houses

The sad story of the secret staircase

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The thing about being a buildings archaeologist is that even though some houses might look the same, the story of their occupants and occupation is always different. These stories of occupation are not always revealed in the archaeology of the buildings themselves, and are usually unearthed by our team of historians. When recording a house in the central city, we were confronted with a building that was most intriguing from a buildings archaeology perspective and had a sad story to match.

What made the house different was a ‘secret staircase’ located in the kitchen wall. From a buildings archaeology point of view this staircase didn’t appear to be an original feature, as its installation meant that one of the rooms in the house was unusable. Nor did it appear to have been used for some time, as the floorboards had been replaced where the stairs had once exited on the second floor, and the wall in the second-floor room where a doorway associated with the stairs had been located had been relined in the late 19th century. So why was it there?

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Historian Chelsea Dickson was tasked with uncovering the story of the construction and occupation of the house. What she discovered, and how it meshed with the buildings archaeology, is related below in the ‘Sad Story of the Secret Staircase.’

When Henry Wilkinson, a cobbler and shoe merchant, purchased the relevant land parcel from Cyrus Davie in 1872 he was looking to build a home for himself and his family. His wife Anna Maria, two daughters Laura (the eldest) and Louisa, and his son James Walter were no doubt looking forward to the prospect of living in a brand new home close (but not too close) to town, with the river nearby and Linwood East School just a short walk up Barbadoes Street.

Building started soon after the section was purchased, and the house was complete and the family had moved in by December 1872. Unfortunately, the reason we know that Henry and his family were in occupation of the house at the time is because of the funeral notice for the middle child, Louisa, who passed away in the house aged 7½ (Press 2/12/1872). This tragedy was followed 18 days later when the youngest child, James Walter, passed away aged 4 years (Press 20/12/1872).

By September 1873 Anna Maria had also passed away, aged 37, leaving only Henry and Laura at the house.

In 1874 Henry advertised the four front rooms of the dwelling to let as “the front apartments, four rooms, for a respectable family, of three to four adults, next to Mrs Cyrus Davie’s” (Lyttelton Times 9/4/1874: 4). In order for the tenants to access the kitchen, which was located in the rear of the building, Henry had a staircase built into the wall between the kitchen and the parlour, which provided access from the front upstairs bedroom to the kitchen.

This is the ‘secret staircase’.

Presumably the secret staircase went out of use when Henry ceased letting out the front four rooms of his house, probably in 1875 when he married Annie Martha Griffiths, and hopefully lived happily ever after.

Peter Mitchell

References

LINZ, 1850. Canterbury Land District Deeds index – A – Town sections and town reserves register.

LINZ, 1860. Canterbury Land District Deeds index – A/S 1 – Subdivisions of town reserves register. Archives New Zealand, Christchurch office.

Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed May 2017].

Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz [Accessed May 2017].

 

Keys to the city

Did you ever wonder where the concept of locking things up came from? The reality of human nature seems to be that ever since people have owned things that are deemed valuable, they need to be protected from theft. Not to mention the need for personal protection – locking yourself in away from harm, or locking away those things or people that have been deemed unsafe to others. Interestingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, it is thought that the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans developed mechanical locks independently from each other - highlighting the collective unconscious need to protect one’s valuables and person from this unseemly side of human nature. The idea evolved from the use of simple knots to detect if anyone had attempted to tamper with a locked place, and as time went on, locks made from wood and metal were developed and the security that they provided increased (History of Keys 2016).

Alexander the Great 'unlocks?' the Gordian knot. Image

We find several types of locks in the work that we carry out in Christchurch. Door locks from the pre-1900 houses that we record, and padlocks from excavations of pre-1900 material. The concept of a padlock is a great one! We have the Chinese from about 1000 BC to thank for the invention of a portable apparatus, the size and uses of which are so versatile that we can lock all manner of things up and away. The idea travelled to Europe via trade with the Romans several centuries later and the heart cast type became popular for locking up railway cars and controls, as they were durable in dirty and freezing conditions (History of Keys 2016).  These days we’re not just using them for railroads – they work well to secure static latches that have been fixed to the outside of a door or cupboard to keep it closed, or on the inside of a door to lock yourself in a room. How convenient! Latch and lock types that work well for this are hasp latches, and sliding bolt locks - the kind you might use on your garden shed, or on a public locker.

A hasp latch (Image: Priess 2002: 66).

A sliding bolt is a bar which can be attached to a door and slid into a catch on the door frame to hold a door closed (Image: Priess 2002: 66).

Padlocks consist of an enclosed body (housing), and curved bar (shackle) that is passed through a loop and secured (Priess 2002: 79). The housing shapes can vary, being symmetrical or asymmetrical, and some had key hole covers. These covers were originally attached with hinges, which were later replaced by pivoted examples. These keyhole covers can also offer additional dating and origin information as they were often stamped with maker’s marks. A popular mark was “VR”, after Queen Victoria during her reign 1837-1901 (Priess 2002: 81). Padlocks are a lock type which have been favoured historically for their flexibility, and because they are simple to make, with few working parts. But on the flip side, their simple structure means they are also easy to break open (Priess 2002: 82).

Cast iron padlock from an archaeological deposit west of the central city.

Door locks are more complicated in manufacture and form. The idea is simple – “A lock is any key-operated device attached to a door and equipped with a bolt or other member to keep the door closed” (Butter 1968: 163). But the 19th century saw many innovations in door lock technology. The most notable were the changes in material used – from wrought iron to cast iron, brass or steel, when it began to be economically viable (Priess 2002: 92).

Wooden and wrought iron rim lock. Image: K. Webb.

Without delving into the tedious technical details - the locks that were available in the 19th century consisted of two main types – ones that are attached to the surface of the door and ones that are placed into a cavity that has been cut into the door. The surface locks consist of ‘stock locks’ and ‘rim locks’ and the cut locks are ‘flush locks’ (which were cut into the surface of the door) and ‘mortise locks’ (cut into the edge of the door).

These types are easily distinguished as the surface locks have their strike plates attached to the surface of one side of the adjacent wall, and the strike plates of a mortise or flush lock are placed within the door jamb. Also, only the front plate of the housing (lock cover) is visible with these mortise and flush locks. Sounds simple? Not always - lock reuse can make identification and dating of locks complicated, as broken locks were often replaced with new types.  Wrought iron examples could also be fixed and reworked into other things (Priess 2002: 92). Darn those thrifty Victorians!

Of the types mentioned above, rim locks and mortise locks are commonly found on the doors of Christchurch houses that were built during the 19th century. Some examples that some of our buildings archaeologists have found are pictured below.

Rim lock from a central city house. Image: P. Mitchell.

 Mortise lock in situ and mortise lock close-up. Images: J. Garland and P. Mitchell.

Mortise locks were more labour intensive to install than rim locks, as the mortise cavity in the door had to be cut. This lock type didn’t become popular until the late 19th century for this reason. But by the beginning of the 20th century mortise locks formed a major portion of the locks offered by prominent lock companies like Yale and Towne, and Sargent and Company (Priess 2002: 99). Flush locks are more commonly seen on furniture or closets, as they are inserted into the interior surface of a door or drawer, and they are usually out of sight when the drawer or door is closed (Priess 2002: 90).

