Thursday, 1 October 2015

A Cheeky 19th Century Genderqueer Rhyme

Alice Veale (left) was a member of a prominent Victorian pioneer family who settled in Lake Bolac.
As we can see here, she also cut a dashing figure in a three piece suit.

Veale, W. E (1890). [Alice Veale and Ethel dressed in men's clothing, Lake Bolac, Vic.].

Much as we do with cooking, we assume that people in past times were simply 'better' at gender than we are these days. Men were men! Women were women! And anything in-between hadn't been invented yet.

In reality, the historical record is teeming with evidence that people have always been gay, lesbian, transgender and a lot of other things besides. (If you want to blow your mind with some history, check out John Boswell's meticulously researched Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe).

That brings is to today's artefact - a poem from the historical newspaper of my local area, the Box Hill Reporter.

She wore her brother's shirts and ties,
His collars, too, I swear,
And e'en his natty boating cap
Was perched upon her hair.
And he converted to his use
Her sash of ribbon red,
And wore her tennis hat besides
Upon his curly head.
They looked alike so very much
You'd scare know one from t'other,
So I don't know to which I "popped,"
The sister or the brother.

THE MANLY GIRL. (1896, June 19). Reporter (Box Hill, Vic. : 1889 - 1918), p. 3. Retrieved October 1, 2015, from

To "pop" to someone meant at the time to 'pop the question' - propose marriage.

Yes, the poem is humorous, but it does provide evidence that cross dressing (by both men and women) was not unimaginable in Australia in 1896. It is also significant that this poem appeared in the Friday edition of a regional paper, not a 19th century version of The Advocate, distributed to a select few in secret.

I found this poem while looking for local historical recipes. Surprises like this, that challenge our preconceptions of life in the past, are one of the true joys of research.

Cookery Friends, what are the most surprising and interesting things you have found while researching with primary sources?