A world of designs

Trade catalogues, published to illustrate the products for sale from a manufacturer, wholesaler or retailer, reveal the surprising wealth of choice available to Australian consumers in the 19th century.

The range of goods offered in 19th-century trade catalogues is astonishing to the modern eye. Catalogues such as those held in the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection provided a means to illustrate, advertise and sell the products of a particular manufacturer or merchant. Industries that developed the capacity to mass-produce their goods, such as the metal trades, were the first to print catalogues, though by the end of the 19th century almost every conceivable item was being sold by catalogue. For instance, buyers could choose from 72 different cast-iron doorknocker designs from H Barns & Sons of Birmingham (1822), 53 fireplace grates and fittings from the London-based General Iron Foundry Company (1862), more than 90 stained, leaded and etched glass designs from Chance Bros (1867) and even 30 styles of timber doors from Sydney joinery company Goodlet & Smith (1890).

Catalogues demonstrate the availability of goods in any given period, though they were not the only way to shop. In the early years of the Australian colony, customers had the option of buying wares from hawkers, street markets or local stores, or bartering with others. However, wealthy colonists could always source goods directly from overseas and might be assisted by catalogues or samples. When travelling in England in 1856-57, Sydney businessman T S Mort would have been able to leaf through a catalogue of London papier-mache manufacturer George Jackson & Sons when purchasing ceiling and cornice mouldings for his Edmund Blacket designed home Greenoakes (now called Bishopscourt) at Darling Point1. To catch the attention of potential buyers, catalogues often featured attractive illustrations and were produced using costly printing technologies such as chromolithography. Today these publications provide historians with a visual dictionary of different styles and technical terms. For example, James Cartland & Son's 1886 catalogue of cabinet brass, a mammoth 682 pages in length, illustrates numerous front doorbells that are divided into categories such as bellpulls (quadrant, pendant or sunken), bell slides and bell levers.

In the second half of the 19th century, Australian merchants increasingly ordered goods from manufacturers' catalogues, such as brass and iron bedsteads from Peyton & Peyton, whose 1868 catalogue featured almost 100 colour illustrations of cots, half-testers and French-style beds, all with interchangeable parts. Sections of a Peyton & Peyton iron bed from this period survive at Rouse Hill Estate. Agents were also employed by overseas firms to act as points of contact for their products and to distribute catalogues and samples to potential clients.

A world of new designs could be found in each catalogue, so it is perhaps no surprise that Australian manufacturers referred to pattern books and catalogues to source their own designs. The David Jones catalogue c1895 reproduced at least seven designs of elaborate curtain and door drapery, illustrated by Australian artist Frederick Leist, directly from A & L Streitenfeld's Die praxis des tapezieres und decorateurs, published in Berlin around 1888. Two Adelaide foundries, G E Fulton & Co and Stewart & Harley, copied the designs of Glasgow-based Walter Macfarlane & Co, the largest cast-iron manufacturer in the world. Sydney art metal workers James Castle & Sons collected various catalogues as design references, including those of London ironworkers Hart Son Peard & Co, whose designs were created by some of the most highly regarded mid-to late-Victorian designers, such as B.J. Talbot, William Butterfield and J.P. Seddon.

By the last quarter of the 19th century, some Australian retailers - ironmongers, drapers and department stores - grew large enough to issue their own substantial catalogues to attract a wider customer base. In 1909 Sydney department store Grace Bros was mailing around 12,000 copies of its monthly Model Trader catalogue to customers.2

Catalogues are frequently used nowadays to identify items from particular manufacturers or periods. However, their size and range might also lead us to question the kind of economy and culture that produced them. With only a small manufacturing industry in the 19th century, Australia became a lucrative market for British and other overseas goods. Catalogues were essential advertising tools, helping to distribute goods and new designs from leading manufacturers and merchants to all parts of the globe. These catalogues can provide us with an insight into how we developed into the consumer-based society we have become today.


  1. Marion R May, The ornamental Jacksons: a brief history of George Jackson & Sons Limited, ornamental composition manufacturers, Guildford, United Kingdom, 2001, p25
  2. The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Royal Commission on postal services: minutes of evidence, vol 2, Melbourne, 1910, p1406
Published on 
Michael Lech

Michael Lech


Michael Lech is a curator at MHNSW. He has worked on exhibitions, presented talks and written extensively on various aspects of the history of the home in Australia. Michael’s work has covered areas such as interior design, the history of wallpapers and furnishing textiles, the heritage movement, Sydney’s department stores and design history in Australia.