The Powerhouse Museum has a significant collection of domestic objects used to store food before the invention of modern refrigeration. However none displays the eccentricity and imaginative flair of the home-made rotary food safe.
This extraordinary piece of recycling involved the elaborate conversion of a 44 gallon drum to a food storage unit or 'bush pantry'. The lowest section comprises a ventilated meat cupboard, while twelve small drawers fill the middle. The top tier has three larger drawers, one labelled 'sugar'. Its construction involved cutting, folding, shaping and soldering the sixteen tapered drawers, which run on internal tracks fixed to a central column. The skill needed suggests that the maker's normal farm work may have involved using sheet metal to make rudimentary water tanks and roofing. Other materials used were wooden knobs for the handles, sheet metal cut-offs, agricultural water pipe and the light gauge steel of kerosene tins.
A fine example of 'making do', involving the salvaging of a commonplace refuse item and transforming it into a useful piece of furniture, its conception conveys a high level of imagination, innovation and resourcefulness.
It appears that the maker was inspired by the 'Rotary Kitchen Canister' advertised in Anthony Hordern's 1923 mail-order catalogue, and went to elaborate lengths to create a home-made replica. Perhaps the maker found the price, which exceeded the average weekly wage, prohibitive. When money was scarce, the creative use of 'found' materials accorded with the ingrained ethic of household economy which found expression in the adage 'waste not, want not'.
Acquired by Lord McAlpine in the late 1980s and now part of the Museum's collection, the food safe is thought to have been made in Queensland in the mid 1920s. It was one of the central pieces of the Museum's 1990 exhibition 'Bush toys and furniture'. The exhibition presented a unique collection of Australian home-made toys and furniture, made in the bush and the suburbs, from the 1850s to the 1950s. It explored what has survived of the vernacular tradition of improvising everyday objects from whatever materials were at hand. This tradition of recycling gained impetus after World War I, in the frugal times of soldier settlements and later the Depression. The interest of private collectors in these utilitarian pieces has been an important force behind the current re-evaluation of this unique aspect of Australia material culture. Because most of this collecting has taken place outside of museums, very little documentation has survived about how the objects were produced, who made them and who used them.