Look closely at some old furniture in your home or workplace and you may see the words ‘European labour only’ stamped on it. You may think you have a finely crafted piece of furniture made in Germany or France. But don’t rush to the antique dealer too quickly. These stamps were common on furniture made in Australia before the 1960s.

The ‘European labour only’ stamp was a legal requirement in Victoria, and in most other states. In Victoria it was set out in the Factories and Shops Act of 1896. It was later incorporated in different Acts over time under various names, finally remaining in 1958 as part of the Labour and Industry Act. The purpose of the legislation was to distinguish between furniture made in Victoria by Chinese workers and that made by Europeans, meaning Australians of European origin.

The Australasian, 13 March, 1897, p. 4, advertisement
indicating ‘European Labour’ made furniture.

In the 1880s there was great concern about what was known as ‘sweated labour’ or ‘sweating’. This was the use of labour in highly exploitative conditions. It usually meant workers subjected to very long hours, unsafe conditions, low pay and insecure employment. The Chinese community were often accused of making use of ‘sweated labour’, especially in the manufacture of furniture.

Unions accused the Chinese workers of unfairly undermining the conditions of European workers, while employers complained about unfair competition from Chinese owned businesses. Others said that the Chinese made furniture was of inferior quality.  These views were contested by some at the time and later by historians such as Eric Rolls. Despite a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment it appears that many businesses were happy to sell Chinese made furniture, indeed some contemporary commentators felt it was ‘absolutely impossible to commence the retail furniture business without selling Chinese made furniture’.

Illustration from the Australasian Sketcher,
Chinese Furniture Makers 1880, A/S24/04/80/69

After a series of Parliamentary inquiries such as the inquiry into the Factories and Shops Act 1890 and ongoing agitation from unions, employers and lobby groups, stamping legislation was introduced in 1896. Furniture had to be stamped as ‘Chinese labour’ or ‘European labour only’, or ‘European and other labour’ if a combination of labour sources was used. The stamping legislation, and other measures such as greater regulation of working hours did harm the viability of the Chinese furniture makers. Over a period of time their presence in the industry declined and eventually, virtually disappeared.

The problem of sweated labour was very real and attempts to reduce it were well-intentioned. But the Chinese and other non European communities did suffer from very prejudicial attitudes in this era. When Chinese workers were on strike against their employers for improved conditions in the 1880s and early 1890s they sought the support of the union movement but were rejected. There were even threats of using European labour against them as strike breakers.

Later attempts by the Chinese to be involved in the industry reform and regulation were also rejected. The rejection of the Chinese workers pleas for solidarity by their Australian or European fellow workers was a missed opportunity. What could have become a bridge between different communities remained a wall that divided them. A legacy of prejudice and misconceptions remained for generations. In Victoria the stamping regulations were in force until 1963. The last remaining references to European and Chinese Labour stamping was removed from the Labour and Industry Act 1958, by various new provisions in the Labour and Industry Amendment Act of 1963.

Wardrobe with European Labour Only stamp.
Image supplied courtesy of Karen Cheng’s Fashion and Life blog,
Racist Furniture post,  18 April, 2011.

 

Further reading

Beaton, Lynn,  Part of the furniture: Moments in the history of the Federated Furniture Trades Society of Victoria,  Melbourne University Press: Carlton, Vic., 2007, pages 39-48.

Rolls, Eric, Citizens : Flowers and the wide sea: continuing the epic story of China’s centuries-old relationship with Australia, University of Queensland Press: St. Lucia, Qld., 1996, pages  111-116.

This article has 26 comments

  1. How funny, I wrote an essay on this topic that was published just a couple of days before this article:

    http://rightnow.org.au/writing-cat/feature/things-and-their-makers-from-european-labour-only-to-ethical-consumerism/

    It’s good to see growing awareness of and interest in this kind of history!

  2. Thanks for the comment and link to article Lia.

    Tim Hogan, State Library of Victoria.

  3. I have 5 off these wood dining chairs .they were given to me to cut up for making toys out off.
    Should I cut them up or keep them.
    Syd.

