‘Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s’

book cover from TP press

This is the title of a book by Bronwyn Labrum, published in 2015 by Te Papa Press. Well illustrated, it brings to life what New Zealanders wore, the houses and furnishings they lived with (or aspired to), cars they drove, what children played with and did at school, and many other topics, arranged in ten chapters.

I recently went to a talk the author gave for the Friends of Te Papa about the book, which was followed by a ‘show-and-tell’ of objects from the period some friends had brought along. The book stems from Bronwyn’s personal interests. She grew up with Crown Lynn (a New Zealand firm) crockery – a particular cat plate featured prominently in her childhood and she also likes the ‘semi-Scandinavian’ modern furniture of the period, some made in New Zealand like the chair by Don Furniture of Lower Hutt that she showed an image of. Her previous research also touched on various aspects of these decades – the welfare state and the importance given to home ownership; the urbanisation of Maori in the post-World War Two period; and a previous book she wrote about clothing in New Zealand (Looking Flash: Clothing in Aotearoa New Zealand (2007)).

She said there are various ways of thinking about the 1950s – that it was dull, grey and conformist; that it is a source of ‘retro cool’ items, and Modernist art and design. She wanted to challenge these ideas and look at what everyday life may have really been like: “how can we materialise daily life?” It has recently become more common for social historians to focus on objects as a way of telling history (see my post on Histories of objects); she also wanted to show how they were used in everyday life – focusing on activities rather than just the objects. Here are two images from the book:

Following her explanation of how she came to write the book, she showed us some “fabulous objects”. This wasn’t just to bring out nostalgic memories, however, it was to invite us to think of what they said about the time and how it differs from now. For example, the picnic set of cups, saucers, plates, cutlery and serviettes in a suitcase is not what most New Zealanders (those who still picnic) would take with them today. The crowds of people visiting new housing in Tawa in a ‘parade of homes’ gives an indication of the boom in suburbanisation and house building in the 1950s. The 21st birthday dress shows what a more significant ‘rite of passage’ this event was then from now.

She offered some conclusions by looking at the changes from the early 1950s to the later 1960s through two contrasting images: the 1953/4 royal visit parading past James Smith’s corner on Cuba/ Manners Streets, with Maori decoration on the building; and anti-Vietnam War protestors in the background of a military parade in the later 1960s. A generation gap had opened. She emphasised that there was a wide variety of experiences – not everyone adopted the new objects; we should avoid the caricatures of the era.

Bronwyn Labrum is Head of New Zealand and Pacific Cultures at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, formerly an associate professor in the School of Design at Massey University and, prior to that, curator of history and textiles at Te Papa.


Sometime in the second half of 1950 my parents moved into a state house as tenants. This was in Perry Street, Masterton and it is the house I grew up in.

Perry St Mast 4

The Labour government under Michael J Savage opened their first state house in 1937 in Miramar Wellington.[1] When the governing party changed to National in 1949, they introduced a policy of tenants being able to buy their state house.

My parents received an offer to purchase in August 1951 … and an amended offer in October 1951. (I don’t know why there were two, but the cost of the deposit was lower in the second offer – perhaps my father questioned it, or the policy had changed in the interim). The purchase price was £2450, of which £200 was a suspensory loan, leaving a balance of £2250. The minimum deposit was £200. Interest was 4 1/8th per cent (my father had queried this, but it wasn’t able to be reduced based on the date they occupied the house – this must have been something to do with government policy changes.) There was no interest on the suspensory loan and provided my parents occupied the house for seven years and complied with other conditions, the loan would be written off. If they wanted to sell within seven years they had to offer the house back to the State Advances Corporation.

A letter attached to the offer also noted that the boundary fence would be erected by the Housing Construction Department and the leaks in the shed roof would be ‘investigated’. The term of the mortgage was for 35 years and monthly payments were £9.5.5.[2] In theory they should have finally paid off the house in about 1986, but I also have a letter dated March 1982, which listed the total amount still owing on the house as £217.20. My father paid this off on 25 March 1982 and I assume they owned the house without a mortgage from this date.[3]

The photo below on the left was taken in front of our house and shows my three oldest siblings and my parents dressed up for some occasion in the 1960s – and me on the right, not going to the occasion! And the other shows my two sisters and mother on some other occasion.


Our house had a ‘T’-shaped hallway that connected most rooms. On entering through the side door – which we always did, we hardly ever used the front door – there was a short hallway with the toilet coming off on the left and the laundry/pantry (with my mother’s preserves and jams) on the right. The laundry led to the kitchen and dining room – an ‘L’ shaped room. From the dining area there was a door to the lounge. Going back to the side entrance, the short hallway led to a longer hallway running at 90 degrees and the four bedrooms and bathroom came off this hallway. At one end of it was the other door to the lounge. From the lounge was a small entrance porch and the front door.

Typical of the era, my father looked after the vegetable and fruit gardens at the back and side of the house and my mother did the flower gardens in the front and beside the driveway. We had a garage and three sheds – one for bikes, lawnmower, etc; one was a chicken coop (until we got rid of the chickens in the late 1960s) and one seemed to house various bits of junk and the large bin of pellets for the ‘chooks’. One of my jobs at times was feeding them and I hated opening the lid to the bin in case there were mice inside. I remember once picking up our cat and trying to get him to go in the bin before I had to look! These two rather poor quality photos (they are copies from my father’s slides) show me in the back yard on my bike. The one on the right shows part of our vege garden and the neighbour’s NZ Railways-owned house in the back.

We often played cricket (summer) or hockey (winter) on the front lawn, occasionally breaking windows – in our house and our neighbour’s!

Here is another photo from that era; a street scene in Wellington in the 1960s.

street scene Wellington


[1] ‘The first state house’, URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/we-call-it-home/first-state-house, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 21-Jul-2014

[2] Letter from State Advances Corporation of NZ to Mr & Mrs F Morrell, dated 30 October 1951 (another letter of 13 August 1951 is also in my possession).

[3] Housing Corporation of NZ letter to Mr & Mrs F Morrell, March 1982.


3 thoughts on “‘Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s’

  1. Very interesting. Love the carpet design and the photos of your family – particularly the hats and you on your bike!


  2. Oh, wow – hats; gloves! What a mission to venture out your front door … That photo of your great-aunt Violet and great-grandmother Ruth Read in the 1950s … is that really the ’50s? The shoes and hats look like they could be 1930s …

    Lovely shots of you on your trike in the garden, Viv …


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