Histories of objects

DSC07455Books discussing the history of things or objects have become a popular genre. Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects (2010) spawned many similar books, for example, Jerry Brotton’s History of the World in 12 Maps (Penguin, 2012), MacGregor’s Shakespeare’s Restless World: A Portrait of an Era In Twenty Objects, and two recent New Zealand examples, The Lives of Colonial Objects, (eds A Cooper, L Paterson & A Wanhalla, Otago UP, 2015) and Holding on to Home: Stories and Objects of the First World War, by Kate Hunter and Kirstie Ross (Te Papa Press, 2014). But there have also been books on single things, such as Mauve, by Simon Garfield, 2000; categories like Victoria Finlay’s Colour: Travels through the Paintbox, (2002) and Bill Bryson’s history of objects in his nineteenth century home, At Home (2010) – and many, many more. On the whole, it’s a genre I enjoy reading.


One of the essays in the ‘Colonial Objects’ book that resonated with me was Chris Brickell’s ‘”Badness personified”: Nola Pratt’s Photograph Album’,which discusses an album of photographs that belonged to a young woman (better known by her married name of Nola Luxford) taken around 1912. The stamp on the front of the album is the Wanganui Girls’ College crest – also where my grandmother Winifred and her two Read sisters attended. The album is now in the Turnbull Library. Although it is a little bit later than the c. 1905/6 album of photographs that I wrote about in my Edwardian Photo Album post, like that album it contains several informal photos, such as beach scenes.

I decided to look around the house and see what other objects I have that might tell a story. Many have family history associations, of course, but could also tell of a wider history. Here are just a few examples:

The model ship in a case

DSC05860 It was made by my great-grandfather, Robert Read, who was a sailor – it may be a model of the ship Lady Jocelyn that Robert is thought to have come to New Zealand on. If I was to write about it, I should do research on the history of model ship making, noting for example the National Museum of Ship Models and Sea History in Illinois, USA and many other collections of model ships around the world. I should note its dimensions (appx 56cm long and 36cm high), its materials (wood and string), its age (c. 1900-1930) and give more information about its maker (see my other Read posts, such as Robert Read and the Moa explosion.) However, I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of interest in model ships per se and only have this one because of its family history – it was in our house when I grew up, kept near the front door (which was much less used than the side door) and I regarded it as something ‘old’ and slightly exotic.

However, of more interest to me, I could use the model ship to tell stories of immigration to New Zealand. I know the names of the ships most of my ancestors arrived on: London (1842, Jones family); Burmah (1858, Ralph Allsworth family), Triton (1862, William Allsworth); Suffolk (1870 to Victoria, James and Stephen Ralph); Arawata (from Melbourne, 1880, some Ralph family members); St Leonards (1880, Morrell); and Ruapehu (1884, Ruth and Emma Sheckell). Some of my posts have been about these ancestors, although not specifically about their voyages here. The book No Simple Passage, by Jenny Robin Jones (Random House, 2011) is about the 1842 voyage of the London that the Jones family were on.

Family bibles

Ed Jones bible2 As the ‘family historian’ of the family, I have acquired two bibles with family connections. Both belonged to great-grandparents, but on different sides of the family. Edward Jones’s bible, A Pictorial Family Bible – or Complete Domestic Bible (both names are used) was published in London in 1879. As the Jones family arrived in New Zealand in 1842 and Edward was born in 1854, the bible was not brought out with them, but purchased in New Zealand. Not only does it contain the Old and New Testaments, but it is also a history of objects of a kind! Included is a pictorial list of a history of coins and money used in the bible; a comprehensive pronouncing dictionary of biblical places, names, etc; a gallery (illustrations) of scripture incidents and stories; a history of all religions; chronologies and biographies; maps and coloured illustrations of Jewish rites; and printed blank pages for inscribing family information.

Ed Jones bible4Ed Jones bible5

This bible came with two other books – a 1900 History of Methodism in New Zealand (William Morley) and a large biography of Dr Livingstone. From this it would be easy to tell that the Jones’s were a religious family – in particular, stalwarts of the Methodist church, in fact they feature in Morley’s History. This bible could be used to talk about religion in nineteenth century New Zealand, or more specifically Methodism in the Wairarapa. More could be said of the book, its elaborate cover and its illustrations.

DSC07450The other bible is less elaborate, published in 1868 by the British and Foreign Bible Society (formed in 1804), it has the price embossed on the plain brown cover – two shillings and sixpence. It has no illustrations or extra information and it is obviously worn – with some torn and marked pages (I made some repairs to it when I did a book repair course in 1999). It did travel with its owner to New Zealand as it is inscribed “Ruth Sheckell, a gift from her dying mother July 16th 1872”, which clearly imbued it with personal significance. Ruth came to New Zealand in 1884. Ruth’s mother (also called Ruth) died at sea, 16 July 1872, on board the ship Dunbrody, which her husband Frederick Sheckell captained.

Ruth inscription

The two bibles would make an interesting comparison.

1940 NZ Centennial souvenir pen

DSC07451  DSC07452

This brings me to 1940 and this pen which came to me from an aunt, Gwen Haine (nee Morrell). From late 1939 to May 1940, Wellington hosted an exhibition at Rongotai to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the European settlement and government of New Zealand. (The term ‘exhibition’ was used here in the tradition of the London Great Exhibition in 1851.) A number of temporary buildings were constructed, some along Art Deco and Modernist lines. There is much written about the exhibition and the buildings, some of which later burnt down. For example on History.net, and my own post on Some Wellington Buildings has a small section about it.

As well as this particular exhibition, stories could be told of other similar exhibitions, in New Zealand or overseas. There were many types of souvenirs of the exhibition. A brief Internet search finds badges, stickers, trays, plates, brochures, certificates of attendance, cups and saucers, etc. So this item could be used to talk about souvenirs and our need or desire to acquire them. Why do we want a momento of such an occasion? Or are we thinking of their future potential collectability?


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