|Issue 41, February 2007|
© all rights reserved
From the 1880s, countless residents of Australian cities, most of whom could apparently afford to buy the food they wanted to eat, took the time to produce it themselves in their own backyards. Why? The answer lies, at least in part, in the connections between food production and 'independence'. Within the middle and upper working classes, independence was both a goal and a concept central to identity formation. As such, it was internalised to the point where it is best described as a disposition, serving to guide everyday social activity and make sense of the everyday world. The history of the disposition toward independence might be traced back at least as far as the Reformation, to the so-called 'Protestant ethic' which Weber identified as the rationalistic and accumulation-oriented 'spirit of capitalism' in Western Europe.1 By the Victorian era, the virtue of industriousness had taken on a particularly individualistic, independence-oriented significance, as part of a cluster of largely bourgeois virtues-including self-help, respectability and thrift-associated with the 'gospel of work'. One of the chief exponents of these virtues was Samuel Smiles, who in 1859 published a best-seller entitled Self Help. By the end of the century, it had been reprinted many times, translated into several different languages, and sold around 250 000 copies.
R.J. Morris has described Self-Help as 'a charter by which the lower middle and properous working classes might restore their self-respect after the defeats of the 1840s'.2 In a slightly different vein, Asa Briggs has proposed that although intended mainly for the working class, the values and ideals contained in Smiles' writings were predominantly middle-class ones. Certainly in the era of Gladstonian liberalism, the values and ideals represented in Smiles' work flourished in Britain among working- and middle-class people.3 They were also carried to the antipodean colonies by emigrants anxious to improve their life chances. There too, they flourished and endured.
In the introduction to Thrift, Smiles emphasised the importance of the ideal of independence:
Economic independence for working people was also important to working-class reformers such as Chartist William Lovett, who wrote of 'devising means by which the working and middle classes may have Comfortable Homes, and be gradually enabled to become Manufacturers, Trader, or Farmers, on their own capital'. Lovett further sought 'the Promotion of Temperance, Sobriety, Cleanliness and Health amongst all classes'5-concerns that were also taken up by Smiles.
The cluster of values associated with 'independence' was a means by which the British middle class and the better off fraction of the working class could, and did, differentiate themselves from the 'dependent' poor. Furthermore, the ideology absolved the better-off from guilt about the suffering of the poor, who were usually seen as responsible for their own plight:
The focus on independence, and the way in which it was understood as the opposite of dependence, could be detrimental to an orientation towards community-based inter dependence: 'The man who looks to others for help, instead of relying on himself, will fail.'7 This privileging of independence and relative neglect of interdependence would be maintained to a large extent by the urban middle class in Australia. For the working class, interdependence was often more of a necessity.
The 'independent disposition', as manifested among the middle class in particular, incorporated a dislike for extravagance and ostentation-an ascetism born of both religion and necessity. Nonconformist Protestants were taught that money was not to be spent on comfort or enjoyment. Furthermore, most members of the British-and later Australian-middle classes had few opportunities to achieve real wealth yet were still bent on achieving an 'independence'. Together these factors produced a set of tastes described by Smiles as 'the art of living': a predilection for order and plainness in all things, and for quality rather than quantity. Such tastes also served as a durable form of class distinction:
Middle-class fare was thus distinguished from the 'rough' fare of the poor, and the extravagant dainties of the rich. The 'art of living' also set a high value on cleanliness. Smiles wrote approvingly of Edwin Chadwick's 'Sanitary Idea', and portrayed cleanliness as a means by which to avoid moral degeneration: not only was it 'the best exponent of the spirit of thrift', but it also influenced 'the moral condition of the entire household'.9
Within this discourse, the body was conceived of in a particularly middle-class way, not as instrumental for labour (which Smiles regarded as 'not only a necessity, but... also a pleasure') but as a natural (and free) means to enjoyment of God's creation:
The maintenance of the body in 'entire health', as well as the avoidance 'of bodily ailments, which always accompany sedentary occupations' was seen to require relaxation and exercise, intake of wholesome food, and restraint with regard to alcohol. The connection between physical and moral health was seen to be a close one, and as well as avoiding the path of ill-health, bodily discipline could prevent a fall into moral degeneracy, and dependence.