The works of a few of the same lock makers are seen over and over again in our local examples – particularly the makers James Carpenter, Willenhall, England and H.&. T. Vaughan Standard Works, Willenhall (P. Mitchell and K. Webb, pers. comm.). Carpenter’s No. 60 patented lock was mentioned in the blog a few weeks ago, and this lock type was so popular that the design was counterfeited by rival lock-makers (Switzer 2013).

Jason Carpenter No. 60 rim lock and maker’s mark. The strike plate is shaped like a key! This maker was popular from the 1840s until the early 20th century (Sydney Living Museum 2016). Image: K. Webb.

H. & T. Vaughan lock maker's mark. This company was founded in 1856, and was later responsible for the invention of the cylinder pin tumbler lock in 1910 – the easy self-locking kind which are still commonly used today (Evans 2002). Image: K. Webb.

So we have talked about the locks, what about the keys? They’ve enabled us to take better control of our locks and make them more exclusive as only the key holder can operate them. The first of their kind were made with wooden pins, but we can credit the Romans again for the production of metal keys - the strength of the material made it possible to make keys smaller than before and hence, more potable (History of Keys 2016). We find keys less commonly in the archaeological record, as it’s likely that the 19th century owners of these keys did not often discard them on purpose – the abundance of advertisements for locksmiths in 19th century Canterbury newspapers suggests that the skill of breaking locks was one in demand.

And who were these lock breakers behind the scenes? If you lost your key or if something went wrong with one of your locks, you’d need someone to pick it, break it, or blow it up (if you’re that desperate). Locksmiths seem to have been ‘a jack of all trades’ in New Zealand during the 1800s - they often moonlighted as plumbers, engineers, guns smiths, tinsmiths, bell hangers and gas fitters to name a few (Star 29/09/1873: 3). They appear to not only have had varied careers, but also exciting ones – among the many instances of getting called out on false alarm missions (having to open safes that were never locked, or even closed in the first place (Star 23/10/1897: 2). There were also many examples of locksmiths being the first called to the scene of a crime (often murders) to break through a locked door (Temuka Leader 16/12/1882: 3). They were also commonly called in as expert witnesses at court trials to prove if locks had been tampered with – a sort of 19th century forensics expert (Star 4/04/1900: 3). I’ve LOCKED in an example of one of these turbulent tales - it may be the craziest story I have ever read in the New Zealand newspapers – so I’ll leave it with you. Until next time.

Temuka Leader 5/5/1883: 3

Chelsea Dickson

References

Butter, F. J. 1968 An Encyclopaedia of Locks and Builders Hardware. Josiah Parkes, WillenhaIl, England.

Evans, J. 2002. A Gazetteer of Lock and Key Makers. [online] Available at: http://www.historywebsite.co.uk/Museum/locks/gazetteer/gazv.htm

History of Keys 2016 [online] http://www.historyofkeys.com/ [Accessed July 2016]

Press, P. J. 2000 'Historic Door Hardware' in Karklins, K. 2000. (Ed) Studies in Material Culture Research.

Star [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed July 2016]

Switzer, R., R. 2013. The Steamboat Bertrand and Missouri River Commerce. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman.

Temuka Leader [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. [Accessed July 2016]

The light fantastic

In last week's blog post, we talked about the use of light in Christchurch’s city streets and public spaces, from oil lamps to gas lights to electricity in the early 20th century. This week, we step out of the street and through the door into the house, where 19th century residents harnessed everything from naked flame to caged lightning (their words, not mine) to illuminate their daily lives. In the first years of European settlement, unsurprisingly, lighting options were limited. Setters in the 1850s and early 1860s would have relied exclusively on candles and kerosene for lighting in the home. These had the advantage of being cheap, easy and portable. They also had the disadvantage of being smoky, dim, sometimes odorous and prone to setting things on fire. In a settlement largely constructed from timber, the last of these was definitely a concern.

Candles and kerosene or oil lamps weren’t just used because of a lack of alternative options, however. Even after the introduction of gas lighting into homes later in the 19th century, candles and lamps continued to be a popular method of illuminating the room, so to speak, with contemporary newspapers advertising their use well into the 20th century (Ashburton Guardian 12/05/1900: 3, Star 12/09/1896: 4). In truth, candle light is probably the form of household lighting for which we have the most archaeological evidence, in the form of candle sticks, chamber sticks and candle snuffers. Most households are likely to have had several candle sticks and/or chamber sticks, the flat circular candle holders with a handle and inbuilt snuffer holder for ease of carrying (presumably into the bedchamber, hence the name).

Candle sticks and a candle snuffer. Candle snuffers would often rest on the cone of chamber sticks (see picture below) for ease of access. Image: J. Garland.

We’ve talked about the types of candles available to consumers before on the blog, from cheap tallow candles to spermaceti (or, as they are hilariously referred to sometimes, sperm candles) and stearine candles, advertised for their superior quality and bright light. The amount of light provided from each of these varied, as one would expect, but even the best stearine candle was limited in the amount of illumination that it could provide. Stearine candles were, however, the ones used as a measurement of candle power against new light forms like burning magnesium. Lights could be anything from 15-20 candle power (basic lamps) to bright light house beacons with candle power measured in the hundreds of thousands.

Advertisement for prize medal spermacetti and stearine candles from the

Candles, like the candle sticks and chamber sticks in which they were displayed, also came in a variety of forms, with some attention paid to appearance. For example, one advertisement offers “plain, fluted or coloured piano and bedroom candles”, suggesting that different candles may have been used in different – perhaps public and private – parts of the house. Similarly, the candlesticks we’ve found have been both decorated and undecorated, in everything from brass to porcelain to plain old refined earthenware. In this way, as with almost every other object we use in our lives, the provision of artificial light becomes another avenue for the expression of style and status and taste within the home (as is still the case today, from modern industrial chic fittings to terrible awful 1970 glass lamp shades).

Ceramic chamber sticks or chamber candle sticks. Note the cone for the snuffer and, although they're all roughly the same shape, the differing decoration. Image: J. Garland.

The same thing is apparent with oil and kerosene lamps.  While we tend to only find the plainer lamps in the archaeological record, if we find them at all (lamp glass is thin and fragile and usually in tiny pieces by the time it gets to us), a variety of elaborate casings were available to discerning consumers. Kerosene and oil lamps, as I’m sure many of you are aware, operated by burning fuel, usually stored in a burner at the base of the lamp, through the means of a wick, either an upright or flat wick or a circular rolled wick (also known as the Argand lamp), aided by a draught from the glass chimney casing.

Both kerosene lamps and candles were used in hanging lamps, chandeliers and light fittings as well as the portable lamps and holders that we commonly find in the archaeological record.  In fact, archaeological evidence for the more elaborate lights and light fittings is scarce. I think this is probably because they were part of the furnishings of a house and a) less likely to have been broken or damaged than portable lights and b) more likely to have been refitted for gas and/or electricity later on (although we also don’t find many original light fittings in extant 19th century buildings today).

