Inside the Collection

A very special Christmas present – a swaggie doll

Doll dressed as a swagman
Collection: Powerhouse Museum. Gift of A R Windschuttle, 1985.

This doll, dressed as a swagman, was made in the 1933 by Rita Williams as a Christmas gift for her four-year-old daughter Barbara. With limited material scraps and a doll’s head found in a rubbish bin, Rita was inspired to make and dress the doll in the clothes of the old swagmen who lived near the canal in front of her Merrylands home in outer Sydney.

‘Making do’ was a familiar aspect of life in Australia during the 1930s Depression. With money and goods in short supply, many people had to learn to adapt and improvise with whatever they could find. It was also a time that offered opportunities for inventiveness and ingenuity, and this Swaggie doll is an example of the resourcefulness and creativity that emerges in times of adversity.

The swaggie or swagman was the Australian equivalent of the English tramp and the American hobo. He led a nomadic life tramping along country roads from farm to farm, usually looking for seasonal or casual work and sometimes cadging food and tobacco. The swagman was in some ways the successor to the adventurers of the 1850s who tramped from goldfield to goldfield in search of gold. During the early 1930s many more swagmen were travelling the roads as the Depression had forced them out of the cities in search of work and enough food to survive. Swagmen could still occasionally be seen up to the 1950s, but their numbers decreased due to improved economic conditions and welfare support.

Doll dressed as a swagman, in a lying down position
Collection: Powerhouse Museum. Gift of A R Windschuttle, 1985.

Barbara Williams, later Mrs Windschuttle, always thought that this was the most wonderful doll she had ever seen and kept it until 1985, when she decided more children should have the opportunity of seeing her unique and special doll and presented it to the Museum.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator

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