The social pages era in the Australian print media spanned just over a century, from the early 1870s to the mid-1970s. Their arrival was triggered by a healthy economy and the rise of a prosperous middle class; their demise was inevitable when editors abandoned the idea of categorising women as a species who needed segregated newspaper space devoted to their social lives.
One of the first newspapers to publish regular social news within its women’s pages was the Australian Town and Country Journal. In its first issue, published on 8 January 1870, the ‘Ladies’ Column’ comprised a report on the Paris scene and details of an all-purpose remedy for sore throats, headaches and cold feet.
Within a few years, the Queenslander, the Australasian, the Illustrated Sydney News and the Melbourne Punch all published a gossip column with reports of weddings, christenings, holiday plans, overseas journeys on ocean liners, visits to the theatre and who wore what.
The celebrities of the day were the squattocracy and a network of the privileged few who lived in the most exclusive suburbs of the major cities. By the 20th century, the celebrity circle favoured by the ‘social editresses’ of metropolitan newspapers encompassed the wives, mothers and daughters of pastoralists, bankers, lawyers, wool brokers and stockbrokers.
The reporting was not all obsequious. In the late 19th century, a few writers took a gentle swipe at their subjects—among them, Alexina Maude Wildman, whose weekly ‘Woman’s Letter’ in the Bulletin began in 1888 under the byline ‘Sappho Smith’.
Pen-names were common at the time. The Ladies Pages of the Australian Town and Country Journal were edited by ‘Firefly’, and the social column for the Adelaide Register News-Pictorial was written by a succession of women known as ‘Lady Kitty’.
In 1896, the British newspaper magnate Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe) launched the Daily Mail, a paper that focused on short articles, human-interest stories and news targeted to a female audience. His initiative had a lasting influence, and by the early 20th century all the major metropolitan newspapers gave generous space to women’s news, with social notes a major focus.
The Sydney Sunday Sun’s column titled ‘Woman Folk’ was a regular feature by 1903, while the Sydney Morning Herald launched its ‘Page for Women’ in 1905 with an article by Ethel Turner on young girls’ choice of literature, news of Lady Warwick’s Farming College for Girls, and trending fashions, including the wrist bouquet.
In pages such as ‘The Social World’, published in the Chronicle in Adelaide, the editor was more of a postbox than an energetic reporter, with ‘Penelope’ urging readers to send her ‘accounts of wedding ceremonies, engagements, dances, and all other social items’.
From the 1920s, the growth of department stores such as David Jones, Anthony Hordern & Sons, Myer and Mark Foys, and the dependence of newspaper proprietors on retail advertising revenue, meant that the activities of department store families became a prime subject for the social pages. An emphasis on ‘over there’ featured heavily, with reports of imminent journeys and news of the latest fashions and parties in Britain—still regarded by many Australians as ‘home’.
The social pages reached their zenith in the decades book-ending World War II. From the 1930s to the 1950s (with the exception of the war years themselves, when the social pages were dropped), the social editresses of major metropolitan newspapers meticulously tracked the social lives of old money clans such as the Knox, Fairfax and Allen families in Sydney, the Baillieu, Syme and Myer families in Melbourne, and the Bonython and Barr Smith families in Adelaide.
The social page reporters—all women— wrote detailed accounts of who went to which opening nights at the theatre, had lunch at city restaurants, attended balls, cocktail parties, ship departures and arrivals, art exhibitions, the races, polo games, weddings and christenings.
In the 1950s, the annual Sheep Week and Wool Ball were highlights of the social calendar, with country visitors from wool dynasties such as the Falkiners and Katers congregating in the cities to attend sheep sales and attend lunches, dinners and parties.
The emerging feminist movement in the 1960s had a slow but direct effect on the women’s pages and their accompanying gossip columns. News of female politicians and women in business began to creep into the mix, and by the 1970s the title of social editress and the concept of title-tattle about the privileged were yesterday’s news.
In an article published in the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1982, Judy Johnson, editor of the Sydney Sun-Herald’s Tempo, said, ‘The social notes as they used to be run, are now too parochial for a city of this size … yet [readers] are interested in stars, celebrities, personalities and the very, very rich’. The years of segregation and pandering to the local elite were over. The age of celebrity was here.
REFs: Australian Women’s Weekly, 11 August 1982; V. Lawson, Connie Sweetheart (1990).