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Elbe’s Ice Cream: The Plot Thickens

In A&P Shows, Birds Eye Frozen Foods, Birds Eye NZ Ltd, Bodgies and Widgies, Denne Brothers, Dennis Knight Turner, Desserts, Elbe's Ice Cream, Elbe’s Milk Bar, Fonzies, Fred Elbe, Frozen Foods, Frozen Vegetables, Griffin’s, Happy Days, Heavenly Creatures, Hokey Pokey, Hokey Pokey ice cream, Ice Cream, Ice cream sundaes, John Waters' Cry-Baby, Juvenile delinquency, Laverne and Shirley, Louis Gottfried Christian Elbe, Mazengarb Report, Milk Bar Cowboys, Milkshakes, Moral Panic, Peter Pan Frozen Foods Ltd, Peter Pan ice cream, Rebels with a cause, Rockers and Greasers, soft drink, T.C. Denne, teenage decadence, The Petone Incident, Thomas Clement Denne, Tip-Top, Warren Elbe on January 12, 2015 at 10.46

Elbe's icecream logo 1950s copy

Recreation of an Elbe’s Ice Cream sign, imagined as late 1950s, inspired by their A&P stand logo (photo further down), and the colours of the milk bar interior.

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Now, as we know from my previous article here, a lot of people like to mark their territory in hokey pokey history – and quite often that involves claiming they invented it.

Having read my story on New Zealand’s favourite ice cream flavour, an Elbe descendant contacted me. After trading quite a few emails (as well as a bit of cursory snooping by me) it was a done deal that there was more than plenty for a story here – contenders to the hokey pokey crown, scandalous behaviour, and juvenile delinquency!

Elbe’s first opened as just a milk bar at 98 High Street, Lower Hutt, Wellington, “next to Woolworths”. The earliest mention I was able to locate was in a humorous article “On Trial”, in the Hutt News, early July 1936 – in which a mock court case is conducted at the milk bar of Frederick Elbe Esq., as part of a stag party celebration. At that time, apart from milkshakes and sundaes concocted for customers on the spot – the Elbes made their own ice cream on the premises and sold pints, quarts, and ice cream party cakes commercially.

The story begins with Louis Gottfried Christian Elbe – who hailed from Uralla, New South Wales, Australia, born 1887 to Louis (Ludovick Gottfried Elbe, 1858-1936) and Mary Phillipa (nee Goddard, 1864-1953). By the time Louis was on the scene he was already a second generation Aussie; the family had arrived from Erbach, Nassau, Germany in 1855. In 1906 Louis married Ada M. Marshall in Newtown, Sydney. After marriage they resided at 91 Evans Street, in Rozelle.

Elbe's Milk Bar 1950s courtesy of Sherry Elbe

The interior of Elbe’s Milk Bar in its 1950s heyday. The colour scheme was a very modern cream, lime green and black. Image courtesy of the Elbe family.

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Apparently quite mismatched – things went south with the union very quickly; in less than two years Ada had been abandoned. She quickly arranged for a court warrant issued in nearby Glebe, for Louis’s arrest – citing desertion. However it seems he had truly flown the coop. In not much more than a year, he reappeared in New Zealand, in 1909, now named Frederick Louis. A few short months had seemingly allowed him enough time to settle, meet, and marry Ann Elizabeth Lowry. Hopefully he was divorced from his initial wife first – but it doesn’t look hopeful right now.

Thus far my researches have been unable to locate any record of Fred arriving to Aotearoa. Running off, he likely switched countries under an assumed name.There’s no evidence that the Elbes ever divorced in Australian records, or that Frederick Elbe ever returned to Australia to sort this situation out before remarrying. The New Zealand Immigration Passenger Lists show no Elbes that even vaguely qualify. At least – not up until the 1930s when several records clearly indicate a Mr. F. Elbe, of the correct age and occupation, returning from Australia to Wellington on a number of occasions, from then on through to the 1950s. Not the kind of thing families really want to discover but that’s how it is – and not that uncommon either.

Why New Zealand? Perhaps he thought it best to get out of the country completely, but in tandem wanted to remain as close as possible to his family. So it was probably the most logical option. The speed with which he remarried indicates he may have already met his future second wife, perhaps in Australia, hence his absconding with no explanation. Either that or he was a very fast mover. It was more likely the latter – but we will probably never know exactly how it played out.

Anyway, now a Kiwi tailor named Fred (records show a registration for Elbe Tailoring Company Ltd in Wellington), his transformation was almost complete. Between at least 1919-1922 Fred Elbe was advertising suit making from 276 Lambton Quay; “fit and style perfection…above H.B.” (which stood for Hallenstein Brothers), and later 262 on the same street where H.B. now stood for “Hannah’s Building”. Grandchildren recall a one-time career as a traveller and a manufactory for belts and men’s suspenders later on.

Frederick Louis (Fred) Elbe- ( government name Louis Gottfried Christian Elbe) courtesy of Sherry Elbe

 Frederick Louis aka Fred Sr. (government name Louis Gottfried Christian Elbe), a tailor, was the first to come to New Zealand; it was his son that founded the ice cream business. Image courtesy of the Elbe family.

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The couple eventually had three sons; Rowland Carl (1913-1987), Roy Sheldon (1920-2007) and Louis Frederick Elbe (1910-1982). Their parents both passed away in Hutt in 1966 respectively. However as an interesting aside, the couple seem to have been living separately from at least 1946. Around this time Fred’s mother had arrived from New South Wales and was residing with him. Given how some wives feel about their mothers-in-law, it may be why she moved out!

