Sport and leisure
Australia’s growing urban population was enjoying an increase in both disposable income and free time in 1913. People found they could afford to engage in sport and leisure activities, as participants and spectators.
Sporting prowess was an essential part of Australian identity. The success of Australian athletes at home and abroad, in sports including cricket, boxing and tennis, was seen as proof of the nation’s potential. Increased numbers of spectators also brought more money into sport. Elite sport was on its way to becoming a form of mass entertainment and, not surprisingly, athletes were keen to share in the profits.
By 1913 swimming was fast becoming integral to Australian life. The sport was considered health-giving and a suitable way to maintain the ‘body beautiful’. Beaches attracted leisure seekers who enjoyed frolicking in the surf. Seemingly innocuous activities like going to the beach or a dance reveal changing attitudes towards morality and modernity. The wearing of ‘revealing’ clothing and less constrained physical and social contact between the sexes were only recently socially acceptable – but not to all.
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Pink satin tango shoes worn by a member of the Faithfull family. National Museum of Australia. Photo: Jason McCarthy.
Uneasy lies the crowned head that contemplates the tango and its possible effects upon the morals of the realm … The King and Queen disapprove of the dance; the Kaiser issues an army order against it; but the President of the United States, persistently libelled as a 'wowser,' allowed it at the White House … The cable now tells us why the Kaiser banned the tango. The disquieting discovery was made that the Crown Princess was taking lessons in 'ultra-modern' dances.
Argus, 4 December 1913, p. 8. Read the full article on Trove
In 1913, fashionable Europe was gripped by what the Melbourne Argus called ‘Tangomania’. What started as ‘a novelty in the spring’ became ‘a craze in the summer and an obsession in the autumn’, as historian Virginia Cowles put it. The dance style travelled from the squares of Buenos Aires to the salons of Paris, developing from a dance associated with working class men and prostitutes to one that elegant Parisians were eager to learn, perhaps schooled by the sons of wealthy Argentinians travelling in Europe.
From late 1913, Tangomania swept the dance halls and theatres of urban Australia. The grand Palais de Danse at St Kilda opened with a tango performance just before Christmas. Hotels advertised ‘tango teas’ and ‘tango baths’ to attract customers. There was now a market for ‘tango corsets’ and special tango shoes, such as a pair worn by a member of the Faithfull family, from a sheep station near Goulburn, New South Wales. Judging by their frayed heels, these pink-dyed satin slippers saw many nights of dancing.
While young women and men embraced the new dance craze, respectable folk expressed horror. Tango was only the third formal dance, after the Viennese waltz and the polka, in which men and women held and faced each other to dance. Previously, social dancing had been very regimented, with men and women dancing in lines or square formations and barely holding hands. The other revolutionary aspects of tango were that the steps followed no set sequence and dancers performed intimate ganchos in which the woman flicks her leg between the man’s.
The tango transgressed social mores and led Queen Mary and King George V to publically express their disapproval of the dance. Debate raged in the letters to the editor of The Times throughout May 1913 as to whether the tango was a freakish, wanton, licentious dance or one that could be performed with propriety and decorum. Across the channel, the German Kaiser forbade soldiers to dance tango and Pope Pius X instructed all Roman Catholic clergy to ‘initiate a crusade against the step’ as it was ‘offensive to every right-minded person’.
Into this controversy stepped Vernon and Irene Castle, dance partners from New York, who popularised tango and showed that it could be a dance of skill and refinement. Irene Castle believed that the tango they danced was acceptable because they were ‘young, clean, married and well-mannered’. In faraway Australia, some of the residents of St Kilda were not convinced and held a public meeting to protest the opening of the Palais de Danse and its exhibition tangos. However, children’s author May Gibbs decided that the tango was fun and had her innocent gumnut babies learn a dance she called ‘the tickletoe’.
These tango slippers are reminiscent of glamorous nights spent perfecting a new and controversial dance style, but they also represent a dance that symbolised a desire for greater personal and social freedom and the optimism of change.
