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Trainland: How Railways Made New Zealand

Selling Rail

page 113

Selling Rail

Two of the most visible products of Coates' modernisation drive were the striking posters produced by the Railways Studios and the New Zealand Railways Magazine, which appeared monthly from May 1926 to June 1940. Although the Studios had produced promotional material since 1920, the quantity and quality of its work surged as road competition intensified later that decade. During his trip to the Imperial Conference in 1926, which included a North American stopover, Coates was impressed by 'the great use made of modern publicity methods to attract business to the principal railways of the world'. At his urging, in October 1927 the Department established its own dedicated Publicity Branch, which would be able to call on 'trained publicity experts and journalists' as well as the skilled artists of the Railways Studios.18 The Branch worked closely with the Tourist Department, local authorities and chambers of commerce to publicise tourist travel, accommodation and sightseeing packages, while the Studios produced a series of bright, attractive lithographic posters highlighting the scenic and therapeutic charms of the Bay of Islands, Tauranga, Rotorua, Napier, National Park and Timaru ('Best Reached by Rail') and combined rail/motor trips to Lake Wanaka, Mount Cook and Fiordland.

Local commercial advertising in the early twentieth century, as in Britain and Australia, generally lacked the sophistication and punch of American marketing or the modernist elan of French rail publicity. Mimicking page 115the style and tone of British railway advertising, most NZR posters in the 1920s featured sun¬drenched beaches, soaring mountains, lush forests, exotic Maori, or symbolic figures like the 'bathing belle' or 'seaside girl' — whose scantily clad form and purposeful pursuit of pleasure appealed to both male and female audiences — with lettering and other information arranged around the edges of the central image.19

By the early thirties, however, the artists of the Railways Studios were moving away from simple pictorial representations towards more daring abstract designs that often used a montage of images and skilfully integrated text into the overall design. Promotions were often aimed at women, as advertisers recognised that wives and mothers made many of the key decisions about family spending, including holidays (even though, for many homemakers, the reality of vacations was simply the same domestic drudgery in different surroundings).

NZR adverts also frequently stressed the safety of rail travel compared to the perils of the road. As car numbers soared in the late 1920s, so did the road toll, with 178 deaths in 1929 — an increase of 127 per cent since 1921 and, on a per capita basis, even worse than today's road carnage.20 Prospective travellers were regularly reminded that 'The Railways are the Safe Ways', while NZR's motto in the 1930s — 'Safety, Comfort, Economy' — emphasised its priorities.

Many of the Studios' posters and outdoor adverts were reproduced in the Railways Magazine. Throughout its fourteen-year run the magazine was edited by G. G. Stewart, who had joined the Department in 1898 and became the inaugural page 116manager of the Publicity Branch in 1927. Many of the magazine's striking covers were designed by Stanley Davis, including the stylised view of a train soaring high over the Makohine Viaduct that adorned the first six issues. Based on British and American railway company magazines, the publication was originally intended as a 'shop organ' for the Department's 18,000 staff and major customers, and was delivered free to all NZR employees, MPs and 'the leading firms, shippers and traders doing business with the New Zealand Railways'. Reflecting contemporary interest in 'industrial psychology', it also aimed to enhance departmental esprit de corps at a time page 117of strained labour relations.22

Alongside railway news and technical articles from New Zealand and overseas, the magazine pushed domestic tourism through numerous travel stories, photo spreads, advertisements and accommodation listings. It soon expanded its menu to include 'New Zealand Verse' and short fiction, 'Wit and Humour', sports news, historical yarns, biographical sketches, and a frothy books page ('Among the Books') edited by journalist Pat Lawlor. In 1927 the magazine introduced a regular column 'Of Feminine Interest' (later entitled 'Our Women's Section') featuring recipes, fashion tips, society gossip and notes on children's health. This column, Stewart explained, was directed towards the 'lady members of the service, of whom there are now eighty-five' (out of 18,000); more significantly, he hoped the wives and page 118daughters of the 12,000 married railwaymen would also 'appreciate the regular appearance of a page devoted to feminine and household matters'.23

In 1933, apparently at the urging of Lawlor (now advertising manager), the Railways Magazine further widened its brief to become a 'general interest' monthly for all New Zealanders; in the mid 1930s its circulation reached 26,000. The historian James Cowan, probably its most prolific contributor, wrote a series of 48 sketches of 'Famous New Zealanders', along with 75 other historical and travel features. Lawyer Archie Treadwell authored a series on famous legal cases, and in 1935-6 Robin Hyde penned a lively travel serial entitled 'On the Road to Anywhere: Adventures of a Train Tramp'. Several serialised features were republished as booklets, notably Cowan's two illustrated 'six-penny books', The Romance of the Rail, which traced the history and scenic delights of the North and South Island main trunk lines, and his 1936 guide to Maori Railway Station Names and Their Meanings (although his more creative interpretations were questioned by Sir Apirana Ngata and others).

The Railways Magazine weathered the difficult Depression years but failed to survive the Second World War. After producing a propaganda-laden 'Flags for Freedom' issue in March 1940, it ceased publication without warning in June — a victim of wartime economies, paper shortages, and Stewart's imminent retirement. Over fourteen years the magazine had blossomed from a house journal into a hugely popular general interest monthly. While critics like Eric McCormick sneered at Stewart and page 119Lawlor's conservative editorial policy, which avoided any hint of controversy and favoured established literary figures, the Railways Magazine was a crucial outlet and source of income for numerous New Zealand writers, poets and freelance journalists. During the interwar years no other monthly magazine matched its commitment to promoting a popular literary culture in New Zealand.24

18 AJHR, 1928, D-2, pp. 6-7.

19 On British railway company publicity, see Ralph Harrington, 'Beyond the Bathing Belle: Images of Women in Inter-war Railway Publicity', Journal of Transport History, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Mar 2004), pp. 22-45.

20 NZ Official Year-book, 1930, Government Printer, Wellington, 1929, p. 163.

22 Title page, NZRM, Vol. 1, No. 1 (May 1926), p. 1; see also 'To the Staff of the Railways: A Talk with our Minister about our Magazine', p. 4.

23 NZRM, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Jun 1927), p. 3.

24 See Stephen Hamilton, 'New Zealand English Language Periodicals of Literary Interest Active 1920s-1960s', PhD thesis, University of Auckland, 1995, Chs 9.1 & 9.2; and Chris Hilliard, The Bookmen's Dominion: Cultural Life in New Zealand 1920-1950, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2006, pp. 91, 100.