The evolution of Ekka’s show bags, which originally contained charcoal and spices

Written by Javed Iqbal

Every year, kids flock to Brisbane’s Ekka to check out the brightly colored show bags filled with goodies, toys and trinkets – a far cry from old sample bags.

As the Ekka kicks off another year, the Queensland Museum has unearthed some of the state’s oldest display cases.

They originated when the Royal Brisbane Show allowed stallholders to give away free samples in 1902 – the very first held coal.

“It was the earliest sample bag ever and that piece of coal was worth a lot at the time and many were able to use the coal at home,” Tess Shingles, the museum’s acting assistant curator of Queensland history, said.

“It must have been a big hit as the tradition of the show bag continues to this day.”

Black and white photo of two young girls holding show bags.
Two girls hold sample bags at the RNA exhibition site in 1946.(Provided: John Oxley Library, State Library of Qld)

Sample bags vs show bags

Sample bags were originally filled with products and edibles that were manufactured and produced in Queensland.

“Technically, the sample bags were the precursor to the show bags and were originally paper bags,” Ms Shingles said.

“The plastic bags came during the 1970s, and at that time they transitioned to being more commercial and more about pop culture.”

The Bertie Beatle bag remains a show-goer favorite to this day after it first appeared in Queensland in 1963.

Paper bag with a beatle on the front.
Bertie Beatle first appeared in Hoadley’s sample bag.(ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)

“Bertie Beatle was originally created to compete with Freddo the frog,” Ms Shingles said.

“The same company made Violet Crumbles, so they wanted to use the by-product of honeycomb in Bertie Beatles.

“Bertie then appeared in sample bags for Hoadley’s before becoming an independent bag.”

Another popular sample bag in the 1960s was the Rosella bag, which highlighted pickled produce and the quality of its spices.

“The passport showed people how the pickling process was done and why their particular products were safe and reliable,” Ms Shingles said.

Red and blue bag with the words Rosella on the front.
The Rosella sample bags contained pickles and spices.(ABC Radio Brisbane: Kate O’Toole)

Some of the first toys to appear in the bags were cardboard guns that could fire rubber bands.

“The toys were often secondary in the early days to confectionery and food; many of the toys were put together when families came home from the show.”

Many of the sample snack bags claimed to be nutritional for children and were approved by health professionals.

“The Twisties bag is funny as it was advertised as the healthy snack and wanted to use an image of the strong man holding Twisties,” Ms Shingles said.

“A leaflet was also included in the bag saying that Twisties were recommended by dentists as they protected children’s teeth and should be on every tuck shop menu.”

A bag that says Twisties
Chip bags were often shown as healthy and endorsed by doctors and dentists.(ABC Radio Brisbane: Kate O’Toole)

Keeping art history alive

The museum has also collected Ekka art items from as far back as 1916 with button work, embroidery and knitting.

“One of the most iconic pieces is a framed piece by a button maker named John Ward, who entered an artwork in 1916 consisting of buttons and carved pearl shells from the Torres Strait,” Shingles said.

Buttons and shells arranged like kangaroo and emus on black material.
A winning entry from 1916 used buttons and pearl shells to create coats of arms.(Courtesy: Queensland Museum)

A knitted christening gown and a handmade dog called Bo Bo also feature in the collection, which shows the many different items over the decades.

“Although it didn’t win an award, the dachshund called Bo Bo by Elise Hicks in 1972 has a special place in our collection,” Ms Shingles said.

“This part of the collection showcases the skills of local Queenslanders, which is why we are keeping them as they were exhibited.”

A handmade brown Dashhund dog.
A handmade dog was part of the 1972 art competition.(ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)

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Javed Iqbal

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