Exhibitions of fine art, especially painting, have been widely acknowledged in histories of Australian cultural life. Much less attention, however, has been paid to Australia’s industrial fairs and exhibitions of manufactures and their contribution towards the industrialisation and modernisation of Australia. 

Melbourne leads the way

In the years following WWII, Melbourne was clearly the manufacturing and design hub of Australia. The development of aeroplanes and engines for the war effort had taken place here while the first all-Australian motorcar rolled off Holden’s Melbourne production lines in 1948.

Australia’s first industrial design tertiary course was offered at Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT University) from 1945. In addition to this, the Royal Melbourne Exhibition Buildings was the most important venue for trade and public exhibitions of manufactured goods in Melbourne, and arguably Australia.

Car shows, boat shows and consumer goods fairs gave the public an opportunity to view a wider range of new ideas in industrial design from Australia and abroad than was offered for sale by retailers.

The Royal Melbourne Exhibition Buildings’ importance as a place of display was established with its 19th century world exhibitions of manufactures, and in that sense, it was an arena of industrial design promotion from its very inception.

Several of the 19th century exhibitions had nationalistic themes urging consumers to ‘Buy Australian’ or favour products ‘Made in Australia’. For example, the Australian Natives’ Association put on several exhibitions.

The 1913 Industrial Exhibition was followed by the 1920 Australian Natives’ Association Exhibition of Australian Industry and the 1924 All Australian Exhibition. Exhibitions were staged less frequently during the years around WWI and the depression years of the 1930s while fewer events again were staged in the years immediately before and during WWII.

At this time the local design and manufacturing industries were busy serving the demands of the war effort.

After WWII, however, a series of consumer goods exhibitions were held at the Royal Melbourne Exhibition Buildings intended to promote that new popular notion of ‘modernity’, and the economic and industrial ‘reconstruction’ of the country.

Post-war exhibitions

The first of the post-war exhibitions held at the Royal Melbourne Exhibition Buildings revealed an extreme embracing of ‘modernity’. The Herald Atomic Age and Industrial Exhibition was staged during February 1948, less than three years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The exhibition catalogue had an extraordinarily menacing image on its cover.

In the foreword, the evident controversy of the exhibition was discussed: “... in the Atomic Age and Industrial Exhibition now presented in Melbourne, an attempt has been made – despite Hiroshima and Nagasaki – to place the emphasis, primarily, on the constructive aspect of atomic energy.

"Its application can be better directed to the promotion of life and happiness if there is more general understanding of the atomic story up to now... it is dedicated to the belief that greater public understanding of atomic possibilities, for both good and evil, will inevitably help us to ensure that the atom and its prodigious energies will be applied to the human ends of greater happiness and well-being.” 

The Herald and Weekly Times management may well have seen the exhibition as a challenge to the values of the local community, similar to its Exhibition of Modern Art held nine years earlier.

Australian manufacturers exhibiting goods in the Atomic Age and Industrial Exhibition were many and varied; some utilised high technology as understood at the time; some did not. All were really at the exhibition to show a war-weary public the new consumer goods they had for sale.

One advertisement in the exhibition catalogue that seemed in the spirit of the show promoted locally-made Repco engine parts as a vision of “the automotive world of tomorrow”. A futuristic streamlined ‘bubble’ car was presented in a scientific glass, while test tubes and industrial chimneys exhaling smoke continued the iconography of ‘progress’ and ‘the future.’

The 1949 Australian Industrial Fair aggressively promoted buying Australian and stressed the importance of secondary industries to Australia. Inspired by the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the rather dated term ‘exhibition’ was supplanted by the rather more commercial sounding American term – ‘fair’.

Symbolising Australia’s readiness to become an industrialised nation, the cover of the catalogue featured an image of a large gear cog.

The catalogue introduction stressed the importance of promoting Australian designed and manufactured products: “...And you will be reminded by the numerous exhibits that industry has given this generation the means of unlimited progress, but you should not forget there remains the task of ensuring that the fruits of industry are directed towards human good”.

Despite this moral rhetoric, this fair can also be seen as another movement towards the development of the post-WWII consumer society. Of the fifty-four companies or retailers displaying goods or services, many offered new consumer goods.

Government support from departments such as supply and development, commerce and agriculture at the fair was intended to help Australian factories “develop their full capacity for production and employment” and to make Australia generally less vulnerable to the price fluctuations of its traditional primary exports.

This was probably also a reaction to the 1930s depression where Australia had suffered from falling agriculture and mining prices.

In 1947 the first post-war statistical collection was undertaken by the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics. It found rural and mining sectors employed 448,928 people while 745,258 were employed in factories.

These figures still reflect a significant reliance on ‘primary’ activities. If the manufacturing sector seems to be very strong at this time, it is also important to realise that many industries termed as ‘manufacturing’ still involved fairly basic processing of raw commodities.

Many businesses cited as ‘industry’ did not actually need the skills of industrial designers. Nonetheless, it was apparent that WWII and the new consumer society had indeed given Australian manufacturing added impetus, and that despite a certain tendency to identify with the bush, many more Australians worked in urban factories than on the land.

1949 also saw the first post-war International Motor Show, the first Australian Fashion Fair, the first Modern Home Exhibition and first Australian Aviation Fair.

Links with Britain

As with the preceding exhibition, the 20th Century Mechanical Exhibition featured an image of a large gear cog on its cover. Again at the Royal Melbourne Exhibition Buildings (between 12-21 October 1950), this show reflected the continuing link between Britain and Australia in simultaneously promoting the Made in Australia label while also promoting British goods.

The exhibition was introduced in the souvenir programme as a “most magnificent display of the goods manufactured by Australian and British workmen.”

