Boosterism attempts to ‘boost’ the reputation and perceptions of a place. The term, which originated in the US in the 19th century, is not widely used any more, but the practices are still common. Boosters often dealt in myth-making, idealism and overstatement, but they also aimed to make their dreams reality. The boosters of the 2000s are better known as economic development agencies, marketing experts and property developers.
19th-century New Zealand was founded on boosterism. The New Zealand Company described the country in glowing terms in speeches, books and pamphlets – first to attract immigrants, and then to counteract negative publicity after the extravagance of their claims was exposed. Later, particular towns and cities were ‘talked up’ (or boosted), sometimes to the detriment of other settlements. A sense of rivalry continues between some towns.
Boosterism was due to a combination of collective self-interest, civic pride and genuine concern for a town or city’s welfare. The main goals were to attract and keep residents, businesses and industries, and to encourage investment. Economic depressions often led to increased boosterism because towns and cities had to work hard to keep residents and investors.
Battle of the towns
From the late 1860s the South Island settlements of Kakanui, Moeraki and Ōamaru competed to build the best wharf and port facilities. Kakanui emerged as front-runner, but its harbour later silted up. Meanwhile, in 1869 the Duke of Edinburgh mistakenly visited Moeraki instead of Ōamaru, giving that settlement a public relations victory over its rival. However, when Ōamaru built a harbour breakwater all bets were off. Ōamaru could not relax though, with Timaru and its similar port facilities nearby.
Rivalry between towns and cities was an integral part of boosterism. Auckland and Wellington were early rivals for capital-city status. Auckland became the capital in 1840, but in 1865 the seat of government shifted south to Wellington.
Rivalry was also prompted by competition to secure or develop key infrastructure that could significantly improve a town’s growth prospects, and even ensure its survival. Palmerston North and Foxton vied for major railway lines, as did Hamilton and Cambridge, while New Plymouth and Waitara competed to secure port facilities.
Attracting tourists became a focus for boosters in the later 19th century. Nelson, a New Zealand Company settlement, was unable to establish itself as one of the country’s major cities, but had more luck promoting itself as a tourist town. The catchphrase ‘sunny Nelson’ had been used from the early days, but became much more widespread once adopted by boosters.
Like Nelson, Napier grew slowly, and promoters hoped tourism would succeed where industry had failed. They had some success: one Australian visitor described Napier in 1887 as ‘the Malta of the southern-seas’.1
Delusions of grandeur
Not all visitors to New Zealand were convinced by the boosters. When told that Wellington had the largest wooden building in the world, tourist Max Herz wrote: ‘One has to take such assurances guardedly in New Zealand, where the people sometimes suffer from megalomania.’2 Perhaps confirming this view were a New Zealander’s comments on visiting St Peter’s Basilica in Rome: ‘[I]t isn’t bad, but I can’t understand what all the fuss is about. In our country, even if young, we have buildings as equally beautiful, for example, the Printing Office in Wellington.’3
The dominant tools of the trade were the written and spoken word, and anyone able to speak or write could act as a booster. Boosters tended to occupy particular professions or positions within their community. Newspaper editors and owners, such as John Ballance (later prime minister) in Whanganui, were well placed because they had a ready-made audience and means of communication. Politicians were natural boosters, as were mayors and city councillors. Businesspeople had a vested interest in talking up their towns and cities because a settlement, its inhabitants and its businesses depended on one another for survival.
The language of boosterism
Boosters were concerned with establishing all kinds of ‘facts’: that New Zealand towns and cities were better than those in the old world and just as civilised, that they developed quickly and reliably, and that a great future awaited them and their inhabitants. Too much enthusiasm sometimes led to flights of fancy, such as when Auckland was described as ‘a galaxy of emeralds set in diamonds’ in 1888.4