Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Low Head Paper– January 2010

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As any New Tasmanian will tell you, every New Tasmanian needs an induction into being Tasmanian. They need to know about:
  • FoodApples, Lamb, Cheeses, Mutton Birds, Scallops, Trevalla, Abalone, Leatherwood Honey, Pink Eye potatoes and more recently cool climate wines
  • Tasmania’s Colonial history – Georgian buildings, convicts, some bushranging, etc.
  • Things endemically Tasmanian – Huon Pine and The Piners, Blackwood, Tasmania Devils and the Thylacine
  • Tasmanian Hot Issues –Forest debates, The Hydro, Lake Pedder and ‘The Wilderness’.
Up there with all of this is Tasmania’s Aboriginal history, 'The Truganini Story' and Tasmania’s ubiquitous shell necklaces.

This is the kind of crash course that takes place over morning coffee, at barbecues, over dinner tables, at parties, over a drink at exhibition openings, etc. It all comes with ABSOLUTE authority and based on irrefutable evidence. All this is especially important if you have been imported to, among other things, write speeches with cultural messages for politicians and others who are trying to appear ‘erudite and informed’.

Somehow the TIP (Tasmanian Induction Process) is more intense than similar inductions seem to be almost anywhere else.

About the first thing a New Tasmanian, or a visitor who feels somewhat obliged to feel connected, needs to do is get some Huon pine. It is that quintessential thing to be sending friends and family back ’home’ to prove that you have indeed moved to, or have been, elsewhere. A little bit of Huon pine carries so many stories.

Very high on the list of must-know-abouts is Tasmanian necklace making. To anyone who has lived in Tasmania for any time, they would know something about shell necklaces, Truganini, her necklaces and other necklace stories. Truganini seems to be the usual starting point.

Almost like ‘white noise,’ apple stories proliferate in Tasmania. Again, anyone who has lived in Tasmania for any time will know someone who was, or is, or whose family is/was involved in 'the apple industry’. Along Tasmania’s highways and back roads apple trees have gone feral. It is not for nothing that Tasmania is known as the Apple Isle.

Like Huon pine, an ‘apple souvenir’ of some kind works very well as a placemarker and story carrier. These days vintage apple box labels, and their reproductions, are fantastic souvenirs. After that if you are an antique hunter – and antique hunting in Tasmania has that special something – a Tasmanian apple seed necklace comes close to being something like a Holy Grail. They are terrific finds!

Perhaps the most spectacular find is that apple seed necklaces are not all they seem. There is a hidden story here! It turns out that there are a number of Tasmanian collectors who collect these objects and the apple seed place mats, purses, belts, etc. sometimes found while hunting necklaces. Indeed some ‘apple seed’ collections are quite extraordinary and quite beautiful.

There has been some speculation that there is a connection between apple seed necklaces and shell necklaces. It is an interesting proposition. That there may be some kind of crossover between apple seed necklaces and indigenous shell necklace making. On face value, it seems plausible. In a kind of a way there is a connection but not quite in the way expected.

Anyway, it turns out that apple seed necklaces are in fact ipil seed” necklaces – note the phonic slip – and research seems to be telling us that they were in fact made in The Philippines and imported in to Tasmania, not made in Tasmania.

But so many Tasmanians, and Tasmanian visitors, have adopted them. Somehow they have become a kind of 'surrogate Tasmanian Necklace.’ There may be an apple seed necklace out there somewhere but someone is yet to find it. Until then it is relatively safe to say, “there are no Tasmanian apple seed necklaces.”

On the other hand there are quite a few Tasmanian shell necklaces around and not only in Tasmania. Until recently it seems that it was safely assumed that if it was a recognisable “Tasmanian Shell Necklace” it was likewise safe to assume that it was an Aboriginal shell necklace. However, recent research has shown that like with so many things, assumptions are never really all that safe to make.

It turns out that in Hobart from at least 1875 to the 1960s shell necklaces that are virtually indistinguishable, for all intentions purposes, from some Aboriginal shell necklaces, were in fact made commercially – and by by non-Aboriginal makers. It also turns out that they were known as “Hobart Necklaces”. It seems that they were popular ‘Tasmanian souvenirs’ in the later part of the 19th C and right up until the 1960s it seems.

The shells that were used in the Hobart Necklaces for the most part were a group of shells generally known as ‘rainbow kelp shells’ and shells that the contemporary Aboriginal necklace makers call maireenershells – “maireener” being the Tasmanian Aboriginal word for these shells and sometimes the necklaces made from them.

Interestingly, the word maireener has won currency on eBAY and it has been increasingly used to assert a kind of Tasmanian authenticity, and sometimes Aboriginal authenticity, for necklaces made with these shells.

