NLA Fellowships in 2017

NLA Fellowships in 2017
Meet Our National Library of Australia Fellow: Dr Frances Steel
19 December 2017

Photograph of Dr Frances Steel

National Library of Australia Fellowships provide an opportunity for researchers to explore the Library’s collection, blissfully uninterrupted, for up to 12 weeks. Generous donors enable us to offer four National Library Fellowships each year.

Dr Frances Steel is the last of our 2017 National Library Fellows to take up residence in the Library, supported by Mrs Deidre McCann and Mr Kevin McCann AM, and Macquarie Group Foundation. 

Frances is Senior Lecturer in History at the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong, NSW, and co-convenor of the University’s Colonial and Settler Studies Network.

In this blog, Frances explores the ways in which WWII in the Pacific found its way into the marketing of domestic refrigerators in Australia in the 1950sShe writes:

In the course of my research into the history of industrial refrigeration and the development of trades in perishable foods between Australia and the Pacific from the late nineteenth century, the advent of domestic refrigeration played a relatively small yet interesting part. While I had imagined the influence moving in only one direction – i.e. from manufacturers in Australia into the islands, my reading of a range of trade journals and marketing ephemera indicated there was also a reverse influence. In the immediate post-WWII period, experiences in and images of the Pacific were deployed in the marketing of refrigerators to Australian consumers. 

The war had interrupted domestic refrigerator production, with some factories turned to manufacturing munitions or, like the Charles Hope factory in Brisbane, to service American military vehicles. However, Electrolux, which opened a refrigerator and vacuum cleaner factory in Melbourne in 1925, diverted its production to the needs of the war, where kerosene-operated refrigerators would prove vital as blood banks. They were also widely used by the Red Cross and the Australian Comforts Fund.

In 1949, an estimated 80% of American homes possessed refrigerators (the United States has been described as ‘the refrigeration nation’), yet only 25% of Australian homes could boast one. The Department of Postwar Reconstruction was confident of reaching a target of a fridge in every home within a decade; indeed by 1964 an estimated 94% of Australian homes had a refrigerator.

The tropical theatre of war was often deployed to attest to the robustness of available models. For instance, consumers were informed that the ‘Charles Hope Cold Flame’ refrigerator had ‘came through the toughest campaigns of the war with flying colours’, having served with the Navy, the Army and the Air Force in Papua, New Guinea, Borneo, Burma, India and Malaya. Nevertheless consumers could be assured that it was still ‘an attractive piece of kitchen furniture’. This assurance spoke to concerns raised within industry circles before the war that the utilitarian appearance of the domestic refrigerator may have slowed its uptake in Australian homes.

Illustration of fruit and vegetables in fridge drawer and illustration of a woman opening a fridge
The Charles Hope cold flame refrigerator : electrically operated model  Charles Hope Brisbane  [19--?],

Other companies also seized on the war, not only to market their domestic appliances but to promote new nutritional norms. Werner Refrigerators lent its name to a postwar campaign to counter popular prejudices in Australia against meat consumption in hot weather, drawing on ‘the experiences of millions of servicemen in the tropics during the war years’ which helped to show that a high-protein diet of up to a pound of meat a day ‘contributed immeasurably toward keeping up … stamina, vigour and readiness for action’.

Illustration of open fridge containing food
Illustration of cuts of meat with slogan 'Meat means good health'
[Meat : ephemera material collected by the National Library of Australia],

And the islands made an appearance in other, more subtle ways. Frigidaire offered its new models in either white or ‘Hawaiian Cream’, a colour scheme that perhaps referenced the broader trend in the late 1950s for a stylised ‘Polynesian’ influence in domestic interior design. This was most marked in California, but appeared to find its way across the ocean to Australia through such manufacturers as General Motors, the makers of Frigidaire. Advertisement containing illustration of woman looking at her fridge

 [Refrigeration & air conditioning industry : trade catalogues ephemera collected by the National Library of Australia],

Dr Frances Steel's research lies at the intersection of histories of empire, mobility and the sea, notably across the Pacific. During her Fellowship, Frances researched a project entitled Cool Cargoes: Australia-Pacific food trades and transformations in the age of refrigeration. 

Frances investigated the effects of the establishment of a cold supply chain in perishable foods across the Pacific and Australasia.  Her topic covered eight decades, from the rise of refrigeration and industrial shipping in the 1880s until the advent of containers in the 1960s. She examined how cool storage had cultural as well as material consequences: across production, consumption, trading and regional relationships,  politics, technology and people’s values and tastes.

I am a fan of Dr Steel's work, especially her ability to give historical contexts and meanings to our everyday lives, and delighted she has started working on this unexplored subject. Congratulations and good luck: I look forward to reading more from her pen on Pacific refrigeration.