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Last week, Massey University’s MATTER research cluster and Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa held the ‘ Material Histories’ symposium that brought together historians, curators and a few keen amateur collectors.  Participants were treated to a range of interesting speakers such as Beverly Lemire, University of Alberta and Founding Director of the Material Culture Institute who highlighted the histories of tobacco products and washing over the last few centuries.  Indeed if anyone is looking for a project, Beverly suggested that there is an international history of laundry begging to be published.

Local speakers Kate Hunter, Victoria University and Kirstie Ross, Te Papa outlined their current research into New Zealand’s World War I effort through examples of material culture. Objects such as soldier dolls and fragments of military uniforms serve as reminders of lost lives. In addition, a number of soldiers recovering from their injuries took up creative activities from basket making to embroidery.  An example by soldier Fred Hansen can be viewed on Te Papa’s website at  Indeed this apron caught the eye of Queen Mary who was keen to acquire it but according to family history, it had been promised to Fred’s mother and was not given to the Royal Family.

Unfortunately I don’t have any examples of World War I objects but the following two pieces are examples of World War II pieces made by soldiers who were injuried in the conflict.  The earrings were purchased by my grandmother shortly after World War II and the decorated wooden object was a recent find.

Earrings and a wooden tray made by World War II soldiers

Freelance historian Bronwyn Dalley examined the popularity of historic material objects.  From retro to cooking shows, granny-hunting to granny-chic, New Zealanders are keenly acquiring items from the past.  During the course of her talk, Bronwyn introduced family pieces from linen table cloths to wooden cake stands that has been passed down the generations. Representing different eras, the family connection unifies them and shows how we engage with the personal and material past in both the real and digital worlds.  The following tea towels were purchased at a vintage fair the very next day confirming that the acquisition of historic material objects is a regular activity for many including myself.

Two tea towels

Another enjoyable session saw a panel of post-graduate students providing a brief overview of their research.  Debbie Noon completed a MA thesis in the rise and rise of op shops. Debbie spoke of the many reasons for the increasing popularity of op shops – the chance to purchase unique items at affordable prices definitely resonated with me.  Megan Watson’s MA thesis examined afternoon tea practices in the Manawatu region during the 1930s and 1950s.  We learnt that there is difference between afternoon tea and Afternoon Tea (and it’s not just capitals).

Dinah Vincent is embarking upon a PhD on  the meanings of girls’ sewing in the 1950s and 1960s and provided a fascinating introduction to the school curriculum which promoted the role of girls as future wives and home makers.  It will be interesting to see what information Dinah uncovers over the course of her research.  Certainly my family benefitted from my mother’s sewing skills which saw an array of dolls clothes made for us as well as christening gowns.Examples of home-made dolls clothes

Christening gown made from wedding dress material








You can also read more about this conference on a Te Ara blog at and thanks to the organisers for a lively and affordable symposium.  As I run around the op shops tomorrow, I now feel that I’m participating in the world of history as well as feeding my less noble consumerism habits.


New to the bookshelves is Every tea towel tells a story : Richard Till’s special collection.  Host of TVNZ’s “Kiwi Kitchen” programme, a highlight was the tea towel of the week segment in which Richard showed off some classic examples.  In this book, 50 tea towels from Richard’s collection are featured including the first image.  A quick read of his book, shows Richard’s enthusiasm for regional designs that highlight an area’s attractions all on one towel.

Tea towel showing a map of New Zealand

An alternative to map books

Not in the book but one that I’m sure Richard would appreciate is this example from Kawerau.  From an explanation of Maori carving to a scene of the Tasman Pulp & Paper Company (now Norske Skog Tasman), it’s a classic design!

Tea towel promoting the Kawerau region

All you need to know on a tea towel.

The following two library tea towels were acquired from Auckland Central City Library.  The walls of the library staffroom were previously covered in tea towels brought back from people’s holidays.  Although not a fan of tea towel interior design, I witnessed the frenzy when they were removed during a refurbishment of the staffroom.  I soon joined in, grabbing these along with a classy ‘I lost my ass in Las Vegas” tea towel which I still adore.

Tea towels from Auckland City Library and Takapuna Library

Not just books, some libraries have their own tea towels.

Nowdays many tea towels are art works, no longer for drying dishes but instead being framed like art prints.  Particular favourites are the black and white Esther Diamond range.  The following designs were created by artist Dick Frizzell.

Two tea towels from the Esther Diamond range

Art on a tea towel.

Wellington artist Liz Hibb’s “Living Goddess” series featured portraits of iconic women such as Lucille Ball, Julie Andrews to Coronation Street’s Hilda Ogden. This one is of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Photo of a tea towel featuring Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

A first class First Lady design.

Crown Lynn collectors wishing to extend their ceramic collection can delve into tea towels.  Christchurch’s Rudolf Boelee has produced a number of Crown Lynn screenprints onto greeting cards, cushion covers and now tea towels.

Tea towel featuring Crown Lynn's Swan design

The classic swan image now on a tea towel.

Another Christchurch example is the Mogambo cup printed by Rebecca Lovell-Smith.  Released in the early 1960s, this design was one of Crown Lynn’s first coffee cans.

Crown Lynn's Mogambo coffee cup tea towel design

Now you can match your Crown Lynn coffee cup with a tea towel.

Ending on another Kiwiana theme is Mr 4 Square, a smiling grocer representing the 4 Square grocery chain.  Established in the 1920s, the brand has seen a revival with the reuse of the cartoon character.  Not only convenient, Mr 4 Square has proved popular with a summer design released last year.

Two tea towels featuring the Mr 4 Square grocery brand.

As their logo states, 'how convenient!"

April 2018
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