A 'finger' lamp found on a site in central Christchurch and an advertisement showing the selection of lamps available to the consumer. This is the base of a kerosene lamp that would have looked a bit like this when complete.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, gas began to be used for lighting in Christchurch in the 1860s. The Christchurch Gas Company was formed in 1862, by which point “the city of Christchurch [had] attained such dimensions and density that it appears capable of supporting a Gas Factory.” The company was formed with the purpose of lighting the city, and the advantages of gas as “the cheapest and safest means of illumination yet offered to the public” were emphasised, particularly in comparison to the cost of oil and candles (Press 22/11/1862: 6). Works were carried out throughout 1863 and 1864 and by November 1864, they were giving notice that gas would be supplied to consumers by early December, aided by the work of Mr Edward Reece, who would “furnish the internal fittings.” The first use of gas lighting in a building appears to have been in late December 1864, when Coker’s Hotel, J. G. Ruddenklau’s City Hotel and a few other buildings braved “the new acquisition” (New Zealand Spectator and Cook's Strait Guardian 28/12/1864: 3).

Notice of the first use of gas lighting in buildings in Christchurch, given in December 1864. Image:

By the 1870s and 1880s, many people were lighting their rooms with gas, piped through a meter from the mains laid down under the roads (the connection initially paid for by the Christchurch Gas Company). Public buildings were also outfitted with gas pipes and lamps, although kerosene also seems to have maintained a tenacious hold in some places: the Canterbury Provincial Chambers, although fitted with gas pipes, were still being lit with kerosene in November 1865, much to the outrage of one letter-writing citizen in the local newspaper. Interestingly, gas lighting in domestic residences is another thing that’s under-represented in the archaeological record, likely for the same reasons as the fixed oil and candle light fittings are missing. In fact, sometimes we only find indirect evidence of it, through the presence of associated architectural features like gas vents in ceilings.

Archaeological evidence for gas lighting in buildings. Top: a ceiling vent in a 19th century house. Below: one of the gas light fittings from the Canterbury Provincial Chambers. Image: F. Bradley, L. Tremlett.

Eventually gas lamps were surpassed by the “superior” electric light towards the turn of the century. By the 1910s, houses were being advertised with electric lights as a selling point, although, many homes in Christchurch (and New Zealand) continued to be lit with gas lighting until well into the 20th century. This seems to have the result of a few issues. For one, electricity was expensive, especially at the beginning, and gas was the easier and cheaper option. For another, people in the 19th century had become used to portable, easy, lights in the home and – early on, in the 1880s – electricity was neither of those things. At least one enterprising swindler took advantage of this, advertising “portable electric lamps” for the home in the mid-1880s that sounded an awful lot like oil lamps, described modestly as a “most important invention that will bring about a complete revolution in all branches of lighting” (Thames Star 26/11/1885: 1). The scheme was soon unmasked as “an unmitigated fraud and swindle” (Thames Advertiser 10/02/1886: 3).

Advertisement for the Norman Electric Company Portable light (left) and a company offering installation of electric lights in the early 20th century. Image:

It brings up an interesting point though, this emphasis on the portability of light. If there’s anything that stands out to me from the progress of lighting in Christchurch, especially in the home, it’s that shift from artificial light as something personal – that people lit themselves, candle by candle or lamp by lamp, and carried with them – to something that is a fixture of the surroundings, no longer carried with a person, but always there to be switched on (as it is today).

Looking back at last week’s post, there’s also a contrast to be explored between the lighting of the public spaces of the city and the use and perception of light in the private spaces of the home, some of it to do with that same issue of portability. For the city as a community, lighting in public spaces was a question of safety and convenience, a response to the dangers of the dark, as well as a matter of civic pride and a certain standard of civilised living. The fixed street lamps, city wide gas provision, the requirement for lighting outside hotels and early attempts to adopt electricity all bear witness to this. Those same themes of pride and status are evident in the use of light in private homes, from just the ability to provide light after dark to the quality and style of lights used. The lighting of our homes and personal spaces, though, seems to me more of a convenient luxury than a mitigation of danger (although there’s an element of that as well), even in the 19th century. It is what allowed people then – and now - to live their lives outside of the constraints of sunrise and sunset, to essentially manufacture more time from the day.

Jessie Garland

References

Ashburton Guardian. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

New Zealand Spectator and Cook's Strait Guardian. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Thames Advertiser. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Thames Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

The dilapidatedly grand villa

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This week we are treating you to a photographic tale of the life of a Cantabrian abode. Come with us now on a journey through time and space, to the wonderful world of dilapidated Victorian villas...

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Despite its grandiose design, Mr. Paterson soon grew tired of the villa and sold the house just four years later. Over the next couple of decades the dwelling was home to a collection of different occupants. However, as was common practice in Christchurch during the Depression, this ornate villa was eventually divided up into a jigsaw puzzle of single bedroom flats.

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And it was this jigsaw of four derelict flats Underground Overground Archaeology had to piece together to bring you the story of Mr. Andrew McNeil Paterson and his once grandiose residence.

Francesca Bradley

An architectural interlude

We're taking a short break between perfume posts this week and veering off in another direction entirely to present you with a photographic essay on one of the historic buildings we've recorded recently (but never fear, we'll be back on course next week!). The building, a Victorian villa,  appears to have been built in 1899 by the delightfully named Matilda Sneesby (very Roald Dahl-esque), wife of Christchurch printer William Sneesby. They lived there with their family until the 1920s. The building itself has some fascinating architectural features and additions, laid our for your perusal in the photographs below.

North elevation of 34 Harvey Terrace with bull nosed veranda, cast iron laces work, chamfered timber posts, timber fretwork brackets. The east end has been walled in.
North elevation of 34 Harvey Terrace with bull nosed veranda, cast iron laces work, chamfered timber posts, timber fretwork brackets. The east end has been walled in.
2.Bay window on the east elevation. Identical bay windows have been found on other houses suggesting that they were available pre-built or as a kitset (not sure of wording for this).
2.Bay window on the east elevation. Identical bay windows have been found on other houses suggesting that they were available pre-built or as a kitset (not sure of wording for this).
Fireplace removed from the parlour.
Fireplace removed from the parlour.
Hallway arches like these were used to separate the ‘public’ and ‘private’ areas of houses. The front rooms of a dwelling were considered public because these were the rooms most likely used when entertaining guests.
Hallway arches like these were used to separate the ‘public’ and ‘private’ areas of houses. The front rooms of a dwelling were considered public because these were the rooms most likely used when entertaining guests.
Traditional moulded skirting boards and architraves. These went out of fashion in the early 20th century as they became more expensive to produce. Note the child’s scrawl. Touches like this remind us that these buildings were people’s homes
Traditional moulded skirting boards and architraves. These went out of fashion in the early 20th century as they became more expensive to produce. Note the child’s scrawl. Touches like this remind us that these buildings were people’s homes
Another ceiling rose, in another room.
Another ceiling rose, in another room.
Ceiling roses. 34 Harvey Terrace was unusual in that there were three identical ceiling roses in three different rooms.
Ceiling roses. 34 Harvey Terrace was unusual in that there were three identical ceiling roses in three different rooms.
his double window was at the south end of the Phase 1 (original) build. The window on the right was boarded up when the house was reconfigured at some time in the early 20th century
his double window was at the south end of the Phase 1 (original) build. The window on the right was boarded up when the house was reconfigured at some time in the early 20th century
The south wall of this room held a fireplace or coal range associated with the kitchen which had been removed. The kitchen is most likely to have been the room beyond the opening, which was still being used as a kitchen in 2011.
The south wall of this room held a fireplace or coal range associated with the kitchen which had been removed. The kitchen is most likely to have been the room beyond the opening, which was still being used as a kitchen in 2011.
This wall is something of a puzzle. The ceiling shows evidence of a wall having been removed, and the wall shows evidence of a door having been removed. The wall was probably removed first, and the wall relined. Then the door was filled in at a later time. The main hallway lies beyond the filled in door way. The wainscoting was not original.
This wall is something of a puzzle. The ceiling shows evidence of a wall having been removed, and the wall shows evidence of a door having been removed. The wall was probably removed first, and the wall relined. Then the door was filled in at a later time. The main hallway lies beyond the filled in door way. The wainscoting was not original.

