Most history is written from documents. But what happens when we focus instead on objects, on material things? For a start it is harder to ‘read’ objects. Unless we know the context of an object, we cannot know who owned it, why they owned it, or how the owner used it. Sometimes the function of an object will be obvious, but not always. And what often remains elusive is the overall meaning of the object. Was this thing valued? Why was it valued? Or was it just one more piece of detritus that somehow escaped the rubbish bin? Knowing the detailed provenance of an object helps to fill in some of these gaps.

The way we perceive objects can vary significantly too, depending on our gender, social class, age, or cultural background. A toy that might be an everyday plaything to a wealthy child, might be a hopeless dream to a child who is poor. Similarly, homeownership was a realistic aspiration for the post-war generation, but is proving far more elusive now.

In this exhibition we probe the stories behind each of the featured objects, trying to find their meaning.  We hope that collectively, they might contribute to a material history of the family in Australia.


Imagining everyday life

One of the greatest challenges the historian faces is to imagine what everyday life was like in the past. Can we even come close to imagining life without the many modern conveniences we now take for granted. If you have ever experienced a power blackout, you might remember how many times you reached up to switch on a light, entirely automatically, before realizing the action was futile. Of course, before the electric light arrived people did not expect either instant light, or the intensity of light that an electric globe delivers. And some did not like it much at first. Women complained that it showed up all the dust in the house, and that it was less kind to older complexions than the gentler glow of lamplight. But sheer convenience soon won out. No more lamps to clean or wicks to trim: instant light at the flick of a switch!

Perhaps the greatest difference between belongings in the past and the present is the sheer volume of things most of us now own. When Joseph Elliott sat down to write to his mother in 1860, he was able to describe every single object in ‘Our home in Australia’ in a single letter[i] — admittedly a long one!  It would not even occur to us to attempt such a catalogue. Even allowing for the (significant) gap between rich and poor households, we simply own more stuff now than in any previous generation. And much of it is far more disposable. Clothing is a prime example. In the mid-nineteenth century even middle-class women may have owned only two or three dresses per season — one for mornings, one for ‘afternoons’ and visiting, and one for the evening. Underwear was changed more frequently than the dresses themselves, which did not necessarily wash well. Since all were sewn by hand, their life was also extended as long as possible. Seams were let out, hems adjusted, tears mended, and trimmings changed. In the end they were recycled, for children’s clothing and finally as cleaning rags. Our great-grandmothers would have been shocked by our disposable fashion. This is the reason we have included a sewing basket as one of the objects in Belongings. It was an essential item in constant use in most households in the past.

Technological innovation has also expanded our experience of the world and now keeps us in touch with developments anywhere in the globe, almost as they happen. In the 1850s an immigrant family might wait six months to receive a letter from a relative at home. Newspapers were the only alternative source of information. When the telegraph and then the telephone arrived, in the 1850s and 1870s respectively, they were marvels of speedy communication and by the mid-twentieth century most middle-class homes had a (single) telephone installed. Fast forward to 2023 and almost 90 per cent of all Australians own a smart phone, which is far more than a simple telephone of course. It is also a camera, a mobile office, and an online encyclopaedia. Family members keep in touch cheaply and easily across the globe, in a way that was inconceivable in the past, although ironically, with the ephemeral text now the main means of communication, future historians may struggle to document daily life in the twenty-first century without access to sources like letters.

Most of us now store literally thousands of images on our smart phones and other digital devices. We document family life minutely, in both still and moving images. This is another huge change from life in the past. It was not until the twentieth century that photographs really entered the lives of ordinary people and even then, most might expect to have only a few images taken either of themselves or their children. Often these photographs were carefully posed in a photographer’s studio. This all changed with the arrival of cheaper ‘instamatic’ cameras, which allowed even amateurs to take photographs of reasonable quality.  Family photographs moved out of the studio into the home, the garden and on holiday. Film was still expensive though, as was the cost of development. Photographs were taken sparingly, until digital cameras made it simple and easy to take multiple images.

Technology also changed family recreation patterns. Singing around the piano in the nineteenth century, gave way to listening to the radio, venturing out to the new moving pictures, and finally, the advent of television, just in time for the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956. Arguably, television had the most impact on family life, which is why we included it in this exhibition. Although some disapproved of the new medium (many thought it would Americanise youth culture in particular,) few resisted for long. Today there are few homes without at least one set, and many have several, either ‘smart’ TVs, or computer screens operating as televisions, streaming content from around the globe.