It was Louis Frederick (who like his father also called himself Fred – we’ll call him Fred Jr. from here on to differentiate), who actually established the Elbe’s brand. How exactly he gained knowledge and training of the  art of ice cream production remains unanswered. It was likely the business was started in the mid 1930s, although it’s now not known exactly what year. One source says “just prior to the war” which almost tallies with the earliest newspaper date. Fred Jr.’s two sons with wife Rewa Ellen, nee August, were Warren William and Maxwell Richard Elbe. However it’s Warren that people mostly seem to associate memories of the Elbe’s Milk bar heyday with. In the mid-late 1940s the Elbe’s takeaway product roster expanded to add “Homepacks’, and ice cream Christmas cakes “frozen extra hard”.

Upon returning from the war it was Roy who became “chief ice cream maker” at the milk bar. As the business and brand became successful, premises were purchased just across the road – and a factory started production under his management. A picture which has been taken of a stand around 1959 at a Bartons Bush A&P specifies some novelties such as vanilla slices and “Rockets” (the full name of the item is partially obscured; it’s either frozen, space or chocolate).

An image of the interior of the shop, taken in the 1950s shows that Elbe’s had expanded into a line of fountain syrups for drinks. Other items they served were soft drinks and fancy concoctions like peach melba, chocolate peanut and date snowball sundaes, the Snowman, the Rainbow Special – as well as individual Dixie-style tubs, vanilla slices, chocolate coated novelties (probably similar to Boms). There was also a full candy counter in the corner and a jukebox for the latest in pop music. Of course (the not-so-ubiquitous) milkshakes, about which Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich recounts in “Keeping a Low Profile: An Oral History of German Immigration to New Zealand”: “I vividly remember in my teenage years Elbe’s. The art of making milkshakes was developed to a very fine pitch.”

Ice Cream Cake box Elbe's Milk Bar 1950s RECREATION copy

Recreation of the Elbe’s ice cream cake box, seen on the top shelf  behind the bar in the 1950s photo of the milk bar interior (above). Gavin Elbe recalls “…these were about ten inches diameter and about three deep, with a glittery paper band around them – sometimes decorated on the top for special occasions. I never got one.” Harsh!

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During the first half of this decade Fred Jr. registered a design he cooked up in collaboration with a Roy Butterworth (1904-1978) with the Intellectual Property office. I was unable to find out what exactly that was, but I speculated it was most likely a piece of manufacturing machinery or packaging rather than a recipe. Since Butterworth worked through the 1930s-1950s as an upholsterer, essentially pattern-making, I’d make an educated guess it was the latter.
The family story goes that another invention of Great-Grandpa Fred Jr.’s may have been the Hokey Pokey ice cream recipe which he then sold to Tip-Top, who have of course themselves claimed (falsely, it’s now fairly clear) that they actually invented it during the Forties. Further to this cuckooing of Elbe’s – Fred Jr.’s motorised ice cream cart now sits in MOTAT with a Tip-Top signage emblazoned on it instead of the Elbe’s logo (how it went from the Hutt to Auckland – I’m not sure).

Gavin Elbe, one of Fred Jr.’s nephews, recalls: “I was born in 1947, and I cannot remember a time when we did not make Hokey Pokey ice cream. In my school days I did odd jobs there at the factory during the holidays and weekends. As soon as I was old enough, I had the job of breaking up the slabs to put in the mixture.” He was unsure where the confectionery came from, but thinks that it, along with chocolate for novelty products, may likely have been supplied by Griffin’s – which makes sense since they were based in the local area. Then he tacked on – ” This was years before we were bought out by T.C. Denne…”
Wait, hold up a minute. Did he just say Denne? The same T.C. Denne who founded Peter Pan Ice Cream, that I’ve previously written about on a number of occasions?

Interesting, to say the least, that in all my research on the Dennes and their businesses, and the various interviews I conducted, they never once mentioned they purchased the Elbe’s business! I wonder if that got left out (deliberately) or perhaps just forgot to get a mention (unlikely). It makes one wonder that if Elbe’s were making Hokey Pokey first, then Peter Pan may have acquired the recipe with their purchase – and thus have to forfeit their claim to be front runner – or even one of them at all.

When I pushed Gavin for a little more of a fix on the date he states “the Hokey Pokey smashing definitely began (in my) pre-teens”, putting a definite date before 1960. In comparison to other confirmed dates from Peter Pan and Newjoy Ice Cream Co. this isn’t the earliest, so actually brings me no closer to solving the mystery of who made it first.

Elbe's Ice Cream ads 1943-1945 copy

Various Elbe’s product adverts from the Hutt News, from clockwise top left: April 1944, October 1944, November 1943, and November 1944. Images courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand.

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“After Denne’s purchase of Elbe’s, we continued to make a range of lines in Lower Hutt for distribution. Until one day my father got a phone call from the Dennes to say he was to lay off all staff, and arrange the strip out of our factory. No visit – just a phone call. I still remember that day because I had biked down to the factory after school to do some jobs, as I frequently did, and found all of the staff in a sombre mood.”

Gavin vaguely recalls some kind of connection with ” Levin and Company, (and) with the Birds Eye brand as well – but I am short on detail.” I’ve tried looking into Levin a bit, who made a great deal of their money in Amber Tips tea from the 1890s onwards, and I am not sure where they are at these days – if it even still exists, or in what form. It’s a very old company, founded by some Jewish fellows, and going as far back as the 1850s. Seemingly during the war years one of the things they were handling was sugar – a very precious commodity for confectionery and ice cream makers, obviously. That said, ice cream makers were off the hook a bit more than chocolate companies because there was no rationing restriction on dairy – so sugar was their only problem. Birds Eye was not launched by Unilever in New Zealand until 1947, and Wattie’s as far as I know did all their frozen fruit and vegetables for them, and probably still do.

