A collection of tea towels, believed to be the only one of its kind in the world is on display at State Library of Queensland
from 6 August until 22 January 2023.
The Queensland to a T exhibition explores over 200 souvenir tea towels from the Glenn R Cooke Souvenir Textiles collection held at State Library. This remarkable collection of over 1,500 textiles was acquired from Mr Cooke, a social historian, curator, and collector. I have searched the great cultural institutions of the world which have only a handful of the-towels and none have such a comprehensive focus on tourism and the social history of a State.
Tea-towels are cheap, readily transportable and functional souvenirs to be distributed to friends after a memorable holiday or kept. Because of the texture of the linen cloth, printing on tea-towels cannot achieve the detail of printing on paper but with the simplification of the motif and the striking effects of design and colour, tea-towels approximate the visual impact of posters. The pictorial imagery on souvenir tea-towels reveals the story of the development of the tourist industry in Queensland and maps, ranging from the whole state to specific locations, appear on many. They reveal in the images clustered around the maps mining, agriculture and the natural and built environment which communities considered important, and celebratory.
Many of the tea towels, which date back to the 1950s, were originally made of Irish linen by well-known textile mills such as the family-owned Samuel Lamont & Sons Ltd in Antrim. In the 1960s and 1970s Dennis Lamont travelled around Queensland by rail to persuade local businesses to buy their product as a promotional tool. When he returned to Northern Ireland, Lamonts designers would create their interpretations of the Sunshine State and ship them to Queensland. Most are now designed here.
The exhibition curator, Jacinta Sutton, reflects that tea-towel production paralleled the development of mass tourism after World War Two. Dating can be problematic except for commemorative events of which Queensland's Centenary in 1959 is the most significant. Maps of Queensland proliferate as the shape fits well within the standard vertical format of a tea towel. Some examples are quite straightforward with a generalised map of the state showing road and rail networks and the capital represented by an image of the Brisbane City Hall. Another, copied from the souvenir publication 'Queensland Centenary: the first 100 years 1859-1959, is accompanied by a spray of the Cooktown Orchid, which was designated Queenslands floral emblem that same year.
The collection spans the state from Birdsville in the south-west corner to Cape York and the Torres Straits and from the tourist destination of the Gold Coast to the mining hub of Mount Isa in the north-west. Queensland is fortunate as it has two of the four major tourism destinations in Australia. The Man-made attractions of the Gold Coast are focused in the coastal strip south of the state capital Brisbane and a flight of nearly 1,500 kilometers brings you to Cairns in the Far North, the centre to explore the natural wonders of the Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef, Queenslands iconic tourist destination, is usually depicted as a fringe reef on maps of Queensland as it is too vast to have impact in such a small compass. The clusters of holiday islands of the Barrier Reef are shown in many tea-towels and others give a split view of palms and beaches and an underwater view of colourful fish and coral.
It is only since 1960 that the North Coast, appropriating an association with the Sunshine State, and has been promoted as the Sunshine Coast. Some tea-towels provide a detailed map of the tourist attractions to be found such as the Big Pineapple, Bli Bli Castle, and the Ginger Factory.
From the 1980s the development of cultural tourism promoted remote areas of Queensland including Cape York and the far-west. Smaller centres also place their claims to social significance: in 1895, while staying at Dagworth Station, near Winton, Banjo Patterson penned the lyrics of Waltzing Matilda' and this Queensland story of control and resistance has permeated Australian culture to the status of an unofficial national anthem. Winton's Waltzing Matilda Centre, completed in 1998, commemorates this local connection and is probably the only museum dedicated to a song.
The Queensland imperative also extends to South Australia in the vast scale of a unique physical feature ― the Channel Country. And here the remoteness of Birdsville, the tiny settlement on the Diamantina River on the edge of the Simpson Desert is attested by the signpost to distant and even more distant locations.
Tea towels depict the built heritage of former gold-mining centres such as Charters Towers and Mount Morgan and individual tea-towels of Mt Isa depict underground mining, the the tallest smoke-stack in the southern hemisphere and equally the biggest and richest rodeo in the Southern Hemisphere. But the mining of alumina in Cape York and the vast mining industries of contemporary Central Queensland are not neglected.
Neither are Queenslands pastoral or agricultural industries, especially a distinctive range of tropical crops such as sugar, pineapples and bananas.
The State Librarian and CEO Vicki McDonald AM remarks: Tea towels were the ultimate holiday souvenir and keenly avoided by children at washing-up time.
For State Library the humble tea towel helps us uncover Queenslands unique history in fun and fascinating ways. And like opinions, we are pretty sure everyone has one!