Mimmo Cozzolino's book Symbols of Australia,a black and white collection of Australian trademarks, is fat, wide and handsome, a joy to behold.

For $9.95 you get nearly 200 big pages of pleasure: a layout that serves the graphics, reference, information and comment unobtrusively but accessibly run down the outer edge of each page, a system of categorisation which flows with pleasant good sense, a thorough index, the trademarks themselves in all their splendid range of imagination, innocence and ingenuity; and perhaps most enjoyably of all, unlimited points of re-entry into those areas of one's own past which usually stir only dimly at the outskirts of memory.

It's hard to make a disciplined approach to the reading of this book, it's so full of traps for the eye. But one notices immediately the convenience, for designers, of an island continent with such a chubby, recognisable shape. Particularly after Federation, maps of Australia proliferated as advertising motifs and trademarks. My favourite is the nightingale 'Mop of Australia,' but there are scores of others.

Of course, as Geoffrey Blainey points out in his introduction, Tasmania has always presented a slight annoyance, trailing as it does, awkwardly off the bottom of the map. But one Melbourne photographer in his logo of 1900 or thereabouts, by a superbly nonchalant stroke, simply shifted the offending isle 2,000 miles further west and dropped it just off the south coast of Western Australia, thus achieving a pleasing, if geographically inaccurate, symmetry.

The often tenuous connection between a product and the emblem chosen to advertise it is one of the most entertaining aspects of the book, and bears witness, it seems to me, to a certain pleasure taken by graphic artists in the work for its own sake.

A lovely drawing of a possum on a branch, nibbling leaves against a full moon, is inscribed 'Good for the gums.' This turns out to be the trade-mark for teats for babies' bottles, in 1923. A circle of safety pins represents a brand of soft drinks, in 1912. One brand of boot polish is called 'sparkling wine' - perhaps an unconscious fantasy of a sophisticated life attainable only to those whose shoes are shiny. The imaginative life of a commercial artist may even have been leisurely, before psychology made its intrusion and advertising got serious.

We see the evolution of the Redhead match girl from 1946 to 1979, through four phases. Not only does her hairdo change; her mouth half opens, her eye-lids drop slightly, her expression becomes sexually inviting. It makes you furious to see how things like that sneak up on you.

Aborigines have been liberally used as emblems, often offensively and crudely. But I noticed differences (at least in the selection offered here) between the treatment of Aborigines and that of the 'jolly nigger boy.'

While the Aboriginal in quite a few samples is represented as an impressive figure, often in silhouette and slightly distanced, holding weapons or simply gazing away from the observer, the jolly nigger boy, of African mien, is tame, grins amiably or cheekily at us, and is often portrayed in predicaments obviously meant to be comical - being eaten by a crocodile, pursued by an enraged ostrich from which he has just plucked a handful of feathers or stolen an egg.

The jokes are simple, the puns unsubtle. The outright appeals to sexual or sophisticated aspirations are few. The life one senses behind the old trademarks is very daily,its needs basic, to do with the work of the home (flour, beer, tea , boot polish, cure-alls) and particularly with country work (rabbit-killers, fly-killers, prickly-pear killers, manures, stock medicine, chook feed).

Looking at these emblems, these often laboured insignias, I think of my grandmother, who came from Hopetoun in the Mallee and whose utterances were few. When she was tired she was 'jiggered'; she said 'presently' instead of 'soon,' and 'directly' for 'straightaway'; we were warned to be careful when using the chamber pot 'for fear you soil the carpet'; an argument she referred to as a 'yike,' a serious disagreement 'a decent yike.'

Perhaps this is the extra gift of the book - that it provokes such bursts of memory, such shocks of familiarity. Each reader will find his or her own particular tack. I've been poring over it on and off for a week, and it keeps happening to me.

Among the trademarks for strange rural products - Notix, Smokogas the gas of destruction, shear-to-shear arsenical - I stumble upon a Clag label, the real one, none of your plastic rubbish, dated 1898. And around it, like a swarm of flies disturbed by a does of Antibizzbuzz, leaps up a host of details - a glass bottle of Clag on the first day of the school year, the wooden-handled brush, the metal lid through which the brush handle was thrust, leaving a little explosion of tin spikes.

In 1914 the Grain Foods Company of Australia depicted in its trademark a Dutch girl in white apron, clogs and curved cap. Her clothes fix her as Dutch. But what is this gesture of the left arm, this instinctive raising of the forearm and placing it across the brow, to shield the eyes from harsh light? It is a gesture so unmistakenably Australian that one glances at her costume, to make sure.

The range of patent cure-all trademarks is quite frightening - cures for epilepsy, for what look like rose-thorn scratches, for headaches, consumption, nervous complaints. For what ailment was Dr Boxwell's 'Silent Pill' for females? On the cover lurks the Aspro mark: 'Women's best friend,' reminding us of those old 'unsolicited testimonials' for Bex powders from Mrs S. of Cronulla, which boiled down to nothing more than statements of addiction.

There is a section on lollies which, to one who lost her dental health to a combination of Lyptees or Coca-Cola in Scutcheon's milk bar in Geelong, looks slightly impoverished. But then Mimmo Cozzolino only got to Australia in 1960, when lollies were well into heavy packaging, if I remember rightly, instead of being sold loose under glass from boxes between which dead or dying blowies lay in profusion.

When I was a child in the 40s, aniseed balls were 12 a penny, mint leaves eight, bullets eight, and not those mingy little scraps which pass for bullets these days. And show bags were free.At the grocer's you could ask for, and be respectfully served with, 'tuppence worth of broken biscuits' - and they came out of a big tin marked Swallow's and Ariell's, not some crummy cellophane packet.

Whoever reads this book will revel in it. Surely Australia must be the only country in the world where as late as 1954 a deodorant would be registered under the name of 'Go-poof.' In 1947 a mouse trap company called its product 'Choke-a-mouse.'

I'm envious of Mimmo Cozzolino for the laughs he must have had during this great search of his. Not only the heavy-handed literalness of the Choke-a-mouse, Rat-menu, Moo-vellous variety, but the flights of fancy of the more unfettered imaginations make this a book of endless fascination, laughter and delight.

Reproduced with permission of Helen Garner,
© Helen Garner 1980