Flowers from the Holy Land – a First World War souvenir

Flowers and views of the Holy Land, Jerusalem – the book's title page

Flowers and views of the Holy Land, Jerusalem – the book's title page

Wellingtonians (and ex-Wellingtonians) might remember Quilters, the second-hand bookshop run by John Quilter for 36 years. Earlier this year John decided to close the store (although he plans to keep selling rare New Zealand books online), and, as is traditional, he had a closing-down sale.

As I waited in line to pay for my small pile of goodies, while brooding about whether I should buy the incredibly fluorescent poster for Hair (I should have), I noticed a small book with a wooden cover on the counter. I had a quick look and discovered that it had pages of pressed flowers from sites in the Middle East. Having never seen anything like it before, I added it to my pile and took it home.

Flowers from, and an illustration of, Bethlehem

Flowers from, and an illustration of, Bethlehem

It turned out to be a book of ‘Flowers and Views of the Holy Land, Jerusalem’. It has lovely, slightly naïve prints showing places such as Bethlehem, separated by tissue paper from delicate dried flower arrangements collected from the same location. My copy has 12 plates and 12 matching flower arrangements, as well as a title page and the wooden cover. The lithographs are credited to A. L. Monsohn of Jerusalem, which, according to Wikipedia, was a lithographic press that began in 1892.

A bit more of a web search revealed that these little books were popular souvenirs from the Middle East from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries. The covers were generally made from olive wood. (I can’t tell if mine is or not, but I’m going to assume so for now.) Some of them, like this one from the Australian War Memorial Museum, have a carved cross on the cover. Others have ‘Jerusalem’, surrounded by a carved and coloured border, or silhouettes of camels and palm trees. Mine is much plainer, and has ‘Jerusalem’ stamped on the cover. It would appear that some of these books only have the pressed flowers, and some have much more elaborate flower arrangements, such as this one, where the leaves, grasses and flowers have been arranged into a picture of a tree in a meadow.

Pressed flowers, purportedly from Bethlehem (left) and the Tomb of Rachel (right)

Pressed flowers, purportedly from Bethlehem (left) and the Tomb of Rachel (right)

So how did this book end up in New Zealand? The inside cover has a pencil note, ‘to Auntie Anne [or Annie?], from Kenneth M Stevens in Palestine’, with 1916 added in pen. The handwriting is a little hard to make out, but I think that’s right. So, assuming that this little book was sent back by a New Zealand soldier, I had a look at Auckland War Memorial Museum’s Cenotaph – where I found a record for Kenneth McKenzie Stevens, 13/2375, of the Auckland Mounted Rifles. On Archway, Archives New Zealand’s website, I found two First World War records for Kenneth Stevens – the one above, and Kenneth Murdock Stevens (13/237). Both men served in the Auckland Mounted Rifles, which fought in Palestine in 1917–18. My best guess is that one of the Kenneths picked this book up and sent it to ‘Auntie Annie’ – but which one will have to wait for another day.

I’m fascinated by this little book, and would love to know if anyone else in New Zealand has one. It also raises other questions, such as who did the flower arranging, and were the flowers really collected from the specific locations, or were they pulled out of one large pile? Possibly unanswerable, but interesting to think on.

3 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by Fran || June 29th, 2015

    What a fantastic find! And a nice bit of research in tracking down the identity of the WWI soldier who purchased this book for their aunt.

  2. Comment made by Mel || June 29th, 2015

    Since writing this I’ve found that Nelson Museum has one in their collection, made by a different company & brought back to NZ by Major Cyprian Brereton. You can see the cover and pages here: http://collection.nelsonmuseum.co.nz/search.do?db=object&view=detail&id=53539

  3. Comment made by Alison || June 29th, 2015

    I have a similar book that was my mother’s - I’ve always assumed it dated from the 1940s. Although she nursed in Egypt during that period I’m not sure if she bought it herself or was given it in England.

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