If the history of Aotearoa New Zealand can be condensed into just 100 objects, Jock Phillips is the person to do it. The award-winning historian, who helped establish Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, scoured museum collections across the country to find objects that represent both meaningful and personal moments for A history of New Zealand in 100 objects.
Item number 63 is Eva Bowes’ elegant Great Depression Flour Sack Bloomer.
The text below is an edited extract from A History of 100 Objects by Jock Phillips, published by Penguin Random House NZ, $55.
There had been warnings in advance – nasty recessions in 1921–22 and 1926–27. It was to be expected. As a country with a small domestic market, New Zealand relied heavily on exports of its agricultural products. Small changes in their prices could have serious consequences.
But the Great Depression of the 1930s was of a different order altogether, although it took some time before the full impact on the lives of New Zealanders was felt. The trigger was the Wall Street Crash in the United States in 1929, which led to a drop in demand and prices for New Zealand agricultural exports.
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Wool receipts fell – in the 1931–32 season receipts were almost a third of the previous three years. Total export earnings fell by 40% over the same period. Faced with falling taxes and customs revenues, the reformist government of George Forbes, led by a finance minister from Dunedin, Downie Stewart, decided to balance the books and drastically reduce public spending.
Public sector wages were twice cut by 10%, public works were reduced, old age and war pensions were reduced, child allowances introduced by the Massey government in 1926 were abolished. Unsurprisingly, unemployment rose. Initially there was no state provision for the unemployed, but in 1930 relief allowances were introduced and those out of work began to register – nearly 2,500 in February; over 11,000 by the end of the year – then the downturn really hit.
In October 1931 there were over 50,000 registered unemployed; by July 1933 the numbers reached 80,000 – and that did not include women, youth or Maori. If counted, about 40 percent of the workforce was out of work. Forbes introduced a no-wage no-work policy, and from 1933 his government required men to join camps in the countryside to qualify for assistance. Forbes’ partner in government from late 1931, Gordon Coates of the United Party (formerly Liberal), was notoriously accused of telling the unemployed to “eat grass”.
The human consequences of this extreme loss of income have been severe. Some could no longer afford housing and were forced to crowd together with their relatives or even sleep on the streets. Many struggled to get food, queuing to get soup for themselves or small boxes of food for their families.
One person recalls patiently queuing outside the council chamber from 7.30am to 2.30pm just for 12 shillings and sixpence worth of food – bread, tea and butter. “Silver beets, mashed potatoes and a poached egg, it was a feast.” Many protested. Those out of work set up an unemployed workers’ union which marched on parliament to plead for decent help; and in 1932 windows were smashed along the streets of Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin.
Others have tried to make ends meet by “making do”. They lined their floors with sacks of potatoes to prevent drafts. They made soap by boiling grease and caustic soda on a can of kerosene over an outdoor fire. Many wore used clothes or sewed new ones from scraps. They transported their food in old sugar sacks, which gave a name to the time, “the years of the sugar sack”.
New Zealand museums are full of examples of this Depression tinkering and ingenuity. There’s furniture built with recycled cheese boxes or crate wood by the guys, and floor mats from scraps of used clothing, and quilts and matching patchwork clothing, made by women. There are even beautiful embroidered sacking bags. For children, there are rag dolls and wooden cotton spool toys.
This object is one of those examples of “doing with”. Elegant women’s bloomers were carefully sewn with ruffled stockings from a pair of flour sacks. They come from the west coast, where they now reside in the slum of Greymouth. The museum’s donation form indicates that the labeling on the flour sacks dates the object to the early 1930s and that the bloomers were made by Eva Bowes, whose maiden name was Kerr, of Blackball. We did not find an Eva Bowes in this town, but there was one Eva Kerr living on the main street on the 1928 voters list. There were four other Kerrs living there; three were miners and a firefighter.
It is reasonable to believe that the maker of these bloomers was from a family of blackball miners. If so, it’s understandable why Eva would have tried to save money by making clothes from a sack of flour. Because Blackball was a strong working-class community that fell on hard times during the Depression.
Located on a misty plateau inland from Greymouth, the community owes its existence to the Blackball Coal Company which was established in 1889 to supply cheap coal to the Blackball Shipping Line. The mine started in 1892; but the conditions have never been good for the workers. The hours were long (10 hours a day), the wages were low and the physical environment dangerous. By 1908, the discontent had turned into a famous strike when Pat Hickey launched a demand for a half-hour crèche for lunch.
The success of the strike attracted other radicals, and in the 1920s the town became the headquarters of the United Mine Workers and the Communist Party, with Blackball resident Angus McLagan serving as secretary of both. But when the Depression hit, work in the mine dried up.
The teams were reduced from three to two and then to one. Single men lost out completely, and married men only got work three days a week. Then came proposals for a new shaft using water sluices to be operated by a small group of miners who would be paid, not wages, but a contract price. The response was a bitter five-month strike. The union allowance ran out and eventually a few men returned to work.
Francis Bennett, who took up the post of local doctor in 1928, initially found Blackball to be a daunting place. On his arrival, he wrote to his wife “the soot, the sulphurous smell, the lack of trees, of paint. . . it was just a place where people existed,” and he decided to stay just long enough to earn some money and leave. But in the end the spirit of the people prevailed.
He considered his five years there “the happiest of our lives”. Bennett described the monotonous work of miners with constant heavy shoveling; and as a doctor he was only too aware of the dangers to their health. Rockfalls and explosions resulted in disability and premature death. In addition, there were “early heart failure, silicosis, pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and premature aging”.
A local newspaper, the Hokitika Guardian, reported on the dangers of the mine at this time – in February 1930 a miner was hit by a rock fall and died four months later; in September, a longtime miner was hit by unhitched trucks and killed. There was also bad flooding on the main road in Blackball. Times were tough at Blackball in 1930, so it was no surprise that Eva Bowes found solace and saved money for the house by sewing this pair of bloomers.
The bloomers were made from two 50-pound bags of Peerless flour. The sacks were soft, preventing any chafing of trousers or skirts worn over them, and would have been easily at hand as flour was one of the few essential items for the thrifty housewife in the Depression. She could save money by making her own bread or even scones – no doubt with the help of Edmonds’ cookbook, first published in 1908 as the Sure to Rise Cookery Book. She allegedly bought Peerless flour because that brand was heavily promoted in West Coast newspapers.
The flour was ground from Canterbury wheat by DH Brown & Sons at their Moorhouse Avenue roller mills in Christchurch, not far from the Edmonds baking powder factory. Brown’s mill had a siding near the main tracks, so flour was easily transported to the west coast by rail through the Ōtira Tunnel which had opened in 1923. Peerless was touted as “the best household flour ‘particularly suitable’ for making those distinctive scones.
You know the kind, the more-ish variety, that the husband always sings the praises of. The brand was used at local fairs for competitions for a plate of homemade scones. In 1918 cinemas even showed a film about the milling of Peerless flour and during Saturday screenings children were offered a free ration of “children’s rolls” made with this flour.
Eva Bowes’ bloomers seem at first glance a simple and charming object. Yet they allow us to approach the hardworking world of a conscientious housewife during the Great Depression years. They lead us to the scones and bread that the women baked to make do with a limited diet; and they suggest how many were able to fend for themselves and their children in an age when money was always in short supply and women had only their ingenuity and a needle and thread.