Postcards featuring Englishman Matt Wells and Australian Hughie Mehegan, 1913. Wells beat Mehegan twice in 1913, both times in the 20th round. National Museum of Australia.
BOXING CONTESTS. THE EXHIBITION BUILDING. PROTEST FROM CLERGYMEN.
'We are not kill-joys. We have not come to decry anything that tends to physical development, for we are believers in healthy sport; but it is plain to us that these so-called boxing contests, which are in reality prizefights, are having an exceedingly baneful effect, and are pandering to the worst passions of human nature.'
Sydney Morning Herald, 2 December 1913, p. 7. Read the full article in Trove
In 1913, Sydney was in the grip of a major boxing craze, and the man who did more to publicise boxing than anyone else was Reginald ‘Snowy’ Baker. After winning a silver medal for boxing at the 1908 London Olympic Games, Baker transformed his sporting fame into business success. With Hugh McIntosh and John Wren as his powerful financial backers, Baker was able to create a major sporting entertainment business, centred on an impressive selection of championship fights, hosted at Sydney Stadium. Cards featuring stars including Matt Wells and Hughie Mehegan were used to promote bouts and each fighter's record.
A passion for cycling
By 1913, the bicycle had become Australia’s most popular form of personal transportation. Concerns raised in earlier decades about the alarming effects of cycling on road safety and women’s bodies had subsided. Thousands of people now used bicycles to travel to work, for weekend recreation and to race each other in bicycle clubs in every state.
In the early 20th century, strong competition and large-scale production (Melbourne alone had over 150 businesses) saw the cost of bicycles fall rapidly. Well-known brands made in Melbourne included Malvern Star, Repco, Loveland and Healing. Cycling had emerged as one of the most economical, practical, efficient forms of transport. Now a viable option for the working class, the bicycle also began to realise its much-vaunted potential as a truly democratic vehicle, serving equally well the postman, the rural worker, the doctor, or the society gadabout.
This bicycle (known at the time as a ‘safety bicycle’) was made by Arthur James Sutherland, who established a shop in the busy shopping area opposite Toorak railway station at the height of the 1890s cycling craze. He soon acquired a name for making quality cycles, a reputation boosted considerably when, in 1903, the winner of the prestigious Austral Wheel Race rode to victory on one of his machines. Sutherland soon had the words ‘Austral winning cycles’ emblazoned on his shopfront.
By 1913, it was unremarkable to see a woman on a bicycle. Sutherland made this bicycle for his wife, Marion, possibly as a wedding gift. She used the bicycle for leisure, to run errands, and deliver the shop takings to the bank. The step-through ladies’ frame was one of Sutherland’s own designs.
Cycling bolstered the ‘rational dress’ campaign, which sought to reform women’s fashion by removing the constricting corset and heavy ankle-length skirts. The step-through frame allowed far more flexibility in riding attire. Bolder women could choose bloomers or baggy trousers (sometimes called a divided skirt) that tapered at the knee.
Marion Sutherland’s bicycle came fitted with a front-wheel steering lock that prevented the handlebars from turning, rendering the bicycle unrideable without a key – for good reason. The bicycle’s utility and speed made it a highly desirable item and thefts were common. Newspapers reported regularly on the prosecution of cycle thieves and, in 1913, the Melbourne Argus published a story about an organised theft ring where bicycles stolen from the city ended up in rural towns across the country.
Bicycling remained a significant mode of transport for the first half of the 20th century. Yet the age of the motorcycle and the automobile began to diminish its place as a major mode of transport. Many cycle makers, including Arthur Sutherland, also manufactured motorcycles to cater to the changing demand, especially after the First World War. Sutherland’s son took over the Armadale store in 1946, and continued as manager until the business closed in 1979.
Daniel Oakman, Senior Curator, National Museum of Australia
Mary Ellerslie Barnard's dress
Evening dress worn by Mary Ellerslie Barnard, about 1913. National Museum of Australia. Photos: Katie Shanahan.
