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27th January 2021

Amanda Scardamaglia blog post

Charles Troedel Archive: Where the Past and the Present Meet 

Dr Amanda Scardamaglia

Charles Troedel was an award-winning lithographer who brought colour to the lives and homes of Melbournians during the 19th century, transforming the advertising landscape in the process. Troedel migrated to Australia in 1860 and went on to be one of the most prolific printmakers in Melbourne, producing print advertising and labels for some of Australia’s and the world’s most iconic brands

It all started in June 1863, when Troedel set up a small print workshop in Melbourne after importing a press from Europe – and Troedel & Co, Lithographers & Printers was born. From this time on, the company preserved all of its print jobs, an archive that was donated to the State Library of Victoria in 1968 and contains almost 10,000 print specimens. The Troedel archive is the most significant printer’s archive to survive in a public collection in Australia and includes advertising posters, trade cards, labels and other print ephemera.

Troedel, and the talented artists he worked with, produced some of the most technically accomplished prints of that period, rivalling works produced on canvas. These illustrations were conceptually complex and challenging, covering a diverse range of themes, spanning from the frivolous to more sobering undertones. This includes the objectification of women in advertising for the sake of fashion and the male gaze, the targeting of vulnerable customers with magic pills and bogus remedies. It also includes the commodification of indigenous culture, and the use of stereotypes to entrench existing power structures and disempower the other. 

Some of the most elaborate items from the Troedel collection were used for advertising alcohol and tobacco products. The prints reveal the ingrained and entrenched custom of drinking in Australia and the way alcohol and cigarettes were glamorised at the time. And there was not a health warning in sight. Instead, firms linked alcohol and tobacco with sport, a healthy lifestyle, prosperity and success. The Cricketer (c 1880) perfectly encapsulates Australia’s long history of partnering sports and tobacco. This poster features Australian cricketer Charles Bannerman as the central figure of an advertisement for Cameron Brothers & Co’s tobacco – and is a far cry from the plain packaging Australians are familiar with today.

Behind the colour and spectacle, these vibrant prints masked the reality of colonisation. In particular, how the British Empire harnessed the world’s edible resources – from sugar (which was used to make rum), pepper, tea, rice, and more – for profit. The British pursued this mission without regard for local indigenous populations. In fact, there is no escaping the colonial brutality behind the Empire’s unwavering quest for world domination, with this troubled history hidden in every corner of the Troedel archive. We can see this is the way the Australian Indigenous populations were depicted in 19th century advertising too. Companies routinely misappropriated indigenous symbols and language. In one pivotal case, an English judge decided that a trader could register the word OOMOO (meaning choice) as trade mark for wine because of ‘the presumed lack of knowledge of barbarous language’.[1]

Troedel’s lithographs also provide a window into the unregulated market for ‘patent medicines’ and the practice of predatory advertising. Ralph Potts Well Known Magic Balm is a striking example. This poster was produced circa 1880 and made no attempt to promote the medical or scientific virtues of the Magic Balm. Instead, the mystical healing properties of this balm took centre stage, next to a portrait of Ralph Potts. Potts established a dental practice in Perth, and even assigned himself the title of the Dental King – travelling around the colonies carrying out dental procedures, accompanied by a brass band.[2] All this from a man with no dental qualifications!

Troedel had a long history of working with renowned artists – including François Cogné and Nicholas Chevalier, with whom he collaborated on the Melbourne Album, Arthur Streeton, Charles Turner and William Blamire Young, although it is the mastery of Richard Wendel that is most prominent in the Troedel collection. Wendel’s drawings feature heavily in Troedel’s series of stunning theatre posters.

The poster produced by Richard Wendel for Bad Lads, Comedy Farce (c 1886) is just one fascinating example. Bad Lads was the inaugural production of the new Alexandra Theatre in Melbourne on 1 October 1886, which had been named Alexandra, after the then Princess of Wales but which later became Her Majesty’s Theatre. The poster shows scenes from the play – a comedy about married men trying to recapture the fun and freedom of their bachelor days. This classic trope of men behaving badly was a hit with audiences – and has been a plot line used by scriptwriters ever since 

There is a startling familiarity with all these themes. On the one hand, Troedel’s lithographs represent a graphic snapshot of Australian history. At the same time, these prints are prophetic of what was to come in the next century of advertising – in print, and across the new mediums of communication. The Troedel archive therefore, is as much a preface of Australian advertising, as it is a history – a history printed on stone. 

Enter the giveaway on Melbourne Books' Instagram (@MelbourneBooks) for your chance to win a free copy of Amanda's beautiful book Printed on Stone. Hurry though, entries end on the 3rd of February!

Further Reading: Amanda Scardamaglia, Printed on Stone: The Lithographs of Charles Troedel (Melbourne Books, 2020).

About the Author: Dr Amanda Scardamaglia is an Associate Professor and Department Chair at Swinburne Law School. She was a State Library Victoria Creative Fellow in 2015-2016.

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[1] Burgoyne’s Trade Mark (1889) 6 RPC 227.

[2] ‘Case under the Dental Act’, The Inquirer & Commercial News (Perth), 28 June 1895, 4.