Soft toy penguins are the ultimate Antarctic gift. All of the souvenir shops in Gateway ports are stacked with shelves of the black and white fluff balls, and even the continent itself is not immune: Port Lockroy boasts not only a real life rookery on its front porch, but a complementary stuffed menagerie in the front room. But why penguins?
First, they are cute. Actually, that is probably the main reason for ‘why penguins?’ But why take the soft version home? Penguins are used to stand as a symbol for Antarctica as a whole, and in toy format that symbol remains tangible long after the actual experience of ice is over. Antarctica is a place for peace and science, so snaffling of actual birds or, more likely, geological samples, for souvenirs is not really the done thing. Scientists travel to Antarctica to work, tourists travel to Antarctica to enjoy the landscapes, and everyone is drilled with the mantra ‘take only photographs, leave only footsteps.’ If you can’t take a piece of the continent away with you to remind you of your fleeting presence in southern latitudes, souvenirs are the next best thing. They provide material proof of having been to Antarctica, and fodder for the grandchildren’s Happy Feet stories at show-and-tell time.
So, soft toy penguins are cute, they are Antarctic-y, but contrary to popular opinion, they are not a new thing. In fact, they have a 100-year history, thanks to “Ponko.”
Ponko was as Adelie penguin toy, modelled on photographs taken by Herbert Ponting during Scott’s Terra Nova expedition. With a velvet face, cotton nose, and a fur fabric coat, Ponko is one of the earliest examples of merchandise to be sold in conjunction with a film. And why was Ponko used to draw in the crowds and boost ticket sales? You guessed it, that ‘mix of Adelie aggression and appealing bashfulness with a Princess Diana upward glance from downcast eyes’ (As Meredith Hooper, author of the 2002 picture book ‘Ponko and the South Pole’ so eloquently put it) was both cute and visually metonymic. Penguins equal Antarctica, and have done for quite some time.
Anyone who shows the vaguest interest in Antarctic science or research is likely to amass a collection of the toys as their birthdays come and go. While most modern specimens are likely to have been made offshore and collected more air miles than the typical Antarctic tourist thanks to the sum of their parts being shipped around the globe, they can rest assured that they come from a long line of tradition that stretches right back to the Heroic Era, when heroes battled the elements in tones of sepia that were not unlike the birds’ own colour schemes.