Ernest Blake, vice chairman of the event, stressed the importance and quality of Australian Made in the face of self-serving claims by importers: The program reported: “Less than thirty years ago the label ‘Made In Australia’ made customers look askance; today the stigma is wiped out and Australian secondary products are recognised as equal to the world’s best.

"Australian manufacturers have a hard row to hoe. Thirty years ago, importers, realising that soon they would not be wanted, disparaged Australian products to the utmost. Unscrupulous retailers labelled superior Australian made goods as ‘imported’, while anything that was actually of low grade was displayed as Australian”.

Prior to WWII many imported consumer goods did have a special allure. To some extent, the nationalism generated by WWII made it easier to market the idea of Australian-made quality.

A consistent and very successful example of this was ‘Australia’s Own’ Holden, which although largely American-designed, had most of its components manufactured in Australia and dominated the local market in a very short time.

British goods at the 20th Century Mechanical Exhibition tended to be advertised with appeals to tradition, craftsmanship and Empire.

For example, Woodray vacuum cleaners boasted they were “British built in the best tradition”, while even electric floor polishers simply stated they were “British built” as if that guaranteed their quality.

There is no doubt that while the exhibition organisers felt the stigma of Made in Australia was subsiding, the assurance of the “British-built” product could not be denied.

Reflecting a culture concerned equally with industrial reconstruction and the immediate consumerist desires of the population, the 20th Century Mechanical Exhibition had a fairly equal balance in its sixty-five stands between promoting manufacturing equipment and promoting domestic product design.

Thirty-four stands displayed machinery intended for industrial use (wood-working machinery, electronic and welding equipment, printing machinery, industrial diamonds, slicing machines, industrial sewing machines, mobile cranes, prefabricated factories, office equipment, spray painting equipment).

Another thirty-one stands displayed consumer products intended for the home: radios and electrical equipment, domestic sewing machines, household refrigeration, food bottling equipment, various plastic products, brake linings for cars, watches, household heating products and a ‘clothes line display’ where Toyne’s rotary clothes lines and the various lines of R.T. Products were widely advertised. There was no mention of the Hills Hoist, which has since dominated this market.

Few stands were devoted to machinery that related specifically to agricultural needs. Four of these stands featured tractors, while one featured fencing wire. Perhaps this poor representation has something to do with the fact this show was intended for an urban audience – many agricultural shows in country towns retained an emphasis on tractor, plough and stock displays.

Support for home grown design

The Made in Australia Exhibition of 1952 actively promoted the local manufacturing culture, and by implication, the local industrial design culture.

The show was organised by the Made in Australia Council, formed from representatives from the Australian Natives Association, Victorian Chamber of Manufacturers, the Australian Industries Protection League and the Advertising Association of Australia and New Zealand.

On the cover of this exhibition’s catalogue, the gears that had featured as motifs on previous exhibitions’ catalogues were now depicted as symbolically ‘driving’ the country.

This 1952 show was the most determined to date in urging consumers to buy products which had been Made in Australia. Indeed, in one of the introductory essays to the Official Souvenir and Guide to the exhibition it was claimed to be “your responsibility”.

J. C. Harkness, President of the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures, threatened unemployment, future wars and general economic malaise if the public did not buy Australian-made.

The reasons why Australians were often buying imported goods was never explored. It might have been the case that, despite the rhetoric, Australian-made was inferior! This is an early example of Australian manufacturers blaming the consumer, rather than looking to critically evaluate their own designs.

Harkness warned: “It is unfortunately true that a large number of the Australian buying public does not realise the full implications expressed in the label Australian-Made. We know that our livelihood and the national economy depend upon the quantity and quality of, and the demand for, the products of this great country of ours”.

Consumer scepticism of some Australian-made products seems justified so bizarre were their claims. Eddy’s Radio and Sound Systems on stand no. 80 boasted of their product: “Electrosonic, the Australian invention that has created world interest. The revolutionary Electrosonic washes clothes by sound waves.

"Because of its gentle action the flimsiest fabrics can be washed without damage and woollens can be washed without danger of shrinkage. The Electrosonic has caused world-wide interest.

"Already, patents have been taken out in twenty-six countries, and it is being sold in the United States, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Peru – as well as in New Zealand and Singapore”.

Apart from being a highly unlikely product, the jingoism of the claim is an example of the mythologising of Australian industrial design.

It seems that every show had a similar ‘Australian invention’ that was going to take on the world, in a manner similar to those national reference points of boxer Les Darcy, racehorse Phar Lap or the ill-fated ANZACs. But somehow, like them, these inventions never did.

Only a few exhibitions have been reviewed in this paper. While a full list of exhibitions awaits compilation, the following is an attempt to demonstrate the diversity of Australian design and manufacturing after WWII.

The following trade fairs began their annual shows in this period: Chemtex (Chemical Technology Exhibition) from 1947, the first post-war International Motor Show, Australian Fashion Fair and the Australian Aviation Fair 1949. Better Home Shows, Office Management, Packaging Exhibition, Made in Australia Exhibition 1952; the Ideal Home Show, Engineering and Industrial Exhibition, Electrical Industries Fair 1954; the National Automotive Products Exhibition 1955, the Big Boat Show and Electrorama 1960, the Graphic Arts and Printing Exhibition and the Caravan and Trailer Exhibition 1962; the Factory Equipment Exhibition 1966; and the International Instruments, Electronics and Automation Exhibition and the Expo Electric in 1969.

These industrial exhibitions had an emphasis on local production, on buying Australian and building up the nation’s industrial and economic power.

These aims are well symbolised by the repeated use of gear cogs as images on their respective covers. Today, the World Heritage listed Royal Melbourne Exhibition Buildings remain true to its conception as a venue to display the works of the local design and manufacturing industry.  

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