National Library of Australia
Spinning Tops & Gumdrops: A portrait of colonial childhood
Spinning Tops & Gumdrops captures a time when ‘imagination, skill, and daring’ was the source of children’s play. Quoits and jacks, hide and seek, cricket with a kerosene tin for a wicket, dress ups and charades, can all be seen in these appealing images. Children climb trees, run races, and build rafts to sail on the local waterhole, happily absorbed in the play of their own making.
This was also a time when school yard disagreements were sorted out with fists and ‘the loss of a little claret’. A time when children could view public hangings, and premature death was frequent, especially taking the very young and vulnerable though dysentery, whooping cough, or diphtheria. The word ‘mollycoddled’ has its origins in the mid-nineteenth century, but certainly cannot be applied to the colonial children depicted in Spinning Tops & Gumdrops.
Children were often required to work — many at adult jobs — to the neglect of their education, and photographs show children taking part in rural life, tending animals, milking, and harvesting crops. In the cities, too, we see factories using cheap child labour to satisfy the increasing demand for mass produced shoes and clothes, to bake bread, and to process food. Many youngsters found themselves ‘in service’ to the growing middle class. One story is told of an innovative girl who earned pocket money by collecting leeches for the local doctor.
There were distinctive gender roles in colonial Australia, and associated dress conventions. As a practical solution to ease toilet training, boys generally wore dresses until five or six years of age, seen in the photographs shown here. Only then they were ‘breeched’ that is, put into breeches. Meanwhile, girls’ dresses became longer as they approached womanhood, coinciding with a greater emphasis on modest behaviour and a reshaping of their activity and education to gain home-making skills.
The lasting impression left by the contemporary accounts, photographs, etchings, and paintings of colonial children in Spinning Tops & Gumdrops is their possession of qualities of resilience, self-sufficiency, and acceptance of their lot. Perhaps it was through lack of choice, or of knowing no other. Nevertheless, these were qualities that put them in good stead for the challenges many faced in their adulthood. Interestingly, these are qualities on which contemporary society still places a high value, but which today seem a little more elusive.
Published March 2018
260mm x 250mm