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Youthful commentary on a growth economy : soundings from New Zealand 1884-1914

Sherry Olson et Peter Holland
Traduction(s) :
Commentaires des jeunes sur une économie en croissance : échos de la Nouvelle-Zélande de 1884 à 1914 [fr]


Cadre de recherche : Durant les trente années qui précèdent la Grande Guerre, l’expansion de l’économie mondiale engendre de nouvelles possibilités et de nouvelles contraintes pour les enfants et les adolescents, comme pour les adultes. Cependant, l’avis des mineurs sur leurs expériences de travail est peu documenté dans les sources écrites.

Objectifs : Afin de découvrir les changements sociétaux qui ont affecté les jeunes, nous examinons la « page des enfants » d’un hebdomadaire rural de l’île du Sud de la Nouvelle-Zélande. Le point de vue des jeunes est essentiel à l’interprétation des trajectoires déduites des sources plus conventionnelles disponibles dans un contexte urbain nord-américain (Montréal, Québec).

Méthodologie : À partir du site web d’archives PapersPast, nous avons recueilli 12 000 lettres de jeunes âgés de 6 à 19 ans, publiées entre 1886 et 1909, et extrait leurs commentaires sur deux sujets populaires : le travail qu’ils effectuaient (avec ou sans rémunération), et leurs maux de dents.

Résultats : Les lettres nous informent des tâches assumées par les jeunes selon leur âge, leur sexe, la saison, la routine quotidienne et la structure familiale. Les changements dans la distribution des tâches entre 12 et 14 ans – changements qui coïncident avec une poussée de croissance et, pour la majorité, avec la fin de la scolarité – ont suscité des discussions à propos des comportements genrés et, chez les filles, de la résistance face à l’imposition d'un calendrier de leur passage à la vie adulte.

Conclusion : La saisonnalité des tâches confiées aux enfants témoigne d’une contribution méconnue à l’économie rurale, cette dernière faisant partie du paysage de l’approvisionnement alimentaire industriel à l’échelle mondiale. La réaffectation du travail des jeunes se révèle continue et négociable.

Contribution : Le foisonnement de l’information et des opinions contenues dans les lettres incite à étendre davantage l’expérimentation avec les sources journalistiques, afin de reconnaître la participation des groupes sociaux dont la contribution à la croissance économique demeure sous-estimée.

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Texte intégral

The authors wish to thank Rosalie L'Heureux-Daigneault for translating the paper into French, and, for their counsel, Johanne Prud'homme and colleagues at the Centre interuniversitaire d'Études québécoises (CIÉQ), supported by the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture (FRQSC).

1In retrieving personal experiences of the transition from child to adult as encounters with « history », we address the thirty years prior to World War I in terms of the capture and expenditure of energy. Each living thing harvests energy from its surroundings and directs a portion of it into its own growth. In a regional economy, energy is also captured, transformed, and released. The harvest of energy from fossil fuels redirected human energies into new kinds of work, concentrated them in cities, and promoted global transport of the fuels, waste products, building materials and nutrients. To feed the expanding urban work force, rural frontiers were colonized, and the thirty-year span to 1914 is recognized as the onset of a new « food regime » (Dixon, 2009). It is with respect to this phase of economic growth that we search the archives in Quebec and New Zealand for evidence of personal growth trajectories of young people.

2 To discover what those societal changes may have meant in the experience of children and adolescents, the historian needs two quite different sources. To document the growth of population and energy use, demographers and economists have probed conventional sources to generate data with potential for comparative analysis across time and place. To inquire into a young person's own perceptions, however, the historian remains limited by the scarcity of documents written by minors and evocative of the « Self » in the « Big World ». This challenge directed our choice of two populations 15,000 kilometers apart : urban Quebec and rural southern New Zealand. Among New World cities of the nineteenth century, Montreal is exceptionally well-endowed in nominal records of decennial censuses, annual tax rolls, and day-by-day vital events (births, deaths, marriages and moves). For tracking individuals, it has the further advantage of a half-century of investment in digital access and record-matching.1 New Zealand, hampered by the destruction of its nominal census returns,2 offers a documentary resource we do not find in Quebec: a fully searchable internet archive of newspapers for the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Open access to this archive made it possible for us to explore a lode of letters written by children for publication in the weekly Otago Witness, 1886-1909.3

3 The two cases represent significant advances in the digital humanities : in Quebec a more effective use of conventional sources and measures, in Otago capture of a new range of qualitative and textual resources. The challenge lies in the interplay between the two types of documentary raw materials. Because we have drawn them from two different settings − a northern city and a southern farming frontier − we need to situate them in the wider context of an expanding world market and intensified mobility of people and ideas. The trajectories of individual children were shaped in part by the broader historical context they shared, and to integrate the two scales of analysis, the local and the global, we need personal and collective sources.

  • 4 For a large and thoughtful print collection of the « Dear Dot » letters, see Scott, 2011; he identi (...)

