Events surrounding Wattle Day had their humble beginnings in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1838 and culminated 150 years later in Canberra. In 1988 Acacia pycnantha was officially proclaimed the Australian floral emblem and four years later the first of September was proclaimed as Wattle Day. Much of the long and fascinating history surrounding these events is detailed by Hitchcock (1991); a paper by Sowden (1913) is particularly informative for the period up to 1912, a time when the foundations were laid for the events that occurred towards the end of the 20th century. These works are wonderfully augmented by Libby Robin’s paper Nationalising Nature: Wattle Days in Australia that was published in 2002. This paper examines the place of Wattle Day in Australian socio-economic and political history over the past century or so.
The Wattle Day Association website is dedicated to the commemoration of Wattle Day.
The spirit of Wattle Day
Not surprisingly it was sentiments of national pride, patriotism, environmental appreciation and what it meant to be a ‘decent’ Australian, that characterized the Wattle Day movement in its formative years around the beginning of the 20th century. This was around the time that Australia attained nationhood through the federation of its six States (which occurred in 1901). A number of articles appeared in the popular and semi-popular press in the early years of the twentieth century that embodied these themes (e.g. Storrie 1909, Blair 1913, Sowden 1913) which are illustrated in the following quotations from a leaflet, produced Sydney in 1909 in connection with the establishment of a national Wattle Day League:
The idea of embodying Australian National sentiment in a native flower, and setting apart one day in the year for its celebration, has met with the greatest success in Sydney……That there is a strong and increasing Australian sentiment no competent observer will deny. Underneath all questions of policy, cast and creed is this emerging national consciousness, and all who love this young nation, and are concerned in her destiny will not regard as trivial an attempt to materialize Australian patriotism in an Australian flower. That Wattle, of all our flora is the most suitable can easily be proved. …… To the native-born Australian the Wattle stands for home, country, kindred, sunshine, and love – every instinct that the heart most deeply enshrines. …… Let Wattle henceforth be a sacred charge to every Australian. …… Let us rouse our young peoples sense of chivalry, and make the Wattle synonymous with Australia’s honour. (Storrie 1909)
A very thoughtful dissertation on the significance of Wattle Day in the present day context is provided in a briefing paper to the Australian Parliament by Rod Panter. According to Panter Wattle Day can symbolise virtually anything we want it to, but common sentiments relate to Spring, being Australian, the Australian environment, and history. He feels that events undertaken on this day should be simple, sentimental and uncomplicated.
Information on Wattle Day is provided by the Wattle Day Association in Canberra.
Brief history of Wattle Day: significant dates and events
1838: First use of Acacia as a “National emblem” occurred in Hobart (Town), Tasmania, where organizers of a commemorative regatta advocated that participants wear sprigs of ‘silver wattle’ (presumably Acacia dealbata).
1889 (20 September): Will J. Sowden, Vice-President of the Adelaide branch of the Australian Natives’ Association, suggested the formation of a Wattle Blossom League. This move initiated the concept of celebrating a National Day based on a national floral emblem (Hitchcock 1989).
1890 (18 March): The Wattle Blossom League was formally inaugurated at the annual conference of the Australian Natives Association. The aims of the League were, among other things, to promote a sense of patriotism among Australian women and the younger generation. According to Hitchcock (1991) it was this organization that was responsible for introducing the concept of a (Wattle) floral emblem to mainland Australia.
The League was short-lived group but it inspired the formation of the Wattle Club (see below).
1891 (26 January). A Wattle Blossom Banner was publicly displayed for the first time. This occurred in Adelaide in connection with “Foundation Day” celebrations. The flag had been designed by M.F. Cavanagh and painted by Miss Fiveash.
1891 (14 February). An article appeared in The Melbourne Herald newspaper in which J.L. Purves, a founding member of the Australian Natives’ Association, stated that the Association would attempt to adopt “some sort of national emblem and motto”. (These were timely and appropriate aspirations of patriotic fervour, generated by the approach of Federation, which occurred in 1901.) A reader of the Herald, David Scott, advanced fourteen reasons for adopting a Wattle as the national emblem. Furthermore, Scott suggested that the form of the emblem should adopt the Silver Wattle (A. dealbata), Black Wattle (A. mearnsii) and Golden Wattle (A. pycnantha). Details of Scott’s suggestions are provided by Sowden (1913). Of these three species Scott considered A. pycnantha to be “of the highest value” (because it was then very important in the Australian tanning industry, see Searle (1991) for a discussion of this industry).
1899: A Wattle Club was founded in Victoria by Archibald James Campbell. Campbell promoted appreciation of acacias through ‘Wattle Day’ outings that were held on 1 September each year at various locations in the vicinity of Melbourne (e.g. the You Yangs, Werribee Gorge and Eltham on the Yarra).
1908 (8 September): In a lecture titled “Wattle Time; or Yellow-haired September” that was first delivered in Melbourne, Archibald Campbell advocated the honouring of an official Wattle Day throughout Australia and recommended that a Wattle should be the national flower. (A published version of this lecture appeared in Campbell’s book ‘Golden Wattle: our national floral emblem’ that appeared in 1921).
1909 (August): Joseph Henry Maiden (Director of the Sydney Botanical Gardens), Hannah Elizabeth Clunies-Ross and Agnes Kettlewell called for a public meeting in Sydney aimed at forming a Wattle Day League. The creation of the League led to the revival of the Wattle Day movement. The League advocated the recognition of an official national Wattle Day and that a species of Acacia should become the Australian national flower. For some years there had been debate about whether Wattle or Waratah (Telopea speciosissima) should be the national flower. R.T. Baker advocated the choice of the Warratah (which is now the floral emblem of New South Wales) (see Sowden 1913, Boden 1985 and Hitchcock 1991 for further details).
