Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 36, September 1992
Our perceptions of the past are either from first hand experiences or from books, films, plays, museums, reminiscences, re-enactments and those ever present myths and legends. Live museums generally seek to present the past as a reconstruction of a certain period using available research along with the surviving traditional skills. The past as interpreted and filmed for cinema and television must surely be the most powerful medium to fix certain images in our minds. Illustrated books and magazines have long played an important role, and the printed word generally has for centuries enshrined the truths and distortions and absolute untruths of mankind's progress on the earth.
Old catalogues too tell us a lot about everyday life at a certain point in time. Catalogues can explode myths and even create new ones. An example of this might be a common misconception that a certain group of popular "antiques" date back to, say the regency period. To find them offered in a catalogue of 1905 is to say the least, a sobering discovery. Some surprises indeed, but to take it in reverse, at least by studying catalogues we know when certain items and designs appeared or became readily available.
In the making of myths, catalogues will at times have us believe that every household was abundantly endowed with the kinds of manufactured goods now coveted as collectors items. Restorations, museums, reconstructions and film sets ply the same sort of tricks with rooms filled to overflowing with items from dozens of old homes. In reality, plain soulless and downright ugly rooms with a few uninspired pieces of furniture were as prevalent then as they are now.
In many instances, circumstances ensured that the few useful items to be had were at least respected and the odd, better quality item, either bought or inherited, was given pride of place. The opulent and richly nostalgic decor so often pictured in decorator and home magazines is a distillation of the best or most notable elements from the past and not always a true reflection of the average household. Life for much of the population was simpler then, but it could also be cold and comfortless, made long and slow by boredom and yet too often tragically shortened through early death. Each age has its positive and negative aspects and we should remember this when taking a backward glance.
The Edwardian era is often referred to as that "golden afternoon" before the sun went down with the outbreak of the First World War. We see it's golden glow pictured on television and in films and think "Oh, how lovely to have been alive then". For many people it was indeed a wonderful time - for those with ample means. Self sufficiency in those days was a life or death issue for those who lived in the shadow of grim poverty. The range of simple gadgetry to prepare and preserve food was a vital resource - not trendy things for decor as so many are now.
Because we seem to be hurtling into the unknown at an ever increasing rate, there is a yearning to reach back and catch hold of our past; it can be a desperate fantasy, an avenue of escape. More positively we harvest the past, capture the essence of each particular era. Such a stocktaking helps us understand where we have been, provides a measure for our "progress", and at times, some insight into where we might be going.