Most Curious and Peculiar
Women Taxidermists in Colonial Sydney
In 1891 the committee responsible for gathering examples of the work of women in New South Wales to be sent to the Chicago World’s Fair reported that "a good deal of bird and animal stuffing, done in Sydney, is performed by females". A year later the committee claimed that the taxidermy exhibit prepared by Mrs Ada Rohu for the Fair contained specimens "most curious and peculiar to this country".
A century later it is taxidermy - the art of preparing and mounting of skins of animals in a life-like manner - that is regarded as strange. Today, such objects are often viewed with distaste, disbelief, and even repulsion. The idea that Victorian women might have been taxidermists seems even stranger. Contrary to our expectations, women in colonial Australia practiced taxidermy as a hobby and as a profession. Examples of their work could be found in fashion, and in homes, museums and exhibitions.
This exhibition follows the careers of Jane Tost and her daughter Ada Rohu, two professional taxidermists who worked in Sydney between 1856 and 1900.
CASE 1: Jane Tost and Ada Rohu
Jane Tost and Ada Rohu were members of a prominent family of English taxidermists. After emigrating with her family to Tasmania in 1856, Jane Tost worked as a taxidermist at museums in Hobart and later Sydney. Following a family tragedy in 1872, Jane and her daughter Ada founded a fancy work depot and taxidermy business in Sydney. The firm, Tost & Coates (later Tost & Rohu) operated from 1872 until the 1930s.
Jane Tost (c. 1817-1889) was the daughter of "practical naturalist" Herbert Ward and his wife Catherine. Jane became a taxidermist like her father and brothers. In 1839 she married Charles Tost, a Prussian cabinet maker and bird-stuffer. She bore six children while continuing to work privately and at scientific institutions including the British Museum, Hobart Town Museum and the Australian Museum, Sydney.
Ada Rohu (c. 1845-1928) was a performer at the Queen Victoria Theatre in Sydney during the 1860s. In 1868 she married James Coates, a merchant, and they had three children before James was killed in the fire which destroyed the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1872. In the same year she and her mother founded Tost & Coates Fancy Work Depot and Taxidermy Studio. In 1878 Ada married Henry Rohu, a naturalist, and she had a further six children between 1881 and 1890.
The Ward family of Taxidermists
The Ward family of London was involved in natural history from the early 1800s.
Jane Tost’s father and mother bred and stuffed birds for wealthy gentlemen collectors. Her brothers Henry and Frederick Ward were employed by naturalists John Gould, William Swainson, and John James Audubon to collect and skin birds.
Henry Ward began his own taxidermy business in London in 1857. His son Edwin Ward, also a taxidermist, enjoyed the patronage of the Royal Family from 1872. Edwin’s brother Rowland founded the largest and most influential taxidermy firm in the nineteenth century. Rowland Ward, who saw taxidermy as craft, art and science combined, was famous for his big game taxidermy and animal furniture.
Jane Tost was probably the first woman employed in a museum in the Australian colonies. From 1864 she received an equal wage to the male taxidermists at the Australian Museum, Sydney. Her husband Charles Tost also worked at the Museum as a cabinet-maker and taxidermist. In 1869 she left the Museum following a dispute between her husband and the Curator, Gerard Krefft, but still continued to supply the Museum with specimens.
Beginning the Business
On 6 January 1872 Jane Tost’s son Charles and son-in-law James Coates were fatally injured in the Prince of Wales Theatre fire. A benefit fund established for the victims’ families provided Jane and Ada with some immediate financial relief. Ultimately responsible for the entire family, they opened Tost & Coates, a fancy work depot and taxidermy business, at 60 William Street in 1872. The firm became Tost & Rohu after Ada married Henry Rohu in 1878.
Aside from their taxidermy work, Tost & Coates sold Berlin wool, wax fruit, feather flowers, glass domes, toys and novelties. Jane and Ada also offered lessons in taxidermy and fancy work. Women’s diaries and ladies’ art manuals show that taxidermy was a leisure activity for some middle and upper-class women in the 19th century.
CASE 2 - The Competitors
Jane Tost and Ada Rohu had competitors in both areas of their business - taxidermy and fancy work supplies.
Until the mid 1880s, the main competition for taxidermy work came from George Spalding, Henry Barnes, Robert Barnes, and James Samuel Palmer and his wife. The years 1885 to 1895 saw a large increase in the number of taxidermists working in Sydney.
Taxidermy tended to be a family business, with wives and daughters working under the names of their husbands or fathers. Taxidermy alone could not provide a reasonable income. Most taxidermy firms supplemented their earnings by providing some other service or goods, such as millinery or fur work.
In the area of fancy work supplies, Tost & Coates faced competition from general merchants and smaller dealers. One of their principal competitors was Reading, Son & Steffanoni, General Berlin Wool & Fancy Needlework Warehouse in Market Street.
Reading, Son & Steffanoni
Reading, Son & Steffanoni opened in 1869, a partnership between Anne Reading, her son William, and Lewis Steffanoni. Lewis died in 1880 leaving his wife Sarah with the business and the care of five children under the age of nine. Sarah continued the embroidery side of the business with assistance from her daughters, providing the gold work for uniforms, religious drapery, surf club flags and official robes, including those of the Governor of New South Wales.