    • Keep them i think.You can always make toys from something else.I personally value items made from this era.A lot of time and effort often went into them and if they have survived this long…well seems a shame to destroy them now.I just bought a cabinet yesterday which is around one hundred yrs old stamped Chinese Labour Melbourne.It was the finding of this stamp which led me eventually to this page and your comment. It is one of the loveliest of pieces of furniture i have ever seen and i will treasure it as i do all my other wonderful finds. ☺
      P.S i see your comment is rather old.Hope its not too late for those chairs !!

  4. I have a chest of drawers marked “Chinese Labour Lee Cheong 305 Exhibition St Melbourne”. I cannot find any info about Lee Cheong but assume that the chest of drawers may have been made between 1896 -1920’s. Can anyone provide more info about Lee Cheong’s furniture factory? Lee

    • Hi Lee, Thank you for your interest in our blog. We will look into it for you and send an answer to your email address.

  5. Hi, was hoping that someone may be able to give me some information regarding a Hall Stand/Cupboard Ive purchased. The manufacturer stamp is an inverted triangle “Tack Loong 7 Hayward Lane Melbourne, Maker Chinese Labour” Any info would be appreciated.
    Thankyou
    Zana

    • Hello Zana, We will look into this for you and reply to your email address. Thank you for your interest.

  6. michele summerton

    There’s a simple, white painted wooden kitchen chair at Cape Otway Lightstation. It was made by Foy & Gibson for the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service and probably dates between 1915 and the 1920s.

    The manufacturer’s stamp under the seat reads ‘European Labor Only. Made by Foy & Gibson Pty Ltd, Smith Street, Collingwood’.

  7. Helen, Am in the process of taking off that dreaded cream on top of green thick paint used on that lovely cream pine they made the lead-lighted kitchen cupboards out of , and found a stamp in the bottom of the drawer A3 EUROPEAN LABOUR ONLY. My grand daughter is one lucky girl having salvaged the init from a friend taking it to the dump Thanks all the info.

  8. Richard stafford

    Hi, I have some furniture which is stamped with European Labour A12
    I presume the A12 may stand for the manufacturer as there is no other info.
    Could you please assist, as i am trying to see how old the table and chairs may be.
    Cheers

    • Hi Richard
      Thanks for your comment. We didn’t come across any information about manufacturer’s names or marks when writing this piece. So it may be a fairly obscure piece of information. We will have a look though and see if we can uncover anything.

  9. Charlie Stonehouse

    Hi I have some furniture dressing table & bedside cabinet, inside a draw is stamped H. Lum & Co Lit Bourke St Melbourne all European labour also has a four digit phone number. I assume that it is a Chinese company, it was purchased from a person called Tok, the previous Co owner. Have you any further info on H. Lum & Co?
    Regards Charlie

    • Hi Charlie, thanks for your comment. H. Lum & Co. operated a furniture store which was known as the Melba Furnishing Company. It is mentioned a couple of times in Melbourne newspapers in 1923 and in 1930, when there were fires at the premises, or near by. So your piece of furniture may date from around that time. You can search for more newspaper references online on Trove, a website containing digitised Australian newspapers from the 19th and 20th centuries, http://trove.nla.gov.au. There are other sources you can check like old postal and commercial directories, known commonly as the Sands and Macdougall’s Directories. These are a bit like the Yellow Pages of today. Unfortunately they are not freely available online. They are held by all State Libraries, and in some of the larger public libraries around Melbourne, and other cities and towns. You should be able to track the existence of the Melba Furnishing Company, owned by H Lum by looking at these.

  10. Thank you so much for this information. I have been scouring the net trying to work out what the stamp on a small half round hall table I have recently purchased. The stamp reads:

    European Labour Only
    A409___________Q7
    Design No: 17
    Date: 16/7/38 (51) – the 38 is part of the original stamp. It has been crossed through and ’51’ written. EG: the ink date stamp is …./…./38 – then in different colour ink it is written 16/7/51
    Maker: JP

    Can you please advise me where to start in being able to find more information on this piece?

    • Hi Trudi, thank you for your comments. Unfortunately the maker’s name, ‘JP’, is not much too go on, and we are not aware of a way to search for information purely by the serial number or design number. I would suggest trying the following sources, old postal and commercial directories, known commonly in Victoria as the Sands and Macdougall’s Directories, digitised newspapers on Trove, http://trove.nla.gov.au, and one of the standard reference works on Australian furniture, “Australian furniture : Pictorial history and dictionary, 1788 – 1938” by Kevin Fahy, Andrew Simpson, published in 1998. All of these sources are available at larger research libraries in all states of Australia.