4 The first section of the paper sets the stage, taking advantage of demographic sources from Montreal to identify role changes discernible among young people over the target period. Subjected to strategies of sampling and record-matching, those sources take us a step forward, but, as we shall show, the findings increase our thirst for something more : voices of young people themselves. In the second section, for evidence of their response and agency, we draw on the letters addressed to « Dot » as editor-moderator of a column headed « Letters from Little Folk  ».4 Because this source is less familiar, we give it more attention, selecting young people's discussions of two topics. First, as part of our ongoing research on farm landscapes of southern New Zealand, we searched systematically for what the young correspondents had to say about the « work » they did : growing food, feeding calves, milking cows. A second search was provoked by the children's own queries : « Dot, do you know a cure for the toothache ? » They associated the ache with their fondness for candy and cake. Taken together, their abundant accounts of work and indulgence yield a running commentary on their efforts to explore the world and make themselves at home in it. We might recall the adventure of Alice in Wonderland when she discovered the little bottle, « “I know something interesting is sure to happen,” she said to herself, “whenever I eat or drink anything [...]” » (Carroll, 2015 [1865]: 30).

Youth enrolled and counted : the Montreal sources

5 Each person encounters history as a member of a specific birth cohort situated in a particular place and a particular context of culture, kinship and status. Over the life course, cultural biologists differentiate adolescence from earlier stages (infancy, childhood, juvenile) and from subsequent adult stages by a distinctive spurt of growth. Despite great variability among individuals, timing differs with gender, usually earlier in the female, and in advance of her full sexual maturity (Bogin, 1994). « Every muscular and skeletal dimension of the body seems to take part in the adolescent growth spurt » (Eveleth and Tanner, 1976: 10). In that phase of growth, the individual becomes acutely aware of the social contexts that are at once constraining and empowering, often in contradictory ways (Erikson, 1959 ; Scheff and Retzinger, 2000). The sociologist or psychologist alert to adolescent sensitivity to new selves and body-images can interview living persons, observe performance and create experimental environments of group interaction (Goffman,1959). The historian is dependent on the recall of adults, on published memoirs or scattered biographies, and our target population lies beyond the reach of survey and oral history such as that practiced by Sutherland (1991 ; 1992) and Sutton-Smith (1959). The paucity of sources is aggravated by the exclusion of minors from the public forum and Victorian conventions of what was deemed fit to print or talk about, or even what questions a child might ask.

  • 5 For echoes in New Zealand, see Olssen, 1981 ; Smith, 2002 ; MacLean, 1932, p. 47-52 and p. 92-95; f (...)

6 Conflicting ideas about adolescence make it important to explore the diversity of contexts of time and place. In 1905, just as the « Little Folk » were demanding more space in the Otago Witness, G.S. Hall published in the United States his influential synthesis on adolescence. He emphasized the turbulence of mind and potential disruption to society of the fourteen-year-old. From the measures of heights and weights of samples of children, he formulated standards and related them to views of eugenicists on the progress of « the race ». Hall's prescriptions for bringing up a « normal child » were echoed in New Zealand by Dr Truby King.5 Researchers since that time have confirmed the « average » trajectories of growth of bone and muscle and brain and elaborated the physiological mechanisms of the growth spurt at the onset of puberty, but demolished the racial narrative and undermined the argument for molding the individual to conform to a rigid norm (Eveleth and Tanner, 1976 ; McCormick and Telzer, 2017).

7 To situate the transition to adulthood in the growth economy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we need to consider three aspects : the moves young people were making, the timing of their assumption of reproductive roles, and their preparation for entry into the labour force. For a brief summary of what can be extracted from conventional sources, we shall refer to data packages drawn from Montreal and its suburbs (Bradbury, 1984 ; 2011 ; Olson and Thornton, 2011 ; Gauvreau et al., 2007 ; MacKinnon, 2000). Thanks to the French colonial and ecclesiastical legacy, vital records in Quebec are continuous, validated and conserved to a degree rare for colonies of British settlement. Records with such continuity and precision are available in many parts of Europe, and analysis of the Montreal data relied on European methods and models of demographic behaviour (e.g. Alter 1987 ; VanPoppel et al., 2004 ; Woods, 2000). Digital storage, standards for sharing, and computer-assisted record-matching now make it possible to track households from year to year or decade to decade, to recognize in multiple sources the individual who has moved, married, or entered a new occupation, and to evaluate samples for representation of differences of gender, ethnicity and migrant history.

8 Montreal was a fast-growing « boom-town », doubling its population every twenty years under the impacts of steam power, corporate capital, and factory labour. In terms of geographic moves, youth aged 15 to 29 constituted a large share of those arriving from farms of the surrounding Plain (Olson and Thornton, 2011), of those arriving from the British Isles, and also of those leaving the city for 'new land' elsewhere in Canada (Darroch, 2015). Among young migrants in both Canada and New Zealand, more of the girls moved to urban areas, more of the boys to frontiers of agriculture and mining, and in both rural and urban habitats the biassed sex ratio stirred a succession of « social panics » (Pool et al., 2007 ; Brookes, 2016 ; Comacchio, 2006 ; Myers, 2006).

9 In terms of reproduction rates, the most important change over the two decades 1881-1901 was associated with a shift in the life trajectories of young women (Olson and Thornton, 2011: 164-169). Postponement of marriage by two or three years on average cut into the years of a woman's peak fertility, so that she was likely to have fewer births over her lifetime. Because regulation of fertility was largely a function of the timing of marriages, what may seem a modest change in private and personal choices resulted in substantially lower birth rates and smaller families. These changes occurred first in cities and contributed to their distinctive age-sex structures. Similar changes have been documented in New Zealand and Great Britain (Olssen and Lévesque, 1978 ; Pool et al., 2007: 92).

