Wendy Hucker has carved a place in Australia’s cultural heritage to celebrate ordinary women’s domestic objects. When she moved to Tumburumba, near the Snowy Mountains, in the 1980s she was appalled to see women discarding their old aprons and wash tubs, preferring to have everything new. Mrs Hucker started the movement to celebrate domesticity through the setting up of the Pioneer Women’s Hut, National Quilt Register and several consultancy projects, including with the National Museum of Australia. From her home in Goulburn, she talks about the influences on her life and her involvement in preserving and celebrating domestic objects.
Listen to interview
I became really interested in ordinary women’s domestic life and the more you looked at it, the more you saw that the written history was about important women or women who made a contribution during the war. Often they were rich, but not always. But it was never their ordinary life that was even touched upon.
Domestic objects historian Wendy Hucker
I think the interest came when I moved to the Tumbarumba district and I went to the tip. The tip was actually at Rosewood and I was so appalled at what families were throwing out like an old sugar bag apron and rough mended quilts and kitchen utensils made from tins that I went away and thought about it a lot. It was almost as though they were saying that these things were not worth saving and you could go down the main street of Tumbarumba and buy a really nice patterned apron in a sort of Liberty print very cheaply. So a lot of stuff was being discarded and when I spoke with local women they confirmed this, ‘new is best’. So after lots of discussion a group of us realised that ordinary rural domestic life was a neglected area of history. This was probably about 1983 or ‘84 and the Pioneer Women’s Hut emerged from this period.
The Powerhouse has certainly led the way in highlighting domestic life and they had for one wonderful short period a domestic history section. Out of that came a seminal exhibition called … never done …, that really had a huge influence. I think that city women’s things somehow were often kept, maybe, more than the country women’s. In the country there were many domestic and farm processes that needed to be recorded while they still existed or were at least in living memory. Many of these were pre electricity like sewing with a treadle machine, making butter by hand, cooking on a fuel stove and hadn’t existed in the city for a long time. Wash day was another one, because until not so very long ago, women improvised with coppers and did the washing outside. Sometimes the pegs were even handmade. That thing of washing just didn’t apply in the city, or not at that period, anyway. You had the tyranny of distance in the country, and that led to in the early days, of course, horse drawn vehicles. So there were whole areas that didn’t apply in the city.
At the Pioneer Women’s Hut we were always interested in informal ways of tapping into women’s history, though that’s just a grand term for women’s lives. As time went on we promoted a policy we called our NON acquisition policy as we realised how important it was for families to retain their own things and hand them on in the family and regard a museum as a second best option. Even if the things were just milk jug covers or hand made toys or copper sticks. These represented their personal past not that grand thing of ‘the’ past.
So in line with our non-acquisition policy we decided we would ask women to record details of their quilts. We only selected quilts as they were something that was fairly universal and covered a wide range that were hand made. The National Quilt Register is the result. So it’s a way of women sharing information but retaining their own heritage and I think it has been fairly successful. This way is more common now of course of sharing information but not putting an object in a museum and the National Dress Register is another example. A bonus is that the cost of looking after any sort of object, even the most simple domestic one is now getting huge. By the time we make sure it is very simply conserved and it’s catalogued and it’s stored its all become really expensive and it is much better for families to care for their own things and hand them on in the family.
(I also worked on) ‘The Material Culture of Backyards’ , a consultancy for the National Museum. So I was looking at the role of backyards within a family and gender issues such as who used the space most and for what. This included things like why men cooked the barbecue and never cooked anything else, which is very true. I think women like it that way. Despite the ever popular men’s shed I found backyards were much more women’s and children’s space despite being traditionally regarded as the men’s domain.
When I was a child, my parents had one of the radio licenses, commercial licenses, in New South Wales. It was about 1932 and the Depression was on and they had both been school teachers in Narrandera and gave it up to start a radio station. They couldn’t afford to employ anyone so everything on air in those first years was by my Mother or my Father or later on I helped too. So when it was decided to start a children’s session and I was about 5 by then, I couldn’t go on air because I couldn’t read without stumbling occasionally and my Father was absolutely pedantic. He had been a school teacher and there was no way I was to go on air until I could read properly.
As soon as I could read fluently I was an essential part of the children’s session and I used to read Enid Blyton’s ‘Sunny Stories’ of which I still have some. I was also trying to teach our dog, we had 3 Fox Terriers and Gay was one, to bark on command on air but she wasn’t so good at that.
And we used to send birthday presents out. That was a big part of the children’s session. So it would be little Jamie’s birthday and you’d say ‘Jamie, if you look behind the lounge, you might find something there’ and Jamie would look behind the lounge and there would be the present. So all that was good fun.
I think that early period stood me in good stead for a lot of things, one of which was seeing my Mother combine domestic life and an exacting job without making any real distinctions. The radio station was on air from early morning until about 10 pm Monday to Sunday so her two roles had to be juggled in terms of priorities at the time. Most of my long working life I have followed that and not made clear divisions between work and leisure.
Interestingly, in those early days of radio there was no soundproofing of studios so when I was on air I loved opening the window so you could hear the swans on the lagoon. It was quite a different way of looking at radio. It wasn’t that sort of ‘no background noise at all costs’ but rather that radio was a part of people’s lives then much more than it is now and everyday sounds were part of that. Anyway, it was also good fun.
To learn more about the importance of ordinary domestic objects, email Wendy Hucker.
Music with thanks to Miriam Venus for The Flight with a Goddess.