“Spirit of speed”: Ida Outhwaite and the Shell Fairies
by Carmen Mok, Archives and Special Collections Digital Presence Intern
Ida Outhwaite and the Shell Fairies
In my preparation for the #HistoryMonth2020 campaign in October, I began an exploration of the University of Melbourne Archives and Special Collections’ extensive collections in search of weekly themes. The theme of children’s literature has allowed me to step into Australian author and illustrator Ida Rentoul Outhwaite’s fairyland. When we talk about fairy tales, they usually conjure up stories of adventure, magic and fantasy. Advertising practitioners generally utilized fairy tales to promote popular children’s products such as chocolate, tissue and children’s clothing. I was surprised to discover, however, a connection between the Shell Company and Outhwaite’s work in a series of children’s books with an explicitly commercial message.
Featured in the University of Melbourne Archives and Special Collections’ #HistoryMonth2020 campaign, the illustration above is featured in a story book by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, one of Australia’s most popular children’s authors and illustrators of the early 20th century. Born in a literary and artistic family at Carlton, Melbourne, Outhwaite showed a talent of drawing at a young age. In 1904, when Outhwaite was only 16, she published her first children’s book, Mollie’s Bunyip, in a collaboration with her sister Anne Rattray Rentoul (1). Outhwaite’s fairy world became nationally beloved with its distinctive Australian bushland story settings, featuring charming illustrations of possums, koalas and other native creatures. As one of the first fine art books published in Australia, Outhwaite’s story book Elves and Fairies is still regarded as a remarkable masterpiece in the Australian publishing history(2).
Released as an advertising booklet series for Shell, The Fairy Story That Came True￼ Outhwaite’s fairyland characters discover the “Spirit of Speed”(Shell Motor Oil). In response to the rising trend of family road trips during this period, Shell deliberately targeted children in their advertising materials. Outhwaite’s adventurous and whimsical stories served to attract the attention of young children, making a lasting impression in their mind, and eventually strengthening the company’s ability to harness children’s influence on family purchasing decisions.
The Fairy Story That Came True and another promotional fairy tale for Shell, The Sentry and the Shell Fairy (1928) form part of the Shell Company Historical Collection at the University of Melbourne Archives. Further information about this collection can be found in the online exhibition Everybody Loves a Road Trip!, which explored the nostalgia of Australian road trip culture.
(1) Outhwaite, Ida Sherbourne (1888–1960), Australian Dictionary of Biography, accessed October 29 2020.
(2) Fairy-tales, feminism and fame: The story of Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, ABC Radio National, accessed October 29 2020.