Class, wealth & power

North elevation, cottage. Image: L. Tremlett and M. Hennessey.
North elevation, cottage. Image: L. Tremlett and M. Hennessey.

The challenge for this week's blog was to consider class and buildings - more specifically: houses. When I decided to write this post, I thought it'd be relatively straightforward - I have a really interesting house to tell you about, and it definitely has something to say about social stratification. But I've started writing this about four times now, and each time it's beaten me, because I'm struggling to understand and outline what this house says about class. As Jessie outlined in our last post, class is tricky. And the more you look at it, the harder it seems to get. To echo our last post further, we just don't understand class in 19th century Christchurch well enough yet to begin to try and interpret very real objects in relation to this slippery, ephemeral concept.

Let's start with the basics. I think we can all agree that social stratification is readily apparent in houses today. It was no different in 19th century Christchurch. But what sort of social stratification are we actually seeing? Class is only one means by which society is stratified. The two other primary means are power and wealth, both of which are easier to define than class - and can clearly be related to class, and/or each other. Power can be social power, or economic, political, financial or even the power of celebrity. At its most simplistic level, wealth relates to how much money you have, and can also include the value of your assets. I'm sure economists and accountants have much finer, more nuanced ways of defining this concept, but we'll stick with the obvious for now.

Of these three concepts, it seems to me that wealth is easiest to examine through tangible objects (whether the china you buy or the house you live in). It's still not that simple, though: you might not choose to spend your money on material goods, preferring instead to travel, or to invest for the future, or to donate to charity. Or you could live on credit, living beyond your means to maintain a facade of wealth (possibly for status-related reasons). Different things, after all, are important to different people.

When it comes to houses and interpreting the wealth of the occupant, there are some other factors that need to be considered. Did the occupant build this house for themselves? Or did they buy a house that someone else built? Or are they a tenant? And if this last is the case, is it an indication of a relative lack of wealth, of an inability to generate sufficient income to pay a deposit? New Zealand society today places a high value on owning your own house, but was this always the case? I don't know too much about the housing market in 19th century Christchurch, in terms of what sort of deposit was required and/or what the mortgage rates were - this isn't to say this research hasn't been carried out, just that there hasn't been time to look into this for this post.

The house I'm going to tell you about today was built as a rental property, but would eventually be occupied by someone who owned it. The house was in the northeast corner of the area bounded by the four avenues, and was built in the early-mid 1880s. It was a rather lovely little house. It was a single-storey bay villa, with a decorative barge board and a finial on the gable end (as an aside, we don't often see these things on the 19th century villas we record, possibly because they get removed during the 20th century), and a verandah next to this. The bay had a decorative bay window with a pair of sash windows in it and the front door had both fan and sidelights, and there was another pair of sash windows next to this. In keeping with the fashion of the times, this facade was clad in rusticated weatherboards.

Decorative features on the street-facing facade: finial (top left), bay window (right) and bargeboard (lower left). Image: L. Tremlett.
Decorative features on the street-facing facade: finial (top left), bay window (right) and bargeboard (lower left). Image: L. Tremlett.

Already, these components would have told the visitor to the house something about its occupants. The key things were the fashionable rusticated weatherboards; the double - rather than triple - sash windows; the decorative features; and the narrowness of the facade, indicating a relatively small building (this was no quarter-acre section). Based on what we've seen elsewhere in Christchurch, I think that these would've told the visitor that someone 'respectable' lived here, someone who could afford the niceties of life, but who also lived modestly, whether through choice or circumstance - and I cannot stress strongly enough that these are suppositions, untested hypotheses, and should not be taken as truths.

When the visitor opened the front door, they would have seen a 'properly' laid out Victorian home (regrettably, we know nothing about the furnishings, furniture or bric-a-brac the occupants used to decorate this house - another problem when examining status via a house). Straight ahead was an arch (with lovely plaster consoles) that separated the public and private spaces. Between the front door and the arch, there was a door to the master bedroom, where you could stow your coat while visiting and, to the left, the parlour or front room, where the visitor would have been entertained.

Looking down the hallway from just inside the front door, with the door to the master bedroom at right. Image: L. Tremlett.
Looking down the hallway from just inside the front door, with the door to the master bedroom at right. Image: L. Tremlett.

Most visitors probably never went into the 'private' part, and thus never knew what was in there. So they wouldn't have known that, while there were ceiling roses in the parlour and master bedroom, there were none in the rooms in the rear of the house. In addition, the height of the skirting boards reduced behind that arch and so did the thickness of the doors. And there were plinth blocks in front of the arch, but none to the rear. Plinth blocks aren't even something we find in homes that we think belong to the moderately or the comfortably well-off - I think of plinth blocks as being restricted to the homes of the truly wealthy. We don't see them often. There might have been other differences, too, but these were the ones that were still evident in 2013. Of course, the visitor could well have suspected these differences, given the image presented by the house's facade, and because these differences between public and private spaces were not uncommon in Victorian villas. But the reality is that, in houses of this size (and in a house with 'only' pairs of sash windows on its street-facing facade), I wouldn't have expected these differences, because we don't often see them in small houses - which could be a problem of survival.

Top: the ceiling rose in the parlour. Bottom: the plinth block in the parlour. Image: L. Tremlett.
Top: the ceiling rose in the parlour. Bottom: the plinth block in the parlour. Image: L. Tremlett.

The first occupant of this house was a Mrs Sarah Gault, a dressmaker who lived there from 1886 until 1889. Mrs Gault was Irish. She arrived in New Zealand in 1883, with her father Davis Black, other members of her paternal family and an Alexander Gault (Press 23/4/1883: 2, 9/6/1890: 4) - husband, brother-in-law, son? It's not been possible to work out so far. Mrs Gault set up her dress-making business in Fitzgerald Avenue, operating from her home, a common practice for dressmakers in the 19th century (Malthus 1992, Star 21/4/1884: 4). A year later she moved into the house in question here, and continued to operate her business from home (Star 3/11/1885: 4). In the Wises Post Office directories (sort of like the White Pages, listing who lived at what address), she was listed as the only occupant of the house in question - this doesn't mean that she was the only occupant, but it does mean that she was the chief breadwinner, and possibly that there wasn't a man living at the house (as the male of the house was typically listed in the directories). In 1889, Sarah Gault moved elsewhere in the city, and continued to run her business from home (Star 10/9/1889: 2).

