The Centennial Exhibition of 1888 at Melbourne’s Exhibition Buildings was a motza for women. Posh citizens complained about the lack of servants – young women had flocked to the better pay and free fun down at the exhibition. They demonstrated making lollies, butter, and shirts on the spot, and flirted with gentlemen gawkers. The displays were considered ‘educational’ so ladies were permitted to promenade unchaperoned (perhaps risking a dodge into the fernery with a trifler).

The exhibition by night [Melbourne, Vic]
, IAN13/10/88/184-185

The Exhibition was the hot ticket for months. Extra trams were laid on and it stayed open late with free concerts. Buildings, domes and market shed-like annexes were added, covering the Carlton Gardens to the north of the present building – where the Melbourne Museum, tennis courts, trees and paths are now.

An album of security photos of exhibitors at the exhibition is held at the Library showing hundreds of independent shopkeepers, company men, and eponymous entrepreneurs. Mysterious business-ladies bob up here and there among the sea of men.

In the indexes to the album pages all the women are corralled into respectability by the universal honorific of ‘Mrs’. Corsets were the go and bustles were optional. Almost every woman sports a variation of a small hat shaped like a cross between a fez and a pyramid, trimmed with feathers or fabric flowers.


Mrs. N. McQuoinH28190/468

A ‘little-old-lady’ called Naomi McQuoin, at nearly 70, wears a fur coat with matching fur handbag, standard-shaped velvet-trimmed hat, neck bow, earrings and a brooch. This is probably the Naomi McQuoin who immigrated in 1866 as a single mum with five kids, who lived in Sackville St, Collingwood. Her daughter (also Naomi) was a comedienne in a pre-WW1 duo, The Orange Dandies who dressed as golfer and caddie. At 4 feet, six inches tall Naomi jnr complemented husband George Taylor (6’ 4”). Naomi snr survived until she was 83, rather a marvel of the day.


Madam Elise, H28190/161

Perhaps it’s kindest to imagine that Madame Elise, of Elise and Vaillant, the Collins St dressmaking establishment, was born with exactly the same name as the London costumier and milliner to the Princess of Wales. The photo of our Madame Elise shows off her fur coat, inventive hat, and gloves. She has a sweet face and may be blind in one eye, which would have made tiny stitching even more tiring.

Mrs. Helen Rutherford
, H28190/286

Mrs Helen Rutherford wore a spotted lace fascinator pulled very tight under her nose with a lace trim, which leaves the unfortunate impression of a slightly mouldy face with a moustache stretching from ear to ear. All we know about stoic Mrs R (from the Sands and McDougall directory) is that she lived at 18 Rennie St, Williamstown.

The Exhibition had a special annex of paintings by local ladies which was reviewed by a snarky young reporter from the Argus. Women were enthusiastic patrons of the ostrich feather stall, fascinated by the huge new machines and new-fangled electric lights, and queued to see the displays using real teachers and children to demonstrate the methods and virtues of public education.

Ladies were asked to hold down their screaming while riding the ‘switchback railway’ (a baby roller coaster) to appease the Carlton St neighbours. Meanwhile, another female entrepreneur, a small girl feigning fright, did good business for a few days on the railway by cuddling up to patrons and nicking purses, throwing the spoils down to the ground to be collected later.

The album has burned edges like a pretend pirate map (it survived a fire when the Exhibition Buildings housed an ‘aquarium’ in 1953). You can see the individual Victorian exhibitors’ photos online.

Staff securitypage fromAlbum

The Library holds another album showing the British exhibitors at the Exhibition, as well as a 1888 tourists’ booklet called Popular Guide to the Centennial Exhibition With Which Is Incorporated the Strangers’ Guide to Melbourne.

A lovely, illustrated book was recently published by Museum Victoria about the 1880 and 1888 exhibitions and an assiduous shopper at each one, ‘Visions of Colonial Grandeur: John Twycross at Melbourne’s International Exhibitions’, by Charlotte Smith with Benjamin Thomas.

Coming soon: the Chaps of the 1888 Exhibition.

This article has 4 comments

  1. This is a lovely look back to the late 1800s at the grand end of town and the Great Exhibition in town.
    Fancy that, the women unsupervised and mingling!

    I love your line, ‘does my bustle look……etc?’

  2. “The Library holds another album showing the British exhibitors at the Exhibition, as well as a 1988 tourists’ booklet called Popular Guide to the Centennial Exhibition With Which Is Incorporated the Strangers’ Guide to Melbourne.”

    Might that be an 1888 tourists’ booklet, perchance?

  3. Georgina Hoey(neeRoss-Turpin)

    Naomi Mcquion jr was my grandmother,

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