  11. Hullo I have recently purchased a pedestal/plinth which may have held a pot plant or small sculpture. It is oak and I estimate 1920-1930 and in very good order. The stamped underside reads: J G Guest Furniture Manufacturers Richmond (I presume Richmond Victoria) and also has the European Labour Only stamp.
    I have other old pieces from that period and was very interested to read the information and comments regarding “European Labour Only”.
    I am hoping you may know something more about the ” JG Guest” company as I have been unable to locate anything useful. Regards Isabel

    • Hello Isabel

      Thanks you for your inquiry. According to Australian furniture : Pictorial history and dictionary, 1788 – 1938, by Kevin Fahy, and Andrew Simpson, published in 1998, J.G Guest & Co. were in business in Melbourne from as early as 1920 until at least 1938. One of their catalogues has been digitised by the State Library of Victoria. You can access it from this link, http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/154404

      The full citation is:

      Pounds saved on finest furniture direct from the factory : out of the high rent area.
      J.G. Guest and Co. [1929].
      http://search.slv.vic.gov.au/MAIN:Everything:SLV_VOYAGER241981

      The founder of the company, Mr. J.G. Guest, died in 1954. There was an short obituary article in the Melbourne Age newspaper which you can read from this link,
      OBITUARY Mr. J. G. Guest (1954, March 18). The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954), p. 7. Retrieved January 2, 2017, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article20570501

      Trove, a website containing digitised Australian newspapers from the 19th and 20th centuries, http://trove.nla.gov.au can be used to find further mentions of J.G Guest & Company which appears to have existed into the 1940s and 1950s.

      Hope this is useful

  12. Hi
    We have just obtained a lovely old 1920’s-30’s Art Deco Buffet/ drinks cabinet.. Unfortunately I cannot find any info on the manufacturer, I am wanting to restore it to it’s original beauty but am unable to find any pictures to match stain etc, hoping you may be able to shed some light?
    Stamp reads J.S. Cook & C . PTY.LTD
    Furniture Manufacturers
    European Labor Only
    Many thanks
    Toni

  13. Hello,
    I have a beautiful old sideboard made by “Standis Furniture” stamped “European labour only”.
    Its also has a sellers stamp from “Clauscen &Co furniture arcade, 194 bourke street Melbourne”
    I cant find any information about it except Standis started production from 1912.
    Is there some clues on how I can find its age?

  14. I am about to restore a lovely round side table I bought at a clearance auction and underneath is an engraved stamp A3 EUROPEAN LABOUR ONLY. I delved into the meaning and seems it was a stamp depicting that it was made by white European Australians as opposed to Chinese Australian labour who apparently underpaid their workers.Parliament it seemed passed a law to pay the Europeans a fair wage but the Chinese were not included in this law and had to set up their own union in order to stop the sweat shops in the Chinese community.So it seems the stamp was all about fair pay for the workers around the late 1800’s up to 1958

  15. Hi Tim
    I have found stamped on my grandmother’s squatters chair “A 9 European labour only”
    This chair has been in the family since my great grandparents. Having read the story of why this is stamped on the chair would like to know anyway of finding out what A 9 may mean and year may have been made approximately?
    Thanks for your help vicki

    • Hi Vicki,

      We have been asked about this A9 code previously. See the reply I made to Trudi above on 3 January 2017 where she asked the same question. Unfortunately we were unable to find out what the A9, or other similar codes might have meant. Perhaps someone in the furniture trade might know?

      The stamps were used over many decades as the Blog piece indicates from the 1890s to the 1960s, so the furniture could date from anywhere in that time. An antique furniture dealer could possibly make a more accurate estimate of the date.

      Thanks for your comment.

    • Hi Tim
      Thanks so much for your quick reponce and info. I shall keep looking for answers and if find any shall let you know. Thanks vicki

      1890s or very early 100. If only we thought of asking them whilst we had the chance Hey !! Thanks vicki

  16. Hi, hoping you can help I have what I think is a hall cupboard with L Coulton Northcote European Labour Only, is there any way to find out how old it is as I was going to give it away for free until I saw this written on it. Any info would be appreciated.

    • Hi Leonie,
      I will take your question as deferred enquriy and a librarian will get back to you.
      Thanks for reading,
      Paul

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