Inside the Collection

Back to school, Florence’s 1908 exercise book

Florence Breaden's school exercise book, floral board with text in the centre reading " Florence Breaden. Petersham School. 12.2.08
Florence Breaden’s school exercise book. Collection: Powerhouse Museum, 2010/65/1. Gift of Rowley Gilliland, 2010

This time of year Mums and Dads are busy buying all the exercise books, pencil cases, folders and laptops for the beginning of the school year. School has certainly changed in 100 years or so. A little while ago I acquired a gorgeous school exercise book owned by Florence Breaden (1893-1929) in 1908 who attended Petersham School in an inner Sydney suburb. I think it’s a homework book because it covers a range of subjects including Arithmetic, English, Geography, Poetry and Music, and was used from February to the end of the school year. As a diligent 15-year-old, Florence carefully illustrated her book with the most beautiful pen and ink title pages, half title pages and borders, all illustrated with flowers, rabbits, foxes, chickens, swans, birds and a woman riding a horse side saddle.

As well as the drawings I find the book really interesting because it provides an indication of the content taught at New South Wales public schools in the first decade of the twentieth century. Much of the book has practical maths problems, which would have been useful after leaving school at the time, such as working out the cost of covering a room with carpet at 2 shillings per yard, or the interest on 845 pounds for 5 years at a certain percentage rate. Geography was covered with topics including “The Pastoral Districts” and “The Tablelands of New South Wales”, while for Poetry excerpts from Tennyson’s “The Princess” and “The Holy Grail” were copied out in neat copperplate handwriting.

Florence Breaden's doll wearing a long white lace trimmed dress sewn by her as an 8-year-old
Florence Breaden’s doll wearing clothes sewn by her as an 8-year-old. Collection: Powerhouse Museum A7314

What makes this book even more relevant for the Museum’s collection is the fact that we already had another example of Florence’s handiwork which we purchased in 1979, a set of handmade doll’s clothes for which Florence was awarded a silver medal at the Young People’s Industrial Exhibition in Sydney in 1901. She was only 8 at the time. Dressing dolls was a popular form of competition at agricultural shows and, later, at colonial and international exhibitions. Florence sewed a complete outfit of under and outer clothes including underdrawers, a chemise, two petticoats, dress and pinafore all with neatly stitched seams, fine pintucking and inserts of lace.

A detail of the fine sewing and Florence's medal on her doll
A detail of the fine sewing and Florence’s medal. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Young girls were encouraged to make complete sets of clothes for their dolls as part of their training to be wives and mothers. Tiny stitches and fine embroidery were particularly prized. The doll wears the silver medal awarded to Florence for her fine needlework.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator

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