Sophie Steffanoni (1873-1906), one of Sarah’s daughters, was an impressionist painter and gold-bullion embroiderer. Her work won many prizes at international exhibitions, including the Colonial and Indian Exhibition (London, 1886) and the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago, 1893).
CASE 3 - Natural History in the Home
handscreenTost & Rohu supplied the domestic market with stuffed and mounted animals, fancy work goods and glass domes.
During the Victorian period natural history entered the home in many ways. Men and women of the middle and upper classes devoted some of their leisure time to studying natural history. Decorative art and design incorporated animal and plant motifs into home furnishings. Real animals and plants, both dead and alive, became part of the domestic sphere as pets, pot plants, or preserved specimens displayed as decorative objects.
In the home, taxidermy was perceived more as an art form than a science. In creating articles for the home, taxidermists were concerned more with aesthetic principles than with scientific accuracy. Before animals could be brought into private space, Culture had to cultivate Nature, civilising and refining it for domestic consumption. (Kookaburra handscreen lent by J.B.Hawkins Antiques)
Profit and Pastime
While genteel men and women displayed an avid interest in natural history throughout the nineteenth century, their activities were valued very differently. A man’s collection of shells, labelled and ordered in a drawer in his study, was considered superior to his sister’s collection, turned into a bouquet of flowers, and displayed under a glass dome in the parlour.
Women like Helena and Harriet Scott and Ellis Rowan, wanted to be recognised as artists and as naturalists. Their work showed artistic skill and sensibility as well as rigorous scientific understanding and observation.
CASE 4 - Exhibitions
Women taxidermists working in the Australasian colonies regularly showed their work at colonial and international exhibitions during the second half of the nineteenth century.
Jane Tost and Ada Rohu were awarded more than twenty medals at such exhibitions between 1860 and 1893. They publicised their success widely in their advertising.
In 1892 the New South Wales Women’s Work Committee for the Chicago World’s Fair made a special effort to include the work of women taxidermists in their display. Ada Rohu was the most successful Australian exhibitor in the Women’s Building at Chicago, where she was awarded more than ten medals. Other successful exhibitors included Mrs Wintle and Miss Lockhart. The novelty of showing strange Australian animals in foreign countries made their exhibits popular and special.
CASE 5 - The Queerest Shop in Australia
In the late nineteenth century, Tost & Rohu increasingly turned its efforts towards selling furs and ethnographic objects. From the 1890s, the firm advertised as Furriers and Island Curio Dealers, and claimed to hold the largest stock of Australian and Pacific Islander artefacts in Australia. It sold and shipped such material all over the world. Ada’s marriage to Henry Rohu in 1878 probably accounted for this change in the shop’s focus. Henry, a naturalist, collected ethnographic artefacts in Northern Australia from the 1870s.
By 1904, Tost & Rohu had developed into a curiosity shop with a museum upstairs. The business, then managed by Willis B. Coates (Ada’s son from her first marriage), continued to advertise Jane and Ada’s success at international and colonial exhibitions.
From 1923 the bookseller James Tyrrell purchased the business and it continued to exist well into the 1930s. By then, Tost & Rohu, Taxidermists, Furriers and Curiosity Shop had become a curiosity in itself and was known as "The Queerest Shop in Australia".
"I desire to call the attention of your readers to a fashion which ... is now much patronised throughout the country. I refer to the wearing in hats and bonnets of a graceful spray of soft fine plumes with drooping or curly tips. These the milliners call Birds of Paradise feathers, the assurance being constantly given that thery are real. They are often mixed with osprey tips, which, to the shame of womanhood, have so long been in fashion, and are still largely used. I may state on trustworthy authority that during the past season one warehouse alone has disposed of no less than sixty thousand dozens of these mixed sprays!"Margaretta L. Lemon, in Nature, 27 June 1895
Towards the end of the nineteenth century some women, many of them feminists, began to protest against the use of animals for personal adornment. These activities were part of a larger movement that sought to protect animals from all kinds of cruelty and mistreatment. Many of the animal protection societies that emerged in New South Wales from the 1870s had active women’s branches, including the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Animals Protection Society.
'Most Curious and Peculiar' was curated by Martha Sear, Department of History and Susie Davies, Macleay Museum.
Design by Bannyan-Wood, Graphic Design (in the gallery) by Marianne Hawke and fabrication by Display by Design
The following institutions kindly lent objects or permitted images from their collections to be reproduced:
Australian Museum, Australian Manuscripts Collection, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW, Nerynna Folk Museum, Powerhouse Museum, Rare Books - Fisher Library - University of Sydney, Royal Agricultural Society of NSW
The Macleay Museum gratefully acknowledges the support of the following individuals for the loan of objects and other assistance:
Caroline Berlyn, Joanne Birkl, Walter Boles, Neil Boness, Liz Bonshek, Jan Brazier, Annette Butterfield, Charles Vivian Antiques, Karen Coote, Aedeen Cremin, Kathryn Davidson, Linda Gibson, Mary Gissing, Nan Godsall, Katherine Grier, George Hangay, Gerard Hayes, Robert Hutchinson, J.B. Hawkins Antiques, Joan Kerr, Jane Lennon, Rolf Lissin, Pat Morris, Nichola Parshall, Mrs A. Perry, Elaine Roberts, Dermot, Rosemary and Kathryn Ryan, Tim Warren, and other private individuals.