Story: Home décor and furnishings

Page 2. Settling in, 1790 to 1860

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Whalers and sealers

The first Europeans to inhabit New Zealand, shore-based whalers and sealers, lived in one-roomed huts, often built like Māori whare. The two types of dwelling looked similar externally, but were quite different inside. This was partly because the early European settlers lived, cooked, ate and slept in the one room, while, for cultural reasons, Māori constructed separate buildings for these activities.

Practicality dictated the décor. A typical whaler’s one-roomed cottage had a chimney at one end and was lined with curtained bunks, while furniture consisted of a table, benches, and sometimes stools made of whale vertebrae. There were kegs for flour and water, perhaps a dresser for tin dishes and glasses, and ropes, harpoons and other tools were stored in the rafters. All was neat and clean and, according to one observer, ‘reminds one of a Dutch coaster [coastal vessel]’.1

DIY decorating

Recalling life in Auckland in the 1840s, Lady Mary Ann Martin said ‘furniture was not to be bought, but packing cases and empty boxes were plentiful. These made our dressing-tables, and washstands, and ottomans, and lounges. A little white muslin and pink calico, and chintz cushions stuffed with scraped flax, made a handsome show.’2

Missionaries and morality

Missionaries first arrived in 1814. They were keen to impress on Māori what they believed were the benefits of British civilisation, including well-regulated homes, but at the start had to make do with very simple accommodation. Once missionaries became established, they built cottages with several rooms. Separate bedrooms supported moral standards about parents sleeping separately from children, and boys from girls. Wooden rather than earth floors also made it easier to keep the interior clean – another European concern.

These first European houses were sparsely decorated with mostly Australian-made furniture and household items. Amenities were scarce: cooking was done on an open fireplace, water was fetched from outside and there were no bathrooms or laundries. While most Māori continued to live in traditional style, a few (mainly chiefs) adopted European furniture and furnishings.

Kitchen or parlour?

The tendency of settlers to use the kitchen as a living room was frowned on by some. Kitty, a servant of the prominent Cargill family, visited another Otago house where this was the case and reported back to her employer: ‘I have been to look at this kitchen, and it is nice … but it’s too like a parlour. I like a parlour to be a parlour, and a kitchen to be a kitchen.’3


Settler families, mainly from Britain, arrived in the 1840s and 1850s. They had to content themselves with raupō (bulrush) whare or huts at first, later graduating to small cob (mud mixed with straw) or wooden houses of several rooms, often whitewashed inside to look clean and airy. New Zealand homes were, and continued to be, cold. Fireplaces were used for cooking, and as they provided warmth, the kitchen often served as the living room as well.

Many new arrivals took pride in making their simple dwellings look pretty and cosy with the addition of curtains and cushions, books, ornamental knick-knacks, clocks, prized furniture, pianos and framed prints brought over from Britain. Other furniture was homemade or improvised from boxes. Some could also afford patterned wallpaper and carpets, often in strong colours such as red, but for many sheepskins or simple mats were the only floor coverings.

  1. Quoted in Anna K. C. Petersen, New Zealanders at home: a cultural history of domestic interiors 1814–1914. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2001, pp. 20–21. Back
  2. Quoted in Jeremy Salmond, Old New Zealand houses, 18001940. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1986, pp. 70–71. Back
  3. Quoted in New Zealanders at home, p. 38. Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Home décor and furnishings - Settling in, 1790 to 1860', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 5 Sep 2013