10 In terms of recorded livelihoods in Montreal, the age set 15 to 29 (both sexes) filled a third of census-reported jobs (the formal sector) in 1881, and half of them in 1901 (Olson and Thornton, 2011). Tracking of individuals from 1881 to 1901 shows occupational changes between fathers and sons, and a net upward social mobility (Gauvreau and Olson, 2008). The census understates the work performed by youth under 21 and ignores nearly all of the work performed by married women. Discounting of domestic and unwaged work further devalued the time of all women (Goldin, 1990 ; Nyberg, 1994).

11 Essential to the placing of young people into new slots in the work force was primary schooling. In both Quebec and New Zealand, most children at ages nine through eleven were attending school, and near-universal attendance was first achieved in this generation. New Zealand had greater legislative incentives and more systematic funding, but schooling beyond 12 or 13 years of age remained rare and selective (McGeorge 2006 ; Fry, 1985). The low-wage situation favored employment of very young women as teachers (Fry, 1985 ; Danylewycz and Prentice, 1984). Primary schooling confirmed gender roles, promoted regimentation of play (Sutton-Smith, 1959), advanced the « norming » of bodies and competencies (Turmel, 2013), and standardized access to social networks and future remuneration.

12The observations we can make from such data raise questions the census-takers did not ask. The historian seeks to recognize the interplay of voices within a family, to discover the way choices were anchored in places, and to evaluate those « communities of communication » that were changing expectations of earnings and desired family size (Szreter, 1996). All those factors contributed to the timing of the decisions to leave school, leave home, marry, or make the long-distance move.

Voices from minors : the New Zealand source

13 To garner opinions of young people, we turn to the New Zealand source. Despite their locations in farming communities, New Zealand youth, too, were living in a growth economy sensitive to price incentives and responsive to world markets. In the thirty years 1881-1911 the human population of New Zealand doubled (Bloomfield, 1984). Expansion of world trade, viewed from New Zealand, meant increasing exports of butter and cheese and frozen meat (shown in Figure 1).

Figure 1 Value of selected New Zealand exports, 1881-1915

Figure 1 Value of selected New Zealand exports, 1881-1915

Sources : New Zealand Official Yearbook, 1884, 1913, 1921, 1997

  • 6 On the vexed timing of successive food regimes see Dixon, 2009 ; Roche, 1999 and 2012. Export of go (...)

14The increase depended on the production of milk, of course, of grain as well − wheat to nourish people, oats for the draught horses − and of grass to feed the cows and sheep (grazing pressure more than doubled in the two decades). The exports, directed to the docks of London and Liverpool (Belich, 2009 ; Condliffe 1915), contributed to the new diet of urban workers and financed return flows to New Zealand of agricultural machinery, fencing wire, and, from imperial frontiers of the Pacific, sugar, guano, and rock phosphate fertilizers (shown in Figure 2).6

Figure 2 Value ( £ 000) of selected New Zealand imports, 1881-1915

Figure 2 Value ( £ 000) of selected New Zealand imports, 1881-1915

Sources : Bloomfield, 1984, Table VII, 12, p. 30-4. Machinery excluding electrical.

15 In the letters children addressed to « Dot » for publication in the Otago Witness, July 1886 through December 1909, online keyword searching is possible thanks to the ambitious digital heritage program of the National Library of New Zealand which employs crowd-sourcing techniques to enhance optical character recognition. We retrieved 12,000 letters, hereafter cited by the writer's pen name and date of publication. The period searched covers the largest representation of children under 20 in the New Zealand population, as well as maximum family sizes and maximum numbers of siblings (Pool et al., 2007: 129 and 142). For a decade the column was dominated by school children barely able to write ; but by 1900 youth aged 12-19 years were taking the lead (Scott, 2011: 190). The young writers came from a great diversity of living standards and lifestyles. At least one in ten reappeared more than once, and from one decade to the next we can reasonably assume a complete turnover of correspondents. Five out of six letters were from girls or young women, a majority from rural areas since the weekly Otago Witness particularly addressed residents of farms, remote sheep stations, mining camps, and small towns with weekly or twice-weekly postal service. By 1909 the weekly had expanded to 90 pages, and was associated with the Otago Daily Times, also published in Dunedin, metropolis of the South Island.

16 Other scholars have recognized potential in the Letters (Bennett 2014 ; Ballantyne 2011), and the wide range of comments of these children invites exploration of other subjects by other methods (cf. Moruzi, 2012 ; Wevers, 2010 ; Speer and Stokoe, 2011). The most delicate issue in interpreting such letters is the extent of editorial intervention, such as the encouraging little notes « Dot » appended ; these sometimes introduced points of grammar or, during the Boer War, of politics. That kind of censorship seems to have had little effect on the two topics we address. Since the correspondents told stories about their pets, their picnics and holidays − what the editors explicitly invited − many of their mentions of work are incidental : « We got up at three to finish the milking in time to catch the six o'clock train [...] » Such remarks are generally candid and unsolicited. With the spurt of adolescent growth and its sex-related characteristics, we will nevertheless need to bear in mind the more subtle censorship of the Victorian era : the silences with respect to sex and body functions.