The focus on exercise, cleanliness and moderation in food was also driven by the desire for a particular body type, with neither the corpulence traditionally associated with the rich, nor the coarse and dirty thinness associated with the poor. As Bourdieu claims:
The middle-class body was to be a public display of the self-discipline of its owner, the product of moderation in food, and sufficiency in exercise. For women, the anxiety over maintaining a properly 'classed' body also manifested in the use of corsetry, and proprietary 'slimming' medications.
Probably the most important source and reflection of independence, however, was one shared by the middle and working classes: independence from the landlord via the acquisition of land, or at least one's own home. Graeme Davison has outlined the four main forms of independence that home-ownership offered to Englishmen in the mid-nineteenth century: security in old age, rights to political participation, social status, and moral virtue in the form of thrift.12 Smiles wrote approvingly of homeownership and Land and Building Societies, which he saw as 'chiefly supported by the minor middle-class men, but also to a considerable extent by the skilled and thrifty working-class men'.13
Many from the English middle and working classes who were seeking 'domestic independence' but frustrated at home, found their way to the colonies. In 1856 Michael Horgan, writing from his South Melbourne cottage, informed his brother:
Independence was a powerful motivator in the colonial context. From the 1850s in New South Wales and Victoria, and the 1880s in Western Australia, gold rushes attracted men in search of independence of lifestyle and means; later, as surface showings became scarce, many settled in the metropolitan centres, especially Perth and Melbourne. In his 1871 guide to ' Victoria as field for emigration', Homes and Homesteads in the Land of Plenty, the Rev. James Ballantyne repeatedly stressed the potential for upward mobility and ultimately independence (or its synonym, 'competence') in the colony. Ballantyne bemoaned the fate of 'young men of spirit and manliness' in the 'old country', where 'the avenues to promotion are all choked up by thousands just as eager to get a little forward as themselves'. But, he declared,
Ballantyne was at pains to point out that in the colonies, independence was even within reach of working men, and that one of their rewards would be possession of that which 'every Englishman glories in-a house which will be his castle'.16
Janet McCalman sees 'respectability' as one of the most important items of cultural baggage brought to Australia by working people seeking 'dignity and prosperity in a new land'.17 'Respectability' was a bundle of ideals and prescriptions for behaviour which included thrift, cleanliness, sobriety, self-reliance, and manly independence. As such, it shared much ground with the predominantly middle class ideals espoused by Smiles. Whilst McCalman discerns a widespread working class identification with 'respectability', Terry Irving has argued that a distinct, 'respectable' working class formed in Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century, drawn from small-scale services and production and driven by 'dreams of economic independence'.18 Similarly, I use the term 'respectable working class' to denote mainly those skilled tradesmen, and their families, with relatively stable jobs, adequate incomes, and at least the prospect of homeownership, who were front-runners in the pursuit of respectability.
The individualistic aversion to interdependence general among the middle class never entirely penetrated the urban working class in Australia, among whom neighbourhood relations were often close, and workplaces organised. However, even as they organised collectively, some degree of independence (from the fear of destitution, from the landlord, or even from the boss) remained a goal-or a dream-for many working-class people. Lionel Frost and Tony Dingle have noted that from early in the twentieth century, some Labor people saw homeownership as providing workers with an independent and secure base from which to collectively pursue their industrial interests.19 In her history of the eastern Perth suburb of Bassendean, Jennie Carter similarly recognised this coexistence of orientations toward independence and interdependence among the suburb's working-class residents:
As Ballantyne suggested, the fraction of the working class with the most capital were often able to achieve some limited independence. Thus in 1932 liberal politician and intellectual Frederic Eggleston claimed that the 'standard of comfort in Australia is so high that the worker is really taken out of the class of proletarian into the class of suburban bourgeoisie with a "position to maintain".'21 Eggleston clearly exaggerates the case, as Australia has by no means been a 'workingman's paradise' for all. However, many working-class people recognised, for example, the value of a private school education and sought, though hard work and thrift, to buy a family home.22 The ideal of independence was held dear among the 'respectable' working class, as well as the middle class.
