Find of the month

As the culture wars, the black armband wars and the whether-or-not-to-memorise-nine-times-tables-at-school wars rage on, one venerable Australian institution is quietly breathing new life into the study of history. 

The National Archives of Australia’s main brief is to preserve Federal Government records. While this may not sound particularly titillating, a closer look at its colossal collection reveals a goldmine of cultural and political ephemera that adds warm, wry flesh to history’s dry skeleton of dates and names. 

The NAA’s on-line Find of the Month portal is especially wonderful. Its many gems include:

* A 1925 plan for a high-tech “pneu-tube” network in Parliament House.

* A confidential report on possible flying saucer sightings near Maralinga in 1960. 

* An outraged 1964 letter from children’s author Enid Blyton to Prime Minister Robert Menzies requesting an apology after he described one of her books, Bob the Little Jockey, as immoral and terrible.

* Correspondence concerning Hills Hoists Limited’s 1959 offer to donate a clothesline to Buckingham Palace. Handwritten notes from the then Governor-General, Field Marshal Sir William Joseph Slim, reveal mixed feelings about the proposal.

 * A letter written by an underline-loving US lawyer the day after the disappearance of Harold Holt in 1967. Mr J E Darlington, attorney at law, wrote that the Prime Minister’s peculiar death most likely resulted from expert sabotage, probably foreign. One of his hunches was that the missing PM had been given a beverage containing a delayed-effect drug on the beach.

* A 1913 list of suggested names for what is now known as Canberra. Rejected offerings from politicians included Wattleton, Watsonia, Pacificia, Telopea, Excellia, Austral, Austral City, Australville, Austral Town, Australiene, Australburg, Frazer Roo, Andy Man, Rather Not Suggest At Present and Plato.

The NAA’s current Find of the Month is a digitised copy of Teenagers’ Weekly, a lift-out distributed with the Australian Women’s Weekly from 1959 to 1964. 

The funky cover girl on the front of the January 1961 edition is dressed in what looks like a curtain and a geometry exam caught in flagrante delicto. Inside, a 15-year-old from Cronulla warns younger gels against wearing lipstick and high heels, insisting that it’s possible to get “just as many whistles” without them.

There’s a hunkalicious pin-up of teen idol Bobby “Kissin’ Time” Rydell, as well as a paparazzi page featuring a clutch of 60s celebs getting hep to rock beats booming through the radiogram at a simply super party in Sydney. 

The ABC of “baching” instructs P-plate bachelors in the gentle arts of boiling a cabbage, frying an egg and grilling a sausage (“do NOT eat them half-raw – they are most indigestible unless well cooked”). Flat-chested girls, meanwhile, are reassured that they need not fear falsies: “Don’t be shy about it. Hundreds of thousands of girls wear them today and are happier and better-looking because of them.”

 There are also impassioned debates about whether “adult” books such as Pride and Prejudice are suitable for first-year high school students, whether kissing games lead to the harder stuff, and whether dinkum Aussies should refer to migrants as New Australians or foreigners. 

Like the NAA’s other monthly finds, Teenagers’ Weekly demonstrates that while dates and names are crucial to our understanding of the past, so is the subjective wonderland of popular culture and social minutia – the scrawls in the margins of patent applications, the souvenired wartime surrender leaflets and yes, even dated agony aunt advice about party pashing games such as Postman’s Knock.

 Maybe it is possible to teach culture and history in isolation but how shortsighted, how joyless and how educationally remiss. It’s on par with telling students about hydrogen and oxygen in separate lessons then expecting them to graduate with a feel for water.

Make no mistake: the onus of explanation should fall on those who wish to exclude what’s known as “cultural history” from curricula, not on those who wish to include it.

 * For more wonderful Finds of the Month (as well as tips on how to liven up your wedding day by painting bits of chicken carcasses silver and attaching them to placecards with the prettiest ribbons possible) swing by


- originally published in The Australian on 16-10-2008.

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