Weird and wonderful objects in our Collection

Sarah Robinson, Social History Curatorial Intern

Replica meal made from soap, Unilever

One of the things I love most about working with museum collections is the weird stuff you come across; sometimes these things have accompanying records that tell you what they are, sometimes you have to do some investigating and sometimes you just have to guess.

The beauty of social history collections like Petone Settlers Museum is that they usually contain a huge variety of objects and media; our collection has everything from old wedding dresses and toys, to sporting memorabilia (did you know that Petone has been home to 30 All Blacks*?) and furniture, as well as photos, old industry products and machinery, and prints and maps. So you’re guaranteed to find many weird and wonderful things.

The itchy & scratchy wool togs

Men’s Woollen Swimming Trunks, circa 1930. Gifted by an unknown donor, 1977.

Another one of my more random finds is this pair of men’s woollen swimming trunks. Yes… woollen. They are maroon machine-knitted and sewn trunks, featuring a rather fancy a woven belt threaded through fabric loops at the waist and a false front skirt. The belt is fastened by a two piece metal clasp at the centre front and has a length adjusting buckle on the front right side. This pair has a woven ‘Pacific’ label, featuring a green fern motif is stitched to the front left leg, however many similar pairs were produced in Petone and feature the classic “Petone” stitched logo like that on the plaque above.

As swimming and beach-going became a more public activity in the  19th century, swimsuit design became increasingly important. The 1920s and 1930s saw American trends reach our shores, which had a significant influence on things such as architecture, music, cinema and fashion, including beach fashion. Kiwi swimwear was originally produced in wool, mirroring styles and silhouettes found in America. They were generally produced in dark colours as light colours were see-through when wet! Production methods and materials wouldn’t change until after new technologies were introduced following World War II.

As most of us have experienced at least once in our lives, wool is ITCHY. So getting to the beach in your togs may have proved an itchy-scratchy nightmare. Once in the water though, you could be forgiven for thinking you were being dragged to the depths of Wellington Harbour by our two taniwha; as soon as wool hits water it becomes heavy, soggy and saggy. I bet most people couldn’t wait to get out of them post-swim!

During the 1920s swimsuits, or togs as us Kiwis call them, were sleeveless one-piece garments that were a modest length, sitting at the mid-thigh, for both men and women. As the 1930s rolled around mid-thigh became upper thigh, and modest became somewhat more racy. The blue and red trunks represent later styles that made their way to our shores in the middle of the 20th century.

Men’s Woollen Swimming Trunks, circa 1930. Gifted by an unknown donor, 1977.

Meals made of soap

Replica meal made from soap, Unilever

Most people who live in the Hutt Valley have probably heard of Unilever. Part of Petone’s industrial backbone, Unilever produced handy household items including soaps, laundry detergents and cleaning products. Our museum has a selection of these products on display and many, many more in our collection store.

While I was looking through our Unilever objects, I came across some of the most bizarre photos I think I’ve ever seen: home-cooked meals, looking very tasty, made from Unilever products. Food… made of soap. They’re black and white so unfortunately we can’t see the meals in their full glory, but you get the point. The detail is so intricate, so elaborate that they look like real kai.

The photos themselves are a collection of photographic prints made by W. E. Toms between 1948 – 1972 at Eastbourne Studios. Toms was a prominent photographer during this period and we also have many of his images in our collection. He had a knack for capturing everyday scenes and making one moment feel like it was still on the move, dynamic despite being only one image.

These photos of the Unilever ‘dinners’ were publicity shots taken in the early 1960s and were reprinted in a 1964 brochure called ‘Unilever in New Zealand’ with the caption “Meal preparation in minutes. Satisfaction for hours.” Having located and flicked through the brochure it’s not clear what they meant by this phrase…

The Unilever products themselves are also quite interesting. Marketing was big in the 20th century and every opportunity was taken to showcase and sell products. Take for example the bar of soap below, with the banner reading “gift for mother.” During the mid 20th century gender roles were still very much the norm and so soap would’ve been considered a ‘women’s item’ (preparing food would’ve too, perhaps that’s the connection made with the dinners). Products like those made by Unilever therefore appealed a female audience, and those who would be buying gifts for, say, their mothers or grandmothers.

Wonderful wallpaper

Another domestic object in our collection is a series of wallpaper samples. Not very weird, but wonderful in my opinion. I’ve always loved historic design and decoration, particularly in historic houses. There’s something charming about a quaint house with elaborate wallpaper, beautiful wood furniture and a nice, well-used garden.

We’ve probably all done some work on our houses over the years and have wanted to change the colour of the walls. My first flat had revolting green painted walls, and before moving in we asked if we could paint them a more neutral colour, and, mercifully, our landlord said yes.  Countless DIY-ers have found layers upon layers of wallpaper in their houses, making redecorating an interesting exercise. However, the historian in me loves seeing everything underneath and imagining what the house would’ve been like in the past. It’s almost like being able to touch the past. Even when elements have been removed, like this wallpaper, and taken to a collection store, it’s still so easy to imagine it up on the walls, surrounding the family going about their lives.

Wallpaper always looks so unremarkable when it’s crumbling and peeling and faded, but for me that’s part of the beauty; it’s been used and lived with and has seen all sorts of things from kids playing in their rooms with their favourite toys, grandparents pottering around in the garden ripping out weeds and pruning flowers, and teens having sleepovers watching scary movies in the lounge. For me, houses and their features reach back in time and show you all of these things.

Social history collections are fascinating things; they’re made up of the things that make us ‘us’ and that made our ancestors who they were, too. They’re a record of how we live our lives and the things we think are worth keeping for future generations to experience. In this case, someone thought it was important that we keep some dude’s togs…

*Corrrection: This post originally said Petone was the home to 18 All Blacks, not 30! Kia ora to The Jackson Street Programme for spotting the error. Check out the All Blacks plaques on the ‘Walk of Champions’ along Jackson Street.

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