One of the most basic expressions of the independent disposition was the production of one's own food: it was a means by which to achieve independence, being (at least in theory) thrifty, particularly in making use of wastes. It was also highly symbolic of independence, in its use of household land and labour to avoid reliance on others for a basic need. For the middle class, especially, it provided exercise and wholesome food, both culturally tied to the ideal of independence. It became one of the markers by which one could reaffirm one's class status, seeing oneself as respectable rather than rough, industrious rather than idle. Yet there was room for further layers of meaning.
In the colonies, environmental determinism-the belief that environment shapes people-was popularised in the context of debates over the fate of the transplanted British 'stock'. It also emerged in the idea that urban residents needed to escape the degenerative influence of the city, and avail themselves of the reforming, healthful influence of rurality, even if only in suburban backyards. Several authors have pointed to the somewhat 'rural' nature of suburban Australian backyards, but few have dissected the rurality perceived in this context to ask, as Raymond Williams has done, 'what kinds of experience do the ideas [of city and country] appear to interpret, and why do certain forms occur or recur at this period or at that'? 23 From the late nineteenth century, the idea of 'country' found in Australian suburban backyards is inextricably bound up with the figure of the yeoman. Graeme Davison, in The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, asked 'was the yeoman dream of five acres and a cow realized in a quarter-acre block and a pen of chooks?'24 The answer, for the late nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, is a clear 'yes'.
Robert Freestone and Jenny Gregory have also suggested that the yeoman ideal was a significant factor in the shaping of Australian middle-class suburbia.25 By the seventeenth century in England, Gregory argues, the yeomen were a rural middle class, between the gentry and the peasantry, and their values-ambition, thrift, industry-and ownership of land were remarkably consistent with those of the urban middle classes of the Victorian era. However, as Joe Powell has argued, by the nineteenth century the 'yeoman farmer' had become a central symbol in 'a form of popular and politically useful agrarian idealism' in the lands of the English diaspora, including Australia.26 Powell has shown how the yeoman image was built on a firm foundation of social and philosophical thought dating back to the seventeenth century. British scholars concerned with the relationship between life and land included John Locke, who argued for a 'natural' right to land, and William Ogilvie, Professor of Humanities at King's College, who in 1782 argued that:
These ideas would later be taken up enthusiastically by Chartists and other reform groups.
As industrialisation in Britain proceeded apace, a range of image-makers from artistic, literary, political and commercial spheres evoked the Australian colonies in nostalgic mode, as an Arcady in which British men might recapture a golden age of 'rural prosperity and individual dignity'.28 Within Australia, the yeoman vision was pursued with vigour, through free selection, closer settlement and later soldier settler schemes. All this, of course, on land stolen from Aboriginal people: their 'birthright in land' was overlooked by most. In 1879, the Victorian Crown Lands Commissioners declared that the state's intent was 'to people the land with yeomen and producers of food.'29 Similarly, in Western Australia in 1886, John Forrest spoke in parliament of his vision of a 'bold peasantry'. He was later rebuked for this view in the West Australian, on the grounds that such a peasantry would have to be imported, 'ready made', from France, Germany and Italy, and that what the state really required were 'stout British Yeomen'.30
Given the consistent, overwhelming failure of schemes to settle families on relatively small acreages in Australia, 'the yeoman' was less a real figure than a convenient package for a bundle of virtues tied to the social and economic circumstances of the colonies, and enacted 'in miniature' in food-producing backyards: imperial economic relations and ties meant that the production of food and other raw materials in Australia was applauded; rural work and lifestyle-or at least an idealised version of these-was widely seen as the answer to the spectre of urban degeneration; finally, the yeoman was his own boss, independent of the relations of capitalism (in the ideal, at least), and largely self-sufficient. He therefore personified the ideal of 'manly independence' in a colonial context.