Mrs Gault's trade meant that she would have received her clients at home, measuring and fitting them in her parlour (Malthus 1992). In her line of work, image may have been very important, depending on the type of clientele she wished to attract. The ceiling roses and plinth blocks, and the barge boards and finial, may have conveyed to her clients that, although she lived in a small house, she understood how one was 'supposed' to live and even - this could be quite a stretch - that she was 'respectable', often held to be a terribly middle class characteristic. (But to me those plinth blocks suggest something more than middle class.) These features may also indicate the type of client she wished to attract.

So maybe you can tell something about class by looking at a building? While this building doesn't say much to me about power (at least, not in a simple, immediately obvious way - it might be possible to extract some more subtle readings of power), it may say something about the relative wealth of its occupants: it suggests to me that Mrs Gault was doing reasonably well, business-wise, as this is unlikely to have been cheapest rental around - but maybe it was a financial stretch for her, and she chose it because of the image it conveyed to her clients? It'd be interesting to know about the house she moved to next, and why she moved there. Certainly, there's nothing in the newspapers to suggest that she was in financial difficulties. What I've outlined is a theory only, though, it's an untested hypothesis, and the next houses we record may prove all of this completely wrong. But I guess that's the joy of doing research: you develop a theory, you test it, you see what you learn. And slowly, slowly, you maybe begin to understand.

Katharine Watson, Luke Tremlett & Rosie Geary Nichol

References

Malthus, J., 1992. Dressmakers in nineteenth century New Zealand. In Brookes, B., Macdonald, C. and Tennant, M. (eds). Women in History 2: Essays on women in New Zealand. Bridget Williams Books, Wellington.

Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Patterns of succession

When we are recording a standing structure we might be lucky enough to discover wallpaper hidden behind plasterboard or tucked under skirtings. In some houses we can find layers of wallpaper, each revealing a stylistic period. While many of the patterns and styles may be out of favour today, these ‘paper hangings’ and their application offer an insight about previous occupants and how they lived. Wallpaper in New Zealand during the 1820s and 1830s was a rare thing. Many dwellings were often crudely constructed from pit sawn timber and were, at best, lined with canvas or sacking. By the 1840s wallpaper production in England had been mechanised. As the population grew in New Zealand wallpaper became readily available for many as a way to make a basic dwelling homely. Local newspapers started to advertise paper hangings at the general goods store, from the latest ship to have arrived in port.

Advertisement for paper hangings. New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser,  3 February 1843.
Advertisement for paper hangings. New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser, 3 February 1843.

In the early 1850s in Lyttelton and Christchurch, merchants would advertise in the newspapers and from records we can see firms such as Tippetts, Silk & Heywood, Longden & Le Cren and J Ballard of Lyttelton, all selling wallpaper (Lyttelton Times1851). By the 1860s we start to see specialised trades advertised, and it is these painters and decorators who advertise papers and scrim. Samuel’s Paper Hanging Depot in Gloucester Street, Christchurch, is a frequent advertiser (Press 21/1/1863).

Advertisements for paper hangings. Press, 21 January 1863
Advertisements for paper hangings. Press, 21 January 1863

Wallpaper was used not only for its decorative effect but also had a functional purpose: to stop draughts coming through walls. This application of wallpaper had varied success. Some pasted it directly to the sarking, which, even with taping, split the paper with the natural board movement. So the practice of sticking wallpaper to calico, canvas or newspaper developed. Newspapers and magazines were also used for decorative effect as wallpaper, people favouring the illustrated pages of publications. When recording properties these early reminders are often in the linings of cupboards or wardrobes while the walls of the room have updated coverings. If people had read Brett’s Colonists’ Guide and Cyclopedia of Useful Knowledge (1980) they might not have been subjected to their wallpaper cracking and would have been able to avoid choosing poisonous wallpaper…

Brett, H. Brett’s Colonists’ Guide and Cyclopedia of Useful Knowledge. 1883. Image: NZ Museums.
Brett, H. Brett’s Colonists’ Guide and Cyclopedia of Useful Knowledge. 1883. Image: NZ Museums.

To be fair, Brett’s Colonists’ Guide and Cyclopedia of Useful Knowledge was not published until 1883, so the early settlers could be forgiven for their experimentation with whatever materials were to hand.  Brett’s guide is a compendium of practical advice drawn from the experiences of early colonists, resulting in a cyclopedia of guidance for new settlers to New Zealand (Brett and Thompson 1980).

We are particularly interested in the advice it offers on paperhanging, as it provides an insight into how the wallpaper examples we are finding were hung. Brett’s advised that hessian scrim should be tacked tightly to the walls in preparation for the wallpaper. Old newspaper was often used as a lining paper too. The 'size' was mixed with water and heated by the fire before application, improving the adhesiveness of the paper. Old flour and water could be used as an alternative and was mixed with alum or glue (Brett and Thompson 1980).

Example of newspaper lining and hessian scrim. Scrim became common use in the mid to late 19th Century. Image: L.Tremelett.
Example of newspaper lining and hessian scrim. Scrim became common use in the mid to late 19th Century. Image: L.Tremelett.

In my research on wallpaper I found that the type of paper used depended on the room’s function. In wealthier homes, private areas of the house such as the back bedrooms had small floral patterns. The public areas of the home, such as the hallway, parlour and master bedroom, would have the best wallpapers and sometimes a match-lined dado. Marble and satin patterns were also a popular choice in these rooms. Poorer dwellings had sarking with lining and wallpaper.

Brett’s practical advice on wallpaper also came with a health warning. Sounds ominous, but wallpaper has been credited as a silent killer in the home. Contributor to the cyclopedia, John Agnell, listed the warning as No.17 on his list of Health Maxims for the Home. It was to avoid arsenical wallpapers (Brett and Thompson 1980). Green flocked wallpaper ('flocked' was a process where finely chopped wool was applied to wet varnish and brushed to reveal the pattern) was the worst as the dusty flock was rubbed, shaken or even flaked off the walls, creating a ‘toxic air’. The green paint was commonly known as Scheele’s Green (acidic copper arsenite) and its successor Paris Green (copper(II) acetoarsenite; Wikipedia 2014). While exactly how toxic these wallpapers were is not known, much has been written about the inclusion of these green pigments in foods and clothing with dire consequences. If toxic wallpaper was not enough, tar paint and white lead paint were also used in early homes, particularly around windows and bargeboards. The Victorian period of innovation led to a few toxic mistakes but by the end of the 19th century an emphasis on cleanliness would see the introduction of ‘sanitary’ wall finishes.

By the 1900’s the impact of sanitary practices start to see wallpaper fall out of favour. Distemper is a chalk based paint originally used in some wallpaper printing. This particular advert endorsed by the Christchurch Hospital Board extolls the virtues of the paint being more ‘artistic’ than wallpaper. Advertisements for distemper paint. Press, 14 July 1900.
By the 1900’s the impact of sanitary practices start to see wallpaper fall out of favour. Distemper is a chalk based paint originally used in some wallpaper printing. This particular advert endorsed by the Christchurch Hospital Board extolls the virtues of the paint being more ‘artistic’ than wallpaper. Advertisements for distemper paint. Press, 14 July 1900.

