Not Just Gumnut Babies: May Gibbs Artwork in Current Affairs

Date :
September 24, 2021

May Gibbs Art

Not Just Gumnut Babies: May Gibbs’ Art in Current Affairs

May Gibbs is celebrated across the country for her wonderful children’s stories and the beautiful art that accompanies them, but she was also an accomplished cartoonist for various newspapers and literary publications across the world.  

In times of national crises over the past century or so, cartoonists are often the people called upon to get messages across to the public – people today like Cathy Wilcox, David Pope, and Alan Moir. May Gibbs was no different, with her cartoons offering familiar, endearing characters and witty captions to capture the interest and imaginations of Australians in times of war, plague, and other times of national significance.  

Why cartoons?

Cartoons are used in newspapers because they have a wide reach, they’re easily understood, and they often use humour to get their point across. They are easily and even instantly understood, and appeal to both adults and children. May Gibbs understood this and utilised her skills as an artist and children’s author to portray messages to all Australians in times of war. She used uniquely Australian motifs to educate the public without lecturing. The results were effective, as you will see below.  

May Gibbs Illustration for a Public Health Poster, 1919

This image is an excerpt from a public health poster, part of a campaign by the New South Wales government to limit the spread of the deadly Spanish Influenza during the pandemic that began in 1918. The illustration uses familiar characters from May Gibbs’ books, a kookaburra and a gumnut baby, to encourage readers, especially children, to wear masks to reduce the spread of the infection. It also gave an easy and more effective alternative to all the unfortunate home remedies parents were trying to keep their children safe.  

May Gibbs World War 1 Patriotic Postcards

During what was then known as the Great War (1914 – 1918), May Gibbs produced a series of more than 30 postcard designs that were sent in parcels by the Red Cross to Australian troops. They used comforting and familiar illustrations that many Australians would have been familiar with from their childhoods or from the books they read to their children.  

Bib And Bub

Bib and Bub was a newspaper cartoon strip produced by May Gibbs from 1924 until 1967. It was Australia’s longest running comic strip. May Gibbs used her familiar gumnut baby characters to impart life lessons for her audience. She was the first female Australian to produce a comic strip. 

The Common Cause 

May Gibbs also famously produced illustrations and cover designs for the UK suffragette journal ‘The Common Cause’, a cause she was passionate about, while visiting London in 1910 and 1911.  

Dr Stork and Mrs Kookaburra

One of May Gibbs’ most important commissions was another from the New South Wales Department of Public Health. In 1920, they asked her to design a promotional poster for its first Baby Week, encouraging mothers to attend the new baby clinics that were being constructed across the state. May Gibbs’ now iconic illustration took the traditional tale of a stork bringing babies to parents and gave it a uniquely Australian slant, adding a mother kookaburra and gum trees in the background.  

For more fascinating insights on May Gibbs art and fascinating life, read on here.


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Right now, Librarian Bec’s hard at work at your local library, sharing a passion for reading with little people and big. Bec writes about inspiring little readers and embracing lovely literature.