Work on the farm

17What Dot's correspondents termed « work » informs us about age-related responsibilities, gender differences in work assignments, and, over the quarter-century, some changes that arose from new farming practices. Their work was governed by a powerful rhythm of seasons and hours, and their comments point to intense sociability with undercurrents of protest and negotiation of the schedule.

18 The youngest correspondents worked close to the homestead, under supervision: bringing in firewood, feeding chickens, gathering eggs, weeding mother's garden, or pulling apples. At ages of ten or eleven, still beginners, they were assigned routines demanding energy and endurance rather than dexterity or judgment : thinning or planting turnips, digging or sorting potatoes. « Did you ever pick up potatoes, Dot ? » one of the girls inquired. « If you have, you will know how one's back does ache » (Bessie, June 1899-06-22). Two boys who had been planting potatoes reported that « getting the bone dust in was a terrible struggle, for the wind was blowing a hurricane, and it nearly all landed in our eyes [...] » (Two Waikawa Kilties, 1905-12-06).

19 Even the simplest repetitive task invited teamwork and negotiation. Marguerite described the unpleasant surprise on Saturday afternoon when she and her sister had planned to go out bird-nesting and were instead ordered to pick and sort the potatoes :

We were very angry and protested against it, but father was inflexible, and said we had to do it. So we started to work. We donned old clothes and got into the barrel and started to pick out the potatoes. But we found that wouldn't do because the bag wouldn't stand up, and when we were throwing the potatoes out we were hitting each other. So Cynthia got out and held the bag and I stayed in the barrel and picked out the potatoes. When we had half finished, father came along and said we were very good girls. We asked what we were to get for doing it. He said he would give us our suppers. We struck for wages and said we wouldn't do any more unless he promised to pay us. So he said he would give us a shilling. Then we started to work again and soon had it finished. (Marguerite, 1899-11-02).

20 Children's tasks reflected the division of labor within a family. With the increase in tonnage of dairy exports, children were enrolled to cope with the demands of twice-a-day milking. An eleven-year-old described his routine : « Every day when I come home from school I go for the cows [...] when I get home it is just time for milking [...] » The child's time-space was organized to accommodate schooling, the journey to and from school, and the needs of the farm, all subject to the rigors of season and weather. « I cut about 12 inches off the end of the cows' tails, as it is not very nice to get a smack in the mouth with a bunch of small icicles on a frosty morning » (Yeast, 1904-05-18).

21 The farm family was under greatest pressure at the time of the autumn grain harvest (in March) and the summer shearing (December and January), when the entire household was mobilized and extra hands or contract workers had to be housed and fed : « Dinner over, dishes all washed-up, and the floor a bit tidied, I started on to a bucket of potatoes for the tea. You see, Dot, we no sooner get one meal over with and we have to make ready another » (Longwood Blossom, 1909-05-19). School vacations were timed to release a youthful complement of workers, and most correspondents described the harvest season as rewarding, sociable, eventful, and filled with opportunities to master or demonstrate new skills. Erratic weather, on the other hand, intensified seasonal pressures. A young woman on a sheep station fumed, « Owing to this rain the men will probably not be finished at the other places, so that means they will stay here for Christmas and New Year. Won't that be a splendid way to spend Christmas, Dot, cooking for shearers ? » (Goldspur, 1906-12-26).

22 The pile-up of summer tasks meant holidays taken in turns. An eleven-year-old wrote, « I did not go away anywhere for my holidays because I had to take lunch out to the turnip-thinners » (Blue Bells of Scotland, 1909-02-10). Another, at thirteen, was preparing to sell the lamb she had raised : « I am penniless, and want to make money quickly. I do not think I shall be getting a holiday this year, as I had one last year, and it is someone else's turn this year » (Silver Tassel, 1908-08-12). A fourteen-year-old who had left school for farm work reported, « I will soon be getting my holidays. I have to be content with them in the winter, as the cows are all milking in the summer and it is not easy to get away » (Purple Heather, 1908-04-22). One girl fretted at not having an Easter holiday : « Now, I do not think there is much freedom when a person has eight or nine cows to milk night and morning, besides all the other farm work such as skimming milk, feeding pigs, etc. In addition to these things, many girls have to thin turnips, plant and pick up potatoes, crow or fork in harvest time, help when the threshing mill is in, etc. If they want a holiday, how are they to get it ? » (Zephy, 1904-05-04).

23Once the spurt of growth was underway, a child was suddenly more useful − taller, heavier, with stronger grip and greater power − and the signs of imminent puberty led to expectations of reproductive roles and future family formation. In terms of work, the new capabilities and expectations meant an intensified load with tasks more rigorously assigned by gender. For boys, the expected work was ploughing − strenuous and initially challenging− « [...] we have to grow up sooner or later, and as it can't be helped, it does no good to indulge in vain regrets [...] I have to work a team now, and I can't say that I love doing it, as getting up at five o'clock in the depth of winter is scarcely to my taste » (Aguinaldo, 1899-11-02). For the girls, it was housework, and it evoked frequent protest. « I am left to mind the house, which I hate doing. I have always hated housework » (Clio, 1908-12-23).

24The decision to leave school was a critical one, and the role as surrogate mother was mentioned frequently by correspondents as the response to family emergencies.

