By 1911 most New Zealanders lived in urban areas. As early as 1885 one newspaper warned that ‘[t]he country make men; the cities uses them up’.1 The government linked urbanisation with national decline, and tried, unsuccessfully, to reverse the trend. The only hope was that men and women would settle in the suburbs rather than in city centres and recreate the best aspects of rural living on their quarter-acre sections.
At first only the wealthy could afford to pursue suburban lives. With the development of public transport from the 1880s, the suburbs attracted ever more men and women. By the 1920s just over a quarter of those living in the four main cities resided in the inner city; by the 1950s fewer than 20% did. While the 1990s saw a move back into inner-city areas, most city dwellers still lived in the encircling suburbs.
Until the 1970s suburban life was organised around the breadwinner husband and stay-at-home wife. While men worked for wages in factories, shops and offices, women worked for free in suburban homes as housewives, caregivers of children, and community builders. Suburban life was also distinguished by different roles for men and women – in theory if not always in practice.
Although many men worked downtown, the suburbs offered them space to reconnect with their families and the land. Early suburban developments were often based on sections of at least a quarter of an acre (just over 1,000 square metres), providing plenty of room for extensive vegetable plots and backyard cricket pitches.
Since the 1920s thousands of suburban men have joined service organisations like Rotary, Lions and Jaycees, using their gardening and do-it-yourself skills to build children’s playgrounds and picnic sites in their local communities. In the 1970s New Zealand had the highest per-capita membership of men’s service organisations in the world.
As heads of the household, men were meant to provide for their families. For many that meant spending their evenings and weekends tending potatoes, peas and cabbages. For those who did not learn the rudiments of gardening at their father’s shovel, the Yates garden guide provided practical advice. In print since 1895, the guide has sold over a million copies.
During the 1930s economic depression, free vegetable seeds and manure were given to the unemployed so men could continue to feed their families. As recession took hold again in 2008, vegetable growing was touted as an important way to contribute to family well-being, although now women were increasingly tilling the soil.
During the 1920s suburban lawns took on a new importance. A neat lawn at the front of his bungalow signalled the family man’s respectability, while an extensive lawn at the back was the site for games with his children. In-fill housing, smaller sections in new subdivisions and the rise of backyard decks have changed many men’s relationships with their patch of grass, but in the early 21st century the whine of the lawnmower remains a familiar weekend sound.
Maintenance tasks undertaken by men were significant contributions to household economies. These were known as DIY (do it yourself) and included concreting drives and paths, building fences, painting the house and wallpapering. Sometimes these were done with a group of mates (a ‘working bee’), with the recipient of the labour providing a few thirst-quenching beers at the end. In the early 2000s DIY remained an important aspect of suburban life.
Full of paint pots, gardening and engineering tools, the backyard shed was where many men fixed and built things – everything from faulty radios to P-class sailboats. For many, it was also a place to escape from their wives when things got too hot in the kitchen.