Along with television in the 1950s came a plethora of shining ‘white goods’ that changed other aspects of family life. We chose to represent this process through the refrigerator, because it was usually the first domestic appliance to be purchased in post-war households. Although there were earlier fridges, it was not until the 1950s that they became commonplace acquisitions. They were followed by the other so-called ‘labour-saving devices’ that were thought to free the ‘modern housewife’ from domestic drudgery — washing machines, electric irons, vacuum cleaners and finally, dishwashers and clothes dryers. As more and more married women joined the paid workforce, domestic appliances such as these became essentials of modern life.

Our daily lives also differ from those of our forebears in the ease with which we move around. Public transport, especially the train, was the first innovation to take Victorians away from their homes in the nineteenth century, holidaying at a growing range of coastal and inland destinations. But it was the motor car that really made us mobile, changing family recreation patterns, (whatever you thought of the ‘Sunday drive’ as a child, it did get you out of the house!) and expanding our holiday options. Railway hotels declined as new tourism destinations opened. The car revolutionised family life in innumerable ways, from courtship to shopping, picnics to holidays, and expanded metropolitan Melbourne into a ring of outer-suburbs.

There are other more prosaic differences in our material lives. We now take a safe water supply and modern plumbing for granted, but throughout the nineteenth century having a bathroom was a rarity, while the toilet, (then mostly called a ‘closet’, either water or earth), was generally located on the back fence, backing onto a laneway. It was a noisome place, emptied once each week by a ‘nightman’. For night use most bedrooms had chamber pots, which had to be emptied in the morning. Although some wealthy households installed water closets inside their houses in the nineteenth century, it was not until Melbourne was sewered in the early twentieth century, that more families began to have modern, ‘flush’ toilets inside and even then, most were located on back verandahs. Nevertheless, it still beat a trip down the garden in the middle of the night!

Over the decades the family itself has changed significantly, in size, structure and in the ideals surrounding it. There are far fewer children, more blended families and now same-sex couples with children. Until the late-twentieth century marriage between a man and a woman was the only sanctioned basis of family life in Australia, but that is no longer the case. The marriage ceremony itself evolved at the same time, with ceremonies conducted by non-religious celebrants now the norm. But for all this apparently revolutionary change, many couples still choose to be married, while the wedding itself exhibits remarkable continuities. One of the most persistent is the ‘tradition’ of the ‘white wedding.’ It was a ‘tradition’ that took some time to evolve in Australia, as in the rest of the Anglo-Saxon world, but by the late-nineteenth century a bride dressed in a white dress, with a veil and a bouquet, was clearly established as an ideal to emulate, for those who could afford it. It has survived two ‘waves’ of feminism, and a revolution in ideas about woman’s place, remarkably intact. In this exhibition we feature a white wedding dress from 1947, but it would be equally acceptable bridal wear today.

One of the ingredients in changing marriage patterns was the advent of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s, which for the first time allowed women the freedom to express their sexuality without fear of pregnancy. The Pill did not drive the fall in family size, although it undoubtedly reduced the number of ‘accidental’ pregnancies, but it contributed to a gradual relaxation in sexual norms, which allowed both women and men to delay marriage safely and to plan pregnancies for a time that suited them. Age at first marriage and at first birth both rose significantly in the late-twentieth and into the twenty-first century, while the number of children born fell once again. Infant mortality also fell dramatically in the twentieth century, reflecting a combination of factors, from better hygiene to immunization against common childhood illnesses. We exhibit two infant feeding bottles to demonstrate the way in which improved design and the availability of better supplementary feeding products helped to preserve infant lives.

Through all the changes in family size and composition, ideas linking home and family have been especially persistent. The desire for ‘a home of our own’, preferably a house surrounded by a garden, evolved in Australia in the late-nineteenth century and still colours our imagining of family life. There is much anxiety in Australia today about rising house prices, declining affordability, and a perceived generation gap in the capacity to live the ‘Australian dream’.

