Koalas are an adorable, furry and unique Australian animal. It’s little wonder that
koala collectables are at the tippity-top of the list of Australian souvenirs. Since wayback when, people have been commemorating our not-actually-a-bear in paintings and sculpture as well as everyday items around the home. Koala collectables com ein literally all shapes and sizes as well as materials.
Here at La La Land, it’s no secret that we love koalas too, so we decided to do a littleresearch into how koalas took their place in Australian art, design and homewares, and how koala collectables have been at the pinnacle of kitsch and desirability among locals and tourists alike over many decades.
First koala paintings
First off, we acknowledge that white Australians weren’t the first to fall in love with the Koala. Koalas, like all Australian animals, were an important part of Aboriginal culture, so they feature in many of their myths and legends. These include the story of a giant, flesh-eating Koala, which has been proven to actually have existed in Australia during the last Ice Age. It was called the Thylacoleo carnifex, meaning ‘marsupial lion’ but its physiology had much more in common with a Koala or Wombat. Eeek!
Koalas of the regular, cuddly, gum leaf eating variety also featured in indigenous artwork, but because aboriginal cave paintings were continually evolving works of art, it’s difficult to isolate an early one.
In 1803, Australian artist John William Lewin was the first non-Aboriginal person to draw a Koala, from a specimen that was brought from Mount Kembla to Sydney. The drawing featured in the Sydney Gazette, and resulted in him being commissioned to paint a Koala by Governor King. The painting (shown below) was denounced by his patron as ‘very bad’, but John continued painting Koalas and other native flora and fauna undeterred. He became widely recognised for paintings that represented animals in their natural habitat, rather than isolated against a white background, as was the style at the time.
Early koala toys
In the early 1920s, toy “teddy bears” (based on 1900s cartoon images of US
President Teddy Roosevelt as a black bear and made in US, Britain and Germany)
were becoming popular in post-war Australia. All but a few of mohair were made
using imitation fur cloth skins. Local designers wondered why a toy fur koala (known incorrectly as a “native bear”) could not be made and sold in competition.
In 1925, Bill Bleeck, managing his Brisbane family J.Jackson and Son furriers and
skin dealing firm, designed a fur toy koala. A ‘bag’ of selected parts of tanned
common ‘blue’ grey kangaroo hide was stuffed with wood wool to firm a distinctive sitting koala shape. It had four shaped limbs, large fluffy ears, selected glass eyes and a firm large nose. Samples were made but sales were slow.
In 1927, the Queensland Government’s ‘open season’ resulted in at least 584,000
koalas being killed in that year before protection became permanent. Lindsay added
‘William Bluegum’s’ plea to the public protest.
In the following years with advertising of ‘toy fur teddy bears”, demand grew and production and sales increased. Several interstate rivals produced similar items, mostly with four-digit leather hands and feet. In 1930, Bill Bleeck registered his design and the term ‘Billy Bluegum’, as noted on a green gumleaf shape around each toy’s neck. His daughter Noela loved hers for many years.
Believing the toys were still not accurate replicas, by 1932 Bill had produced an improved model. This had a turning head and bolted joint moveable limbs, plus exact black rubber casts of the real koala nose and three plus two-digit spaced claws. It sat 16 inches high. A joey-sized form was 11 inches. At Christmas 1932, in Sydney stores Billy Bluegums outsold Japanese-made teddies.
Copyists made versions differing slightly. One agency in Sydney quickly submitted its claim to the Billy Bluegum design, a challenge later dismissed. The J.Jackson and Son design for “a fur toy native bear’ was finally approved in April 1933.
Drawing part of the design application.
The firm also produced similar kangaroo and joey toys, continuing to use kangaroo fur.
Jacksons and department stores sold tens of thousands of Billy Bluegums, particularly as souvenirs for servicemen in Australia to send to the US during World War 2. Local popularity grew again after the war with many thousands of children loving “the most cuddlesome gift of all” to death. Design rights expired in 1954 and production ceased.
Today few Billy Bluegums in various states exist out of museums and private collections. For the genuine vintage fur toy, look for the five-digit rubber claws! If it doesn’t look like a koala in some way, then it’s not the original article but a teddy bear. One Billy sold in the US in 1908, reputedly for more than US$1000.
This picture online appears to be of a genuine Billy Bluegum.
Koalas in ceramics
By the 1930s and 40s, the Koala was being made into every conceivable household item, from bells and jugs right through to book-ends. Often, they were customised with the name of a particular tourist destination, which was painted on after their manufacture, by hand.