So what types of wallpaper have we discovered in our recording and assessments? Well, it varies. Things to take into account when trying to identify wallpaper are: age of the structure, the function of the room, how many layers of paper are there? What is the base layer? Is it newspaper, scrim, calico, canvas or lining paper? Is the wall lined with rough-sawn sarking, match-lining or lath and plaster?

With the wallpaper things to check are: is it French or English? Most wallpaper in New Zealand during the 19th century was from England, which was known for its mechanised production and variety. French wallpaper was known for its quality and consistency in design. English wallpaper measured 21 inches wide and 12 yards long and French wallpaper measured 18 inches wide and 9 1/2 yards long. Other things to look for are: tax stamps on the back of the paper (wallpaper in England was taxed until 1861; Brett and Thompson 1980), maker’s names on the selvedge and the style of the pattern - does it fit into a definite period or manufacturing process? When we answer these questions and put them together with the history of the building, we start to understand the type of lifestyle the building’s occupants had and what their tastes were when it came to interior decor!

Breakdown of papers found in a Christchurch dwelling. Image: L.Tremelett.
Breakdown of papers found in a Christchurch dwelling. Image: L.Tremelett.

Cracroft House, Christchurch This property was owned by John Cracroft Wilson. We have mentioned this gentleman on a number of occasions in our posts. The property was built in 1854 and, while fairly simple in design and construction materials, it did have 11 rooms! Both papers below have a similar application method and it is possible that Wilson’s son brought both papers back from overseas in the 1870s.

This floral paper was pasted directly onto the sarking as well as being pasted onto what seems to be lining paper rather than scrim. Floral pattern is highly ornate and has a base pattern as well. This trellised style of floral paper was very popular throughout the 19th century. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.
This floral paper was pasted directly onto the sarking as well as being pasted onto what seems to be lining paper rather than scrim. Floral pattern is highly ornate and has a base pattern as well. This trellised style of floral paper was very popular throughout the 19th century. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.
Highly ornate style of paper here, a possible Anglo-japanese style. The Great Game records that the wallpaper shown here is French in origin and is thought to have been brought to New Zealand about 1870 by the son of Sir John Cracroft Wilson and was discovered in 1982 during alterations, indicating that the cubbyholes had been sealed for some time. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.
Highly ornate style of paper here, a possible Anglo-japanese style. The Great Game records that the wallpaper shown here is French in origin and is thought to have been brought to New Zealand about 1870 by the son of Sir John Cracroft Wilson and was discovered in 1982 during alterations, indicating that the cubbyholes had been sealed for some time. Image: Underground Overground Archaeology.

Message in a bottle house We have also mentioned this property before, the paper maché dado is very impressive and was preserved behind the plasterboard. It is commonly known as anaglypta (Anaglypta 2014), among other names. This embossed style of paper was designed in 1877 to be durable and easily painted. It protected the lower part of the wall from furniture. Lincrusta is a similar product made from linseed oil and wood flour (Lincrusta 2014). It has a deeper relief and is more brittle than anaglypta but can be painted and gilded.

Extensive investigation of the kitchen uncovered this finely moulded paper mache dado. This is the only example found so far of this product in Christchurch. Image: K.Webb.
Extensive investigation of the kitchen uncovered this finely moulded paper mache dado. This is the only example found so far of this product in Christchurch. Image: K.Webb.

It has been very hard to keep the word count down on this post as the history of wallpaper is a very interesting topic! In peeling back the layers we get a unique insight into a dwelling’s past occupants. While belongings may be long gone wallpaper reveals information about their interior decoration, wealth and influences.

Annthalina Gibson

Bibliography

Anaglypta. [online] Available at www.anaglypta.co.uk

Anon, 1990. The Great Game: Girl Peace Scouts and Girl Guides of Canterbury Province from 1908. The Girl Guides Association, Canterbury.

Brett, H. and Thomson, W.L. eds.,1980. Brett’s Colonists' Guide Cyclopaedia of Useful Knowledge. 3rd ed. Christchurch: Capper.

Hoskins, L. eds. 1994. The Papered Wall, History, Pattern, Technique. Harry N. Abrams, Inc.: New York.

Lincrusta. [online] Available at www.lincrusta.com

Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

McCarthy, C., 2009. Domestic Wallpaper in New Zealand, A Literature Survey. Victoria University: Wellington.

McCarthy, C., 2011. Before Official Statistics, Fabrications. The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand, 20 (1), pp.96-119.

New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

NZMuseums. [online] Available at www.nzmuseums.co.nz Petersen, A.K.C., 2001. New Zealanders at Home. A Cultural History of Domestic Interiors 1814-1914. University of Otago Press: Dunedin.

Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Wikipedia. [online] Available at www.wikipedia.org

French Farm: an archaeologist’s observations*

After a couple of weeks off from the blog, we thought it’d be a good idea to give you a run-down of what we learnt at French Farm. These are preliminary observations only, and could well change as we do more research! In no particular order, here you are.

The ground floor, French Farm house. Image: K. Webb.
The ground floor, French Farm house. Image: K. Webb.
Circular saw marks on timbers on the south wall of the first floor. Photo: K. Watson.
Circular saw marks on timbers on the south wall of the first floor. Photo: K. Watson.
Beaded match-lining like this lined a number of the rooms but the circular saw marks indicated that much of it was a later addition to the house. Photo: K. Watson.
Beaded match-lining like this lined a number of the rooms but the circular saw marks indicated that much of it was a later addition to the house. Photo: K. Watson.
The wall between Rooms 1 and 2, looking south from Room 1. Circular saw marks on the wall lining indicated that at least part of this wall was a later addition. Image: K. Watson.
The wall between Rooms 1 and 2, looking south from Room 1. Circular saw marks on the wall lining indicated that at least part of this wall was a later addition. Image: K. Watson.
Part of the floor upstairs. The hole at right was probably the original means of accessing the first floor. And the hole would originally have been bigger, as the floorboards at left are circular sawn, unlike the pit sawn floorboards used for the remainder of the first floor (and the ground floor).
Part of the floor upstairs. The hole at right was probably the original means of accessing the first floor. And the hole would originally have been bigger, as the floorboards at left are circular sawn, unlike the pit sawn floorboards used for the remainder of the first floor (and the ground floor).
Top: 1860 newspaper. Bottom: 1861 newspaper. These are on the wall between Rooms 1 and 2, next to the fireplace. Image: K. Watson & K. Webb.
Top: 1860 newspaper. Bottom: 1861 newspaper. These are on the wall between Rooms 1 and 2, next to the fireplace. Image: K. Watson & K. Webb.
Left: window into Room 1, east elevation. Right: door into Room 7, east elevation. Cut marks in the weatherboards indicated that this door and window had effectively switched plans: the window in Room 1 was originally a door and the door into Room 7 was a window.
Left: window into Room 1, east elevation. Right: door into Room 7, east elevation. Cut marks in the weatherboards indicated that this door and window had effectively switched plans: the window in Room 1 was originally a door and the door into Room 7 was a window.
The stones used as a footing underneath what was originally an external door into Room 1. Photo: K. Watson.
The stones used as a footing underneath what was originally an external door into Room 1. Photo: K. Watson.
The first floor, looking south. The circular saw marks on the dividing wall indicate that it was a later addition. Photo: K. Watson.
The first floor, looking south. The circular saw marks on the dividing wall indicate that it was a later addition. Photo: K. Watson.
This is a detail of a window frame upstairs, showing that the original window had been replaced. And either at the same time or later, this room had been lined with scrim (that's what all the small nails were for).
This is a detail of a window frame upstairs, showing that the original window had been replaced. And either at the same time or later, this room had been lined with scrim (that's what all the small nails were for).
Bottles under the floorboards in Room 2. The floorboards on the ground floor are butted, rather than tongue and groove, so I was expecting that we’d find some things under the floor. But small things, like fragments of glass and china, buttons, pins, that sort of thing. We did find that sort of thing, but we also found large bottles, and pieces of cutlery, which are not the sort of thing that’d just fall between the cracks in the floorboards. So, how did they get there? There are a couple of possible explanations: they could have been deliberately buried there before the floor was laid, or the floorboards may have been replaced at some stage. Image: K. Watson.
Bottles under the floorboards in Room 2. The floorboards on the ground floor are butted, rather than tongue and groove, so I was expecting that we’d find some things under the floor. But small things, like fragments of glass and china, buttons, pins, that sort of thing. We did find that sort of thing, but we also found large bottles, and pieces of cutlery, which are not the sort of thing that’d just fall between the cracks in the floorboards. So, how did they get there? There are a couple of possible explanations: they could have been deliberately buried there before the floor was laid, or the floorboards may have been replaced at some stage. Image: K. Watson.

