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Show catalogues

Agricultural shows have often included commercial displays in their offering of events and activities, providing opportunities for retail companies to make contact with customers visiting town or city for the event. Advertisements for agricultural machinery, supplies and other goods of interest to rural primary producers are incorporated into a show’s printed program or produced as stand-alone catalogues. Exploring the imagery and designs used in these publications suggests how some companies have promoted certain understandings of agriculture and how it connects city and country.

Show programs also reveal how a show has constructed its schedule of sections and classes, often revealing certain assumptions about the proper domains of men and women and their capacity to compete against each other. Listings of office bearers hint at the social status associated with belonging to a show society, often including the names of large land-holding families.

Anthony Horderns' catalogue

Catalogue cover showing a farmer with cattle in the foreground and Horderns store in the background.
Anthony Horderns' catalogue listing items offered for sale at the Royal Agricultural Society Show, Sydney, 1923.

Anthony Hordern & Sons, known colloquially as Anthony Horderns, was, from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries, arguably Australia's biggest retailer. The Sydney-based company sold just about everything, including furniture, clothing, crockery and cooking supplies, haberdashery, sporting equipment, bicycles and agricultural machinery, producing many of its goods in its own chain of factories. Horderns strongly targeted the rural market, producing each year a large mail-order catalogue that gave people living in country areas access to goods not available locally. The company also encouraged people from the country to visit its department store when they were in town, especially when they arrived for the Royal Agricultural Society Show, held each year at Easter. Several members of the Hordern family were presidents of the Royal Agricultural Society of NSW and, from the 1890s, their company displayed a vast array of its wares at the show, eventually building its own permanent pavilion at the showgrounds.

This catalogue lists Horderns' products available at the 1923 Sydney Easter show. Its cover features the figure of a farmer, distinguished by his wide-brimmed hat and working clothes, standing relaxed, shoulders down and one hand in his pocket, looking out at the reader. His facial features lack detail, enabling him to stand for all farmers, rather than referencing any specific individual. Indeed, he almost resembles a shop window mannequin rather than a real person. In his left hand, the farmer holds a rope leading a placid cow and several other cattle appear to be following quietly along behind him. They all stand knee deep in lush grass. It is a scene without tension, an image of bucolic peace and productivity.

Behind the farmer and his cattle looms the facade of Anthony Horderns' landmark Sydney department store, known as the 'New Palace Emporium'. This specially built six-storey edifice, featuring wrought ironwork, polished marble and embossed steel ceilings, opened in Sydney's central business district in 1906. It covered half a city block, with street frontages on three main streets: George, Goulburn and Pitt streets. By the time this catalogue was produced, it offered visitors not only goods but also services such as tea rooms, a post office, a branch of the Commonwealth Bank and public phone booths. The store was a destination and, given that Easter Saturday was by the 1920s one of the store's busiest days, it seems that many visitors to the Sydney show made the trip into town to enjoy its delights.

Though the argument in this catalogue's cover image is not explicit, the iconic treatment of the farmer suggests that he is meant to be read as standing for the idea of the country, as the place where cattle are normally found. The Horderns building stands more identifiably for that particular store but, given the nature of the building as a city landmark, it can also be understood to reference the urban more generally. If we accept these references, then the cover brings the rural and the urban together in the context of the agricultural show in an intriguing manner.

The cover may be seen as suggesting that the agricultural show, and more specifically the Royal Agricultural Society show in Sydney, brings city and country together. In the context of the catalogue's production, this juxtaposition might work to invite rural visitors to the show to the department store, indicating that the store is a place that understands the country and makes its people welcome and comfortable. More abstractly, the layering of images of the farmer and cattle and of the Sydney store might suggest that, while agriculture is a rural practice and consumption an urban experience, they are intimately and happily inter-connected. Indeed, this reading is aided by the abutting of the title 'Anthony Horderns' with that of the 'Royal Agricultural Society's Show' and the flowering of a cornucopia of fruit and vegetables where the two title treatments meet. These details reinforce the broader connotation that, in the realm of agriculture, city and country are not opposed but rather generate bountiful produce when they come together.

It is interesting to note that the cover is dominated by the farmer and, secondly, his cattle, with the department store as a backdrop. While this no doubt reflects Horderns' aim to honour and consequently attract the target market for this piece of advertising, it also alludes to a number of other readings. The farmer's position might be seen to indicate that the 'man on the land' is a pioneer on the frontier, leading the way for and making possible urban commerce. This reading would be entirely consistent with the ways in which urban agricultural shows have historically seen their role as including the promotion of agricultural industries to urban populations. Alternatively, the elements of the cover image might reference an understanding of the agricultural show as a moment of 'carnival', an event in which the everyday order of things is turned upside-down, only to reinforce the power of the established order as everything is returned to normal. Cows may walk the city streets during the Easter show, as suggested on the Horderns' catalogue, but they properly belong in the country.

More pages from the Anthony Horden's catalogue

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Images, symbols and designs can be interpreted in many different ways. What do you think Anthony Horden's catalogue object says about agriculture? Send us a comment

1914 Easter show catalogue