Era: 1918 - 1939 Cultural background: Italian Collection: Griffith Italian Museum Theme:Folk Art Furniture Settlement
Cupboard and Low Boy. Display at the Griffith Italian Museum, 2008. Photograph Peter Kabaila
Griffith Italian Museum: Pioneer Park Collection, Griffith, Australia.
Bush Furniture Collection.
1. Cupboard crafted by Angelo Dal Santo c.1930. Used in the Da Santo’s dirt floored home.
2. Low boy made from scrap timber by Angelo Dal Santo. It was used in Dal Santo’s home from mid 1930s.
3. Laundry scrubbing board made from scrap timber by Angelo Dal Santo. It was used in dal Santo’s Beelbangera home from c.1933.
4. Shoe cupboard that improvised from scrap timber by Angelo Dal Santo c.1933. It was used by Dal Santo’s for shoe storage in their dirt-floored Beelbangera house.
5. Wash stand crafted from packing crates by Angelo Dal Santo. It was used in Dal Santo’s kitchen from c.1933.
6. Glory box constructed from recycled timber by Angelo Dal Santo c.1944. It was used as a glory box and clothes cupboard by Pierina Marin (nee Dal Santo).
Angelo Dal Santo migrated to Australia in 1924. Originally a poor cheese maker from Vincenza, Angelo Dal Santo parted company with his wife and seven children to come to Australia in search of work.
Landing in Melbourne, Angelo made his way to the Broken Hill mines, then Mildura, before finding work on Mr See’s Beelbangera farm.
In 1933, Angelo was reunited with his wife and daughters, Guerina and Pierina, who migrated to Australia aboard the cargo ship Viminale.
The Dal Santo’s moved into Angelo’s crude three room shack at Beelbangera, complete with chaff bag walls and dirt floor.
The Dal Santo’s were virtually self-sufficient. They grew much of their own vegetables, kept a cow for milk and butter, raised chickens for eggs and meat, and even captured and bred rabbits. Angelo furnished their humble residence with items he fashioned from recycled timber and packing crates.
When Pierina Dal Santo married Secondo Marin in 1947, she retained much of the improvised furniture in her own home where it was used and stored for almost 50 years.
In 1993 Pierina donated her extraordinary collection to Pioneer Park Museum.
In 1993 as Mrs Pierina (Rina) Marin was leaving her Yoogali farm she rang Pioneer Park Museum to see they would like an old spray cart. The Museum gratefully accepted the spray cart, but as sometimes happens on visit to a farm shed, came away with a great deal more of value to the Museum – in this instance, a set of home made furniture of the kind commonly referred to as “bush” or “make-do” furniture.
The furniture was made by Pierina Marin’s father, Angelo Dal Santo, who was a cheese maker from the Vincenza region of Italy. He brought his family to the Griffith area in 1933-34, originally living on Farm 1684 Beelbangera.
The family’s first home had a dirt floor and Angelo Dal Santo lovingly constructed the furniture from recycled materials – boxes and odd timbers. The pieces acquired include a kitchen wash stand, lowboy, glory chest, bedside table, scrubbing board and a pair of wooden knife cases.
Their history is typical of such furniture – as the family could afford better, they were gradually replaced in the house and found their way into farm sheds and outbuildings. The washstand, still said to have its original dark green paid, originally had a table sized top, cupboards below and a smaller set of cupboards on top. The top cupboards are made from “Atlantic” kerosene boxes and there are ‘Soprana Macaroni’ box labels stencilled on the inside of the lower cupboards. Some time before museum acquisition the wash stand had been modified for use in the shed. The base had been sawn in half to make two narrower sets of shelves, the edges at the top had been trimmed and the legs had been cut down. The top cupboards had been removed for use elsewhere. It was later reassembled by Pioneer Park technical officer, David Wright.
The glory chest was made by Angelo Dal Santo for his daughter in the early 1940′s, prior to her marriage in 1947. It is made from rough timber, stained dark brown, with wine bottle tops pressed into the top. There is a lock, and all inner surfaces were carefully lined with heavy grey paper during construction to keep out moths and dust. After Mrs Marin married, the chest was used to store children’s clothes. When a new home was built, Mrs Marin felt that they had “saved and worked hard enough” and that she “wanted something new”, so the glory box also found its way into the shed.
The bedside table did service for a while as a shoe box before also ending up in the shed. The wooden scrubbing board with its hand grooved scrubbing surface and “soap box” outlined in quad, has turned white with use.
The ingenuity used to make furniture like this is very much part of the story of both this period in general and the struggles of settlers in this area in particular, up to World War II and beyond. My own parents met in 1947, in a small Queensland country town over a set of fruit box shelves my mother was trying to make for her room in the boarding house (from interview notes by Robyn Oliver, 1994).
