Koalas. They’re adorable, they’re furry and they’re totally unique, so it’s little wonder that Koala collectables are at the tippy-top of the list of Australian souvenirs. Since way back when, people have been commemorating our not-actually-a-bear in paintings and sculpture as well as everyday items around the home. Koala collectables come in 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 little research into how Koalas took their place in Australian art, design and homewares, and how Koala collectables reached 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
On the next stop in our Koala collectables journey, we tracked down some early toys. It wasn’t really until the 1920s that they became a commonly produced item, and the first ones were made of real koala, wallaby or kangaroo hide – complete with jointed arms and legs and eyes made from shoe buttons. Many of them were made by a company called Morella. Their noses were typically rubber and their claws were leather. They were stuffed with a material called wood wool, which also made them pretty popular with insects, hence there aren’t many of them left.
These were dark days indeed for the koala population of Australia, and millions of Koalas were killed. Public outrage at the slaughter forced governments in all states to declare the Koala a 'Protected Species' by the late 1930's. By then Koalas were extinct in South Australia, seriously depleted in New South Wales, and the Koala population in Victoria had been reduced to as few as 500 animals. Koala populations are still in grave danger today.
During this time, many commercial teddy bear manufacturers also made koalas. Steiff, the famous German manufacturer, Deans in England, and several others around the world produced mohair versions with glass eyes, also stuffed with wood wool. As time passed, koala skins the jointed arms were dispensed with in favour of a more economical way of manufacturing, commonly known as the ‘starfish’ shape. Music boxes that played Waltzing Matilda were a frequent addition, and eyes, nose and claws became plastic.
Koalas as toys have remained one of the top Koala collectables for little ones. As the decades have passed, they have thankfully evolved to be mainly made from non-animal derived materials, although you’ll still find the odd kangaroo-hide example on eBay or Etsy, complete with ‘vintage’ price tag.
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.
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.