The figure of the yeoman also served to reinforce the prevailing gender order, in which men claimed 'independence' for themselves, and women were relegated to 'dependence'. Although based in reality on a model of family production, the yeoman ideal was clearly one of masculine production, with men taking the role of independent producers and providers, and dependent women responsible for the transformation, indoors, of raw produce into finished product. Daphne Spain has observed that 'femininity and masculinity are constructed in particular places'.31 In Australia, the residential suburbs formed part of a gender ideology of 'two spheres': as ideal venues for the expression of women's femininity in their role as care-givers for children and a weary husband, the suburbs were seen as part of a private 'feminine sphere', isolated from the public, 'masculine sphere' of the city.32
The 'separate spheres' was a powerful ideal, and was certainly implicated in the physical separation of commercial and industrial areas from residential ones. It was, however, less coherent and complete than is often imagined. It is now widely recognised that many women, and particularly working-class women, went to the city to work every day, and the private house was the principal venue for the exploitation of women engaged in sweated labour.33 Less attention has been given to the activities of men in suburban spaces. As sites where the yeoman ideal was practiced in miniature, the productive places within Australian suburban backyards were important sites for the construction of masculinity. Linked as it was to the 'manly independence' of the yeoman, the element of hard physical labour (long central to constructions of masculine work) involved in such activities as double-digging a vegetable bed, was particularly attractive to white-collar employees whose regular work was not so identifiably 'masculine'. It therefore seems that whilst ideal places for women might not have existed in the city, masculinity could be very much at home in the suburb.34 Had food production been seen predominantly as women's work, it is unlikely that as many men would have been involved in it. As it happens, women were also frequently engaged in the work of food production, although their contribution to this 'masculine' domain, carried out in the relative invisibility of the backyard, generally went unseen and unacknowledged by those-mostly male-who controlled the public representations of backyard spaces. Instead, contemporary 'house and garden' literature consistently aligned femininity with consumption, ornament and passivity.
From the early twentieth century, the yeoman ideal was joined by the newly-institutionalised ideal of the breadwinner as a yardstick of masculinity. The concept of the family wage, enshrined in Justice Higgins' 'Harvester' judgement of 1907, reinforced female dependence, thus cementing the relative independence even of men who were unable to escape dependence on wage labour, or the landlord. In this context, suburban food production became even more integral to the everyday enactment of masculine identity, as a continuing statement of self-sufficiency and thus symbolic act of independence from the wage labour system. It also comprised an extension of the masculine imperative, as breadwinner, to provide for his family.
Much of the literature on suburban food production from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is ostensibly devoted to providing a 'practical guide', and the bulk of it in fact provides sober advice on digging, manuring, sowing times and pest control. However, advice was generally offered to the 'householder' making provision for 'his family's needs', and made it clear that the assumed subject was the male head of the household. For example, Adamson's Australian Gardener advised in 1896:
This was a formulation which prevailed in this popular text well into the twentieth century. In feminist magazines such as the Woman Voter and Western Women, women were encouraged to gain some independence for themselves by going onto 'the land' and taking up the 'lighter' branches of farming; nothing, however, was said of suburban 'yeowomen'.36 In less radical circles, there was even a reluctance to acknowledge women's involvement in rural farming work, suggesting the extent to which food production was seen as a properly male occupation.37
Discourse on the home production of fruit and vegetables also occasionally deployed 'independence' in racial, as well as gendered terms. In 1902 for instance, just one year after the new Commonwealth parliament enshrined the white Australia policy in its Immigration Restriction Act, the Garden Gazette announced in its inaugural issue that:
Food production was also shaped along class lines, both in terms of meanings and practices. The property qualification and system of plural voting in local government elections meant that municipal councils were in most cases, and until quite recently, predominantly middle-class bodies concerned with protecting middle-class interests.39 Councils exercised their power to shape local communities in a variety of ways, including the proclamation of by-laws. In the early years of the twentieth century, there was a general tolerance of productive animals in the suburban landscape, and local councils appear to have been most concerned to protect residents' rights to keep livestock. The few by-laws pertaining to animals arose from concerns over health. They applied mainly to commercial enterprises, and stipulated allowable distances between living areas and decomposing matter which was thought to generate 'miasmata'-smells or gases believed to cause disease.40 However, from the years immediately preceeding the First World War, and extending well into the twentieth century, local governments in their by-laws gradually sought to define rights to the enjoyment of private property in terms of amenity, or a pleasant environment, and began to privilege the individual enjoyment of neighbourhood amenity over the potential for food production involving livestock.
