Selling the dream in colonial Australia
How I came to write about the wonder cures and revolutionary gadgets of the 19th-century
11 March 2015
It is always interesting to try and work out where an idea came from, and I know exactly when and where I got the idea for Emporium. It was in the National Library of Australia a couple of years ago, and I was reading through old newspapers trying to find out exactly which paintings went up in flames when Sydney's Garden Palace burned down in 1882. The illustrated papers of the period are a great source for that sort of detail, but increasingly I found my attention wandering to the pages of eye-catching advertisements. After wasting several days chuckling over advertisements for 'electric' corsets, cannabis cigarettes and 'pebble' spectacles, it occurred to me that here was a wonderful window into the everyday lives of colonial Australians. After all, who knows better than an astute advertiser the hopes, fears, anxieties and dreams of his or her audience?
Once I had the basic idea, the framework of the book soon took shape. There would have to be a chapter of medicines, of course-those advertisements were among the most entertaining—and food, drink and clothing were also obvious candidates. And then there were houses—not just the mansions of the well-to-do, but, far more interesting, the cottages and terraces of middle and working-class Australians. What furniture did they buy for their bedrooms and parlours; what sort of equipment for their kitchens and laundries; what did they put on their walls and floors; how did they stay warm in winter and see to work at night? Using advertisements, it should also be possible to track the progress of new inventions, such as the telephone, gas light and bicycle, and work out when news of them reached Australia. The possibilities were endless.
Newspapers were the obvious main source for both advertisements and public attitudes towards products and services. Fortunately, by this stage the Library was well into its ambitious newspaper digitisation project. Without the ability to word-search decades of newsprint, the task I had set myself would have been impossible. In addition to newspapers, there were also books, handbills, posters and brochures to draw on; although, sadly, few of the latter have survived 150 years of clean-ups, cockroaches, silverfish and damp.
I sometimes think I should have been born in the nineteenth century. I spend so much of my time these days reading and writing about the period. Putting this book together has only increased my admiration for the enterprising, resilient and optimistic men and women who helped to make Australia what it is today. I can only hope readers of Emporium come to share my enthusiasm.
Emporium: Selling the Dream in Colonial Australia was released by NLA Publishing in March 2015.