Levin and Company had both freezing and import-export enterprises so if it wasn’t to do with sugar, then it’s (more) likely the connection was distribution. Many of these companies were connected through distribution deals because they needed to pair up with others, for transport reasons, to make their enterprise profitable. It’s why so many companies that started off with ice cream branched out into frozen vegetables otherwise it wasn’t viable financially to distribute their product. This means many reciprocal deals were done to move product around the country efficiently.

One acquaintance remembers her father being friendly enough with Fred Jr. to “visit…shortly after the opening of the milk bar. We were given a tour of the business, including out the back, where ice cream was made. In a large freezer room were shown a box of peas, still in their shells. He opened one pod to show that the contents were in mint condition. He predicted correctly that this would be a major method of preserving food in the future.”

Although the mention of frozen peas is interesting, there’s no memory of any frozen vegetables ever being produced by the Elbe’s factory. So it is not really relevant to the fact that Peter Pan bought out quite a number of freezing businesses, including ice cream operations, up and down the North Island in a methodical campaign to advance their distribution over the years. However there may have been more of a motive at play here for the acquisition. Is it possible that Peter Pan got it’s Hokey Pokey recipe from its acquisition of the Elbe’s factory?

Elbe's icecream and cola stalls Bartons Bush A&P late 1950s courtesy of Sherry Elbe

aTaken at Hutt Valley A&P show, late 1950s, Bartons Bush. Fred Jr.’s nephew Gavin Elbe remembers: “We had the concession for ice cream and Coca-Cola stalls, also a candy floss machine. My job was refunding the empty bottles, at two pence each – or a packet of chewing gum.”

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As it did in every major city, business exploded during WWII due to the influx of R&R servicemen to Wellington; the Elbe’s business did not solely flourish because of this, but later Elbe’s provided supplies for the ice breakers who were part The IGY team ( The International Geophysical Year  was an international scientific project run from July 1957 – Dec 1958).
Gavin recalls “…they loved it (Elbe’s product) because it was much creamier than American ice cream. In those days it was a legal requirement for ice cream in New Zealand to have a minimum percentage of real butter and milk powder to help protect the dairy industry. Very early on I remember real cream was used, also.”
It should be noted  how the advent of a great number of foreign, in this case particularly American servicemen, had great impact on culture and business in large cities; and this in turn had a lasting effect on trends for foodstuffs, clothes, and entertainment that went on for decades – as it is particularly pertinent to the themes here.

By the 1950s the Elbes were, in the words of one of their punny former neighbours “creaming it…with true entrepreneurial skill the Elbes had in no time made a fortune and moved …to a flash two-story house in an up-market suburb.” With the interior of the milk bar decked out in a snazzy contemporary theme of lime, cream and black – Elbe’s had now become the hottest teen hang out in the Wellington area.

It’s recalled that “Friday and Saturday nights were so busy that a staff member would be stationed at the entrance, ensuring that when full, those wishing to enter matched those leaving. It was normal during peak periods for a queue to form outside – waiting patiently for their turn to enter.” Someone else remembers as they “…queued up round the street, (there would be) fighting to get in the front door.” So no doubt a “bouncer” was in place to prevent the scuffles as well.

It was frequented by local kids “at a (nebulous) loose end” – as well as “Bodgies” and their female counterpart “Widgies” – as they were known in Australasia; the monikers given to the down under equivalent of the American movement of “Rockers” and “Greasers”, or the British version – “Teddies.” “Bikers” per se, came later, in the 1960s; not to be confused with “Milk Bar Cowboys” who were basically Bodgies with motorbikes  – and the variation was lumped into this supposed ragtag bundle of various youth subculture groups. I s’pose the inferral is that there were bound to be wars between factions – but given their definitions (not much different from each other it seems), and objectives, it does not seem that it was as likely as expected.

The movement revolved around newfangled rock ‘n’ roll music, and was also influenced by rebellious teen movies like “Rebel Without a Cause.” Fashion icons were James Dean and Elvis, amongst others.There was an obsession with American style – which was to again resurface later on, in the mid-late 1970s with a feast of nostalgia for the period – exemplified in TV shows like “Happy Days”, “Laverne and Shirley”, and “Sha Na Na” (and also resulted in the cheesy retro snack Fonzies).

Elements of the Bodgie/ Widgie/Milk Bar Cowboy style featured pegged trousers and moccasins, Zoot Suits and luminous socks, exaggerated bright shirts, tight white tee-shirts with leather jackets, flannelettes with Adidas boots, or tight jeans and suede brothel creepers, topped off with a greasy “Rack” hairdo, or Brylcreemed quiffs  finished at the back with D.A. (Duck’s Ass).

As throughout history, with the pinpointing and victimization of many a minority, people took umbrage simply because the so-called “Milk Bar Cowboys” looked and acted differently to the plebeian majority. When fraternizing, add motorcycles into the mix and there’s bound to be public pearl-clutching to relish in. It all sounds very much like John Waters’ movie “Cry Baby”:

The Sydney Morning Herald critiqued “…’bodgies’ growing their hair long and getting around in satin shirts, and ‘weegies (sic)’ cutting their hair short and wearing jeans… confusion seems to be arising about the sex of some adolescents.” Apparently not so confused about sex; because then Elbe’s went from popular to notorious overnight.

Somehow an outrageous story got out that teenagers, some under the age of consent, were using Elbe’s Milk Bar as a meeting place to arrange illicit trysts in nearby Strand Park and down by the Hutt river. Their milkshakes were literally bringing boys to the yard. Young patrons were engaging in “sex acts”, and not only that – but somehow were obtaining contraceptives to boot. It quickly came to be known as the “Petone Incident.”