Piera (Rina) Marin’s father left Italy in 1924/25 because there was no work. Seeking a better life, he came to Melbourne where he only found casual employment and carried out a meagre existence. He then made his way to Broken Hill mines but hated it. He walked to Mildura and worked in the mines there, he found he still hated mining – it wasn’t the life for him. He was befriended by Francesco Bicego who told Angelo that there was a lot of work in Griffith due to the establishment of fruit farms. Francesco had a farm in Beelbangera and said that if Angelo decided to make the journey, then he would get a job. So he came to Griffith and worked on the farms.
Secondo was eventually able to gain stable employment with a Mr & Mrs See, a neighbour. He worked for them for nine years. During this time Secondo wrote to his wife in preparation for her immigration to Australia.
Mr See was an English returned soldier who had obtained land through the Soldier Settler Scheme. Soldier settlers were given parcels of land, a horse and a plough, but not much information/guidance on how to go about forging a living off the land. Rina recalls that many of these returned solders were very ‘sickly’ men – many suffered from serious health conditions (lots of respiratory problems) and so they found living on the land quite hard. Some however, she recalls, used this as an excuse for not working hard at all and pointing their finger down on the Italians. However, Mr See was a very understanding, kind man and always gave encouragement to her to learn English. His wife was a somewhat tougher woman, but they still had a great deal of respect for each other. Mr See helped construct crude accommodation for the family – complete with the usual chaff bags – which consisted of a three room shack (two bedrooms and a kitchen). The kitchen and parent’s bedroom had a floor, however, the girls’ room was bare dirt. Rina recalls her father recycling the galvanised tins of the day by cutting them and bending them in order to bury some of the tin into the ground and have it join together with the walls. This was excellent for keeping out the snakes and the howling dust storms they used to endure. They also pasted newspaper and comics on the walls to thicken them up to help with the draughts. It was at this time that her father got great pleasure in building these make-do items for the family.
Cupboard showing interior. Photograph Peter Kabaila
When asked about their voyage to Australia, Rina recalled the following:
They (her mother, herself – aged 11 – and her sister Guerina, who was two years older – 13), left Italy in 1933 by cargo ship named Viminale, economy class ticket via the Suez Canal and arrived in Sydney Harbour on 20 November 1933. They actually arrived the day before, however due to very heavy seas, they were forced to stay in open waters until the seas were calmer so they didn’t disembark in Sydney Harbour until 7.00 pm the following evening. Their overall trip was long and hard. Her mother was very ill the whole time. The children spent their days playing and visiting the first class deck – they got into trouble a couple of times from the Captain for being in the wrong place however, he was a good fellow and didn’t reprimand them. Rina also recalled a story whereby one day, she and a friend were playing together on the ship. Rina had developed a large boil on her back. Their friend found it was quite amusing to push Rina around, always seeming to be able to find that delicate spot. Unfortunately, one day she pushed her against some metal of the ship and Rina was left crying in pain. The Captain came across the girls and enquired as to why she was crying. Her friend informed him of her dilemma. The Captain promptly asked her to show him, she feeling embarrassed (a young lady of 11 years) did not want to left her dress to reveal her back but, the Captain assured her he had seen many other bodies etc in his day. After lifting her dress, he quickly burst the boil by squeezing it and promptly sent her to the infirmary. She still carries the deep scar today!
Her father was waiting on the wharf for their arrival and it was a sweet reunion. They had not seen each other for some nine years. Their only contact had been through the letters they had sent each other. They then boarded a train for Griffith and Rina recalls another amusing story. Due to the poor lifestyle they lived, her mother was reluctant to throw anything away, one never knew how handy or valuable certain things could be. On the train, the family enjoyed some refreshments, a beer for dad and some lemonade for the ladies. Upon finishing these welcome drinks, dad was prepared to throw the bottles out but mum was most upset with such wastefulness. Her father then waited until her mother fell asleep before disposing of these bottles out the train window. Upon her awakening and discovering what her husband had done, their first argument in Australia took place aboard that train bound for Griffith. Rina still chuckles when recollecting this story
Upon arriving in Griffith, the shock was apparent. The desolate landscape and hardship there were to face were horrible but still, the family had finally been reunited after so many years. Rina recalls her mother and many other migrants saying that if they had the money, they would have promptly returned back to Italy and faced whatever hardships there.
