Royal Reels: Gambling


The advertising cover for Wertheim’s Wonderful Sewing Machines, Hapsburg Pianos and Electra Cycles has a pair of the purple 2d South Australia stamp postmarked ADELAIDE/ 5/ MY 26/ 3.30 PM/ 02, and it is addressed to Hobart, Tasmania (Figure 1).

The reverse has a reception postmark of HOBART/ A/ MY 29/ 1902/ TASMANIA (Figure 2).

Hugo Wertheim was born in the German electorate of Hesse-Kassel on 12 July 1854 and died on 11 July 1919 at his home in South Yarra of chronic hepatitis.  He emigrated to Australia in 1875 arriving at Melbourne in the Great Britain, having been sent by his uncle, with whose family he lived.  The family business in Germany was manufacturing sewing machines, and on his arrival in Melbourne he set about spreading the name of Wertheim, resulting in agencies throughout Metropolitan and country Victoria, Queensland and South Australia.  The omission of N.S.W. was due to an agreement with Octavius Beale who distributed the Wertheim sewing machines in that State.  

He began importing German goods such as pianos, harmoniums and bicycles and established a successful business.  He was then able to start manufacturing pianos and sewing machines and at its height his factory in Richmond, Melbourne employed over 400 people.  The advert of the first World War saw Wertheim with other German emigrants marginalised and treated with high suspicion by Melbourne residents, even though his son was serving in France with the Australian troops.  His son, “Soss” would later go on to be a successful Davis Cup tennis player, who in 1922 represented Australia.

However, Melbourne had always been a mercantile city , and anybody who could generate wealth and employment over a period of time would eventually be recognised and acknowledged.  Hugo was welcomed as a member of the Melbourne Club, not normally a walk-up membership for a German Jew at this period.   Hugo was light years ahead of his time in implementing an aggressive market strategy and identifying market trends: he recognised that the piano was the most desired item in the Melbourne home.

Subsequently the Wertheim pianos appeared under the name of “Hapsburg Wertheim”, possibly as early as 1880, and they were simply re-badged cheap German-made pianos.  These and the Wertheim sewing machines were also sold in the small towns and Hugo soon established himself as a major player in the low-price piano range.  His reed-organ was also badge-engineered and was likely of American or Canadian origin.  

In 1908 Hugo opened the largest and most modern piano manufacturing plant in Victoria on 4½ acres in Bendigo Street, Richmond.  Hugo died in 1919 and his son Hubert continued to manufacture pianos until the factory closed down in the post-depression period in 1934 and the property was sold to Heinz Soups.  Hubert had wanted to continue making pianos, but his mother Sophie had the controlling vote.  Sophie was the daughter of the uncle who influenced Hugo to emigrate to Australia, and Hugo had returned to Germany in 1885, to marry her.  The Wertheim Ltd plant in Richmond is seen in Figure 3.

There was a connection of Hugo Wertheim with the great pianist, Ignacy Paderewski (see paper in Arts & Artists).  In the 1880s Hugo built Gotha, a mansion in South Yarra with plenty of space for soirees featuring the piano.  One such performer and guest at the mansion was Paderewski.

The following figures show examples of Wertheim sewing machines available in Australia:  the Wertheim Cylinder Arm treadle manual sewing machine (The Family Machine Ready for Work), and the Wertheim miniature treadle machine (Figures 4 & 5).

“After many years of Australian manufacture like many other quality piano brands from around the world, Wertheim pianos are now proudly hand crafted in China”, a present day advertisement!