Moral panic was the headline of the day, exacerbated by the untimely incidents of two separate milk bar murders in Auckland (the fact that they could have happened anywhere seemingly irrelevant) and the horrific Parker–Hulme case (later made by Peter Jackson into Heavenly Creatures with its themes of teen perversion, angst, rebellion and tragedy). Sensationalist media reports of course did not help, but sold papers and made coin.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister of the time, Sir Sidney George Holland, attempted to use this simmering unrest to his advantage and called for a thorough investigation into this wanton depravity; a special committee was set up, chaired by a local lawyer, Dr. Oswald Mazengarb, to examine the supposed social factors that was causing “delinquency” and subsequent juvenile immorality. The hearings and investigations took place over a period of eight weeks.

The text of the Mazengarb Report, in full, the “Report of the Special Committee on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents”, was released in late September 1954. It cites the appearance of witnesses Mr L. F. Elbe, of Elbe’s Milk Bar, Lower Hutt, along with employees Mr. W.L. Ellingham, and Mr. A.L. Lummis, who appeared in the hearing line-up and were examined under oath as numbers fifteen to seventeen respectively.

John, aka “Oldrider”, writes on a forum that he was one of those “Milk Bar Cowboys” in the 1950s Hutt. Dubbed so “because we rode bikes, cavorted with the ‘sexually active’ girls from Hutt Valley High school and Petone Tech, and hung around the milk bars in the weekend. I was definitely a member of that group of guys and gals so named…a great bunch of people to associate with. So, yes, I used to frequent Elbe’s Milk Bar among others (it wasn’t only milk bars that were frequented, either) – but I was not responsible for the saga. The girl in question lived just down the road from me.  (In retrospect) it was pretty pathetic press run by the “Truth” newspaper about the behaviour of the so-called ‘juvenile delinquents’ of the day. They made it very big news, (but it was) pretty tame stuff really!”

the Bodgie A E Manning Wellington Reed 1958 Dennis Knight Turner design copy

“The Bodgie” by A. E. Manning , design by Dennis Knight Turner, published by Reed, 1958.  Formula: If you added a motorbike to a Bodgie, Rocker, Teddy or Greaser  – rather like making a shake – you had instant “Milk Bar Cowboy.”

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Another member recounts the bounties of the hilariously nicknamed private school “Sacred Tarts”: “I remember well, afternoons in the early Fifties ,when I rode my bike from Naenae College into the Hutt. There, we’d meet up with girls from Sacred Heart College, and do a bit of ‘experimenting’ in the back booths at Elbe’s. But not until I’d scoffed a chocolate peanut sundae first! Their gym frocks always smelled, well, inviting.”

So there was definitely some kinky stuff involved, it’s true. That particular individual who is recalled as being in the middle of it all apparently refers to the fifteen year old girl who decided to blab to the authorities about the sexcapades of what she called the “Milk Bar Gang”, and numerous young people in the area allegedly confessed to police their instances of “sexual misconduct” (probably defined as hickies at that time) – however it’s said some were actually charged with carnal knowledge of minors. It’s all a bit vague, really. Too hazy for my liking – and deliberately, I suspect.

However Elbe’s was hardly the “notorious den of teenage lust” it was made out to be, except maybe lust for sweet treats. Merv Griffith says that rather than rumpy, the goal was to “pick up a bird”, and subsequently “the main aim was to go like hell; the louder the screams from the pillion seat, the more successful the mission. Apart from that it was to sit round and comb your hair and try and look beautiful on your bikes. Then you would go in and have a milkshake.” So more toffee than totty. Not exactly titillating stuff.

Even local member of parliament of the time Michael Moohan called them on it and opined it was the report itself that was internationally stigmatizing, dubbing it sensationalist. “I think it is a terrible thing…to give the impression that there is such a grave problem….when such is really not the case.”

However governments usually aren’t very interested in the facts unless they happen to marry with some kind of desired outcome. One way they use situations like this is basically for crowd control, often by scapegoating. Recurrently Instigating “moral panic ” is the perfect way to regulate a society. If the truth of what was involved in “The Petone Incident” was known  – there probably wouldn’t have been that much fuss, or subsequently a reaction. However, once people start actually looking for reasons to break up the party – they can usually find one if they really want to.
Thus a post-war movement for independence essentially came to be considered a “problem” simply by issuing pamphlets to hundreds of thousands of households regarding this revolting rebellion of unbridled teenage decadence.

cry-baby-clan copy

“The Cry Baby Clan”: Still from pope of trash  John Waters’  hilarious 1990 musical satire on juvenile delinquency and moral panic. Recommended watching.

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 The report ultimately laid the blame on a breakdown of dreary urban Nuclear family life; the culprits were teen temptresses, comic books, working mothers, rock ‘n’ roll, and modern cities. Oh, also peace time (because that’s really a bad thing, right?) and generally having too much money (also a terrible burden to anyone). Maybe they should have called it the “Moot Report” since the only astoundingly new thing there was a style of music. Mazengarb, a notorious right wing killjoy and puritanical prude, disapproved wholeheartedly of just about everything as most fundamentalists do – and the list was long. As most fundamentalists also do – I am sure he was hiding something. I like to call it the J. Edgar Hoover Principle, and it’s a pretty reliable rule.

The report resulted in the drafting of new Acts increasing censorship of “obscene and indecent content” in publications, The Child Welfare Amendment Act which made sexual behaviour officially “delinquency”, and the banning of contraceptive sales to minors, because the one thing every parent wants is an underage pregnant daughter to deal with, right? The lack of logic is mind-boggling, and that’s something that hasn’t changed.