The concern with the quality of an environment was a central tenet of much contemporary discourse on urban planning and development. This in turn formed part of a broader middle-class reform effort grounded in environmental determinism, which aimed at decreasing crime and delinquency, as well as improving the Australian 'type', through improving the moral, social and physical contexts in which people lived. Such 'environmentalist' reformers, working within local governments or associations, tackled a range of urban issues from playgrounds to pollution. Although often addressing problems with a direct impact on health, such as sanitation, much of the reform effort was also directed at producing a pleasant environment through the provision of parks and playgrounds, and removal of all that was 'unsightly'. Thus the constitution of the Town Planning Association of Western Australia proudly bore the words of Sir William Lever:
Andrea Gaynor is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Western Australia.
1. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), trans. Tolcott Parsons, Unwin University Books, London, 1930. This idea has been disputed by a number of writers. For discussion of the debates see H. Lehmann and K.F. Ledford (eds), Weber's Protestant Ethic: Origins, Evidence, Contexts, German Historical Institute and Cambridge University Press, Washington, 1993.
2. R.J. Morris, 'Samuel Smiles and the Genesis of Self-Help ; The Retreat to a Petit-Bourgeois Utopia', Historical Journal, vol.24, no.1, 1981, p.108.
3. Asa Briggs, Victorian People: A Reassessment of Persons and Themes 1851-67, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1955, pp.116-139; Alexander Tyrell, 'Class Consciousness in Early Victorian Britain: Samuel Smiles, Leeds Politics and the Self-Help Creed', Journal of British Studies, vol.9, no.2, 1970, pp.124-125.
4. Samuel Smiles, Thrift, John Murray, London, 1875, p.vi.
5.William Lovett, Life and Struggles of William Lovett in Pursuit of Bread, Knowledge, and Freedom, vol.2, Bell, London, 1920, pp.332-333.
6. Smiles, Thrift, p.25.
7. ibid., p.95.
8. ibid. p.356.
9. ibid., p.342.
10. ibid., p.315.
11. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, (1979), trans. Richard Nice, Routledge, London, 1989, p.190.
12. Graeme Davison, 'Colonial Origins of the Australian Home', in Patrick Troy (ed), A History of European Housing in Australia, p.11.
13. Smiles, Thrift, p.107.
14. Davison, 'Colonial Origins of the Australian Home', p.19.
15. James Ballantyne, Homes and Homesteads in the Land of Plenty: A Handbook of Victoria as a Field for Emigration, Mason, Firth and McCutcheon, Melbourne, 1871, p.14.
16.Ballantyne, quoted in Graeme Davison, ' Australia : The first suburban nation?', Journal of Urban History, vol.22, no.1, 1995, p.54.
17. Janet McCalman, Struggletown: Public and Private Life in Richmond 1900-1965, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1984, p.20.
18. Terry Irving, 'Society and the Language of Class', in Neville Meaney (ed.), Under New Heavens: Cultural Transmission and the Making of Australia, Heinemann Educational, Port Melbourne, 1989, p.64.
19. Lionel Frost and Tony Dingle, 'Sustaining Suburbia: An Historical Perspective on Australia 's Urban Growth', in Patrick Troy (ed.), Australian Cities: Issues, Strategies and Policies for Urban Australia in the 1990s, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, p.29.
20. Jennie Carter, Bassendean: A Social History 1829-1979, Town of Bassendean, Bassendean, 1986, p.158.
21. Frederic Eggleston, State Socialism in Victoria, P.S. King & Son, London, 1932, p.19.
22. Janet McCalman, Journeyings: The Biography of a Middle-class Generation 1920-1990, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1993.
23. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, Chatto and Windus, London, 1973, p.290.
