Celebrating 100 years of Little Obelia


The original cover of May Gibbs’ Little Obelia, 1921
Sea Dragons in their stables


Original Illustrations for Little Obelia and Further Adventures of Ragged Blossom, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, 1921, by May Gibbs. From top: Little Obelia original cover, 1921; At the races, 1921; Sea dragons in their stables, 1921; Into the clear green sea, 1921; The picture gallery, 1921

These illustrations show remarkable ingenuity on the part of the artist, who has given a personality to a number of familiar Australian plants and animals, and handled them with considerable humour … All the grumpy grown-ups will enjoy them, too! – Sydney Mail, 7 December 1921

In time for the Christmas present rush 100 years ago – in November 1921 – May Gibbs released her third and final full-length book featuring Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. The timely release ensured that the ‘enchanting and delightful’ Little Obelia and Further Adventures of Ragged Blossom, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie was guaranteed successful sales and would find its way into the Christmas stockings of gumnut fans, young and old.

Like its predecessors Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1918) and Little Ragged Blossom (1920), Little Obelia was published with a plain brown dust jacket, an illustrated cover, two colour plates and 19 full-page plates in sepia.

Word about the new book by one of the country’s favourite author-illustrators spread quickly. On 21 November 1921 publishers Angus & Robertson sent almost 100 review copies to newspapers all over Australia, and only a few days later the advertisements and articles began to appear:

… undoubtedly the finest piece of work that this artist has turned out – The Land, 25 November 1921

Pictures that are alive with imagination and have artistic skill and humor combined. – Western Champion, Parkes, 8 December 1921

He would be a crusty old cynic indeed who could not pleasurably revel for a time at least with these delightful little creatures of the Australian bush in their land of enchantment. – The World’s News, Sydney, 3 December 1921

As people were racing out to buy copies of Little Obelia for 7 shillings 6 pence to put under their Christmas trees, Sydney department store Grace Bros at Broadway was hosting Santa Claus in Gum-Nut Land. Children could enter Gum-Nut themed competitions: colouring in for those up to 10 years of age, and an essay on their visit to Gum-Nut Land for those over 10.

In Little Obelia, Cuddlepie journeys undersea to the land of the Fish Folk, where he enlists the help of Ann Chovy, John Dory and Little Obelia to rescue his friend Ragged Blossom. Meanwhile, Snugglepot continues his land adventures with Mr Lizard, Mrs Snake and the Banksia men.

May Gibbs spent her childhood in Perth drawing under the guidance of her artist father Herbert Gibbs. She began entering her paintings of Western Australian wildflowers in the annual Perth wildflower show, and these paintings were exhibited in 1900 in the West Australian Court of the Paris International Exhibition.

Gibbs continued to take inspiration from the natural world and took pride in accurately reproducing plants and animals. Her personal library included botanical and natural history reference books, among them Hutchinson’s Animals of All Countries, which depicts many of the marine animals that appear in Little Obelia.

The new book was a resounding success, and was still being suggested as a Christmas gift in newspapers three years later. A paperback edition came out in 1929, and in 1940 it was included in The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. May Gibbs’ Australian fairy stories endure to this day, and several of her books have recently been republished ... just in time for Christmas!

Buy the book here



Sarah Morley, Curator, Research and Discovery, State Library of NSW

About May Gibbs

Cecilia May Gibbs was born on 17 January 1877 in Kent, England and arrived in Adelaide in 1881. Both of her parents were artistic having met and married whilst studying art at the School of Design, South Kensington. Her father Herbert, was appointed drawing master at Perth High School in 1890. May was schooled in Perth before studying art in England at the Cope and Nichol School, Chelsea and the Henry Blackburn School of Black and White art between 1901 and 1904. She earned a living by doing sketches of soldiers departing for World War 1, designing covers for the Sydney Mail, contributing to The Tatler and other magazines. She published Gumnut Babies in 1916 and Snugglepot and Cuddlepie in 1918 to great success. She married in 1919 and lived with her husband in ‘Nutcote’ Neutral Bay, Sydney and continued to publish, delighting generations of children with her Gumnut series. Her success wained in the 1930’s however she kept publishing until 1954 and was appointed an MBE in 1955. May Gibbs sadly died childless in 1969, bequeathing all her estate to the NSW Society for Crippled Children and the NSW Spastic Centre.

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