The impact had its desired effect, though. Alison Gray discusses in her review of “Patched: The History of Gangs in New Zealand” by Jarrod Gilbert, that “I was in primary school in Lower Hutt. I can still remember my parents discussing the report behind closed doors and banning us kids from going anywhere near the notorious Elbe’s. We had no idea what they were on about, but we knew it had something to do with people not much older than us, behaving very, very badly. Our minds fairly boggled. It was my first experience of a moral panic and it was a little bit scary. I realise now that it was probably even scarier for my parents. The “juvenile delinquents” looked like us, walking down our streets, and sitting in the very booths where we ate our ice cream sundaes. No wonder my parents were afraid!”

Silver-Tex condoms The Killian MRG Company 1950s Te Papa GH010168 copy

Silver-Tex, by Killian MRG Co., 1950s. Image courtesy of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa collection, ref GH010168. Something I never thought I’d ever be writing a caption for on this blog; condoms. The only other example I’ve seen thus far is Durex from the early 1960s. It wasn’t even made common knowledge that they were available, if at all (some businesses like the strictly Catholic Galliens, flatly refused to sell contraceptives) so they weren’t exactly advertised – and the object obviously wasn’t to keep them if you could help it – so few examples survive.

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Nevertheless there wasn’t much to worry about because by the beginning of the next decade, the “Milk Bar Cowboys” would be finished – replaced by the British Mersey sound, and all that new movement entailed. It was farewell Jailhouse Rock, and welcome to Carnaby Street. Following that, the Hippie movement. Inevitably ensued by an older generation’s shock and disgust. And so it goes on, generation to generation. Here’s a long overdue idea – maybe it’s easier just to get used to it.
As for Prime Minister Sidney Holland who rehashed this often used “moral panic” tactic to bolster his polls – could he have been less disingenuous? It was, in the end, hardly a boon for him – as he won another term that year anyway. Those in the know say that ultimately it had little effect on that outcome, and it was wasted energy beating up the situation; however the damage it all caused was done and it was deep, destructive and lasting.

According to a 1996 article on Roy and Nola Elbe and the milk bar history, entitled “Elbe Romance Blossomed Over Counter’ by Lee-Anne Edwards for the The Hutt News, it’s said the the ice cream factory ceased manufacturing around 1960 and had at least one ownership change before the Dennes of Peter Pan Frozen Foods came into the picture; but details are now unknown.  I’m not sure when the milk bar its self closed – I know the Elbes still had it in the very late 1950s as Andrea Elbe, Fred Jr.’s granddaughter, recalls an amusing anecdote in which “…the power went off one night, and my dad Warren had to race down there. He reckoned that Mum deliberately caused it because, pregnant with me, she had terrible middle-of-the-night cravings for ice cream. She got her wish!”

It’s not known how much the so-called “scandal” marred the business interests of the Elbes who were unwittingly caught up in it. However the fact that the milk bar apparently changed hands before the decade was out may be telling – except that the new owners must have been trading on the Elbes’ good business name – because that didn’t change. Bill and Betty Lummis acquired the milk bar and ran it through the 1960s. Their son Lox served with his brothers Brian and Kevin, who says that in their day “…bad behaviour never happened inside, my dad would not stand any nonsense like that.” So Elbe’s heyday as a denizen of vice, corruption and commotion was put paid to.

THE MAN IN THE STREET Upper Hutt Leader Number 22 20 June 1946 - Copy 1 copy

I don’t know what they or it says.  Since the riddles hint at matters equestrian, one can assume that as Fred Elbe Jr. accumulated some wealth, he dabbled in the business of racehorses. Upper Hutt Leader Number 22, 20 June, 1946. Image courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand.

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Today Amalgamated Video occupies the original site on the southern end of High Street. However to add a little bit to its iconic status, it has been announced just recently that Artist Tim Barlow is recreating Elbe’s Milk Bar with the three Lummis brothers – as an installation this year – one of 11 artworks that will form “Common Ground’, Hutt City’s inaugural public art programme as part of the Fringe festival.
In that case, I guess that Elbe’s won’t be forgotten any time soon; and the family can in retrospect be pleased that they played a star role in a very interesting and significant piece of New Zealand’s history.

Thanks to the Elbe family -Sherry, Andy and Gavin , and Vicky Ireland for their assistance with information, material and images for this story. Also thanks to several sources for permission to quote their work: Both Andrea O’Neil  and Alex Fensome at Dominion Post as well as Papers Past all on behalf of Fairfax Media; Oldrider and others at Kiwi Biker forum, social historian Alison Gray, and Merv Griffith’s recollections from Ben Schrader’s “City children and youth – Bad behaviour”, published by Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, © Crown copyright 2005–2015 Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage, which were originally quoted with permission of historian Redmer Yska from his book “All shook up: the flash bodgie and the rise of the New Zealand teenager in the fifties Auckland”: Penguin, 1993, p. 66.

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Addendum late Oct 2015: I’ve been meaning to add these for months – pictures of some of the family members mentioned in this article, which were kindly passed to me by Fred Elbe Sr.’s granddaughter Andy Elbe, after the article was published in New Zealand Legacy magazine. 

Elbe family From L Fred Jr Fred Sr Rowland Elizabeth Ann nee Lowry Roy late 1920s edit sml

The Elbe family: From L, Fred Jr., Fred Sr., Rowland, Elizabeth Ann nee Lowry, and Roy, taken in the late 1920s.

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Fred Elbe jr and Rewa Ellen marriage edit

Fred Elbe Jr.’s marriage to Rewa Ellen August, 1933.