1910 (19 July): A South Australian branch of the Wattle Day League was established, with Will Sowden its Vice-President.
1910 (September): A Victorian branch of the Wattle Day League was established by Archibald Campbell.
1910 (1 September): The first ‘national’ Wattle Day was celebrated in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. In Adelaide sprigs of Acacia pycnantha were sent to the Governor and other notables.
1912: A Queensland branch of the Wattle Day League was established by Mrs Josephine Papi.
1912 (7 October): The Adelaide branch of the Wattle Day League formally adopted as one of its aims ‘to establish golden wattle (Acacia pycnantha) as the national flower and emblem of Australia’. This appears to be the first call for A. pycnantha exclusively to be the Australian national flower.
1913 (8 January): On the initiative of Sir Will J. Sowden, the first pan-Australian Wattle Day Conference of the Australian Wattle Day League was held in Melbourne. The gathering was formally opened by the then Prime Minister, Right Hon. Andrew Fisher, and included representative delegates from Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. This Conference led to the federalization of the Wattle Day League movement. A wider acceptance of a national Wattle Day was achieved.
1913 (18 January): A Wattle which had been introduced into the new design of the new Commonwealth Coat of Arms was depicted, in colour, in the Commonwealth Government Gazette No.3. This inclusion of Wattle had been achieved through the recommendation of Prime Minister Fisher, a fact that he had announced a week earlier at the Melbourne Wattle Day Conference (see Sowden 1913, p. 11).
1913 (December): The first Australian stamp to include wattle was issued.
1914-1918. Wattle Day was used as a focus for raising funds to assist Australian’s World War 1 effort, and to encourage a sense of patriotism. However, plans to proclaim Wattle a national emblem and celebrate Wattle Day nationally were interrupted by the war.
1916: The date of Wattle Day in New South Wales changed from 1 September to 1 August. The reason for this change was that it allowed the Red Cross to use the earlier flowering and more familiar Cootamundra Wattle (Acacia baileyana) rather than Golden Wattle (Acacia pycnantha) in their efforts to raise money to support the War effort (Panter 1997).
1920’s – 1930’s: Wattle Day continued to be celebrated (but seemingly not in Western Australia and Northern Territory), still associated with raising money for charitable works.
1950’s – 1980’s: Following World War II the tradition of observing Wattle Day declined considerably.
1986 (June). Maria Hitchcock sent submission to the then Prime Minister, Right Hon. R.J. (Bob) Hawke, requesting that 1 September be officially recognized nationally as Wattle Day.
1987 (November). Hitchcock’s earlier submission to the Prime Minister was revised to include an additional request, namely, that A. pycnantha be recognized as the national floral emblem.
1988 (1 September): Golden Wattle (Acacia pycnantha) was officially proclaimed as Australia’s National Floral Emblem. This proclamation occurred in the year of Australia’s bicentenary, and the Gazettal, which is dated 1 September 1988, was signed by the Governor General, Sir Ninian Stephen on 19 August 1988. The proclamation ceremony was conducted on the first day of spring (1 September) in the Australian National Botanic Gardens, Canberra, where the then Minister for Home Affairs, the Hon. Robert Ray, made the formal announcement.
1992 (1 September): The first of September was formally declared ‘National Wattle Day’ by the then Minister for the Environment, Mrs Ros Kelly. The Gazettal is dated 24 August 1992 and was signed by the Govenor General, Bill Haydon, on 23 June 1992.
Wattle Day — 1 September or 1 August
The long-standing differences of opinion and confusion as to which date, 1 August or 1 September, is more appropriate for Wattle Day was settled in 1992 when agreement reached between the Commonwealth and States – 1 September is the day. This standardization resulted from the urgings of Maria Hitchcock and her associates.
At least one reason for the discrepancy in dates relates to differences in flowering times for some of the more popular species of Acacia (see under 1916 above).
Blair, J.W. (1913). Wattle Day, 1st September. The School Paper 4: 129-131.
Boden, A. (1985). Floral emblems of Australia. (Australian Government Publishing Service: Canberra.)
Campbell, A.J. (1921). Golden Wattle. Our national floral emblem. (Osbboldstone & Co: Melbourne.)
Hitchcock, M. (1989, ?unpublished). The Wattle Day Movement.
Hitchcock, M. (1991). WATTLE. (Australian Government Publishing Service: Canberra.)
Panter, R. (1997, updated version). Australia’s Wattle Day. Current Issues Brief No. 1 for 1995-96. Published by the Department of the Parliamentary Library, Canberra. [available on the web]
Robin, L. (2002). Nationalising Nature. Journal of Australian Studies 73: 13-26, 219-223. [A web version of this article, titled 'Nationalising Nature: Wattle Days in Australia', is available]
Searle, S.D. (1991). The rise and demise of the black wattle bark industry in Australia. Technical paper no. 1. (CSIRO Division of Forestry: Canberra.)
Sowden, W.J. (1913). Outline History of the Wattle blossom celebration in Australia. History of the Wattle Day movement. (Published for the Australian Wattle Day League and printed by W.K. Thomas and Co., Adelaide.)
Storrie, A.L. (1909). Wattle Day League. Leaflet No. 2 (Sydney.)