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Saturday, March 2, 2013

Dancing with rosellas

Arnott's logo
As it turns out, my title for this piece couldn't be more accurate, but for different reasons from those I had for naming it that. 

    Below is the story I posted several hours ago. It contains an error of fact. This error demonstrates a confusion between icons, thereby creating a story on mixed memories. 

    It now concerns two memorable Australian companies, Rosella and Arnott's. Regardless of what's written below, it was Arnott's, established even earlier than Rosella, which supplied the critical element of the story.

    To be honest, I don't mind having confused the two. The way this can happen in remembered experience makes as good a story as the original one. Anyway, I've got an excuse....

    I leave the story exactly as it was, because what's fundamental to it doesn't change. Thanks to my dear sisters for giving me the clue that I might have got things a wee bit wrong, and apologies to Arnott's. Maybe a better title now would be "A Tale of Two Parrots".

❉     ❉     ❉     ❉     ❉

When we were kids, the School Fancy Dress Ball was one of the highlights of the year.

   The good thing about these balls was Practice. You might think this strange, but it meant that for a couple of weeks before the ball, we would be marched down to the Diggers Arms Dance Hall to practice the manoeuvres for the Grand March – akin, on a slightly smaller scale, to what you might see at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, but with a motley collection of forty or so Calliope State School pupils instead of an entire US Civil War battalion of flawless clones.

   Again you might wonder why this Practice could possibly have any attraction, but what it meant was that for at least an hour on several afternoons, we escaped from the normal tedium of English, Maths and Social Studies inside the schoolroom. Any activity which took us from that fate was a plus. Well, it was for me anyway.

   Mothers may have taken a different view, because it meant they had to wrack their brains to find or make a fancy dress costume, often for four or five kids. I don't know if they hated or loved this – it was bound to be a personal thing. For some, it may have brought back happy memories of being Alice in Wonderland or dressing up in some weird garb that was supposed to represent a hero of the day.

   I dunno. That part of it wasn't our problem. All I know is that they turned out kids dressed in something for the March – ballerinas and Caspers, Robin Hoods and William Tells, Hiawathas and many Pocahontii, scrawny Phantoms (as in the Ghost Who Walks – you don't know him? Forget it – you had to be there....) and strange regalia purporting to clothe Orientals of one sort or another.

Current Rosella Co Label
   One year, Mum had this bright idea. In the Sunday Mail, the Rosella Foods Company had offered to send a package of labels, posters, little parrot images et many als, to anyone wanting to make a fancy dress costume.

   Stuck for something for me to wear, Mum wrote and asked for one, and true to its word as a real Australian company, a large package arrived in the mail.

   Mum made some Roman toga-like thing to be used as a base, and festooned it with the brightly covered labels. A crown superstructure, likewise adorned, was wrapped round my head. Pride and joy for me (at about seven years of age, in my defence) was a cardboard cutout of a parrot so large that, with a kind of handle attached, I could hold it aloft as I took part in the Grand March. Admittedly, it interfered badly with the waltz with a partner at the end.

   In short, I was a walking advertisement for Rosella jam and tomato sauce. It was impressive with its riot of colour. Nothing quite like it had ever before been seen at a Calliope School Fancy Dress Ball and, I was quite sure, was a delight to the eye of the admirers around the hall. Nor will it ever be seen again.

   Today, the Rosella Food Co, as iconically Australian as Vegemite (sadly, Australian no more) has been swallowed up by the food giants too, after being around since 1895. It is, or was, older than the Commonwealth of Australia, cobbled together as a Johnny-come-lately affair in 1901.

   Obviously, my experience of holding the joyously-coloured cardboard parrot aloft like a Roman shield gives me a sentimental attachment to the venerable company that few can share – unless, that is, their mother took up the generous Rosella offer as well, and bedecked their kid in the brilliant colours of the Eastern Rosella or Rainbow Lorikeet.

   There was one thing I found which is a great disappointment. I went online looking for what I believe was the parrot on the original label. That parrot stood on a perch on one leg, and held a partially-munched Sao biscuit up to its beak with the other, just as did the one I held aloft when thrilling the multitude at the ball. I know they were thrilled – they were, after all, smiling widely in sheer admiration.

   There seems no image of that avian cracker-cruncher anywhere online. I'm shocked. Has every line of history been rewritten in favour of that imposter I now see?*

   The other thing is that in Queensland, where I come from, Rosella was far better known for making jams than anything else. It even made jam from rosella flowers, along with those of unfashionable fruits for jam like pineapple and quince.

   I loved pineapple jam, with the cracker-munching rosella parrot on the jam-tin label, perched there happily. Reading that label and saying hello to the rosella, you could sit for a whole breakfast scoffing toast thickly spread with pineapple jam. 

   Well, I could. I was happy to read anything. Stop smirking.

   Anyway, vale Rosella Food Co. So long, and thanks for the parrots. And memories.

* Ah, the irony of that question in view of my introduction!

What's below has nothing to do with my story, but it's too good to miss. I had to include it; forgive me, Mad Dog, for not securing your permission first, but let me know and I'll explain the circumstances. From your brilliant website, Madang – Ples Bilong Mi

Madang – Ples Bilong Mi
My cousin Beth and I in more traditional Fancy Dress for an earlier School Ball


  1. Beautiful, evocative, nostalgic, and very Australian post, Denis. Couldn't be written about anywhere else. And for that, I love it. Thank you. xx

  2. That photo! How adorable:) Thanks for the memories, too,and the tribute to mothers, making up costumes among all their their chores. (Thinks) where did I see, recently, that Arnott's tin with the rosellas..

    Yes, I read labels at the breakfast table, too. I think that, along with mum reading Little Golden Books, was why I could read by the time I went to school (she boasts). Do you remember any of your pre school story books?

    Julie M

  3. We also had this tradition of fancy dress dances as children in New Zealand in the mid-fifties. My mother somehow acquired a red cap and hood which enabled me to go as Red Riding Hood at least once. Then she cleverly made a jockey's outfit out of cheap satin, complete with a cap, a number on the back and a crop (dowel with a bit of leather stuck on the end). I think I won a prize for that one.


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