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Marriage of Ernest John August and Mary Adam 1905 Rewa Ellen's parents Ann Elizabeth Lowry knew them edit

The marriage of Ernest John August and Mary nee Adam in 1905. These are the parents of Rewa Ellen August, who became the wife of Fred Elbe Jr. However Ann Elizabeth Lowry, who became Fred Elbe Sr.’s New Zealand wife, knew them as she was part of the wedding party and is third from the right. It’s curious, because did the family forget that they were associated with the Augusts before Fred Elbe was ever in the picture? Or just a weird coincidence? 

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Louis Frederick (Fred Jr) Elbe (b1910) and Rowland Carl (b1913) c 1915-1916 edit - Copy - Copy

Louis Frederick (Fred Jr.) Elbe, with Rowland Carl Elbe, circa 1915.

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A Frosty Phenomenon

In "K" Brand, Abel's Ltd., Batchelor's Surprise Peas, Birds Eye Frozen Foods, Birds Eye NZ Ltd, Butland Industries, Clarence Frank Birdseye, Continental Foods, Continental soups, Crest Fine Foods, Frying Saucers, Goldman Sachs/Postum Cereals, Handy Andy cleaner, Impulse deodorant, J. Wattie Foods Limited, J.R. Butland, Kirkpatrick, Knights Castille soap, Lever Bros (N.Z.) Ltd, Lever Products, Lifebuoy, Lucky Whip cream, Lux, Margarine Unie, Monkey Brand soap, Oak, Rosella Foods, S. Kirkpatrick & Company, Simplot, Solvol soap, Stockpot vegetables, Surprise, Thompson & Hill, Unilever, Van den Bergh Foods, Vim cleaner, Wall's ice cream, Wall's Ice Cream Ltd, Wattie Cannery Ltd, Wattie's, William Hesketh Lever on June 11, 2014 at 10.46

Crest Surprise dried  beans box recreation  copy

A recreation of  panels from a Surprise dried beans box, dated some time between 1970-76. I used a picture of a box sold on Trade Me in order to remake the graphics.

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Who remembers the Surprise brand? Everyone should. Especially the peas. I recall well how they were heavily advertised on television in the late 1970s and early 1980s – it was on relentless rotation!
However it may have been forgotten that Surprise were around long before that; as far back as the 1950s in New Zealand with pea and bean products – both dried and frozen.

Initially I wrote this article on the premise that the Surprise brand likely started out as a subsidiary of J.R. Butland’s Crest Fine Foods, later Butland Industries, given the logo is prominently displayed on the packaging. Crest was for some time the most successful (mainly canned) food business in New Zealand until usurped by the Wattie’s line (Butland had his initial success with the invention of Chesdale Cheese and was also behind the Goldpack fruit brand amongst others).

History is confusing around how the Crest brand passed from one owner to the next. My research shows that the brand changed hands in 1959 – but that Wattie’s kept producing the frozen stuff on behalf of Unilever until 1961 or so. Another record shows the Crest brand passing via S. Kirkpatrick & Company Ltd (the “K” Brand) to J. Wattie Foods Limited in 1960 (Wattie’s had also bought both “K” and Thompson & Hill’s OAK brands in this year).

shopper holding packets of surprise peas at Merrylands Shopping Centre, NSW  1966 editjpg

A shopper holding packets of surprise dried peas at Merrylands Shopping Centre, NSW, Australia. Taken in 1966 by Ern McQuillan, image courtesy of the National Library of Australia colelction, ref nlapic-vn4984301.

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I’d have to see more examples of packaging with notations on company details to develop a better tracking – but I would say that this was referring to the canned business, not the frozen and dried goods portion (Crest also included spices and sauce lines) – as by the early 1970s the Surprise brand, along with hugely popular Wall’s ice cream (covered here in September 2013) – is being marketed under the auspices of Birds Eye Frozen Foods NZ Ltd, a Unilever subsidiary. As the Crest brand died off for good around the mid-late 1970s that part was dropped by Unilever and the Surprise brand was slotted under Continental.

I assumed Surprise was by Crest – and that when Butland had supposedly sold the brand to Unilever (who then added some more product lines like packets of dried “Stockpot Vegetables” for various soups, amongst others) they acquired the Surprise line/ brand from Butland in the deal as well.

Just when I thought I had this all sorted – a Surprise sliced apples box appeared online for sale indicating it was manufactured by “Crest Foods Limited” alone. It’s similar to the box pictured here dated first half of the 1970s – except it seemed to have an imperial price written on it in pencil. Did Crest hold a license from Unilever for Surprise then conceded later? A quick check of records shows that the address for Crest on the box, at Jackson Street, Petone, Wellington – was the same address for Unilever’s Birds Eye.

Crest Surprise dried apples  box recreation  copy

 A recreation of  panels from a Surprise dried apples box, dated some time between 1970-76. I used a picture taken of items in a mock grocery store in an unknown museum collection to remake the artwork. It slightly differs from the earlier box at bottom.

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A potted Unilever history: William Hesketh Lever launched Sunlight Soap in England in 1885 and it was imported to Aotearoa until operations opened in Sydney in 1899 – at which point importation of the product into New Zealand switched to Australia. However it was not until quite late in the piece, 1919 in fact, that Lever products were produced domestically. In 1920 Lever merged with Dutch fats and oils business Margarine Unie modifying the company to an amalgamation of the two monikers – Unilever.

It’s the usual story with many Trans-Tasman companies – the development was quite separate as is the case with Unilever (until recently). Down under, Unilever spent a number of decades, well into the 1980s, still referring to themselves as Lever Products/Lever Bros (N.Z.) Ltd until they acquired the brands Oxo, Bushells, Faggs (coffee), and John West – and along with their Quality Packers business (including Choysa, Perfit, Red Rose and Q-P) all merged to form Unifoods NZ in 1988.

