Like so many things, it began with a ghostsign.
I had often walked and driven past the six-storey red-brick complex at 357 Spencer Street, noting its impressive presence without really being curious, until one day I stopped and took a good look at the clear signage that still proudly declared the names: Sands & McDougall. Beneath it were the words ‘Printers and Lithographers’.
Moving closer, I noticed that the names were moulded into the pediment at the top, beneath a carved figure of a rearing horse. Whoever Sands & McDougall were, their headquarters were substantial, and they were confident enough of their longevity to inscribe their names on it. This was no pop-up. (In contrast, the more recent signage tacked onto the building, like so much around Melbourne, has an unmistakably temporary feel.)
Who were Sands and McDougall? I visualised two Scottish businessmen walking the streets of nineteenth century Melbourne. “‘Tis a fine and prosperous concern we ha’ created, Mr Sands.” “Aye, Mr McDougall, ’tis indeed – ’twill surely last till the crack o’ doom.” And yet now there is no company of that name.
So I did some investigation.
Sands & McDougall was Melbourne’s leading printing and publishing firm for well over a century (the company finally closed in 1994). It produced vast quantities of printed material – books (everything from illustrated guides to orchids, to royal commission reports and the rules of racing); maps, tickets for the Melbourne tram system, banknotes, stationery, art prints, advertising, envelopes, packaging, and much more besides. The logo of the proud horse galloped across countless millions of documents.
The complexity of its work was remarkable: in 1896, for example, the company had separate departments for lithography, binding, ruling, sewing, gilding, colouring, photo, envelope folding, engraving, embossing, boxes, sewing, linotype, composing, and machine printing.
However, the company’s most celebrated and amazing creation was the Sands & McDougall directory of Melbourne, produced every year from 1862 to 1974. (Prior to that, from 1857-61, it was known as Sands & Kenny’s directory. McDougall’s predecessor, Kenny, is to the business what Pete Best was to The Beatles: he was there at the start but missed out on the years of fame.)
The Sands & McDougall directories were annual publications listing every householder and business in every building in every street in every suburb of Melbourne, as well as regional cities and country towns. These millions of bits of information were laboriously gathered by a team of “walkers” who went around the city door-knocking to establish who occupied every address.
The information was then organised and cross referenced in a number of ways: by street (so you could look up, for example, who lived at any address in Melbourne); by surname; and by profession and trade (so you could find out who your local butchers, bakers and stump jump plough makers were). The army of walkers carried out their task diligently: “There is simply nothing to match these directories for their reliability, comprehensive coverage, and continuity of publication”, writes historian John Lack.
Not surprisingly, given the amounts of information involved, the books became colossal. As the population of Melbourne grew, so did the directories, until they ran to thousands of pages, each crammed with closely-packed columns of data.
The directories were and are an amazing repository of information, valuable to the police as well as ordinary businesses, and of particular use to debt collectors. These days, they are a godsend to historians, researchers and genealogists. Want to find out who lived at 25 Abbotsford Street in 1913? No problem, Sands & McDougall it! Want to know your granny’s address in Collingwood in 1946? Sands and Mac has the answer. Sands & McDougall was the Google of its day, in fact more so, because much of the information it contains can be found nowhere else.
Besides the thousands of pages of factual information, the directories contained hundreds of advertisements, lovingly printed by Sands & McDougall to show off their expertise. Every part of the book’s exterior and many internal pages were pressed into service as a billboard. The same companies advertised over and over again – Wertheims Pianos and Sewing Machines, for example, were a consistent presence.
I have my own copy of Sands & McDougall now – a 1946 edition that I bought online from someone who found it under his house when he carried out renovations. It weighs about 5kg, has more than 2400 pages and is 12cm thick. It’s a comprehensive picture of the city in the year it was produced. You can choose a street, walk down it in imagination and see who was there at the time. Acland Street St Kilda, for example, was occupied by hairdressers, cafes, cake shops and dentists as well as Ye Kynges Galeone Coffee Lounge and the Gaymound Beauty Lounge. (The other street names are cross-streets – a particularly useful feature of the directory.)
Turn to the trades section and you’ll see a snapshot of the industries and occupations that employed Melburnians at the time, from bootmakers (dozens of them, mostly in Clifton Hill, Abbotsford and Collingwood) to shorthand writers, private detectives, confectioners (six whole pages worth, perhaps two thousand names – far more than the number of dentists), mercers, signwriters, furriers, blacksmiths, and teachers of elocution.
It’s interesting, too, to see what is not there: no childcare centres (but a few creches); no gyms; no nursing homes. No management consultants or public relations firms. Lots of estate agents, though. Some things never change.
The adverts promote companies, brands and attractions now forgotten, like ‘7X – the better drink, available at all confectioners’, the Melbourne Wire Works and the Metallic Bellows Co, and the ‘Glaciarium’ ice rink in South Melbourne. Some names are familiar, but overall the effect is to remind us of L.P. Hartley’s observation that ‘the past is another country’.
Inevitably, the directory could not last for ever. By the 1970s, the amount of work involved in criss-crossing the ever-expanding city, knocking on every one of its doors, was too great. The directory now had competition in the form of free telephone directories which most households found more useful. Advertising revenue fell, as advertisers turned to the mass audiences of television and radio. The directory was no longer profitable – the last one was printed in 1974. The company continued for a few more years before closing its doors in 1994.
However, the directories continue to be invaluable to historians, researchers and genealogists (as well as wandering bloggers). Every time I see an interesting building, or intriguing ghostsign, my first thought is what Sands & McDougall might have to say about it.
I like to imagine that for a moment as I walk the suburbs I am connected across time with the weary foot-soldiers of Sands & McDougall, pounding the streets in all weathers, notebooks in hand, knuckles poised to knock on another door.
Some of the historical information in this post is from ‘Page Not Found’ by Andrew Stephens (2014), the guide accompanying an exhibition on Sands & McDougall at the City Gallery, Melbourne, August-December 2014.
‘Directories’ by John Lack in eMelbourne provides an overview of Sands & McDougall and the other directories of Melbourne.