Other ‘traditions’ continue in popularity too. One that is especially important in Victoria is allegiance to a particular football team. ‘Going to the footy’ is a much-loved family tradition, while team allegiance is often dynastic. Once again there have been significant changes in the way the game is played and by whom. Women were once a rarity on the football field, but now comprise a league of their own with many enthusiastic supporters. But other aspects remain the same. Families still flock to the football during the season, while many others watch the game together around the television at home.

Families are powerful mediums for preserving cultural traditions. Some revolve around foodways, or rituals of faith, while others combine the two, in traditions of family meals to mark popular religious festivals — Christmas say, or Passover. We include objects from each of these ancient faiths in the exhibition, along with an Arti tray, representing daily rituals often followed in the homes of Hindu families. There are many secular rituals too. One of the most persistent through the years is the daily ritual of the ‘cuppa’ — the cup of tea consumed at mealtimes or at regular intervals in between! Until recently most families owned at least one teapot and often several, in varying sizes and quality, from the battered, old pot for everyday use, to the fine china for formal occasions. Farms often used billycans (billies). Many a family problem was discussed and resolved (or not) around the teapot.

Craft traditions were often passed down in families too. The exhibition presents two exquisitely crafted, woven bowls, made by Aunty Marilyn Nicholls and her daughter Letty Nicholls. While the weaving techniques are traditional, the materials, using pine needles, were an adaptation of Marilyn Nicholls’ grandmother, reflecting the scarcity of native plant materials in the face of agricultural expansion into Country. As such they are a tangible link with community, Country and culture.

Sometimes objects help families to preserve traditions from other cultures in a new homeland. They might be craft traditions, but often they involve food and food preparation. Two objects reflect this important aspect of life in a multi-cultural society — a coffee roaster and a tomato-paste maker, both from a 1920s Italian immigrant family — but there are many other examples in almost every cultural group that constitutes modern Victoria. Many families have ‘traditional’ recipes too, whatever their cultural origin. We show a series of recipes for ‘brown sponge’, passed down through many generations of one family, with subtle adaptations each time, while other ‘traditions’ are much more recent. The Australian Women’s Weekly Birthday Cake Book, first published in 1981, has been responsible for creating many a family ‘tradition’ over the years since.

And always in families there are toys, far more now than ever before. These too have changed over the years, but perhaps not as much as we might think. True, many children now spend a good deal of time ‘playing’ on a digital device of some kind, but other toys show the remarkable endurance of cultural norms, including gendered notions of children’s play, that persist despite widespread social change.

In selecting objects to include in the Belongings exhibition we faced some tough decisions. Inevitably objects with important stories to tell could not be included for one reason or another. We flirted with the idea of creating a secondary digital exhibition of those we had to abandon — a sort of salon des refusés of family objects — and we might pursue this idea in response to suggestions from visitors to the exhibition. One item that we could not include for practical/legal reasons was the ubiquitous household medicine aspirin, and its many derivatives. We had hoped to include a box of this painkiller, along with the famous (or infamous) Bex powders, since they were such an important addition to the domestic medicine cupboard in the twentieth century, but in the end, the difficulty of gaining a licence to exhibit was prohibitive. Other items considered and abandoned were books, the radio, (in the end we went for television,) the home computer, music (or musical instruments), the clock, the baby pram and the lawn mower.  We could make a case for the inclusion of each of these objects, but there simply was not the room in our museum’s small galleries to accommodate them all. We are asking visitors to Belongings to nominate the five objects they think are most important in their family lives at present. This is a different question from the one that framed our exhibition, but we thought it would be interesting to see which things were nominated. Perhaps those responses will lead to another exhibition in time!


Further reading

Geoffrey Blainey Black Kettle and Full Moon: Daily Life in a Vanished Australia. Penguin, 2003.

Asa Briggs Victorian Things. London, Batswood, 1988.

Joseph Elliott, Our Home in Australia: A Description of Cottage Life in 1860. Flannel flower Press, 1984.

Leonie Hannan & Sarah Longair History Through Material Culture. Manchester University Press, 2017.

Steven Lubar & W. David Kingery History from Things: Essays in Material Culture. Smithsonian Institution, 1995.

Daniel Miller Home Possessions: Material Culture Behind Closed Doors. London, Routledge, 2001.

Daniel Miller The Comfort of Things. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2008.

Linda Young Middle Class Culture in the Nineteenth Century. London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.