The outdoor tasks associated with household management have changed substantially over time. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, most households had a vegetable garden, more than half had hens and a few kept bees or pigs. Away from home, but still for household use, wood was gathered, rabbits shot, blackberries picked and fish caught.
Outside tasks were more likely to be performed by men and boys. Boys in late-19th and early-20th-century Taradale, for example, collected and chopped wood for the stove, fed poultry, collected eggs, cleaned slaughtered hens, picked fruit and vegetables for home use and helped with the garden and cows. Their fathers supervised and usually took part in this work. This was a pattern generally followed, although women and girls were sometimes the gardeners, growing particularly but not only flowers.
For rural Māori households, gardening and foraging for food and fuel would remain a critical part of the household economy until the later 20th century. Māori women were often involved in food gathering and gardening.
Like houses, gardens had private and public areas. The front garden and verandah was a public area, its flowers and immaculate cleanliness a matter of pride. Well-to-do households with spacious grounds might have a tennis court, summer house or croquet lawn, often maintained by paid staff (whose management was part of the work of running the household). When toilets were located outside (common for middling and poorer households until the 1940s), people avoided entertaining guests other than family or close friends in the back garden.
Green baize lawn
‘We have not seen in any part of the country a lawn so beautifully kept. It is literally as green and smooth as the cloth upon a billiard table … we would recommend it as a model for any of our suburban or rural gentry,’ reported the Otago Witness in 1878.1 The lawn was owned by George Matthews, who ran a nursery, was probably assisted by a gardener, and may have penned the description himself.
For suburban households, the back garden was a working area, the location of the vegetable garden, fruit trees, incinerator and compost heap. There was often a shed in which tools were kept and bikes repaired. It was also the place where children played in sandpits and on swings.
New technology introduced over the 20th century – power mowers, hedge trimmers, weed eaters and leaf blowers – made gardening easier but did not change it dramatically. Of more importance was the general move away from home provision. The number of households growing their own vegetables dropped from over 60% to 50% between 1956 and 1971. The last national count in 1971 found 11.5% of households had backyard hens (a drop of nearly 50% from 1951). Beekeeping had become unusual after tighter regulation was introduced in 1927. Although interest in growing food and keeping hens and even bees increased in the 2000s, city and town gardens remained primarily places to grow shrubs and flowers, and to sit and play.
Repairs and maintenance
New Zealanders’ approach to home repairs and maintenance varied – many men did a few bits and pieces or went the whole hog, while others employed tradespeople to do the work for them. Those willing to do it themselves might paint, repair broken windows, replace spouting or rotting boards in a wall, fix leaking or rusting roofing iron, make garden paths and steps, and lay new flooring. Some went further, building carports, sheds or baches (holiday homes), and even laying electrical cabling or pipes.
Making a virtue of necessity
In 1875 Premier Julius Vogel advised new immigrants ‘not [to] forget that a handyman in the colonies should be able to turn his hand to almost anything’.2 Doing it yourself had become a virtue, proof of the resourcefulness and capability of colonial New Zealanders (although it is unlikely that Vogel was doing his own household repairs).
In the decades after the Second World War there was a surge in home maintenance. Fixing the house using materials bought from a local hardware shop or timber yard became a regular weekend activity for many men. From the 1970s the house was extended into the garden, with patios, barbecue areas and decks. Swimming pools and children’s play areas with slides and swings offered further scope for those keen to build.
In the 1990s and 2000s less time and perhaps less inclination combined with greater government regulation to limit the larger-scale building that some homeowners had previously engaged in.