07 October 2009

The beautiful things

These days New Zealand is pretty much like any other well-off Western nation.  Perhaps not as wealthy as many of its OECD colleagues, and with its economy dented by the global recession, certainly, but on the whole the standard of living is comfortable.  Like most such societies, consumerism is a dominant lifestyle, and homes are decked out with a wide range of appliances in virtually every room.  The 1980s saw most households acquire a VCR; in the ’90s many New Zealanders bought personal computers; in the late 2000s, the appliance that seems to be attaining ubiquity is the heat pump, designed to ward off the soggy winter chills in our poorly-insulated houses.

But it’s not so long ago that New Zealand households were substantially less cluttered with appliances, and the items we now consider to be mandatory were pigeon-holed as luxury items for the privileged few.  New Zealand’s isolation was part of the problem in the first half of the 20th century – we were just too far from the manufacturers of modern appliances for them to reach our shores and stores in any number.  New Zealand’s own light manufacturing industries struggled to keep pace with consumer demands for new appliances.

New-fangled gizmos like electric ovens seemed so peculiar to a nation brought up using wood, coal or gas-fired cooking stoves that a cautionary guide was issued by bookseller Whitcombe & Tombs to educate the cooking public (i.e. housewives):

Using an electric oven

  1. Before using a new oven turn top and bottom elements to ‘Full’ heat and leave them until the oven has attained a temperature of 400 degrees.  Then turn both elements off.  This will destroy any loose ends of packing, grease, or anything which has accumulated in the oven during the process of manufacture, and which might cause odours.
  2. An electric oven must never on any account be heated to a greater temperature than 600 degrees [315 Celsius].  There is nothing that needs a temperature as great as this in baking.
  3. An oven which is allowed to overheat will usually destroy the thermometer, and probably damage the oven fabric.
  4. When the oven has reached the correct baking temperature it is rarely necessary to use the top element.  In almost every case actual baking is done without top heat.

Do not open the oven door when baking.  A combination of the recipe time and your own good judgement will render it quite unnecessary.

- Whitcombe’s Modern Home Cookery and Electrical Guide, Christchurch, c.1940, quoted in Richard Wolfe, Instructions for New Zealanders, 2006

The introduction of refrigerators was also a relatively recent step, occurring predominantly after World War 2, but many houses (including my grandparents’) made do without one well into the 1950s.  Shoppers purchased perishable goods daily from nearby corner shops and stored them in cold safes - air-cooled cupboards that can still be found in older homes.  The one my grandparents’ house in Onehunga is a simple cupboard at floor level with a wire mesh base that allows air to circulate from under the house, thereby cooling the contents of the safe. 

I’ve recently been reading an excellent collection of Frank Sargeson short stories, and in one in particular story set in 1940 the lure of modern appliances is prominent as a man fends off his wife’s demands for a refrigerator:

Not to mention a car, one thing she’s always on about is a refrigerator.  It would save money in the long run is what she reckons, and maybe she’s right, but it’s always seemed too much of a hurdle to Jack.

Do you know dear, I heard him say once, when I was a little boy, and my mother opened the safe, and there was a blowfly buzzing about, it sometimes wouldn’t even bother to fly inside.

And Mrs Parker said, What’s a blowfly (or your mother for that matter) got to do with us having a refrigerator?  And Jack went on grinning until she got cross and said, Well why wouldn’t it fly inside?

Because dear, Jack said, it knew it was no good flying inside.

And you could tell it annoyed his missis because she still couldn’t work it out, but she wasn’t going to let on by asking Jack to explain.

- Frank Sargeson, ‘The Hole that Jack Dug’, published 1945

As mentioned in the first paragraph of the excerpt above, a family car was often the ambition of families who lacked one, and today’s car-dependent multi-vehicle households would probably shudder at the idea of living without private vehicles.  Yet until the 1950s, when tramlines in Auckland were killed off and suburban sprawl really kicked in, car ownership was far from ubiquitous. 

Until the mid-1950s Aucklanders and residents of the other major towns in New Zealand relied on walking (a.k.a. Shanks’ pony), cycling, buses, or the excellent tram network that served much of the Auckland isthmus.  This intricate diagram, linked to by Joshua Arbury’s Auckland transport blog, shows the extent of the tram services offered until the network was shut down on 29 December 1956.  If only we still had them!

Auckland tram network 1902-56

In the 1960s there was a rapid expansion of car ownership in New Zealand, setting the scene for the transformation of New Zealand cities to a focus on private car transportation rather than public transport.  In the five years from 1967 to 1971 the number of cars in New Zealand rose from 781,047 to 908,253 - an increase of 16 percent at a time when the national population only increased by five percent.  The rapid rise in car ownership can be seen in these figures: 

Total population per licensed car, 1961-71

As at 31 March Persons per car As at 31 March Persons per car
























Source: New Zealand Official Yearbook 1972, Department of Statistics, Wellington, 1972, p.311

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