Towel week

Towel week
A look into the advertising work of the Crisp Bros
22 February 2017

Days, weeks, months and years associated with particular causes are an often advertised feature of contemporary calendars, but “towel week” is an obscure occasion not many people are likely to recall celebrating.

Women standing behind a towel

Crisp Bros, Towel week: not since 1914 have such values been offered, c.1920, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-138299335

This generic advertising poster or show card from the National Library’s The Sell exhibition nevertheless promotes what was once a common event in the early twentieth-century retail calendar. Towel weeks, like a variety of other special weeks, offered retailers an opportunity to sell a particular category of merchandise. One of the most specialised events of this nature, a once-only “special black dress week” with “tremendous bargains in black French cashmeres, veilings, voiles, etc.,” was held to clear a “huge mistake” in overstock of black dress goods in Lismore in 1909.

As Susannah Helman suggests in her caption for the exhibition, this daring line of apparently naked women concealed behind their towel banner suggests the loosening of constraints after World War I (their bobbed hair similarly suggests post-war fashion).

The National Library has two other Towel Week posters, subtitled “suggestions in the season’s latest offerings!” and “an exhibition of all that fashion decrees in modern towels and towelling.”

Woman holding a towel

Towel week suggestions in the season's latest offerings!, 1940, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-138143136 

Two women modelling towels

Towel week: an exhibition of all that fashion decrees in modern towels and towelling, 1940, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-138259745

These posters probably would have been displayed in shop windows as part of a promotional campaign that for the larger stores were supplemented by newspaper display ads, like the following one for the Brisbane retailer Barry & Roberts, who promoted their Towel Week in 1927 with an image of a toppling tower of towels attracting a long queue of shoppers.

advertisement for towel week

Towel week advertisement, Brisbane Courier, 1 December 1927, page 15, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article21199715

None of the National Library’s Towel Week posters are dated, but “not since 1914” provides a clue that might help to date this particular poster to approximately 1920, when newspaper advertisements for towels with prices “not seen since 1914” began to appear, although it could be as late as 1927, when Fossey’s (absorbed into Target in 1988) offered “bargains in all departments the like of which you have not seen since 1914.” 

The Library’s other Towel Week posters are anonymous, but “Crisp Bros” is stamped on the lower right of the 'not since 1914' example. Crisp Bros was a leading Sydney firm of decorators and sign writers operated by Henry James Crisp (1877-1951) and his younger brother James Alexander Crisp (1879-1962). Both Henry and James had successful careers as painters and illustrators, exhibiting with the Art Society in Sydney from 1901. James Crisp, who appears to have been the more successful artist, was also a printmaker, although the technique and colours used in this print is probably closer to that then used for wallpaper rather than one of the more subdued etchings he might have exhibited.

Crisp Bros was not a high profile firm, but appears to have been quite successful. Newspaper references provide only a few details. In 1909 they were responsible for the decorative scheme for Mark Foy’s Emporium, the elegant new Sydney department store located on the corner of Liverpool, Elizabeth and Castlereagh streets. Describing their work, the Sunday Sun wrote, “the result is a triumphant indication of Australia’s ability to attain to the best European standards.” Crisp Bros also painted friezes for the Sydney city residence of the architect Florence M. Taylor; painted a 27 foot wide mural of the Sydney Harbor Bridge to celebrate its opening in 1932; and in 1933 produced artwork for P. & O.’s head office to convey to the public the experience of travel on the company’s luxury ocean liners.

Newspaper article

Bridge celebrations, Truth (Sydney, NSW), 7 February 1932, page 16, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article169134755

Crisp Bros occasionally advertised for staff, but may have been sufficiently well known not to need to advertise their commercial services. Some ex-employees used their association with the firm as an attraction to country clients. Perc. Miller, “Late of Crisp Bros., Sydney” offered house painting, artistic sign writing, and glass gilding anywhere from Woy Woy to Wyong in The Gosford Times and Wyong District Advocate, 8 December 1911, page 12. Similarly, A. W. Stevenson, who advertised in The Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 27 November 1920, page 3, described himself as a “pictorial sign writer;” he proudly proclaimed “I paint signs only!” and offered “dainty and artistic posters for your Xmas show windows, also calico sign specialities. 

Unlike a hand painted window, which would have to be cleaned off after each sale, a printed display poster for a recurring event like Towel Week, could be recycled and re-used. Printing also offered an additional benefit by reducing the cost of generic posters, so even a tiny country draper could afford one.

It is not certain how this Towel Week poster was made, but the artwork suggests a simple stencil process. It is probably not machine printed, as an extensive print run would not be required. The incised lines at the end of the towel suggest a woodcut or linocut, subsequently transferred to block out a screen for printing. It is a competently produced print, assembled from thickly applied layers of at least eight different colour inks: an orange, a pink, three reds, and light and dark greens and browns. Although a date of circa 1920 seems early for screen printing, as the Crisp Bros worked as decorators they may have known about wallpaper block printing, and screen printing was sometimes then used for wallpaper.

Screen printing is a stencil process, in which ink is forced through a fine screen, blocked off with a motif or shape, onto paper or another substrate below. The screens were originally made from silk, and then synthetic fabrics, stretched tightly over a frame. Megalo’s Instagram video shows Jemima Parker expertly wielding her squeegee to screen print a run of Australia Invites the British Domestic Girl, one of the two tea towels available for purchase in the National Library Bookshop for The Sell.

Tea towels

Tea towels available for purchase at the National Library Bookshop

Little seem to have been published about the history of screen printing in Australia, but A history of screen printing: how an art evolved into an industry (2013) by Guido Lengwiler, which mainly concentrates on the United States in the period from 1900 to 1950, does include a little information about the history of the process in Australia. Lengwiler notes that Edward Owens of Selectasine came to Australia in 1920 to install their patented process for the Charles Steele Company of Melbourne and Sydney, and in 1928 and 1929 Velveton and Vitachrome set up sales offices in Sydney.

Screen printing remains a popular printmaking process, with associations with Australian poster collectives (like Megalo, and others originating in the 1970s at the Tin Sheds Art Workshops at Sydney University), and all sorts of commercial applications from t-shirts (Mambo) and glass jars to the printed circuit boards in electrical devices. This Towel Week poster may indeed be one of the earliest surviving Australian commercial precedents for what became a flurry of activity that continues today, despite the advent of digital printing.