Shining a spotlight on five wattle-themed items from the collection.
Wattles welcome in the spring and are among the first plants to regenerate after fire. This watercolour drawing is by early colonial artist John Lewin, and is dated 30 August, 1805. Wattle belongs to the resilient and diverse botanical family of Acacia plants. With more than 1070 species of Acacia trees and shrubs identified, they have bloomed all over the Australian continent for more than 30 million years. Highly valued in Indigenous culture, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have used wattle in myriad ways, as a material for crafting weapons and shelter, and for fuel, food and medicine: grinding wattle seed into flour for bread, harvesting wattle gum as an antiseptic for treating cuts and abrasions, and brewed as a drink to remedy coughs and colds.
Long before the golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha) was officially designated as our national floral emblem in 1988, wattle blossoms were recognised as characteristic of the Australian bush. The search for national symbols had first emerged in the nineteenth century and gathered momentum in the decades leading up to Federation in 1901. Imagery inspired by native flora and fauna began appearing on decorative and utilitarian objects, and in literary and artistic works including sheet music like this for ‘The Wattle Waltz’ by Adnil Edâcra. Printed in Melbourne in 1890 and sold for 2 shillings, the composer’s name is probably a pseudonym for Linda Arcade – Linda was the daughter of EW Cole, proprietor of the Coles Book Arcade, but it is unlikely that Linda Cole composed this music.
The outbreak of World War I halted efforts to proclaim wattle as one of Australia’s national emblems. Throughout the conflict, sprigs of wattle were enclosed in letters sent by loved ones to soldiers serving overseas as a reminder of home. It was also worn to commemorate those lost in battle. Between 1915 and 1916, New Zealand artist and actress Maisie Carte-Lloyd used her ‘happy sense of humour’ to design two patriotic postcard series featuring the beloved golden bloom ‘cleverly treated to form quaint human figures’ and captioned in ‘a smart play on the word wattle’. Priced from 2 to 6 pence, over 100,000 postcards were sold to raise funds for the war effort. This card was sent by seven- year-old Frank to his ‘Dear old Dad’, Sergeant Arthur Burrowes, recovering from wounds in Europe in 1918–1919.
Wattle Day was proposed in the early 1880s as a celebration of our natural environment. Coinciding with Canada’s selection of the maple leaf as its national symbol in 1891, one drawback with the choice of wattle was that it grows in other countries, whereas the waratah is uniquely Australian. In the end, wattle won out, perhaps because of its ubiquity. Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide held their first Wattle Day on 1 September 1910, each city decked in wattle blooms wound around telegraph poles for the event. At Sydney’s Central and St James stations, wattle sprigs were pinned to pedestrians’ jackets while children sold golden bunches on street corners to raise money for the Red Cross as seen in this 1935 photo by Sam Hood. Wattle Day was changed to 1 August in 1916 to enable sellers to capitalise on the earlier-flowering Cootamundra wattle. Through the 1920s and 1930s, Wattle Day remained associated with raising money for charity, but fell out of favour after World War II. National Wattle Day was re-established on 1 September 1992.
This costume design celebrates the golden wattle of NSW. It was created by theatrical designer Thelma Thomas for the March to Nationhood Procession staged in Sydney on 26 January 1938 to mark the sesquicentenary of European colonisation. Born in Broken Hill, Thomas (later Afford) was teaching art at an Adelaide high school when her talent for designing costumes was spotted. She moved to Melbourne to study film and stage costuming, and undertook design work for the Victorian Centenary Pageant of Nations there in 1934. Back in Adelaide by 1935, Thomas designed the costumes for South Australia’s lavish Centenary Pageant of Progress, earning praise for her designs that featured strong colours, unusual materials, and idiosyncratic expressions of abstract heritage concepts. In 1937 she resigned from teaching to pursue a career as a theatrical costumier. In Sydney, Thomas completed the trifecta of heritage extravaganzas, spending three months in the Mitchell Library researching designs for over 300 costumes that were worn in the state’s 150th anniversary pageant.
Margot Riley, Curator, Research & Discovery
This story appears in Openbook winter 2022.