Story: Manufacturing – an overview

Page 3. Early 20th century manufacturing

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Made in New Zealand

The 20th century saw the establishment of new varieties of manufacturing in New Zealand. New consumer products such as electric lighting, electric ranges, radios, gramophones, sewing machines, motorcycles, bicycles, automobiles and ready-made clothing entered daily life.

At the beginning of the century many of these goods were imported by agents on behalf of an overseas manufacturer. As the century progressed there was a marked trend toward the domestic manufacture of these items.

First World War

The First World War contributed to the trend to local manufacture. Some businesses such as boot and shoe factories, and leather manufacturers, found their products absorbed by military contracts rather than retail markets. Other manufacturers prospered as many importers found obtaining reliable supplies from overseas difficult, and switched to local suppliers.

In the years that followed the war, a number of businesses established their own factories to avoid supply difficulties. The Farmers Trading Company, Fletcher Construction and Winstone Wallboards were amongst them.

Getting bigger

In the 1920s, as motor transport became common and roads improved, supplying remote townships from centralised production facilities became feasible. In some industries larger factories were built to take advantage of the economies of scale that resulted. The printing industry and the brewing industry were examples of this. In both cases, mergers and acquisitions saw the development of larger and larger plants, the products of which replaced goods from smaller manufacturers.

Overseas manufacturers

Until the 1920s many overseas firms used New Zealand-based agents to represent their interests. In 1921 for the first time the three biggest urban areas all had more than 100,000 inhabitants, and with larger urban areas international manufacturers began locating production in New Zealand.

In 1936, with the marked expansion in licensed radio users in New Zealand, Philips established a local manufacturing operation. British chocolate manufacturer Cadbury, in an amalgamation with Dunedin producer, R. Hudson and Co., began producing Cadbury chocolate in New Zealand in 1930. Lewis Berger and Sons, the British paint manufacturer, began production in New Zealand in 1923, and Colgate Palmolive began making toiletries in 1939.

A slippery business


Australian firm Felt and Textiles set up New Zealand Slippers in 1929. Slippers, then a high-priced, high-value product, had previously been imported. The new business did well. By the late 1940s Felt and Textiles had several New Zealand businesses, 21 manufacturing sites, and produced 20% of all wool products made in New Zealand. In 1969 the businesses became Feltex New Zealand, a leading carpet maker. It slipped into receivership in 2006.


Motor industry

The motor industry followed a similar pattern, with the arrival of overseas firms in New Zealand in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1926 General Motors opened a plant in Wellington, and in 1936 Ford Motor Company established its production facility. They did not build cars from scratch, but assembled them from semi-knocked down (SKD) or completely knocked down (CKD) components.

In 1937 NZ Motor Bodies began producing all-steel truck cabs. They were the first business to manufacture steel bus bodies in New Zealand, and provided 2,500 bodies for the army and airforce during the Second World War. By 1938 the motor building and repair industry was the second largest employer of labour in New Zealand.

How to cite this page:

Ian Hunter, 'Manufacturing – an overview - Early 20th century manufacturing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by Ian Hunter, published 11 Mar 2010