Over the years Unilever also produced Monkey Brand (household cleaning soap), and Lux was an enduring brand over the decades with soap powder, dish liquid and toilet soap lines. Other toilet soap brands were Lifebuoy, Castilever, Solvol and Knights Castille. Household cleaners Vim and Handy arrived in the 50s and 60s; Marge’s toothpaste and Impulse deodorant debuted in the 1980s. Soups included Continental , Country Style and Slim-a-Soup. There was instant Savoury Rice in beefy onion, Chinese style, and mild curry flavours. The Abel’s brand had vegetable oil, margarine, and copha – and Lucky Whip was a canned aerosol whipped cream. Frying Saucers, which I remember, were a frozen snack for deep-frying that resembled fishcakes but had mince meat inside. They were all the rage for a while when I was a child. Wall’s ice cream was at various times slotted in under the Birds Eye frozen foods subsidiary. The Surprise line was put under the Crest brand for some time. I am sure there were a number more brands that Unilever produced in New Zealand.

Crest Surprise quick-dried Sliced Beans box 12      copy

A Surprise dried beans box dated early-mid 1970s used to recreate my artwork for the box panels at top. Note the decimal price stamp shows it definitely dates after 1967.

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Clarence Frank Birdseye was a taxidermist turned inventor from Brooklyn who experimented with and developed a flash-freezing system for frozen foods in the 1920s after being inspired by Inuit Eskimo methods he observed on assignment in Newfoundland. Within a few short years, after having invested a few dollars in brine, ice and a fan – he had perfected the technique through trial and error (and one bankruptcy) and sold his General Seafood Corporation business for a fortune to Goldman Sachs/Postum Cereals (which later merged to become General Foods in America).

Again, the company histories separated out between the U.S. and the U.K. – having different owners in different global territories . The latter is how the brand came to Aotearoa via British Unilever – who bought rights from America to the ‘quick freezing’ patent and Birds Eye brand in the 1930s.

Home refrigeration started to popularise in the 1930s – and gave rise to the ice cream industry catering to this phenomenon – by packing their products for the first time in card quart and pint boxes to take home for post supper treats. Frozen vegetables were a new-fangled thing in New Zealand in the late 1940s but the above groundwork had already been laid for their immediate popularity.

Woman's Weekly  1964_Part1 CREST SURPRISE PEAS copy

Advert for Surprise peas by Crest, New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, 1964. I think this is the dried version.

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In 1947, Unilever of Britain contracted with Wattie’s to produce frozen peas, then a variety of vegetables and fruit under its Birds Eye brand – which I previously mentioned here in December 2011. Wattie’s then established a new plant at Gisborne in 1952 in order to continue accommodate this contract. Subsequently, as soon as their new processing facility opened Wattie’s followed with their own packaged peas and corn; this eventually became a huge range of frozen product that did their competition no harm in the marketplace for quite some time – for Birds Eye were around well into the 1980s before it fizzled out (the business was finally dismantled in 1984). However the brand had a longer and more popular life in Australia, where it continues to this day.

A 1956 still seems to show Birds Eye peas, raspberries and frozen fish (probably fingers, which launched in England that same year) amongst other items. According to Simplot, the current owners of the brand in Australasia – Birds Eye was not launched over the ditch until two years later in 1949 – although I think it’s clear by now that believing what a company writes on their own website about their own history is tantamount to listening to a claim from most politicians.

By the 1980s the Surprise brand had expanded to apples, peas, beans, butter beans, peas and carrots, minted peas, mixed vegetables, and chopped onions. I am sure there was more, this is just what I know of. The brand is still under Unilever and going Strong today, with four products – minted peas, garden peas and peas & corn (all in frozen and dried versions) and dried mixed vegetables ( a combo of pea, potatoes, beans and carrots). To my knowledge Wattie’s (now Heinz Wattie’s Ltd) continue their association with Unilever for production.

SURPRISE SLICED APPLES CREST FOODS LIMITED Jackson Street Petone looks to have imperial price 3 S 6 D edit copy

A Surprise dried apple box, likely dating between 1961-1966. I conject that by this time the ownership of the brand had transferred to Unilever, and product was being manufactured in their Wellington plant, hence the Jackson street, Petone address on the side.

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However right at the end of writing I ran across a U.K. radio advert archive which lists an ad for Surprise garden peas circa 1960 – suddenly making me wonder whether they were either exported to the U.K for sale by Unilever – or simply originally a Unilever brand all along . Something wasn’t right with my story.

Further to that, In an online discussion about the Surprise brand one person remembers “…Batchelor’s “Surprise” peas . My father devised the name and designed the packaging…” I’d love to follow up on this line of inquiry but the conversation was unfortunately archived. Some further digging into Unilever history in the U.K. revealed that in the early 1940s Van den Bergh Foods/Unilever had acquired a fifty year old British company named Batchelor’s which specialised in processing peas.

Then I ran across a 1966 promotional photo in the National Library of Australia archive of a woman holding a few packets of Surprise peas – almost the same package design I’ve featured in the 1964 advert here. However the brand name was different and after a lot of squinting I realised the product was under Rosella, not Birds Eye. Unilever were successful in a takeover of Rosella in 1963 and remained owners until 2002.

With Unilever’s Surprise line in New Zealand appearing under Crest just after the acquisition of that brand, then their Surprise line in Australia appearing under Rosella just after the acquisition of that brand, I started to see a pattern. I conject that Surprise was never a Crest brand and Unilever acquired the product and technique with their purchase of Batchelor’s in the U.K. They just threw it under whatever was the most popular brand in the marketplace at the time in a corresponding country – hence it’s move to Continental when Crest was given last rites in Aotearoa.