None of the artefacts we found could be readily identified as French. This doesn’t mean that they weren’t used by the early French occupants of the house, but it does make it difficult to prove. Further, at first glance, none of the artefacts found seemed to date from the 1840s and/or 1850s. Again, this doesn’t mean they weren’t used during the period – many common 19th century artefacts were made for long periods of time.

Even though we didn’t find anything particularly ‘French’ in the way of artefacts, the house itself is clearly not English in origin. It’s the layout that’s the real give away. It’s just so different from the standard central hall with rooms opening off it that we usually see in Christchurch. French Farm house is at least 30 years older than most of the houses we’ve looked at in the city, but even those 1850s houses we’ve recorded still have a central hall – which, when you think about it, is a bit of a waste of space really (and something we’ve moved away from in more recent times). And once you take out the central hall, everything else changes, including the house footprint - French Farm is significantly longer than it is wide. It also changes the flow of people through rooms, meaning you have to pass through one room to get to another – not the case in a house with a central hall. Maybe the logical extension of this is less privacy?

Excavating in Room 1. Image: K. Watson.
Excavating in Room 1. Image: K. Watson.

The last thing that I learnt is that archaeology is fun! Maybe this seems a silly thing to say. But most of our work takes place on construction sites, surrounded by large diggers and other construction chaos, and – more often than not – we don’t find anything of note. For me personally, I spend most of my time sitting behind a desk, not doing any field archaeology. In either of these circumstances, it’s easy to forget how fascinating and enjoyable the process of simply digging or recording is. It's also easy to lose sight of the fact that archaeology is all about learning more about the past, rather than simply recovering information for the sake of it.

Katharine Watson

* With thanks to Stephen Cashmore and David Brailsford for insightful conversations on site.

Peeling back the onion of time

Recording standing structures not only involves architectural drawings and photography, but can also be quite destructive. In an attempt to modernise an old house owners will often cover “old fashioned” features with new materials, plasterboard being the chief culprit. So, during building recording part of our job often involves removing these modern linings (by any means necessary) to reveal the fabrics beneath, going back in time to see what the building was like originally. And, as you can imagine, taking to a wall with a hammer and crowbar is also good for stress relief. Through extensive use of the notorious hardboard previous owners of this house had gone to great lengths to cover nearly every inch of original decoration inside the house in order to cut down on the weekly chore of dusting.

Through extensive use of the notorious hardboard previous owners of this house had gone to great lengths to cover nearly every inch of original decoration in the house. Every moulded shirting board, architrave and door panel was covered.
Through extensive use of the notorious hardboard previous owners of this house had gone to great lengths to cover nearly every inch of original decoration in the house. Every moulded shirting board, architrave and door panel was covered.
Hardboard was used on the exterior of the house too. To cover up weatherboards and this decorative cast iron frieze along the top of the veranda.
Hardboard was used on the exterior of the house too. To cover up weatherboards and this decorative cast iron frieze along the top of the veranda.
Extensive investigation of the kitchen uncovered this finely moulded paper mache dado. This is the only example found so far of this product in Christchurch.
Extensive investigation of the kitchen uncovered this finely moulded paper mache dado. This is the only example found so far of this product in Christchurch.

Plasterboard and other modern wall linings sometimes have their merits though. They often have the unintended function of doing a really good job of preserving what is beneath it, particularly wallpaper.

wallpaper-layers
wallpaper-layers
newspaper-wall-lining
newspaper-wall-lining
This hand written note was found adhered to the tongue and groove match lining of a cottage in Lyttelton.
This hand written note was found adhered to the tongue and groove match lining of a cottage in Lyttelton.

Digging deeper into the fabric of a building one may come across some interesting and sometimes, perhaps, elusive objects inside the walls and under the floors.

This book published by the Scottish Temperance movement in 1877 was found behind the tongue and groove lining in a house in Ashburton.
This book published by the Scottish Temperance movement in 1877 was found behind the tongue and groove lining in a house in Ashburton.
Quite often shoes are found concealed beneath the floors of houses.
Quite often shoes are found concealed beneath the floors of houses.

We quite often find other items under the floors of houses, such as animal bones, bottles and other domestic rubbish, as well as the odd mummified cat. These items were most likely not deposited under the house for superstitious reasons, we hope. The cats are later given a proper burial.

This cane riding crop was found beneath the floor of the house of John Cracroft Wilson.
This cane riding crop was found beneath the floor of the house of John Cracroft Wilson.

Beyond the superficial appearance of a structure there is a lot we can learn by quite literally peeling back the layers of a building, or excavating it, if you will. Buildings like these can be more than just houses once lived in. There's history written in the walls, from the changing tastes in interior decoration to things intentionally hidden, covered up or accidentally lost. Whatever the reasons for these hidden bits and pieces, be they mundane, superstitious or inexplicable, they show us that it's always worth looking beyond the surface of a building to find the treasures within.

Kirsa Webb

In which the emanation of effluvia is offensive to one's senses

Continuing on from last week’s blog, today’s post takes a look (or a sniff, if you will) at the aromas of everyday life inside a Victorian house. Smell is such an intrinsic part of human life, yet so fleeting that it can only be experienced directly in the present moment. The smells of the past, as Hamish mentioned last week, are only available to us indirectly, through written descriptions and the power of our imagination (itself based upon our own past olfactory experiences). As far as the 19th century is concerned, many of the everyday scents and aromas experienced by people in Christchurch would still be familiar to us, even now. Others, however, have faded from daily life during the intervening decades as household products and technologies have gradually been replaced by modern, odourless, alternatives.

