A cartoon becomes reality
26 September 2011
Feelings were running high back in 1916 when Australia's outspoken Prime Minister Billy Hughes was in London. He made a series of strident speeches calling for increased pressure on Germany and more cooperation between the Dominions. According to observers, he "swept his hearers off their feet" with his forceful style. Women apparently marched in the streets with placards saying "We want Hughes back". All of this prompted the cartoonist David Low to produce a collection of satirical drawings parodying Hughes' capers in London published as The Billy book. Included in this was a mock advertisement for a "Billiwog" toy (a combination of the words Billy and golliwog) poking fun at all of this extremist rhetoric. "Almost human, babies cry for it. Directions for use: Blow up with wind until head expands, then release hole on face,whereupon Billy will emit loud noises until he goes flat. No war is complete without one."
The Library not only has a copy of The Billy book, but we also have the original pen and ink drawing of the Billiwog advertisement, acquired from the artist David Low in 1952. What makes this story more interesting is that the polarizing effect Hughes had on people prompted some enterprising entrepeneurs to actually turn this mock advertisement into reality. The Billiwog was in fact subsequently manufactured and sold by street vendors in Australian towns during 1917-1920. I'd love to see one of these! Surely there must be one lurking on a dusty shelf somewhere in an old wares shop, or up the back of a shed unrecognized and forgotten. Or perhaps one of our museums has one? Does a Billiwog survive anywhere?