Standing atop a building in Abbotsford is one of Melbourne’s most iconic symbols; the Skipping Girl Vinegar sign. And for a piece of neon, this girl has led an eventful life.
Abbotsford in 1936 was a gruff industrial district, home to factories, warehouses and small worker's cottages. It was gloomy, and grey, like something out of Dickensian England.
One of the many manufacturers based in the area at this time was the Nycander Company, who made small goods and household products. One of their most successful lines was a locally made malt vinegar called, 'Skipping Girl’.
The 'Skipping Girl' brand first appeared in the first decade of the 20th century and quickly became popular. The origin on the unusual name is not known.
One theory posits that it may have been linked to a well-known skipping rhyme, that girls used to chant while they jumped rope:
'Salt, vinegar, mustard, pepper, If I dare, I can do better...'
Although this connection seems a little tenuous. The origin of the brand’s logo, is known however.
In 1910 the company ran a competition, asking people to submit a design for a new logo for the vinegar.
The winner was a drawing submitted by a local man, of a young girl jumping rope, although the identity of the real girl the drawing was based on remained secret.
'It was claimed in 1990 that Sister Felicitas Monague, who died in 1984 and who had served as a nun in the Brigidine Convent near Frankston for 53 years, was the model for the Skipping Girl. The logo was based on a sketch of her, her brother James had sent in.'
- National Trust entry on the logo's origin
Whoever it was, the skipping cartoon girl was adopted to represent the vinegar, and the cute logo added to the brand’s popularity.
In 1936, Nycander moved their operations to a factory at 627 Victoria Street, Abbotsford.
Business was booming, and the company wanted a flamboyant symbol of their success. And so, they commissioned a large-scale sign for the building, from a pioneering local advertising firm, Neon Signs.
Neon signs work like this; if you fill a vacuum sealed tube with neon gas, and run an electric current through it, the gas begins to glow. Different coloured tubes supply the different colours.
Remarkably, the effect was first observed as early as the 17th century. Scientists from that era observed that barometers – sealed glass tubes filled with mercury - would sometimes glow naturally, although the mechanism that caused this was unknown.
Only in the mid 1800’s, as scientists and engineers began to perfect the transmission of electric current, was the mysterious glow understood. The first neon lamp was erected in Paris, in 1910, and by the 1920s they were becoming common in America.
But neon signs were still a rarity in Australia.
‘Neon Signs’ were the first advertising firm to specialise in neon in Melbourne. Their commission for Nycander would be epic in scale; 9 metres high, brightly coloured, with basic animation to mimic the action of a girl skipping.
They also changed the design of the logo slightly, from how it appeared on the bottle.
There were issues with creating a direct translation, the original design was too complex, and so the sign’s designer simplified the image.
When it was completed, Neon Signs were so proud of their creation that they refused to sell the sign to the company. Nycander were forced to rent it instead, paying 8 pounds a month for the privilege.
The Skipping Girl sign was Australia's first animated neon sign and one of the first in the world.
Its novelty caused it to become quite a local attraction, with people from across Melbourne coming to Abbotsford to see it.
'Every kid who ever visited or lived in Melbourne loved that sign. I remember parents bringing their kids to Victoria Street, just to watch the girl skip.'
- John Benjamin, local resident
The sign also picked up a nickname; Little Audrey.
'Little Audrey' was a fictional young girl, popular at this time, who featured in a series of stories, that were like little jokes. These played on Audrey's wide-eyed innocence, and usually had her mis-interpreting some everyday scenario.
People collected Little Audrey stories, swapped them, had their favourites. There was even a series of comic books.
It was a natural step then, for people coming from across Melbourne to view the skipping girl sign, to start referring to the character depicted as ‘Little Audrey’.
In the 1960's, Nycander decided to move their operations to Altona and put their Abbotsford factory up for sale. In 1968 it was bought by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, who intended to use the location as a training ground.
The old factory was demolished and, although the company had intended to transfer their famous sign to their new location, they were told by the Shire Council that this was not permitted. The council considered moving the sign a potential traffic hazard, and so Nycander had to leave Little Audrey behind.
Other claimants then stepped forward to try to claim the sign.
‘Neon Sign's’, citing their contract with Nycander that never transferred ownership of the sign in the first place, attempted to reclaim it. But the wrecking firm assigned to demolish the building, Whelan’s, also had a contract that stipulated they had rights to salvage everything left at the factory.
Before Neon Sign’s could act, Whelan’s removed the sign from the roof, and sold it to a local used car dealer, for $100.
And there the matter appeared to have rested.
But in late 1960’s, signs of dissent regarding the loss of Melbourne's heritage were stirring.
Protests over the demolition of historic buildings had begun and, while these were fledgling, they were gaining in strength.
The Skipping Girl Vinegar sign, a fondly remembered part of Melbourne's skyline for several decades, became the focus of a public outcry. The removal and private sale of the sign was much discussed in the press, and a local radio station ran a 'Save Audrey' campaign.
As this campaign gained momentum, it was suddenly discovered that the original sign was actually missing. The car dealership that had bought it had changed hands, and the new owner’s claimed they no longer had the sign, and did not know what had happened to it.
The ‘Save Audrey’ campaign then adopted a new approach; raising funds to commission a replacement. The new sign would be smaller and would feature a more contemporary Audrey; with longer, freer flowing hair and a shorter dress.
Crusader Plate, a metalworking firm situated on Victoria Street, just 200m from the old Nycander factory location, offered the roof of their building for Audrey 2.
On Friday, November 13, 1970, the new sign was installed and re-lit.
Crusader Plate paid for the electricity that ran the new sign, but when the business closed in the 1980s, the building sat empty for a few years, and Audrey 2 went dark again.
Abbotsford, by this time, was starting to throw off its industrial past.
The area was now best known for a string of Vietnamese restaurants, that had been built in the 1970s and now dotted several blocks of Victoria Street. New apartment buildings and shops were being built, and the old commercial tenants of existing buildings were moving to the suburbs, where industrial property was cheaper.
Many of these vacated buildings were redeveloped into residential premises and offices.
The Crusader Plate building was finally sold in 1989 and converted into a swanky apartment building. The new property was called ‘Skipping Girl Place’, to celebrate its famous rooftop tenant.
To bring Little Audrey fully into the 21st century, in 2009 energy company AGL installed a small solar plant on the roof of the building, to provide the sign with free electricity (and the company some good PR).
She has remained alight since, skipping gently away as she overlooks one of Melbourne's busiest, and trendiest, streets. A very different neighbourhood to the one her predecessor oversaw.