American Wool Tariffs and the Australian Colonies at the 1876 Philadelphia Exhibition

By Stephen Jakubowicz

A comparative approach to historical analysis can reveal interesting points of comparison between historical actors that may at first seem unrelated from one another. However, emerging historical approaches examining the intersection of trade and culture promise to glean further insight into how the two are inextricably connected.[1] An offshoot of similar initiatives in Europe, the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 offered American visitors to the fair the chance to experience the nation’s, and the world’s, best and newest economic, technological, and cultural innovations. About nine million people from all over the world visited the fair, and thirty-seven nations sent exhibits for display, including the Australian colonies of Tasmania, South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria.

The Philadelphia Exhibition was promoted by its supporters as a chance to strengthen economic, cultural and social bonds between American and international exhibitors, and a broad rhetoric of universal interchange was promulgated by the Exhibition’s organisers to attract potential exhibitors. The majority of exhibits sent by the Australian colonies consisted of biological and geological specimens, raw goods, and agricultural products. Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales all sent large showings of wool to reflect their strengths in the industry: the Australian colonies still relied heavily on their primary producing industries for revenue in the late nineteenth century and were hoping to facilitate an exchange of these items through displaying them at the Philadelphia Exhibition.

Despite the hope on the part of the Australian colonies that involvement in the Philadelphia Exhibition would facilitate economic interchange between themselves and the United States, a patchwork of tariff legislation designed to protect the growth of the American raw goods industry prevented any chance for meaningful economic exchange between Australia and the United States. During and after the Civil War, a period of Republican dominance federally, the trend was to protect the U.S. economy by placing tariffs on imported goods with the aim of increasing government revenue. Special interest lobbies worked together with manufacturers to ask Congress for increased protection of their industries against external threats.

The Wool and Woollens Act of 1867, for instance, was promoted by a lobby of American wool farmers and manufacturers with the aim of protecting the American wool industry from being threatened by the growth of the industry in South Africa, Argentina and Australia. It was feared that these nations would outcompete the United States’ wool industry since they had warmer climates, longer growing seasons, and more land available on which to cheaply raise sheep.[2] Aside from further raising duties on unmanufactured wool, this Act vastly increased duties on washed and scoured wool, and similarly raised duties on wool products, including carpets, clothing items and yarn.

It is admittedly difficult to ascertain the impact that the passage of the 1867 Wool and Woollens Act had on the trade in wool and woollen products between the United States and the Australian colonies from trade statistics alone. This is because, up until the mid-1860s, most wool produced in the colonies was sent to Britain and then subsequently re-exported to the United States and overseas.[3] Regardless, the passing of the Wool and Woollens Act was cause for consternation on the part of Australian commentators of the colonies’ involvement at the Philadelphia Exhibition, especially considering that by the 1870s wool was Australia’s leading export, accounting for 57 percent of exports by the 1880s.[4] A correspondent writing for the Melbourne-based Australasian newspaper, for instance, observed that American wool buyers were looking ‘with longing eyes’ at wool grown in Victoria, New South Wales, and the Darling Downs region on display at the Philadelphia Exhibition.[5] However, the reporter lamented that the prohibitive wool tariffs between the United States and the Australian colonies prevented any long-term trade from arising between the colonies and their larger counterpart.

The decision to send wool exhibits from the Australian colonies to the Philadelphia Exhibition did little to promote the wool trade between the two societies. Two years later however, the Sydney Chamber of Commerce sent a circular dispatch to the other Australian Chambers of Commerce in anticipation of the Exhibitions to take place in Sydney and Melbourne in 1879 and 1880. Specifically, the letter stated that since the United States would ‘probably exhibit largely’ at these fairs, it was ‘a favourable time for pressing upon public opinion in America the expediency of abolishing or reducing the ad valorem duties charged upon Australian wools, as a means of promoting trade between the two countries’.[6] As colonial economies grew and their various governments became more self-assured, the exhibitions became a platform from which both support of, and opposition to the tariff issue was pushed with increased confidence. Despite the advocacy on the part of the Australian colonies to lower trade barriers between themselves and the United States, it would take until the 1890s for both societies to begin importing and exporting goods between each other with increased confidence.[7]

The Philadelphia Exhibition was therefore an opportunity for the Australian colonies to promote the strength of their industries to an American audience. By sending goods to the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, Australian exhibitors hoped to increase trade between themselves and the United States, and were buoyed by a rhetoric of free interchange promoted by the Exhibition’s organisers. However, restrictive tariff laws ensured that any chance of an increase in the exchange of goods between the two societies was suppressed: economic factors conspired to prevent the Australian colonies from being able to take full advantage of the chance to exhibit at the Philadelphia Exhibition.

Stephen Jakubowicz is currently an MA student at the University of Melbourne.


[1] Paul A. Kramer, “Embedding Capital: Political-Economic History, the United States, and the World,” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 15, no. 3 (July 2016): pp.331–62.

[2] Tom E. Terrill, The Tariff, Politics, and American Foreign Policy, 1874-1901 (Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press, 1973). p.190.

[3] A. Barnard, The Australian Wool Market, 1840-1900 (Carlton, Vic: Melbourne University Press on behalf of the Australian National University, 1958). p.47.

[4] David Greasley, “Industrialising Australia’s Natural Capital,” in The Cambridge Economic History of Australia, ed. Simon Ville and Glenn Withers, 1st ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 150–77.

[5] “The American Exhibition,” Australasian, June 24, 1876.

[6] “American Duties on Australian Wools,” Argus, April 3, 1879.

[7] Bradford Perkins, The Great Rapprochement: England and the United States, 1895-1914, 1st ed. (New York: Atheneum, 1968).

Image credit: Centennial Photographic Co. Victorian Court, Australian Section. Philadelphia, P.A.: Centennial Photographic Co., 1876. Photographic print on stereo card. https://www.loc.gov/resource/cph.3c00632/

Samples of wool exhibits can be seen in the background behind the sculpture of Lynceus and Hypermnestra.