Largely ignored in histories of Australian publishing and reading, pamphlets have been a staple of communication in Australia since the late 1790s. The colony of New South Wales appointed its first government printer in 1795, and the oldest surviving printed document (held by the National Library of Australia)—a one-page playbill for the ‘Sydney Theatre’—dates from 1796. Government printers were set up in every colony to reproduce official announcements. While handbills and playbills were designed to be affixed to a display point, pamphlets were printed on both sides; some definitions, including that of UNESCO, insist that they must have at least five pages, exclusive of cover pages, but be no more than 48 pages—otherwise they are considered a book.
Pamphlets produced to persuade, provide advice or proffer assistance could be printed on the simplest of printing machinery, and distributed by hand to residential addresses or businesses—or distributed from a military barracks, a bank, School of Arts, house of entertainment or agricultural show. Pamphlets might praise particular products, from the stump jump plough to wash tubs, advertise services or advocate a particular cause.
In the first half of the 19th century, most pamphlets distributed in Australia were printed in Great Britain, but with the discovery of gold and the rapid rise of an immigrant population, more pamphlets were printed locally. Metal-press printeries were established in cities and major towns. Pamphlets could be ordered by anyone, from political candidates to commercial and religious organisations. With the rapid spread of postal systems in the second half of the 19th century, it became possible to deliver pamphlets to the farthest reaches of a colony, or overseas.
The literary historian H.M. Green observed in A History of Australian Literature (1961) that a ‘mass of pamphlets’, addressing ‘political, economic, social, educational and sectarian’ controversies from ‘all sides’, was one of the most striking parallels between the literature of early 19th-century Australia and the literary output of the ‘mother country’ in the 17th century.
Religious groups used pamphlets for both instruction and propaganda. Probably the longest-running group of pamphlets comprises the monthly pamphlets published since 1904 by the Australian Catholic Truth Society, which outline the church’s position on topical issues. The Catholic Church has long distributed pamphlets about social justice and papal encyclicals: Michael Hogan has compiled a run of them in Justice Now! (1990). Beginning on a subscription basis, over one million copies of the Catholic Record were being distributed annually by the late 1940s. These pamphlets, available from the back of most Roman Catholic churches, were also handed out in Sunday schools. Family planning associations and new environmental groups concerned about population growth answered the church’s position with pamphlets of their own.
Pamphlets on health issues, mostly produced by the state, also enjoyed wide circulation. They were produced during the influenza pandemic in 1919 and the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, and at other times of heightened risk—addressing, among other things, the scourge of tuberculosis and polio. Such pamphlets were distributed through general practitioners, hospitals and health clinics.
With the rise of travel in the Australian colonies, by ship and the railways, promotional pamphlets for cities, towns, guest houses and hotels became very common. Pamphlets promoted establishments as far afield as Jenolan Caves House in New South Wales, the Mount Buffalo Chalet in Victoria and Yarringup in Western Australia. Government tourist bureaus, established in all states by the early 1900s, were among the major publishers of both information and evocation, sometimes directed at incoming migrants, sometimes at domestic travellers; as Jim Davidson and Peter Spearritt show in Holiday Business (2000), for much of the 20th century they were well designed and well printed. Government printers were also kept busy with railway, tramway and bus timetables.
From the early 1900s, pamphlets became the most popular medium through which to promote new products and new energy sources. The spread of the gas supply in Australia, and the introduction of electricity, proved a boon to printers. Pamphlets explained the virtues of particular products, from stoves to refrigerators. When a new product came on to the market— like radio in the early 1920s and television from the mid-1950s—it was accompanied by an avalanche of pamphlets for both promotional and explanatory purposes.
Motor manufacturers seized on the pamphlet to promote new vehicles. From the 1920s, Ford, General Motors and a number of British car manufacturers produced elaborate pamphlets. By the late 1930s, most of these pamphlets included a colour component. The introduction of the Holden in 1949 and the Falcon in 1962 was heralded by ever more elaborate pamphlets.
Political pamphlets rarely ran to colour. They were modest black-and-white attempts to outline the candidate’s or party’s policy, and to make an election pitch. Most carried some graphic material, sometimes with dramatic imagery. Major parties employed pamphlets as part of their communication strategy, as did minor parties and fringe groups. The most prolific publisher of political pamphlets was the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), which had limited access to the mass media. For the 1920s to the early 1990s, Communism in Australia: A Resource Bibliography (1994), compiled by Beverley Symons and others, lists nearly 1100 individual titles; the CPA ended in 1991.
Newly emerging forms of social media, including Twitter, take up some of the space formally occupied by the pamphlet. How-to literature—including product guides, as well as product guarantees—is moving online. Tourist brochures, among the most common pamphlets in Australia from the 1850s to the 1990s, are giving way to websites where accommodation and transport can be viewed and then booked. While political parties still produce pamphlets hand-delivered when door-knocking, left in letter boxes or delivered by mail—and pamphlets putting the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ cases at referenda are still delivered by post to every elector in the land—no longer are pamphlets produced giving advice about how to pack, let alone how to dress, when travelling on a ship or an aeroplane.
PETER SPEARRITT and MURRAY GOOT