As my mother is under the doctors's order not to do any work for three months, we have had a housekeeper, but she had to go home, for her mother is ill too. I have all the work to do, and I can tell you I don't like it [...] my father is ill too, and is lying about. I hope it will be my turn next, so I can have a good time too (Mermaid, 1909-10-20).

25In other cases the decision hinted at parents' fear that further schooling would spoil their children's prospects. According to Maggie, age fourteen, « Mother thinks I know enough for a farmer's daughter » (Maggie Gerken, 1894-03-15). Changes in the size of the family and in the stage of development of the farm required continual adjustment and compromise. One girl reported an alternative division of labour :

My brothers do not like working in the garden, and they would rather wash, iron, scrub, and sew. One of them can sew very well, and they do the work better than some girls, but there is one thing they don't like, and that is rising at six o'clock in the morning in the frost and getting the cows [...] To-morrow is washing day, as we wash twice every week. In the summer time we always wash between 50 and 60 white pinafores and about 30 dresses every week, and in the winter time between two dozen and 30 pinnies and a dozen dresses (Yeast, 1904-05-18).

  • 7 Jessie C., 1898-07-21. The debate is reproduced in full in Scott, 2011, p. 208-219.

26In 1904 a fourteen-year-old farm girl introduced herself, « I often drive sheep [...] I can drive a team of horses, and I am going to learn to plough this season. I have only killed one sheep yet, but I intend to kill more. Do you like the country, Dot ? » Her reference to having killed a sheep ignited a year-long controversy among the Little Folk over behaviour appropriate to a girl7.

27 Letters from correspondents who have left school make it clear that the family farm could not absorb all its progeny : « I am not working at home just now, Dot, as I have eight brothers and three sisters, and on a small farm of 90 acres we were just in each other's way. My brother and I have been employed on a neighbouring farm for the past two years, my brother being cook to the camp » (Black Watch, 1900-11-28). A boy of fourteen was hired to thin turnips at £ 1 a week : « I am 10 or 12 miles from home and am very lonely [...] I was first picking up [wool] this year, and then I was harrowing with four horses, and I have been thinning turnips ever since » (Bugler Boy, 1908-01-22). « I have been ploughing, but I generally manage to break the plough about once a week. I have just come back from Ranfurly to-night with the plough, so to-morrow I will have to make another start » (Oscar Wilde, 1906-10-24).

28 Girls were also hired, initially on short terms and for very low wages, to milk cows or mind a baby. « There are 22 cows to milk down here, and I hate milking. » Fourteen-year-old Molly was earning five shillings and six pence a week : « I have just left my place, and I am going to be at home for a week or so, and then I am going to another place » (Molly Malone, 1909-03-24). Another temporarily at home reckoned, « I will not be here long, as I have so many brothers and sisters that there is not room for us all at home ; we get too rowdy, and my sisters and I talk too much and do not get enough work done » (Wild Eelin, 1909-06-16).

29 Once a young person was able to leave home, options open to male or female intersected with the choice of urban or rural residence, and Little Folk in the debating clubs they organized in Dunedin and Invercargill discussed the perceived choices : « Town vs country life » and « Which is preferable, the life of a farm labourer or that of a factory hand ? » At Mataura, the freezing works and electricity generating station employed men only, but girls worked in the paper mill : « a girl who takes the paper bags away from the machine, and girls who pack and tie them up ready to send » (Connecticut II 1909-03-17). Girls who had been successful in school responded to emerging opportunities as pupil teachers (an unpaid or low-paid option popular with rural school boards), and some who continued to high school became certified teachers, music teachers or stenographers. The butcher's daughter, who on Saturdays drove the cart round the township with the meat, announced six months later that she was now working in the post office and learning book-keeping by mail (Bonnie Jean, 1909-01-20 and 06-23). A team of siblings moved together to the North Island – one sister keeping house, a sister and a brother working in the same tailor shop, and the eldest brother in a butter factory (Mountain Belle, 1909-08-18). Young men protested that they could not find jobs in the towns, while young women accepted ill-paid jobs as shop clerks with prospects of an urban schedule : « After my sister got married I found life in the back blocks rather dreary and lonesome, so I took my departure and came a little nearer to civilisation [...] And now that winter is making itself felt, I rejoice that I am no longer on the farm, and have no cows to milk » Laura, 1909-06-23).

30 Comments by Dot's Little Folk indicate progressive industrialization of the rural landscape. As early as 1895 they remarked on the destruction of native forests, gold dredges dirtying the rivers, and changes in the soundscape : the screeching of saws at the lumber mill, the whistling of six flax mills, the roar of the nozzles on the sluicing claim, and the slow progress of a stationary steam engine being drawn by a team of horses from one farm to the next. Steam power was first introduced to meet the pressures of the harvest season ; the machine would power the thresher or the chaffcutter, and the owner-contractor sometimes filled out his regular team of eleven men with family members or neighbours.

  • 8 The first, close to Dunedin was built in 1871; many were founded 1889-1895, high efficiency and str (...)

31 Industrialization led to the removal of certain operations from the farm. Separating cream, churning it for butter, and the fastidious manufacture of cheese were processes taken over by dairy factories that operated four or five months a year. The skimming station or cheese factory imposed standards of butterfat content and specified delivery hours8, and school children describe hitching a ride with the milk wagon, or rising earlier to get the milk to the creamery before school. The shift in their tasks in the dairy shows the little spiral of development that expanded the exports of butter. The seasonal factory demand for milk and the time released from tasks of separating and churning created an incentive for the family to increase the herd, and the larger herd intensified the summer schedule for milking more cows and feeding more calves.

