Clues of a city’s beginning

Rand Show’s old garbage is a window into the Joburg of old, writes Yolandi Groenewald

It may have been drunken miners who left their dozen empty bottles of Guinness beer at the dumpsite, or a rich mining magnate’s wife who discarded her empty French perfume bottle.

Now, more than a century later, evidence of the lives of those who once attended the Rand Easter Show is being uncovered in an archeological dig alongside the grandstands of the old showgrounds, which was home to the exhibition for more than 77 years.

Students from Wits University’s archeology department have uncovered all kinds of weird and wonderful bottles and jars that tell stories about the residents of old Joburg at the dawn of industrialisation in South Africa.

The old bottles are all handmade with unique tops made either from marbles, elaborate screw tops or “burst tops”.

Each one has a story to tell.

What perfume did women put on to impress their lovers?

What did out-of-luck miners use to dull their pain?

What formula did new mothers give their babies?

In which beer brand did they prefer to drown their sorrows?

And, after the Boer Wars, did the Afrikaners find alternatives to the products made by the enemy they so bitterly hated?

“You can tell a lot about the habits of those turn-of-the-century citizens of Johannesburg,” says Amanda Esterhuysen, the executive head of archaeology at Wits, who oversaw the dig at the edge of the construction site of the university’s new science building.

The dumpsite was found when Wits dug the foundations for its new building, and Esterhuysen was called in to assess it.

The Rand Easter Show was first hosted on the old grounds in Braamfontein in 1907, and Esterhuysen suspects that the oldest bottles at the site originate from around then.

At the time, agriculture dominated the show, which was a highlight on the city’s social calendar, drawing everyone from the elite to ordinary farmers.

“There is a conception that Johannesburg 100 years ago was a dusty city overrun with miners, leftovers from the Anglo-Boer War, and Europeans coming to find adventure. The bottles we have found show that there was another side to Johannesburg, an affluent side with real money.”

Esterhuysen’s students traced some of the bottles back to their advertisements in the old Rand Daily Mail newspaper, finding that some of the products were extremely expensive.

Ordinary miners would never have been able to afford offerings from French perfumer Edouard Pinaud.

Esterhuysen also found the large number of imports from the US revealing.

“I expected a lot from the UK, but was surprised at how many American bottles we found,” she says, twirling a transparent oblong bottle in her hand, engraved with the word Davis.

“Davis Vegetable Pain Killer was apparently a wonder drug in its time,” explains Esterhuysen.

But the potion had nothing to do with vegetables, as it turns out, and it’s popularity could probably be attributed to it containing a mixture of opium and alcohol.

“It would certainly have dulled the pain,” Esterhuysen laughs, adding that there appeared to have been a lot of quack medicine around to mislead early Joburgers.

Other examples of this were a Californian fig syrup for constipation, or the well-known Kepler Cod Liver Oil with malt extract, which many early 20th-century South African children were tortured with for the sake of good health.

“If you look at the old Rand Daily Mail ads for the different products, it seems religion was used without shame for marketing. The Davis vegetable painkiller came standard with a chorus of angels carrying the bottle,” Esterhuysen says.

Judging by the number of beer bottles found, Guinness was the drink of choice, with Castle, made by SAB, not far behind.

Esterhuysen also found quite a number of gin bottles.

But the most finely crafted bottles were probably those made for wildly popular “aerated water”, at a time when fizzy drinks were just reaching South African shores.

Joburg had quite a few “water aerators” who bought special bottles, usually topped with a glass marble, in England.

They then carbonated the water themselves. Goldberg and Zeffertt, with its trademark lion, was probably one of the most well-known soda water manufacturers.

The archeologists also found bottles that once contained Foster Clark fruit powder. Others contained castor oil, Eno, Vaseline, Bovril and ink.

“Also interesting was the number of German products we found, such as a beautiful white bottle of German bitters. We suspect it was sold to Afrikaners at the time who simply didn’t want to buy anything British.”

Another interesting find was the Victorian Mellins baby food formula. Mellins had found a market among upper class English families and more affluent Joburg women.

For Esterhuysen, the bottles provide a glimpse into the start of the cosmopolitan hub that became Joburg and which represented the start of mass marketing in South Africa.

“This was the beginning of the Johannesburg that we know today and, through these bottles, we can catch a glimpse of the lives they led.”

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