Wash stand. Photograph Peter Kabaila
To assist with the finances, they kept a cow – getting butter and milk – and a calf was produced yearly for sale. They also raised chickens for eggs and meat, her father caught wild rabbits and these were domesticated and bred for meat. Their substantial vegetable garden was theirs and many other migrants’ families’ salvation. Rina recalls many a meal which consisted of only vegetables. Buying any ‘good’ cuts of meat was an absolute luxury and they were limited to the free cuts from the butcher (liver, shins and heart). Only occasionally did they supplement these with a nice cut of meat but they certainly bulked up the meal with the ‘free cut’ meat.
On her arrival to her new home in Beelbangera, all the young folk (migrants as well) were encouraged to attend school. She would walk the many kilometres to school daily however, due to the hardships of the day – all members of the family having to contribute with work – she did not complete much schooling, only approximately 12 months or so. This was seen to be a problem by her teacher, a Mr Dutton, who advised that “she would surely get into trouble” if she was not properly educated. Mr See took it upon himself to give her the encouragement she needed to learn the spoken language. Even though he corrected her when she made errors, she was never made to feel inadequate and he was never condescending and this was a testament to the kind heartedness of the man. Along with a sense of worth, he also taught her a love of books and Rina continues this passion to this day. She recalled a time whereby she would read by candlelight until late in the evening and when told by her parents that it was time for bed – so as to conserve the candles – she would promptly climb under the bedcovers to continue reading sometimes until one o’clock in the morning. Her father was constantly dismayed as to the duration of the batteries in his torch….little did he know that she was becoming such an avid reader.
All material possessions were a dream. She and her sister wore second hand clothes until they were at least 15 or 16 years old and it didn’t matter how they looked or fit, whether they were too tight etc.
Many years after their arrival when she was around 18 or so, she recalls her parents giving her an absolute belting for purchasing a small bottle of perfume (for sixpence) with her wages instead of purchasing food. Such a luxury item was, in their eyes, totally wasteful and they scorned her considerably for not using her money wisely to purchase essential items like food.
It was through such sacrifice that her parents were eventually able to save enough money to purchase their own farm for one hundred pounds however, due to a heart attack; Secondo was not able to enjoy the fruits of his labour on his own land for long. Eleven years later, the family were forced to leave the farm.
Scrubbing board made by Angelo Dal Santo. Photograph Peter Kabaila
When asked to reminisce about the war years, she spoke about the majority of people accepting the migrants for who they were. However, for those that were looking for trouble, they seized upon the political climate of the day and were relentless in making life difficult. Many of the Italian men were interned and her husband’s family did not escape this situation. Being interned, many had to work on farms from dawn till dusk and then return to their confines. Her future husband was lucky though to keep his freedom, partly because of his timely arrival – he was on the second last boat that came to Australia prior to the outbreak of war – and also due to the fact that his family persuaded the army officer at the time, a Mr Morsley, that should he agree to not intern this young man, they would work for the Government. This was agreed to and he was therefore not interned. However, he had to check in with the police firstly on a daily basis, and then later on, it was decided that weekly was sufficient. This created problems for the young couple. There was an amount of uncertainty for his future. They worried that he might be shipped back to Italy. With these thoughts, he told Rina that marriage was out of the question until everything was cleared up. They continued to see each other though. She recalls going into the picture theatre and purchasing tickets for herself, her father and her fiancée and then having to sneak him inside to watch the film and quickly leave the theatre before the lights came on so that no-one saw him. Such was their courtship, however, eventually, the end of the war came and the young couple were married (after some five years of courtship – this was almost unheard of at that time).
At this time of war and internship, the women were left to work on the farms etc as best they could. Rina could not recall any females having been interned in this area however she heard there were examples of this taking place elsewhere. The prospect of any woman migrant securing work in a shop was unheard of at that time. They were only able to secure work as domestics – this saw them seek support and courage from their fellow migrant womenfolk who were all struggling with the same problems/hardships.
During the war, many migrant boys joined the armed forces and she recollects the difference when the Australian boys came home compared to the Italians. The Australian boys were given a warm hero’s welcome home party from the community with all the trimmings however, when an Italian boy returned home, there wasn’t a great deal of fuss made over him at all. This helped fuel resentment between the two nationalities.
Improvised furniture made from packing boxes by Angelo Dal Santo. Photograph Peter Kabaila
The same could be said of the young women of the community who became engaged. Being such a small community where everyone knew each other and their business, when a young woman became engaged, it was customary that the townsfolk prepared a simple but elegant afternoon tea to congratulate her etc. this again was not so for the young Italian girls.
It was these sorts of attitudes, which were encouraged by the media of the day, which helped create such distinctions between the two and this ‘hatred and resentment’ continued on for many years.
After she married, she went to live in Yoogali and became a worker of the “land army” which was a group of women who worked the land for a Mr Gordon. They tended the vegetable crops, weeding, watering etc. After this, she went to work with her brother on a farm.
