Monday 20 May 2019

One Day In February

Hats and gloves? Check!
Workaday styling for City Girls

As hinted in an earlier post, I've been saving an Exhibition Show & Tell from last season. The time is ripe, Dear Reader, for a trip down memory lane, courtesy of the captivating Street Photography exhibition at the Museum of Sydney that Mr P and I took in. Behold another wonderful social history wrapped up in the Fashions of the Day and, for my taste, arresting and stylish even for ol' Sydney. Apologies now for the paucity of Men in my selection - I was so focussed on the Gals!

All smiles on their day out

Arm-in-arm Fashionistas

In a similar story everywhere, a distinct lack of camera ownership in most households and some Depression-era ingenuity led to freelance street photographers setting up in cities, snapping passersby who would then have an opportunity to buy a copy of their candid and mostly naturalistic photograph from a booth processing the films, with the photographer taking a commission.

Great delight at realising they've been snapped!

Here in Sydney, the first to do so was John McGeorge and two fellow unemployed friends in 1932. Some were self-taught and even made their own camera and honed their skills on the street, while others working for firms that emerged were formally trained, most using the German Leica. By the end of the decade, there were between 80 and 100 snappers on our City's streets.

Snapping a Snapper

15-year old Elsie setting off to work as a live-in maid in 1936,
with all her possessions in one suitcase

After a day's family outing in 1942 ,
young David heads home missing a shoe

Eventually the authorities stepped in to take a cut by insisting on licences being required, and fines were liberally issued over the resulting litter that ensued as people tossed aside the agent's card that would be thrust into their hand. Additionally, handing out cards breached a city by-law and the fines and court costs could be quite expensive, so it was a nice little cottage industry up and down the line.

Another David proudly carrying his new shoes from David Jones,
 the highlight being the X-ray fitting!

Sisters passing Repin's Coffee Inn,
which specialised in the posh "Vienna style" with whipped cream on top

Some city workers could be snapped most days, often several times, so the photographers were a tiresome nuisance for them but for others, they were welcomed as providing a momento of a Pleasure Outing to the City. The photographers, in the main, were well-dressed and engaging, trying to get the passersby to stop for a pose or just smile as they walked by, while the few women photographers weren't exactly welcomed into the club as they were believed to be better at charming the gents.

How good is this look? Hat, snood and sunglasses? Check!
But totally over the Snappers

No non-biodegradable shopping bags in the 1930s,
just brown paper and string

And no strollers for toddlers in 1941,
hence Lance's look of exhaustion.

At a time when the population of Sydney was under 1.5 million, some staggering figures from the 1930s emerge. One company alone, Leicagraph Co, took 22,000 photos in one week in 1935, not all of which would be later sold to the subject, and yet between 1933 and 1936, they sold over 2 million photographs!

Seeing off a ship at Circular Quay

A general call out last year for photos from the albums of Sydneysiders provided the bulk of the exhibition, with thousands responding, as most families have at least one of these street photographs as they were still going until the early 70s. Alongside was a sequence of 40 photos reproduced from an original roll of film taken by Ted Waight at Martin Place on Monday, 26th February, 1940.

Great hats on both the Ladies and the Gents in Ted's 1940 photos

A quick* check on the digitised front page of the Sydney Morning Herald (using the excellent website, Trove) looking for the weather on this day, I found the forecast:

"Fine and warm with northerly winds; a southerly change during the day"

As I'm a pedant and Need to Know the temperature, the Bureau of Meteorology records confirmed the range was indeed 16.6 - 26.4 degrees C. Nice. But examining these photos you would hardly tell, with the 3-piece suits, jackets and gloves. Not to mention there would be no air-conditioning in the shops and offices.

3-piece suits for the gents and gloves for the ladies,
Summertime or not!

I had further distractions combing the Front Page. Unlike the format of newspapers today, only a single slim column of Headlines gave hints of News of the Day, while the bulk of the page was filled with classifieds. The Overseas News headlines, of course, reflected the still unfocussed times early in WWII, using terms such as "rumours", "tension" and "uneasiness".

Serious talk - must be the of the Overseas News

In Home News, however, the headlines included that most summertime of stories:

"Thousands of surfers were stung on the northern beaches yesterday by blue-bottles, which the strong north-easterly wind brought in by millions"

Eye-watering numbers, undoubtedly, but perhaps just a bit of journalistic zeal here?

These gorgeous girls don't look bothered about
the Blue-bottle Headlines

My eyes and ears glaze over with most advertising but I simply adore Olde Advertisements and their quirky offerings. The department store Farmer's Sydney advertised:

"To-day's menu in the Fifth Floor Restaurant: Cream of asparagus. Rump steak and kidney pie, with pommes purée. Fruit in jelly, and cream. Tariff, 1/9". 

I hope some of those snapped at Martin Place by Mr Waight were considering this fine, ahem, summery repast to be had up the road!

Discussing the Lunch at Farmer's?


Further weather checking reveals that it was quite a hot summer in 1940. Listed under "Tours and Travel", (where a trip to Tasmania was urged to "recuperate in its genial climate"), and in a reflection of the strong Commonwealth bias at that time, there were 2 separate advertisements for railway holidays in Canada, with Canadian National Railways promising, "A Healthy Paradise! Scenery Beyond Belief!" and Canadian Pacific Railway Company offering, "Scenes you'll never forget".

Must be getting hot now, no hats on anyone!
Cooling Canada must beckon!

I love the little hat on the young woman on the left

Finally, under "Personal and Missing Friends", where Miss Lemon would post enticing ads for M. Poirot, alongside the three ubiquitous Private Inquiry Agencies promising "Secrecy assured", "Trustworthy men" to "investigate your affairs" and "Satisfaction assured", was the cryptic message:

"Light out - Moved to adjacent block. Will call GPO, Wednesday. Write. Au revoir"

... Agatha Christie could not have worded it better!

Deep in thought: Will she head to the GPO on Wednesday,
even out of curiosity?

* Oh, yes, my quick check turned into a goodly hour where I spent the time in the satisfying exercise of Correcting the sometimes garbled digitised transcription.


  1. How refreshing to see people dressed so nicely. I must be old-fashioned but I sometimes find the tendency to wear casual clothes for almost any occasion very off-putting. I also find it amazing that so many people i those days could afford so little, especially here in Malta, and yet they took great pains to make sure they looked neat and presentable whenever they left the house. I really enjoyed this write-up.

    1. I agree, Loree. I appreciate the bit of effort sadly so few now make when Going Out in Sydney. This is a very casual city today. At the Opera House the other weekend there was a woman at the recital I attended wearing active wear. There can be many reasons for her wardrobe choice that day but, really??

      Anyhoo, I'm glad you enjoyed today's piece!

  2. A very enchanting trip down memory lane Pippy! What a delightful exhibition that must have been to see such stylish Aussies all gussied up....and then realizing their descendants should hang their heads in shame for blighting present day sidewalks the world over with those ghastly Uggs aka 'Cankle Cushions'.

    1. It was indeed a sad contrast to the streets today, GSL. I apologise for the Ugg plague upon our streets, and my confession of the day is that old family friends of Mr P used to make them back in the Olden Days. So I have more of a reason to sit in the corner in disgrace.

      The season has not yet arrived here as the Population-at-large is still wearing their rubber thongs as bona fide Shoes. I had a little shock yesterday as I passed a vending machine that sold the Havaiana on the street. The epitome of Fast Fashion?


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