceland, unable to find Santa, who is probably out on his rounds in any case, holds the letter for a time and then it … well, who but Santa is entitled to read the Christmas wish of a child?

There are very few exceptions to this rule of forwarding Father Christmas’ mail. One is when a child’s letter is addressed simply to “Father Christmas” or “Father Christmas, Fairyland”, or “Toyland”, or when the letter is sent to “Santa Claus, the North Pole.” In these cases the letters are held at their office of origin.

3. Tickner envelope

 Hand-decorated envelope with a festive theme, from the Tickner Envelope Collection. WRM ref: 1989.15.3

Father Christmas has many homes, judging by the variety of addresses where children hope to find him. There was one to “Father Christmas, Reindeer Hotel, Iceland” and yet another with the direction “The North Pole, Arctic Ocean, Siberia”. One child tried to reach him through “Fairy Land, Iceland, England”.

Let’s just hope that Santa’s email account has a good spam filter and plenty of storage.

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.

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.