32 Improvement in flow-through was often achieved by small changes in design. Oleef (1904-05-19) mentions the advantage of a wind mill : « The water is laid on to the washhouse, milkhouse, and stable. We milk about 40 cows. » Letters from ten-year-old Isaac illustrate the integration of tasks : « We have a Baltic separator, but it is not a very good one. There are 30 little skimmers, which you have to clean every time that the machine is used. » Acquisition of the separator enabled a larger scale of operation : « We have started to feed 80 cows on turnips and hay." In January Isaac reported, « I am spending my holidays weeding turnips ; we have about four acres of them", and in late May, as winter began, « The chaffcutter was at our place, and we cut about seven ton [...] » (1908-03-25, 1909-01-20 and 1909-05-26). By 1909 farmers who milked « for the factory » were adopting milking machines, and again the numbers increased : « We have the milking machines, we are milking 93 cows. »

33 The more intense and better integrated operations raised more turnips, kept more pigs (to consume the skim milk or whey from the dairy), produced and managed more manure. The ingenious horsedrawn combination of manure-spreader and turnip drill placed the seeds so precisely that the rows needed less thinning. Perfected between 1890 and 1903, this machine released children like Isaac for other jobs at the height of summer. Their letters refer to routines of carting turnips, cutting them up, cutting chaff and delivering feed and straw to the animals, but never the complementary jobs they performed of mucking out the cowshed and carting the manure from pit to turnip land.

  • 9 On bee farms in 1908 see Heather Chief, 15 January ; Barney Miles 29 January and 4 March ; A Bare-L (...)

34 Even bees were harnessed to the growth economy, and several Little Folk reported their after-school work : « I have made 50 boxes and 500 frames for them, and now I shall have to wire and comb them. » On a farm with a hundred hives, « We are extracting honey just now, and we are pretty busy. When extracting, we put a little smoke in the mouth of the hive, then take the lid off the box, take out the full frames, and cut the caps off with hot knives, then put it [the frame] in the extractor and turn it round. When the honey is all out of the frames we take them out and put them back in the hives, to be filled again. »9Introduced in Otago in the 1880s, those methods might be classed as artisanal, but they characterize the transition underway to an industrial agriculture. The new-style bee farm imported a choice breed and factory-made patent frames, asserted year-round temperature control, adopted standard packaging to capture a premium price in the London market, and analysed the boy worker's gestures in anticipation of the bee worker's movements. « As fast as my bees make the honey, so fast do I take it from them, and they will work like navvies all the time to store enough for their winter use » (« Beekeeping in Otago », Otago Witness, 1881-09-10: 8).

35 The Letters also reveal other aspects of youthful expenditure of energy, such as football, dancing, or playing tig [tag] in the twilight, with no pretense of an immediate contribution to farm income. The machine that mattered most to them was the bicycle, and in the 1890s, the new combination of bicycle, pony and railway car allowed adolescents to converge by the hundreds on balls, agricultural and pastoral shows, fund-raising concerts, sports contests and community picnics. They directed immense energy into competitive performance, excitement, and social experiment. Alpine Princess missed the Boxing Day picnic because she had to take the milk to the creamery, but a month later she rode 20 miles to the Agricultural and Pastoral show at Gore. The next month she attended the Axemen's Carnival ; then with her sister and brother rode ten miles to the Hokonui picnic and stayed for the dance : «  [...] it was great going home through the bush so early in the morning, and over hills that a rabbit could scarcely climb up » (1904-03-24). Her account shows how leisure activities were integrated into the rhythm and layout of a landscape of production : « As father went to Queenstown that morning, I had to take the milk down to the creamery, eight miles from here, and as soon as I came back I had to ride seven miles for the mail, so I had a big day and night of it. »

Dear Dot, do you have a cure for the toothache ?

36 The same young woman, describing another excursion in the Hokonui bush, directs our attention to the other side of the equation − the energy demands of the young body for repair and growth. With four other girls and two young men,

We took two axes and two tins... It was such a terribly big tree [...] hollow in the centre. Before many minutes had elapsed the tree began to shake, and then all of a sudden it fell with a terrible crash into a valley and smashed into a thousand pieces. Then the boys cut a square piece of wood from where they thought the hive would most likely be, and what a sight met our eyes ! There was layer after layer of honey... The bees were beginning to get a bit lively [...] Still, we all had a big piece of comb, and as it was a sunny, hot day, it started to melt, and it was great to see the honey dripping through our fingers and onto our dresses (Alpine Princess, 1905-03-01).