By 1908 it seems that the ‘Hobart Necklace Industry’ had grown to be quite large as demonstrated by the advertising and articles appearing in Hobart’s newspapers. One particular story that year seems to provide a starting point for beginning to visualise the scale of this “industry.” The story told of the theft of 100 dozen shell necklaces from the Hobart Wharf. The necklaces were destined for Sydney – and possibly for export beyond. There were two trials that year for the same offense. The first produced a hung jury and the second a conviction.
At the second trial three dealers in necklaces, furs and taxidermy attested to the fact that the stolen necklaces were those of another dealer who claimed that they were stolen from him. This was sufficient to see the thief convicted. It is hard to imagine how such a felon could expect to sell his spoils unnoticed in a town with less than 40,000 people or on an island such as Tasmania with a population of something less than 200,000. However, thieves have forever been careless about such details.
It seems that these necklaces had currency as a kind of local Tasmanian fashion item that asserted ‘Tasmanian-ness’ and as a souvenir – or Trophy of Empire. It also seems that they were in demand far beyond Tasmania – the mainland states, the UK, the USA and Hawaii in particular.

Interestingly, in 1908;
  • Truganini’s skeleton had been on exhibition in the Tasmania Room at the Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery for four years;
  • It was 29 years, a generation, after Truganini's death; and
  • It was just three years after the death of Fanny Cochrane-Smith.
Both these women have iconic Tasmanian Aboriginal ancestor status and both were known for their shell necklaces.
All of this must have lent something to the curiosity value, and souvenir value, Hobart Necklaces held given that they so closely resembled, mimicked even, the necklaces these Aboriginal women were by then famous for wearing. A great many Hobartians at the time would have had quite vivid living memories of both women.
Even if it was somewhat late, on November 11 2009 (Remembrance Day!) The shell necklaces “made by Tasmania Aboriginal women” were granted Icon Status by Tasmania’s National Trust. Just a little over a century after John Ward was convicted of stealing 1,200 shell necklaces that mimicked ‘The Real McCoy’, those made by contemporary Aboriginal makers win recognition for their iconic Tasmanian-ness. It is all somewhat ironic.
It seems that for about a century non-Aboriginal makers in various guises have been making shell necklaces using the same kinds of shells that Tasmania’s Aboriginal people use. They were using the same kind of shells as those used on Flinders Island in 1837–38 at the Thursday markets at Wybalenna – and for millennia beforehand albeit in a slightly different format. Since then their necklace making has evolved and accommodated the new materials and technologies that came with the colonisation of Tasmania.

One of the trade marks of a Hobart Necklace it seems is the use of dyed shells. Aniline dyes were used to ‘jazz up’ the necklaces and make them more appealing to a wider market. The dying of these necklaces seems to have been going on since the earliest days of commercial shell necklace production in Tasmania. Nonetheless, it seems that it was not until post WW2 that the dyeing became more blatant.
‘Bertie’ May, a Hobart souvenir manufacturer and trader, was producing and marketing quite large quantities of shell necklaces for the souvenir and fashion market in the late 1940s, 1950s and possibly into the 1960s. It seems that a significant proportion of his production was dyed in a wide variety of intense and bright colours. Earlier dyed necklaces – late 19th, early 20th C – it seems were dyed more subtly if at all.
These necklaces have been globalised and largely 'deplaced' culturally until more recently when Tasmania’s Aboriginal makers have won recognition for the necklaces they make using a much larger variety of shells than were used in Hobart Necklaces. Along with the globalisation comes cultural homoginisation. All this is more to do with blanding than blending.

It is interesting that a Tasmanian shell necklace manufacturer, M M Martin, should see an opportunity to set up a branch enterprise in Honolulu in the early 20th C. It is also interesting that it seems that this enterprise may well have supplied the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, with Tasmanian shell necklaces that it seems she may have understood as ‘lei’. It is also interesting that these necklaces are turning up on eBAY in somewhat unexpected numbers far beyond Tasmania.
It is only possible to speculate upon the size of the ‘Hobart Necklace Industry’. Once it seemed most likely that it was not much more than a cottage industry that was being aggrandized in colonial times. However the Ward Case of 1908 suggests that it was indeed something more than a cottage industry. A back of the envelope calculation seems to suggest that working back from the evidence in the Ward Case this was indeed so.
For 20 years of production straddling the turn of the 20th C, and depending on various variable factors , it is possible to arrive at estimates ranging from 30,000 to 60,000 to even well over 100,000 necklace that were likely to have been produced commercially in that 20 years.

It is open question as to just how many necklaces came out of this industry and as to how large the industry actually was. Nonetheless there is a great deal of scope for further research to put this somewhat new understanding in a clearer perspective.

Ray Norman 2010

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