Surprise peas - IGA Shopping Game 1969 14th anniversary - 197 Four Square  copy

 L:  Surprise dried peas box from a 1977 Four Square stores brochure.  R: Surprise frozen and dried peas packets from an IGA stores shopping-themed board game issued as a promo for the 14th anniversary of the brand in New Zealand,  in 1969. 

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The conclusion is fairly clear that Surprise was never originally a Kiwi brand at all. The research still took me on an interesting journey, though. Although, – it seems that, despite my best efforts – this story is not quite wrapped up yet.

I’d date these particular boxes I’ve recreated at some time between 1970 and 1976 (closer to the former date) based on regular changes to the packaging, as well as being evidenced by the decimal price of 25 cents.

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Update June 2015: Katherine Milburn, one of the  Ephemera Librarians at the Hocken Library Collections archive, saw this article and was kind enough to contact me with some data on the frozen foods industry, as well as these scans of Surprise brand  bean boxes. They definitely date after 1972 as the printer’s mark is ‘Whitcoulls.’ This company wasn’t producing items of packaging until that year,  after a merger of huge printing and publishing businesses Whitcombe & Tombs  and  Coull Somerville Wilkie. However since I’ve established dates for the boxes in the main article as being in production as late as 1976 when they were still marking packaging of items with dual imperial and metrics for those slow on the uptake, that gives us a pretty good start date.

Surprise beans-Hocken Library Collection  (1) edit sml

Surprise beans-Hocken Library Collection  (2) edit sml

As for a cut-off date, well our only clue is the  complete absence of a barcode, so probably prior to around 1982. I also remember this Whitcoulls logo in use in the late 1970s to early 1980s.  So, two versions of a box for the same product. Obviously the yellow one is earlier at 32 cents. Plus the mustard theme just screams of the decade they call ‘the one that style forgot’ (I beg to differ on this point). So I’d say late 1970s for this one; the green version shows the price has now risen to 41 cents so a guess of the very early 1980s.

Surprise beans-Hocken Library Collection  (3) edit sml

Surprise beans-Hocken Library Collection  (4) edit sml

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Reconstructing Wall’s

In Apefruits, Birds Eye Frozen Foods, Birds Eye NZ Ltd, Crazy Joe Cola iceblock, Frozen Foods, Ice Cream, Rangitaiki Plains Dairy Company, Sno Frute, Street's Ice Cream, Tip-Top, Unilever, Wall's ice cream, Wall's Ice Cream Ltd on September 9, 2012 at 10.46

Originally a British brand, Wall’s started in Acton in 1922 and the business was such a success that by 1959 production had doubled and a large factory rebuilt in Gloucester. I would conject that the brand came to New Zealand soon after that – probably in the very early 1960s under the auspices of Unilever. I really don’t have that much information on the history of the brand in Aotearoa. Kiwis hold these sort of  brands dear via fond memories of something they grew up with – yet the story didn’t really happen here; like many foreign concerns such as Cadbury’s that wheedled their way in to the marketplace via franchises or mergers – basically they just arrived and kicked some eggs out of the already-established nest, so to speak, to make space for themselves.

The first real records I have of specific products are Tahitian Delight (1961) and Sno Frute in flavours big orange, big pineapple, and big pink lemonade (probably late 1960s).
By the early 1970s the brand is being marketed under the auspices of Birds Eye Frozen Foods NZ Ltd, a Unilever subsidiary which was present in New Zealand from 1947 – having Wattie’s produce their frozen fruits and vegetables for them under the Birds Eye brand, which I previously mentioned here in December 2011.

By the early-mid 1970s I personally have memories of the Woppa in blackberry banana flavour (I have recreated all the flavours that I am aware of, but I’m sure there were more over time). I also remember having Tornadoes and boysenberry Splices – but I think most people will be familiar with the very popular “Crazy Joe” character which they used for a cola flavour popsicle (or “iceblocks” as they were commonly referred to in Aotearoa) – he was also used in Australia and the campaign was pretty much identical from what I have seen. A big thing at primary school in the mid to late 1970s was the Apefruits range, based on the sensational Planet of the Apes hit TV series and the ice novelties came in flavours like Orangutang, Chocanana, Jaffanana, and Gorillaberry with a matching sticker set to collect (now competitively pursued by collectors).

The brand pumped out novelty lines with no stopping through the 1970s and some of the names for products I have run across are Daisy, Spider, Sundowner, Fizzbang, Goblet, Weird Wolf, and Witchy Goo – specific years unknown.
Wall’s Ice Cream Ltd it was purchased and run by the Rangitaiki Plains Dairy Company circa mid 1970s , for a brief period of time.

By the very end of the 1970s, the business been snapped up by that great subsumer of all smaller ice cream brands, Tip-Top – and seem to continue through the eighties to the end of that decade with products like Star Trek in1982, The Goonies in1985 (both based on the hit movies of the moment), and an America’s Cup “KZ-7” novelty in 1987. Presumably by the end of the decade, the brand was dismantled.

I recreated the Woppa labels and the poster from different lots that have been sold on Trade Me over the years. In particular the wrappers were terrible quality and quite a feat, but not the hardest thing that I have done over the last couple of years by a long shot. The flavours of the Woppas sound absolutely mouth-watering and I could have one now!

It looks like the brand in Oz was eventually subsumed by Street’s Ice Cream (obvious from the logos I have seen). However Wall’s products, still based in the UK , continue to be made today – apparently still a market leader with some products. It is still owned by Unilever in Britain and is now truly a global brand, just no longer in Australasia.

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The Woppa poster is available from my online store along with lots of other things. Greeting cards are a great deal!

http://www.redbubble.com/people/darianzam/works/9331906-walls-woppa-poster

http://www.redbubble.com/people/darianzam/works/9332116-walls-woppa-card