37The occasional wild honey comb met only a fraction of their energy demands. Statistics of international trade since 1875 identify New Zealanders as the highest per capita consumers of sugar in the world. Sugar was at first supplied from Australia, and after 1884, when a sugar refinery was built in the North Island, from cane plantations in Fiji. Just as flocks of sheep received winter rations of turnips to help them survive winter outdoors, the children, for their dawn trek to bring home the cows and their three-mile walk to school, boosted their energy with sweets. All the picnics, dances, and fund-raisers were well-supplied : « The girls will bring cakes and the boys lollies. » « When a Chinaman died at Arrowtown, his friends distributed brandy to the men and lollies to the children » (Eugenie M'Donnell, 1889-08-15). « Our teacher gives us lollies if we say our lessons well, and we bring her flowers » (Annie Lemon, 1887-12-02). « Last Sunday I was feeling in my pocket for my penny for the missionary box, and what do you think I handed to the teacher ? A lolly ! » (Cherryripe, 1899-12-14). They shared their sweets with their pets : « My calf eats lollies. » « My rabbit likes lollies [...] » On a visit to the public gardens in Christchurch, « There was a kangaroo there and mamma gave it some lollies, and you could hear it crack them with its teeth » (Agatha Adams, 1889-05-30).

38 For the children, if not the kangaroo, the result was a toothache. « My sister is in bed, as she has toothache, and now I am going too » (Pretty Blossom, 1908-09-02). « I have had my teeth out, and I do feel awkward without them, [...] " (Genevieve, 1908-12-02). Although the bacterial transmission of dental caries was not yet understood, families recognized the contribution of sugar (on which the bacteria fed). « Our father keeps a store, and we keep lollies, and I take them and get toothache » (Little Washerwoman, 1909-03-03). Her sister tells us, « I felt too frightened for some time [...] Now I have had four teeth drawn » (1909-03-03), and their third sister expected to get her false teeth in a week's time : « She will then no longer be known as “Gummy”. » Dunedin dentists were advertising « mechanical dentistry », nitrous oxide gas to avoid the pain of extraction, and time-payment plans for full sets of false teeth. Extraction of a tooth cost 2/6, a filling 5 to 10/, a false tooth 15/, and a double set £15. (Otago Witness 1886-03-20: 30 ; 1890-02-13: 41). One of the older girls described her holiday in the city : « I had 16 teeth out, I was very ill for two days » (Lady Kilroy, 1908-09-02), and one of the more resourceful, living thirty miles from a dentist, attached a pair of pincers to a piece of window-cord and fastened the other end to a ring in the ceiling. « Then I enacted the scene in Hamlet wherein Ophelia faints [...] I saw stars. I soon recovered and now wished to extract one more tooth, this time from the upper jaw [...] » (Venetia Corona, 1905-08-30).The Letters do not suggest any differential vulnerability of girls and boys.

39 By 1908 Dot's Little Folk were making more references to getting teeth stopped [filled], and a dental school dedicated to « saving teeth » was created at the University of Otago (« The Dental School, Opening Ceremony », Otago Witness, 8 April 1908: 33), but it was only when the boys of our target cohort were recruited for the Great War that toothache was addressed as a matter of public health. Few New Zealanders were rejected as physically unfit. The prime exception was for « dental efficiency » : the British Army standard required 22 sound teeth including those properly repaired, but in New Zealand « men have had to be passed without a single tooth in their heads, their masticating apparatus being entirely artificial » (« Physique of Recruits », Otago Witness, 27 January 1915: 29). The dental disaster required organization of army dentistry on massive scale, a preliminary to the greater tragedy of their ultimate encounter with history, when one in six of the recruits died on the battlefield (Crawford and McGibbon, 2007 ; Scott 2011: 413-490).

40 Toothache in this population was part of a global epidemic that had emerged as agrarian society developed and then spread with the cultivation of sugarcane in tropical colonies (Mintz, 1985 ; Galloway, 1989: 228-233). Refined as pure sucrose, easy to ship and to store, cane sugar was substituted for traditional sweeteners like honey and was added to the new drinks like tea, coffee, and chocolate. From portraiture, art historians have tracked both the disease and the professional response through the French Revolution and British Enlightenment. Rotten teeth were a determinant of fashions of the smile, the pose, the ideals of demeanour and desirability (Jones, 2007 and 2014). The little reference to « Gummy » suggests the sensitivity of young people toward changes in their appearance, and at Christmas 1899, when the Otago Witness published its first photographic composite from pictures the Little Folk had sent, the Letters register an abrupt increase in their attention to the shapes of young bodies. « I am such a big girl », wrote sixteen-year-old Marjory (1900-01-11), and fourteen-year-old Jessie lamented, « I am afraid that you would not see another girl so ugly as I am ; and if you are going by my photo in the Witness, you will be greatly mistaken, as it flatters me very much. In fact, I hardly knew myself, I looked so strikingly beautiful » (1900-02-08). A third considered reports from various correspondents to formulate her idea of the « right » size : « My weight is in accordance with my height, for I am not stout, but very solid and heavy-limbed » (Gillian, 1900-12-26). Carroll's Alice puts into words their sense of uncertainty (p. 16), « [...] was I the same when I got up this morning ? » The girls discussed the photos of the boys, but the boys were more cautious : « I think Harry and Boy were the two best-looking boys among them. As to the girls, I shall not say » (Skipper, 1900-05-24). Girls introducing themselves to the page began adding their weight and height, as well as age and number of years in school. One of the rural girls fretted, « I must be eating too much. I have got so awfully fat [...] I weigh myself often, and one would not believe how they vary in weight » (Lady Akatore, 1909-03-24). A young woman nearing the age of twenty affirmed her need to pay more attention to her weight now that she had moved to an office job in the city.


