Having a ball

I stumbled on this peculiar photograph while browsing the Te Papa image collection recently. Thankfully it comes with a helpful explanation.

Poster ball

The postcard depicts a woman in a ‘poster costume’ advertising Hunky Dory boot polish and Hoxo Pad Rubber Heels for ‘no more sore feet’. While she wears a lady’s shoe atop her head, her feet are clad in roller skates. During the early part of the century, skating rinks frequently hosted fancy dress events, including poster competitions. In 1906 Wellington’s Elite Skating Rink, offered prizes of ball-bearing skates for the best fancy dress costume, the best poster costume and the most graceful skater.

Fancy dress events were a popular form of fundraising in the early part of the 20th century. Poster Balls and competitions were introduced to New Zealand from Australia in late 1900. While one reporter described it as a new ‘species of fancy dress’, another called it ‘a new phase of advertising’. It was a novel combination of both. As the name ‘Poster Ball’ infers, ball-goers were required to wear costumes that represented ‘poster advertisements of well-known goods, or the goods themselves’. For the privilege of advertising their wares, companies paid an entry fee and provided printed material for the models’ costume.

Hailed as a ‘decided improvement on the ordinary fancy ball’, Poster Balls remained a popular entertainment throughout the first half of the 20th century both as fund-raisers and general entertainment. They were organised by a wide array of groups, from patriotic and benevolent societies to sports clubs.

Advertisers are smarter in the 21st century. Now we buy their branded clothing (because it’s cool) and they don’t give us a cent.

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London’s Gaiety Girls

In the “seventies” [1870s] there was a wonderful galaxy of talent at the old Gaiety Theatre, Nellie Farren, Kate Vaughan, Edward Terry, and Royce forming a matchless quartette.

Kate Vaughn

Kate Vaughan

Young men, of course, will always be foolish, up to the end of time. Nellie Farren, Kate Vaughan, and Emily Duncan all had their “colours.” Nellie Farren’s were dark blue, light blue, and white; Kate Vaughan’s were pink and grey; Emily Duncan’s black and white; the leading hosiers “stocked” silk scarves of these colours, and we foolish young men bought the colours of the lady we especially admired, and sat in the stalls of the Gaiety flaunting the scarves of our favourite round our necks.

As I then thought, and still think, that Nellie Farren was one of the daintiest and most graceful little creatures ever seen on the stage, with a gaminerie all her own, I, in common with many other youths, sat in the stalls of the Gaiety wrapped in a blue-and-white scarf. Each lady showered smiles over the footlights at her avowed admirers, whilst contemptuously ignoring those who sported her rival’s colours. One silly youth, to testify to his admiration for Emily Duncan, actually had white kid gloves with black fingers, specially manufactured for him. He was, we hope, repaid for his outlay by extra smiles from his enchantress.
‘The Days Before Yesterday’, Lord Frederic Hamilton. Hodder and Stoughton, London.

Aldwych

Nellie Farren

Nellie Farren

For a popular burlesque, in the days of Nellie Farren and Connie Gilchrist, of Fred Leslie and Arthur Roberts, the same stalls were filled night after night by the rich unemployed, who afterwards followed their fancies hither and thither and spent quite considerable sums upon them. There was no great stir when marriages followed such aquaintance, and most of them turned out a great success.
‘Gilded Youth’ (essay) ‘Fifty Years, Memories and Contrasts’, Sir Ian Malcolm. Thornton Butterworth, Ltd; London, 1932.

I have to admit, in the interest of accuracy, that the Gaiety shown above in 1913 is not the “old Gaiety Theatre” these two men remembered. That stood across the road on the site of the Morning Post newspaper office at left. It had its last performance in 1903 and was demolished soon afterwards. The new theatre (on the right) had been under construction since 1901 and opened four months after the original closed.

Some of the Gaiety Girls held a reunion in 1950 and what remained of the theatre, just a shell since 1939, was demolished in 1957. The Morning Post building, completed in 1907, is now the One Aldwych hotel.

The games people played

Modern cruise ships provide every kind of entertainment to keep their passengers from boredom at sea. Shops, movies, nightclubs, casinos and live theatre shows; luxuries that less demanding travellers in simpler times couldn’t have imagined. But some of the old favourites have been dropped in the name of progress.

What about ‘Slinging the Monkey’, ‘Chalking the Pig’s Eye’, ‘The Turtle Pull’, and Cock Fighting? These were all part of the fun on your journey from England to South Africa on a Union Castle liner in the early years of the 20th century.

UC_Kinfauns

This Union Castle mail ship leaving Cape Town isn’t named on the postcard but is probably the RMS Kinfauns Castle (1899 – 1927).

You’ll be relieved to learn that no animals were harmed during these activities. In fact, no animals were involved. They relied on volunteers from the audience.

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 Slinging the Monkey. The rope is standard issue (non-elastic) so this isn’t an early form of horizontal bungee. A tall man with long arms would be a safe bet to win.

UC_pig

Chalking the Pig’s Eye. A variation on the old Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey game you might remember from childhood birthday parties. Obviously these people had no sense of direction.

UC_turtle

 The Turtle Pull looks like it could have been invented by a rugby coach. Was it a consolation event for men who weren’t picked for the Tug-o’-War team?

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Cock Fighting. Yes, I know – you have to see it to believe it.

These illustrations were taken from an extensive list of postcards published by the Union Castle company. I have 33 of them and wouldn’t be surprised to find there are more. They were issued in booklet sets and can be dated fairly accurately to 1913, give or take six months.