Kiwiana — quintessentially kiwi

Cover of 100 New Zealand pop culture stories Some things are just quintessentially Kiwi — items, objects, images and people that immediately remind us of who we are, of our essential Kiwi-ness. This page links to items at your library and websites that will help you explore what makes New Zealanders unique.

What is Kiwiana?

Te Ara (the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand) defines kiwiana as The quirky things that contribute to a sense of nationhood and lists such objects as the Buzzy Bee toy, pavlovas, pāua shell ashtrays and black gumboots.

The Pāua shell house

In early 2007, the news that the late Fred and Myrtle Flutey’s collection of shells at their pāua shell house in Bluff might migrate from its Southern home stirred lots of interest in kiwiana. The pāua house has been visited by thousands of tourists, and the Fluteys starred in a television ad. It has now been moved to Canterbury Museum. New Zealand pāua (known as abalone in other countries), are all unique species found only in New Zealand, and are distinguished by their brilliantly coloured shells.

Kiwi humour

Catalogue search for Funny As: The story of New Zealand comedyThe cartoon strip Footrot Flats continued the black singlet and gumboots theme as Wal, Couch, Rangi and the Dog grappled with the meaning of life in the crumbling backblocks.

Billy T. James also gave the black singlet (and yellow towel round the neck) an airing and, with his characteristic chuckle, put his finger right on the tricky bits of the Māori Pakeha relationship as well as tackling most of the sacred cows of Kiwidom.

More recently the boys from Bro Town have turned their distinctive brand of Polynesian urban humour on the country. Outrageous Fortune has also shown us we can laugh at ourselves. And documentary television series Funny As (along with the accompanying book) put kiwi comedy in a social context.

Quintessentially Kiwi wildlife

Our native wildlife conjures up many images and sounds which are indelibly linked to our view of ourselves and others’ view of us. Our wildlife icons include:

  • Kiwi — the small flightless bird has long been a popular emblem and has featured on a wide range of products including Kiwi boot polish and even bacon.
  • Silver fern — the ponga or tree fern is the tallest of the ferns in the New Zealand bush and it has come to be associated with various sporting teams
  • Pounamu (also known as jade or greenstone) is prized by Māori for making weapons, tools and ornaments
  • Tī Kōuka / Cabbage trees — the cabbage tree is native to New Zealand but now popular as a gardening statement the world over.
  • Pohutakawa

    Pohutukawa and rata belong to the myrtle family (Myrtaceae) which is made up of about 3000 different tropical and warm temperate trees. Pohutukawa and rata are known as New Zealand’s native Christmas tree because of their bright red blooms which appear in summer.

Quintessentially Kiwi brands

Many New Zealand brands can be said to be quintessentially Kiwi:

  • Buzzy Bee — created by Auckland brothers Hector and John Ramsay, and has been produced since its first release in the mid 1940s. Hec Ramsay first ventured into toys with the release of the famous Mary Lou doll. One of the enduring images of the buzzy bee is Prince William playing with one on a visit with his family to New Zealand.
  • Four Square — the smiling cartoon grocer was the invention of the managing director, son of the originator of the Four Square symbol.
  • Edmonds ‘Sure to rise’. In 1879, 20-year-old Thomas Edmonds arrived in Lyttelton and set up grocer’s shop. Business was sluggish so he experimented and made baking powder. The Edmond’s Cookbook — which used the powder in many of its recipes — is New Zealand’s best-selling book ever. The first edition was in 1907. There is now an online version of the 1914 edition available at the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre. Thomas Edmonds contributed significantly to the architectural history of Christchurch after the founding of the Edmonds Factory and Gardens in Ferry Road. This Legacy is examined in The architectural heritage of Christchurch.
  • Jandals — footwear that is a must-have accessory for any Kiwi’s wardrobe. Jandals is a word blend of Japanese sandals.They are known as ojotas in Argentina, as infraditi in Italy and as slippers in the Netherlands and Hawaii. In the Philippines, they are called tsinelas. The British and Americans call them flip-flops, while the Australians call them thongs.
  • Wattie’s — In the 1930s, James Wattie saw the opportunity for a local cannery as the huge fruit and vegetable surplus in the Hawke’s Bay would literally rot. They have been manufacturing food products since 1934.
  • Tip Top — Peculiar to New Zealand is hokey-pokey, a blend of vanilla base with pieces of toffee. Made famous by Tip Top, it was first sold by the Meadowgold Ice Cream Company of Papatoetoe, Auckland, in the 1940s. The idea of adding toffee wasn't new, but the distinctive taste was unique. In 2006, Tip Top celebrated its 70th anniversary.
  • Swanndri — created in 1913 by Taranaki tailor William Broome. Frustrated by the incessant New Zealand rain, Broome developed a work shirt using a secret waterproofing technique. William named the shirt the Swanndri, because of the way the water ran off your back.

Quintessentially Kiwi people

Barry Crump

Barry Crump brought the phrase Good Keen Man to the fore with his books of hunting in the bush. For the epitome of a Kiwi sporting hero you can’t go past Colin “Pinetree” Meads – tough but fair.

Aunt Daisy

The capable Kiwi woman who could turn out a pavlova to perfection, run a household and turn a surplus of fruit into delicious preserves turned to Aunt Daisy for inspiration. Aunt Daisy ruled the airwaves through the 1930s, 40s and 50s with her daily radio programme of household hints, recipes and general advice. Her shows always began with a distinctive Good morning everybody, good morning, good morning.

Fred Dagg

Fred Dagg took a more laconic approach – his Ah, yeah, gidday and deadpan delivery neatly skewered the stereotypical Kiwi farmer and sent black singlets and gumboots into the national wardrobe along with jandals and swanndris. Fred’s creator, John Clarke, has continued to have a great career as a humourist in Australia.

A. J. Hackett

Another true Kiwi icon is the bungy jump and the man behind it — A.J. Hackett. For two decades he has satisfied the thrill-seeking urges of locals and visitors alike as people queue up to jump off a bridge with a piece of elastic strapped to their legs. He is also responsible for introducing The Ledge Urban Swing, an innovative new swing that has people sailing 400 metres over Queenstown.

A darker side?

What we all consider to be quintessentially Kiwi is constantly changing. As our national identity and culture continues to develop, so do the symbols and elements of that culture. Gothic New Zealand: The Darker side of Kiwi Culture explores the idea of 'gothic' in New Zealand culture. From Martin Edmond’s abandoned houses, to Ian Lochhead’s Victorian corrugated iron structures, to Otis Frizzell’s tattoos, from Peter Jackson’s movie-making to ghost paintings — there’s plenty of it. As the editors suggest, gothic is endemic to New Zealand’s self-representation.

Kiwi cultural web resources


Information from websites listed and 100 years of Kiwiana by Richard Wolfe and Stephen Barnett.

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