41 In the scenario of change in the generation before World War I, the protests of Dot's Little Folk, all of them in transit to adulthood, point to the importance of a social reallocation of their labour that was substantial and is not evident in conventional sources. Their work, whether routine or intermittent, provided elasticity to the economy. By relieving seasonal and cyclical bottlenecks, they were contributing to the dramatic increase of production of meat and butter, and to the advance of a frontier of landscape transformation. Specialization of the regional economy of South Island was coupled with a worldwide revolution in diet and long-distance trade. Even a raging dental nerve or a finger lost to the chaffcutter was an outcome of the industrial dynamic, and the letters addressed to « Dot » and published in the Otago Witness record the impact of several innovations that are not visible from conventional sources like the census, but had worldwide impact on adolescents : cycling, mechanical dentistry, and photography.

42 We have seen that Dot's correspondents directed some resentment toward the cows. It was the milking routine that confined the time-space they craved to expand. A large share of the energy of the young animal − the worm, the calf, or the human child − is committed to exploring the habitat. Resource exploration is part of the evolutionary logic of the long human childhood, and the adolescent transition can be seen as a shift into a new range of exploration, embedded in wider contexts of risk, negotiation, competition, and collaboration.

43 A fragmentary source such as children's letters may frustrate our habits of sampling and counting, but it suggests new lines of inquiry, a need to seek other such sources, and the value of « searchability » in our newspaper archives. The recurrent protests among the girls in early 20th-century New Zealand reflect greater constraints on their mobility and adult scheduling of their growing up. The debates of young people over leaving school, leaving home, or moving to the city sharpen the focus on the years surrounding puberty as a critical window. Here the published Letters raise more questions than answers. In terms of « embodied energy », how did young people feel about the changes they were experiencing in their own sizes and shapes and appetites, and how did they respond to the comments of their peers?

44 In today's society, adolescent metabolism attracts considerable attention as a matter of public health, economic growth, and the politics of equity between generations. The teenager's encounter with economic change is commonly perceived in terms of eating disorders associated with the mismatch of self-image and the advertised ideal. Concerns articulated by Otago youth in the early 1900s reflected an already clear change in diets worldwide (Wells 2017). Such alternative sources, if grounded in local microstudies and contextualized in more comprehensive sets of « big data », should permit a fuller recognition of historical change and the effort made by the individual − every individual − to re-fit a changing body-image to a changing world-image. The intellectual and emotional demands of this process may well have reinforced the popularity of Alice among Dot's Little Folk in the 1890s. The breadth of its appeal a century later echoes the same puzzlement at a changing world, as adolescent consumption of energy drinks and hamburgers adds to planet-scale transfers of meat and sugar, carbon dioxide and nitrogen.

« Don't talk nonsense, » said Alice more boldly : « you know you're growing too. »

« Yes, but I grow at a reasonable pace, » said the Dormouse : « not in that ridiculous fashion » (Carroll, 1865: 97).

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1 See Canadian Century Research Infrastructure at http ://; Programme de recherche en démographie historique (PRDH) at https :// ; Projet Balsac at http ://

2 Among the remarkable efforts to compensate from genealogical sources see Arnold, 1997 ; Molloy, 1989 ; Wanhalla, 2010.

3 The column 'Dot's Little Folks' first appeared 16 July 1886. See https ://, created in 2001. Access has recently been extended to 1920.

4 For a large and thoughtful print collection of the « Dear Dot » letters, see Scott, 2011; he identifies the successive editors responsible and draws attention to the gender debates, children's responses to the Boer War, and their later implication in World War I.

5 For echoes in New Zealand, see Olssen, 1981 ; Smith, 2002 ; MacLean, 1932, p. 47-52 and p. 92-95; for Hall's (1905) influence on the framing of juvenile courts and high schools in Canada, Comacchio, 2006 ; Myers, 2006 ; for challenges to the idea of adolescent turbulence and the normalizing narrative, Baxter, 2008 ; Turmel, 2013.

6 On the vexed timing of successive food regimes see Dixon, 2009 ; Roche, 1999 and 2012. Export of gold contributed to the financing of imports, and British coal fueled the ocean transport.

7 Jessie C., 1898-07-21. The debate is reproduced in full in Scott, 2011, p. 208-219.

8 The first, close to Dunedin was built in 1871; many were founded 1889-1895, high efficiency and strict standards were achieved by 1908.

9 On bee farms in 1908 see Heather Chief, 15 January ; Barney Miles 29 January and 4 March ; A Bare-Legged Highlander, 19 August.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1 Value of selected New Zealand exports, 1881-1915
Légende Sources : New Zealand Official Yearbook, 1884, 1913, 1921, 1997
Fichier image/png, 6,5k
Titre Figure 2 Value ( £ 000) of selected New Zealand imports, 1881-1915
Légende Sources : Bloomfield, 1984, Table VII, 12, p. 30-4. Machinery excluding electrical.
Fichier image/png, 7,5k
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Sherry Olson et Peter Holland, « Youthful commentary on a growth economy : soundings from New Zealand 1884-1914 »Enfances Familles Générations [En ligne], 27 | 2017, mis en ligne le 31 août 2017, consulté le 27 mai 2024. URL :

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Sherry Olson

Professor Emeritus, Department of Geography, McGill University (Canada),

Peter Holland

Professor Emeritus, Department of Geography, University of Otago (New Zealand),

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