It was during the 1930′s whilst they were share farming the See’s farm that Mr Marin constructed many of the ‘make-do’ pieces of furniture.
One of the first was the kitchen cupboard which was constructed c. 1933. The glory box was built in 1937 for Rina because she had nowhere to store anything and she continued to use it for many years later – storing towels, sheets and blankets. Once its usefulness was worn out inside the home, she couldn’t bear to throw it out so it then went into Rina’s shed to store various odds and ends, as did the kitchen cupboard or ‘kitchen table’ as Rina referred to it. It was cut in half and stored on top of one another so that it wouldn’t take up too much space. (When she and her husband built their new home after many years of sacrifice, she told him that she felt she deserved to have everything new, built-in cupboards etc because they had sold the farm and had the money to enjoy the fruits of their labour for the first time in their lives). This they did and it was at this time of ‘clearing out the old farm shed’ that Pioneer Park were contacted to ascertain if they wanted an old spray cart she had. Moving into their new home, she no longer needed it and storage was a problem. It was on this visit by Pioneer Park Museum staff to look at the spray cart that the discovery was made of the many pieces of ‘make-do’ objects. She was very happy to see that her father’s legacy would live on in the Museum however was sad that many other pieces had to be culled/burnt etc for lack of storage space. One can’t help but feel the irony of these ‘throw away’ crates and then the throwing away of these ‘valuable’ pieces of history.
Shoe cupboard made from packing crates. Photograph Peter Kabaila
Rina advised that the wheelbarrow in Sharam Hall came into being when the original metal wheelbarrow had seen better days and the top had become worn from many years of toil. Her father, never one to waste anything (unlike today’s society), stripped it down and maintained the frame and simple added the planks of timber to the top in order to help carry the boxes of table grapes from the vines to the end of the row. She recalls that they had to do it this way because at the time of harvest, the vines were watered and the furrows were far too wet and boggy to get any other mode of machinery in and therefore, the boxes had to be carried out by hand. The grape press was also another item belonging jointly to her father and his good friend, Francesco Bicego. It was made by local blacksmith, Tom Bortolazzo and was used by her father and Francesco Bicego in order to make wine and grappa.
When asked as to where all the boxes came from to make the furniture, she recalled that the timber used was gained from either the Lewis Brothers Store of Taylor’s Grocery Store in town – they were the two main grocery outlets of the day. In those days, all supplies came in wooden crates and the proprietors of these stores were throwing them out. Her father asked if he could purchase these unused boxes and was told that they were only destined for the rubbish heap and so, he could have them for nothing. With this, the so called rubbish came into her father’s possession and he got great satisfaction out of making the above furniture, along with many other items too many to mention. Rina recalled that as well as making furniture, he also constructed a ‘wooden mat’ for their bedroom so that the girl’s feet didn’t have to touch the dirt floor when they climbed in and out of bed. All these things were made with love by her father to make life a little more comfortable for his family and one could see the deep respect and gratitude she had for her father for his sacrifice. (Sandra Ceccone, interview with Pierina (Rina) Marin, Griffith, 2007).
The bush furniture collection is of historic significance as an improvised craft, reflecting the resourcefulness of economically impoverished migrant families.
The bush furniture collection has items of rustic quality that have aesthetic value in their own right, as handmade examples of furniture.
Th bush furniture collection has research significance for the study of pioneer settler technology in Australia. This collection of furniture is an example of craft improvised in Australia by Italian men. It is significant to Italian families as evidence and a reminder of hard times as irrigation pioneers.
The history and provenance of the bush furniture collection is well established.
The bush furniture collection is a good example of pioneer bush furniture.
Individual furniture items are not rare, however the collection as a whole, is rare.
The worn condition of the items shows evidence of use.
The bush furniture collection has interpretive potential as an example of migrant improvised home wares, because of its completeness.
Cornwall, J. 2007. Fruits of Our Labour. The history of Griffith’s Italian Community. Griffith City Council.
Kabaila, P. 2005. Griffith Heritage. Pirion Publishing, Canberra (p. 148).
Heritage Office & Dept of Urban Affairs & Planning 1996, Regional Histories of NSW, Sydney.
Heritage Collections Council 2001, Significance: A guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections, Canberra.
Oliver, Robyn, “Bush Furniture”, Area News, November 1994.
Edited by Stephen Thompson
Migration Heritage Centre
March 2008 – updated
Crown copyright 2008©
The Migration Heritage Centre at the Powerhouse Museum is a NSW Government initiative supported by the Community Relations Commission.
Griffith Italian Museum & Griffith Pioneer Museum are managed by Griffith City Council.