When New Zealand went all American

It’s kind of hard to imagine these days, but way back in the nineteenth century New Zealand had gone all American.

Shakespeare Road, Napier, 1862. Alexander Turnbull Library, pa1-q-193-072

It wasn’t just the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ look of the colonial towns with their limed streets, hitching posts and detritus of recent construction scattered around clap-board fronted buildings.

It was also in the way people spoke. American spellings were in – ‘honor’, ‘clamor’ and so forth; and so were American terms – ‘druggist’ instead of ‘chemist’, ‘store’ instead of ‘shop’, and so on.

British migrant Samuel Butler was struck by it when he disembarked on the Lyttleton wharf in the early 1860s, although, as he pointed out, in most other ways the settlers behaved as Britishers, which you’d expect. Exactly why this occurred has never been fully answered by historians – it’s a question that has never been particularly asked. But it needs to be, because the influence was clear, and given that New Zealand was being settled at the time by the British – English and Scots, principally, with some Irish and Welsh – we have to wonder what was going on.

Wright_Deco Party Central
Art deco Napier – heavily infused with ideas from 1920s Santa Barbara.

One likely answer is that there was a good deal more interchange across the colonial frontier of the Pacific than we might imagine. The industrialising west was spreading into Australia, New Zealand and west-coast America at much the same time, all with very similar ideas of building new societies framed around the new concept of the age – capitalism. In the specific, United States traders had been around New Zealand waters in significant numbers from the 1820s, mostly chasing whales; and later there was an influx of US gold miners, the ‘miner forty-niners’ who sought their fortunes first in California, then Victoria, before washing up in Otago in the early 1860s.

Central Napier. Yes, I’m sure it’s 1940…

It was an extraordinary time in New Zealand’s history, and that ‘American style’ reigned well into the 1880s – a time when a new generation of English settlers and a new generation born in New Zealand instead began to get more British in their spellings and vocabulary.

Even then, US architectural and urban stylings survived – actively sought as inspiration during the early 1930s in Napier and Hastings, both rebuilt in art deco and Spanish Mission after a devastating earthquake. Today Napier celebrates that heritage with an annual art deco weekend.

Click to buy

For the full story of those towns, and the way the US frontier had its effect, don’t forget to check out my book The History of Hawke’s Bay – out now.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

3 thoughts on “When New Zealand went all American

  1. Ahh.. came here to read via the link in Susie’s blog hop event. I thought the name looked familiar and I discovered I had been here before ( you laid a challenge down of making a sentence out of words you wanted to use).
    Interesting post again, I had already followed your blog from before!

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