Many of these koala collectables were cheaply made in Japan, but several of the more famous ceramic and pottery manufacturers of the early 20th century such as Beswick, Newtone, Wembley Ware, and Remued Pottery manufactured Koala collectables such as vases, pen holders, ashtrays, and even salt and pepper shakers.
Australia’s most prominent maker of Koala collectables was a potter called Grace Seccombe, who became well known in the 1930s and 40s for her brightly painted figurines. They’re sold at fancy auction houses these days at ‘did-I-hear-that-right?’ prices – her Koala figurines currently fetch between $1,500 and $2,000!
Koalas in advertising
One of the most popular types of collectables nowadays is vintage advertising, and this is how the Koala really came to represent Australia in the minds of many people around the world.
Airlines and clipper companies used the exotic allure of the Koala to entice people to undertake the arduous trip to the other side of the world. After all, how bad could it be to travel all that way if you got to hug a Koala at the end of your trip? They relentlessly attacked with waves of paralysing cuteness and the vague notion that every Koala in Australia was female, carrying a joey, and living at the end of any residential street in any arbitrary gum tree.
Most of these posters were printed on paper and originals are very few and far between these days. Others were printed on paper with a linen backing, making them a little more durable, but they’re still as rare as hen’s teeth.
In Australia, the most loved graphic artist of the 1930s and 40s was James Northfield. He was recognised for his excellent composition and the remarkable atmosphere of light and colour with which he captured the Australian landscape. Koalas featured in his work several times, and an original poster will set you back anywhere between $2,000 and $7,000.
Koalas in fashion
Even the fashion industry wasn’t immune to the charms of the Koala, with motifs of Australian flora and fauna appearing in embroidery and fabric patterns from as early as 1920, and in accessories such as handbags and muffs from the early 1900s.
The 1980s was a truly notable decade for the Koala collector, with artists such as Jenny Kee and Ken Done immortalising our favourite furry creature in clothing that featured every eye-melting colour you can possibly think of. Items such as hand-knitted woollen jumpers, sweatshirts and duffel bags were adorned with endearingly child-like line drawings and shipped around the country and overseas as hot Aussie fashion.
You’d be excused for thinking that a lot of this gear is now languishing at the bottom of a bin in some out-of-the-way Salvos store, but that couldn’t be further from the truth! If you want to add a bit of 1980s neon to your Koala collectables stash, then you should expect to part with a pretty penny on eBay or Etsy, because they’ve become cult hipster classics. Jenny Kee’s woollen jumpers can fetch over $500, depending on their condition.
This would hardly be a thorough look into the world of Koala collectables if we didn’t cover famous Koala characters. Our favourite would have to be Blinky Bill, who came into our lives in wonderfully illustrated books by Dorothy Wall. Blinky’s adventures were first published by Angus and Robertson back in the 1930s and have never been out of print. Buying an original (assuming you can find one) will cost around $1,000. If you’re not quite that minted, you can find a modern reprint of the original for a much more modest $35.00.
Another famous Koala collectable character is the somewhat unfortunately named ‘Little Willy’ – Australia’s mascot at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Willy’s beaming little face and green and gold tracksuit-clad body was reproduced in a billion different souvenirs, from teaspoons and lapel-pins to cloth badges and stuffed toys, all of which are easy to acquire on eBay, should your life be incomplete without one.
Somewhat controversially, Willy was not chosen as the mascot for the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Instead, a competition was launched to develop a new mascot, and Borobi, the blue surfing koala was born. It’s fair to say that with his radical colouring and zinc-striped red nose, Borobi is a little polarising. Part of the controversy stems from our Koala conservation track record, which is not what you’d call sterling. Anyway, love him or hate him, it’s doubtless that Borobi be joining the koala collectables list pretty soon.
Blinky Bill from 1933
Koalas in danger
Despite the enduring love that Australia possesses for this beautiful marsupial, our Koala population is in real danger. While Koalas are protected by law, their habitats are not. Relentless land clearing is pushing koalas into the paths of cars and dogs and along the road to extinction. The Australia Koala Foundation was set up to help save the Koala, and it’s proudly supported by La La Land with 10% of every Koala Gift Pack sold being donated to help their good works to continue.
Koala collectables from La La Land
La La Land’s enthusiasm for the Koala is reflected in our amazing range of Koala-inspired stationery, homewares and fashion. From cards and notebooks, tea-towels and plates right through to coin purses and tote bags, we have something for every Koala lover to enjoy and smile over. Check out all the La La Land Koala Collectables currently in stock, or perhaps one of our three favourite items of the moment will be your new favourite too.
We hope we’ve inspired even more love for Australia’s most adorable animal by sharing this post. Please remember how precious they are, and do all you can do to help take care of them.