Mrs Barnard's dress
Clothing worn by previous generations has the ability to conjure up past lives. In the 1950s, this dress was gently taken from a cedar box, a treasure chest of old garments, for three little girls to carefully try on and play dress up, while their mother spoke about 'Nanna' and how beautiful she was. Nanna was Mary Ellerslie Barnard, and she had owned the dress in the early decades of the 20th century. Born Mary Massey in Tasmania in 1868, she was brought to life for the children as a woman who smelt of violet water, who was very much a ‘lady’, beautifully groomed, and greatly loved by her family. Now her dress is part of the National Museum’s collection.
This evening dress is typical of the relaxed, columnar silhouette of 1910s haute couture. Evening dress featured asymmetry in design and fabric drape, overlays of diaphanous fabric, metallic thread embroidery and lace. The period was largely influenced by Orientalism, popularised by Léon Bakst’s sets and costume designs for the Ballet Russes’ performance of Scheherazade in Paris in 1909 and London in 1910. At this time the high 'Empire' waistline was re-introduced, worn with a soft, long-line straight corset hugging the waist and hips.
This black, velvet-spotted, full length, short-sleeved dress features an intricately adorned bodice of lace, velvet, beads and embroidery. The high waistband features a material flower on the centre front, and the skirt features a three-quarter diagonal overlay held in place with a fabric-covered imitation buckle at the hip. Handmade using a sewing machine, the dress shows little sign of wear. Although the dress does not have a label, it is possible that Barnard purchased it from Mutual Stores Ltd, a large Melbourne department store catering for middle class shoppers.
Mary Massey was a nurse in Launceston before her marriage in 1904 to Dr James Fox Barnard. She retired from nursing and replaced her uniform with garments befitting the comfortable lifestyle of the professional middle class. The Barnards lived for a time in the Victorian and New South Wales border towns of Deniliquin, Wangaratta and Kerang, before settling in Corowa, New South Wales, in 1915, where James established his own practice. With three young daughters born before 1913, it seems that there was little opportunity for the doctor’s wife to wear this elegant dress, hence its pristine condition.
Jennifer Moncrieff, Assistant Curator, National Museum of Australia
'Scene in the Zoo, Sydney' postcard, 1912. National Museum of Australia.
A day at the zoo
The first Australian postcards date from 1875, just a few years after picture postcards appeared in Europe. First issued by the New South Wales post office in Australia, postcards, with a photographic image on one side and space for stamp, address and a brief message on the other, became a hugely popular means of communication.
A product of mass literacy, industrial printing presses and rapid, steam-powered transport, the first decades of the 20th century were the postcard’s heyday. These seemingly insignificant objects document the social history of many aspects of the period, both in their choice of images and in the messages they carried.
Postcards reproduced artworks, hand-drawn illustrations and photographs; some commercial, others family photographs or holiday snapshots, printed onto cards by photographers. Many postcards featured photographs taken by professional photographers, large numbers of whom were working in Australia in the early decades of the 20th century. The subject matter of these photographs was varied, and included advertisements, popular leisure and entertainment activities and scenes of Australian places of interest.
In 1913, families often relied on outings for their entertainment and, for urban dwellers, a trip to the zoo was an exciting and inexpensive choice. In Sydney, a day at the zoo meant a trip to Billy Goat Swamp, Moore Park, the site of Sydney’s first public zoo. In this postcard, entitled ‘Scene in the Zoo, Sydney’, parents stroll with their children, viewing the aviaries. A group of women in long dresses and large hats take a ride on an elephant. As well as illustrating the changing role of zoos from places using animals as a source of entertainment to institutions involved in education and conservation, the photograph reminds us that women managed to undertake leisure activities despite the constraints of contemporary fashion.
This postcard was sent to Master Franklin Wunderlich in Switzerland. The handwritten message on the back reads, ‘A merry xmas and happy new year to you my dear Frankie! Your loving auntie, Fannie’.
This postcard, one of thousands of ephemeral messages posted in, from and to Australia in 1913, is a valuable record of everyday life. Originally produced to be cheap and disposable, it has become a lasting link between the past and the present.