Notes on Nostalgia

Sarah Robinson, Social History Curatorial Intern

Image credit: “Muriel Udy,” circa 1920, Petone. Donated 1980. Collection of Petone Settlers Museum – Te Whare Whakaaro o Pito-one.

In my last post, I talked about the beauty and variety of social history collections. This week I want to delve into the magical world of nostalgia.

Nostalgia, yearning for the past, is a tricky beast. It’s a kind of in-between state where one might long for things from their own past, things they remember and things they used to do, or one might long for a piece of history they weren’t alive to experience. There’s a certain romance attached to the past; we look back and wish things were the same now.

I sometimes find myself thinking about past eras, wondering if I would be the same person back then as I am now, or if I’d be completely different. I’ve also always loved the aesthetic appeal of the past: the structure and grace of the mid to late 1800s, the loosening of the rules and expression of personality in the 1920s, the proliferation of ‘freedom’ in the 1960s, the wild and slightly aggressive neon of the 1980s.

The photos I’ve found for this blog represent the nostalgia of Petone and Lower Hutt, some of the past versions of our city. They speak of a time gone by, a time that many of us remember fondly and perhaps even wish we could return to. Take a walk down memory lane with these snapshots of our past.

The talkies, jazz, and the Udys

Image credit: “Muriel and Joyce Udy,” circa 1920, Petone. Donated 1980. Collection of Petone Settlers Museum – Te Whare Whakaaro o Pito-one.

When you think of the 1920s, most people probably think glitz and glam, flappers and gangsters. But this decade was much like any other; there were ‘normal’ people going about their lives, talking films (“talkies”) were taking off, and ladies’ dresses began to show a little more ankle than in previous years. Where a lot of people think The Great Gatsby, I think of the less outrageous version of the 1920s. I think of cloche hats, short hairstyles, going to the movies for the first time, listening to jazz music over the radio, and going to the beach.

These photos show Muriel Udy and her younger sister Joyce in around 1920. The photos recall some of these trends: the short hair, the sensible yet freeing clothing, going to school, domestic architecture that is now a distinctly Petone feature. Muriel’s white dress is a classic ‘20s silhouette, the girls’ awkward poses suggest they weren’t comfortable in front of the camera, and the buildings behind them show the Victorian architecture that was popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The smiles and tone of the photos speak of enjoyment and a kind of teenage whimsy.

At this point in time the Udy family had been in Petone for three generations and was well-established here. They arrived in Petone in February of 1840 when Hart Udy reached our shores onboard the ship Roxburgh. Walter James Udy, Hart’s son, was born in Lower Hutt in 1865 and had seven children with his wife Annie. Two of whom feature in these photos: Muriel (born 1902) and Joyce (born 1905). Muriel would’ve been about 18 when these were taken.

Taita Teens

Image credit: “Teenagers at the Taita Community Hall 1962,” Ans Westra. Silver gelatin print. Collection of Petone Settlers Museum – Te Whare Whakaaro o Pito-one.

This photo taken by Ans Westra in 1962 is one of a series of images taken of teenagers attending a social gathering at Taita Community Hall. It captures two young men in the midst of a performance and brings to mind many things: the vibrancy of youth, the emphasis on these sorts of gatherings at the time, the fashion of the mid 20th century, and the nervousness of attending one’s first disco or party.

Not only does the image speak of life in the 1960s, it illustrates what we thought was important back then, what we put emphasis on to document. It seems that a lot of photography during this time was focused on the everyday, not the mundane, but the ordinary things people did not just for enjoyment but also for necessity. Ans Westra began working as a freelance documentary photographer in 1962; this work is likely one of the earliest she took in this role and perfectly captures what life was like for teens in Taita in the 1960s.

Old School

Image credit: “Petone West School Class 6-1968,” L. C. Scott Ltd. – School Photographer. Donated 2002. Collection of Petone Settlers Museum – Te Whare Whakaaro o Pito-one.

Something we can probably all relate to is the classic Kiwi school photo. I love looking through and identifying myself, my friends and my teachers. This one is of Petone West School students in the late 1960s and, to me, represents the quintessential school photo; kids arranged in tiers, teacher standing beside them. I remember my own classes preparing for these photos, all being told to put our knees together and cross our hands in our laps. It’s lovely to see that the format hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years!

It’s easy to spot the 1960s fashion here too: long white socks, woollen jumpers with shirt collars sticking out, headbands and massive fringes. Some of which seem to be back in vogue now… For me, this image typifies the school photo and represents a period in time that is somehow the same for every person going through the NZ education system and also totally different for each individual, and also a million worlds away from the present day.

Well folks, I hope you enjoyed this walk down memory lane and I hope I’ve been able to spark a bit of nostalgia in you. I know what I’ll be doing when lockdown ends: getting into my mum’s collection of family photos. Why not get out your own albums, pull out your old toys and games, find your old journals and explore your past with the people in your bubble?


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