24. Graeme Davison, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1978, p.185.
25. Robert Freestone, 'Planning, Housing, Gardening: Home as a Garden Suburb', in Patrick Troy (ed), A History of European Housing in Australia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000, p.132; Jenny Gregory, The Manufacture of Middle Class Suburbia: The Promontory of Claremont, Nedlands and Dalkeith, Within the City of Perth, Western Australia, 1830s-1930s, PhD thesis, University of Western Australia, 1988, chapter 1.
26. J.M. Powell, Mirrors of the New World: Images and Image-makers in the Settlement Process, Canberra, Australian National University Press, c1977, p.48.
27. W. Ogilvie, Birthright in Land: an Essay on the Right of Property in Land, London, 1782; cited in ibid. p.47.
28. Powell, p.72.
29.Marilyn Lake, The Limits of Hope: Soldier Settlement in Victoria, 1915-1938, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1987. p.16.
30. Both quotes appear opposite the title page of W. E. Greble, A Bold Yeomanry: Social Change in a Wheatbelt District, Kulin 1948-70, Creative Research in association with Kulin Shire Council, Perth, 1979.
31. Daphne Spain, Gendered Spaces, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1992, p.7.
32.In the Australian context, see for example Beverley Kingston, My Wife, My Daughter, and Poor Mary Ann: Women and Work in Australia, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne 1975, p.2; Graeme Davison, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1978, pp.138-140, Ann Game and Rosemary Pringle, 'The Making of the Australian Family', in Alisa Burns, Gill Bottomly and Penny Jools (eds), The Family in the Modern World, Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1983, pp.83-84 and passim.
33.Charlie Fox, Working Australia, Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1991, pp.71-72, 101, 106-107.
34.For a more detailed version of this discussion on gender, see A. Gaynor, 'Animal Husbandry and House Wifery? Gender and Suburban Household Food Production in Perth and Melbourne, 1890-1950', Australian Historical Studies, vol.24, 2004, pp.238-254.
35.William Adamson, Adamson's Australian Gardener: An Epitome of Horticulture and Agriculture for the Colony of Victoria, 14th ed., G. Robertson, Melbourne,1896, p.133.
36. See for example 'Women's Rural Industries Co.', Woman Voter, 21 March 1916, p.2; 'Farming for Women', Western Women, October 1914, pp.12-13.
37.For example, the designers of the 1891 Victorian Census classed women living on farms as engaged in 'Domestic Duties' rather than agricultural pursuits ('except those respecting whom words were entered expressing that they were so occupied'): Census of Victoria 1891, VPP, 1893, vol.3, no.9, p.192, quoted in Charles Fox and Marilyn Lake (eds), Australians at Work, McPhee Gribble, Ringwood, 1990, p.151.
38. 'The Garden Gazette: Its Aims and Objects', Garden Gazette, July 1902, p.4.
39. R.J.K. Chapman and Michael Wood, Australian Local Government: The Federal Dimension, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1984, p.49; M.A. Jones, Local Government and the People: Challenges for the Eighties, Hargreen, Melbourne, 1981, p.217. In Victoria, for example, a full adult franchise for local government elections was only adopted in the 1980s. Similarly, in WA a property qualification and system of plural voting was maintained and occupiers had to apply each year to be put on the electoral roll for local government elections (whereas owners were placed on the roll automatically), until the 1980s. Even Labor's municipal platform did little to shift the middle-class aims of most councils, revolving as it did around home-ownership, democracy and local progress: Connell and Irving, Class Structure in Australian History, p.129.
40. Andrea Gaynor, 'Regulation, Resistance and the Residential Area: The Keeping of Productive Animals in Twentieth-century Perth, Western Australia ', Urban Policy and Research, vol.17, no.1, 1999, p.10.
41. SROWA, MN16, Town Planning Association of W.A., Acc 641A, Minutes of Meetings: 31 Mar 1916-24 Apr 1929.
In Australian Humanities Review, see also
Please feel free to contribute to this discourse.
©Australian Humanities Review all rights reserved.
http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/copyright.html for copyright notice.