Bronwyn Labrum has written a superb book on what everyday life was like for many New Zealanders in the 1950s and 1960s, published by Te Papa Press (Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s). 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.

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(L-R) Philippa Hart-Smith, Ruth Mansell, Bronwyn Labrum

The book stems from Bronwyn’s personal interests. Although she was born in the mid-1960s, the 1950s and 1960s were really the decades of her parents’ generation; nevertheless she grew up with Crown Lynn 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)).

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; she also wanted to show how they were used in everyday life – focusing on activities rather than just the objects.

Following her explanation of how she came to write and structure 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.

Several of the audience had brought along some of their treasured items from the era – gorgeous clothing: for example, a dress beautifully handmade for an engagement party; a Chanel-design jacket; and a 1960s cream ‘pantsuit’. Some embroidered linen, books, jewellery and stories were also shared.

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.

Real Modern: Everyday New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s is available at the Te Papa Shop on Level 2 or you can purchase online here.

Feature Image: Patchwork Quilt, Ruth Bright, (maker/artist), 1967, New Plymouth, Gift of Irene Middlemiss, 2012, GH017657, Collection of Te Papa.