The first exhibition in the refurbished Palmer Hall, Writing the war: Personal stories from WWI opens tomorrow and features a striking design motif based on a sprig of wattle blossom. The exhibition to commemorate the centenary of WWI tells the story of seven Victorian men and women during the war years – 1914 to 1918.
You might be wondering why the wattle has been featured as a floral emblem and not the poppy that we usually associate with remembrance of the Great War. The splash of yellow wattle blossom in Writing the war pays homage to this vibrant flower, which symbolised a unique Australian identity for those at home and serving abroad during WWI.
There are around 950 species of wattle in the diverse genus Acacia, almost all of which are native to Australia alone. When wattle blooms at the start of spring in Victoria, the bush wears a glorious coat of blossom and pollen in all shades of yellow – no doubt striking fear in the hearts of hayfever sufferers.
In the late 1800s the Victorian Wattle Club was formed from a group of enthusiasts who arranged outings to the bush on the first of September each year in honour of the flower. In the early 1900s the club first proposed a ‘Wattle Day’ celebration, which was adopted as an official celebration in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide on 1 September 1910. The wattle flower was included in representations of the Commonwealth coat of arms from late 1912, but it was not until 1988 that the Golden Wattle was proclaimed our official national emblem.
The wattle’s popularity was on the rise just before the outbreak of WWI in 1914, with activities for Wattle Day including sprigs of wattle sold and worn on lapels for fundraising, school planting parties, street decorations, and wattle picnics and bush outings to admire the bright yellow blooms. It is therefore not surprising that the wattle blossom was adopted as a potent symbol of home and national pride for Australians serving overseas during WWI.
Sprigs of wattle were included in parcels sent overseas to Australians at war – nestled in a bed of knitted woollen socks or pressed in a letter. The flower also featured on beautifully designed badges sold for war-effort fundraising by the Red Cross and others.
In the State Library’s collection we have a number of badges and superb patriotic postcards created during the war years – some are now on display in The changing face of Victoria in the Dome Galleries on Level 5.
Writing the war: Personal stories from WWI is open until October (Monday to Thursday 10am–9pm and Friday to Sunday 10am–6pm). From August onwards the Writing the war touring exhibition will travel to Victorian public libraries and be displayed alongside WWI material from regional communities.
Robyn Walton is Project Officer, Touring and Special exhibitions, at State Library Victoria.