A lovely brass candlestick (used by Colonel mustard in the library, perhaps...). We think that the pieces of fabric stuck to the metal are just the remnants of the wrapping it was thrown out in, rather than a functional or decorative part of the candlestick itself. There's even a candle stub still visible inside the holder, near the base. Image: J. Garland
A lovely brass candlestick (used by Colonel mustard in the library, perhaps...). We think that the pieces of fabric stuck to the metal are just the remnants of the wrapping it was thrown out in, rather than a functional or decorative part of the candlestick itself. There's even a candle stub still visible inside the holder, near the base. Image: J. Garland

The smell of lighting, for example, is something that wouldn’t even register as a household smell now. Yet, in the 19th century, everything that produced light (with the exception of the sun, of course) – candles, kerosene lamps, gas lamps, wood or coal fires – would also have produced a smell.  Some of these have featured on the blog before, in the form of candle sticks and fireplaces found on Christchurch sites, but we’ve not really considered them in the context of their smell before.

Many of the fireplaces we’ve come across would not have ‘drawn’ well, meaning there would often have been coal or wood smoke in the room while they were lit. Kerosene lamps were notorious for their smell, to the point that advertisers made an effort to emphasise the less ‘distasteful’ smell of their own products (Wairarapa Daily Times7/2/1913: 7). Candles were made from a variety of materials, from cheap tallow to spermaceti (a wax found in sperm whales) and paraffin wax, some of which gave off distinctive smells and some of which did not. Even ‘odourless’ candles, though, such as ‘sperm candles’, would still have contributed to the scents of the household through the smell of the wick as it was extinguished, or matches as it was lit.

Advertisements for household lighting and heat
Advertisements for household lighting and heat
Article on the creation of an allegedly odourless 'super-cabbage'. Image:
Article on the creation of an allegedly odourless 'super-cabbage'. Image:

On the other hand, the smell of cooking – and food, in general – is one that we’re used to today, although perhaps not to the same extremes as in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  As well as the smell of coal ranges or cooking fires, people during the period seem to have been particularly concerned with the aromas of cooked vegetables and meat permeating through the house (Ashburton Guardian 31/3/1900: 4). Newspapers from the time are full of advice on how to prevent the smell of cooking from spreading, with noticeable emphasis on the smell of cooking cabbage, onion and other boiled green vegetables (North Otago Times 20/12/1906: 1New Zealand Herald5/07/1930:7). Of course, some of the cooking smells of the time must have been more palatable than others: the aroma of fresh bread or baking, for example, is unlikely to have provoked such negativity.

Advice on how to prevent cooking smells from permeating through the house. Images:
Advice on how to prevent cooking smells from permeating through the house. Images:

However, food smells wouldn’t have been limited to cooking. Without the refrigeration that we have today, even the storage of food in a house would have generated a variety of smells – some good (spices, perhaps) and some bad. We talked about a few of the foodstuffs that we’ve found on sites in Christchurch a little while ago. Some of these – the anchovy paste, for example – probably smelled quite pungent to start with, let alone after they’d been sitting in unrefrigerated storage for any length of time. In fact, many of the food-related artefacts we find, from vinegar bottles to Bovril to jars of ground cheese, would have had fairly distinctive aromas that we tend to forget about when we’re looking at them.

An Anchovy Paste jar found in Christchurch and accompanying recipe from 1904. Image: J. Garland, Otago Witness 17/08/1904: 67.
An Anchovy Paste jar found in Christchurch and accompanying recipe from 1904. Image: J. Garland, Otago Witness 17/08/1904: 67.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the household smells of then and now is, as it was with the smells of the outside world, related to the management of human waste, sanitation and personal hygiene. Last week, Hamish mentioned one site with a crudely made drain, which might have contributed to the smell of the sewer travelling up the pipe and into a house. We don’t know how common an occurrence this might have been in 19th century Christchurch, but we do know that the smell of human waste would have been a strong presence in houses anyway, thanks to the use of chamber pots – a multitude of which have been found on sites in the city.

Part of a chamberpot decorated with the May Morn pattern. Image: J. Garland.
Part of a chamberpot decorated with the May Morn pattern. Image: J. Garland.

For many 19th century households, the toilet (or privy) would have been located outside, separate from the main house or attached to the rear of the dwelling (Butcher & Smith 2010). While this set-up would have been fine for use during the day, chamber pots were common household items for use during the night, when it was too cold or too dark to stumble outside to the privy. Even when emptied frequently, the smell must have been fairly pervasive and less than pleasant.

An 1870s article describing the use of coffee as a disinfectant and de-odouriser. Image:
An 1870s article describing the use of coffee as a disinfectant and de-odouriser. Image:

However, there were a number of methods and products available in the 19th century to combat the more unpleasant household smells, products that would have themselves contributed to the overall aromatic signature of the Victorian Christchurch home. Examples of 19th and early 20th century cleaning products from Christchurch sites have featured here on the blog before. All of these would have provided a fairly strong assault on the nostrils, particularly the disinfectants like Kerol, Lysol and Jeyes Fluid (New Zealand Herald22/1/1912: 8). Other methods of preventing ‘noxious odours’ in the home included the cooking tips mentioned above, the careful placement of flowers or floral scented sachets (lavender or rose, usually; New Zealand Herald26/10/1912: 6), or the use of coffee as a “powerful means…of rendering animal and vegetable effluvia innocuous” (Southland Times3/6/1870: 3).

Kerol bottle found in Christchurch, along with 1920s poem singing the praises of the disinfectant. Images:  Colonist 24/02/1920; J. Garland.
Kerol bottle found in Christchurch, along with 1920s poem singing the praises of the disinfectant. Images: Colonist 24/02/1920; J. Garland.

Sadly, due to the constraints of space, in this post I’ve really only touched on the plethora of smells that would have defined a household in the 19th century. I’ve not mentioned the smell of the building itself (wallpapers, particular types of timber, the damp; Bruce Herald23/10/1872: 9) or the smell of household animals or pets or many of the other scented household products (for better or for worse) that would have been in use (Evening Post20/2/1930: 7). Not to mention the personal smells created by people themselves, from the smell of their clothing (washed and unwashed), the smell of leather shoes, individual perfumes or lack thereof, the smell of a person’s hair (which may have been washed with beetle juices!) or the soap that they used.

There are so many individual scents that make up the olfactory experience of our daily lives that it can be difficult to imagine that experience as a whole in the past, to combine all of the smells we’ve mentioned, this week and last, into an idea of what it was like to breathe in deeply in 19th century Christchurch. It can also be difficult to separate out the various smells that contribute to our own experience, especially the ones we’re so used to that we barely notice them anymore. You have to wonder if perhaps it was a bit like that for people in the 19th century as well: perhaps, so many of these smells were so common that they hardly registered in day to day life. For us, though, even imagining such smells has the power to make that daily life - those past scenes and experiences - more real, in a way that few other senses do.

Jessie Garland

References

Ashburton Guardian. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Bruce Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Butcher, M. & Smith, I., 2010. Talking trash: classifying rubbish-bearing deposits from colonial New Zealand sites. Journal of Pacific Archaeology 1(1): 43-61.

Colonist. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Evening Post. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

North Otago Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Otago Witness. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Southland Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz