The Last Golliwog

Lately, I have been on a hunt for the last golliwog to be seen in children’s literature. It’s not an easy task, because every time I think they are gone for good, another one pops up like a creepy jack-in-the-box.

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Upton brought the golliwog to children’s literature in 1895.

It’s somewhat easier to find the first golliwog. Most people agree that the first appearance of the golliwog, named as such, in children’s literature, came in Florence Upton’s 1895 Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg. But the character existed as a children’s toy long before this. Many argue that, based on its dandyish attire of striped pants, jacket, and bow tie, it is a figure tied to the minstrel tradition. Many of the posters from minstrel shows tend to confirm this, especially the ones in which white performers “blacked up” to perform African-American style songs (not all of which were actually African-American—many were imitations or mockeries of songs sung by southern slaves, such as those written by Stephen Foster for the Christy Minstrels). Although minstrelsy was a particularly American song-and-dance form, minstrel shows traveled all over the world, and were popular in England (among other places), where Upton lived. She claimed that the golliwog in her book was based on a doll she had as a child—a doll she thought was “ugly”.

 

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Ha, ha! The minstrel tradition often required white people to “black up” and (as in this case) make their hair look “crazy”.

The book character was popular at a time when the minstrel tradition was fading, and giving way to vaudeville. This is quite a common tradition—once a story or cultural artifact becomes passé with adults, it moves to the nursery to retire. Many folk and fairy tales began as stories for adults, and another minstrel tradition—the song “Ten Little N** Boys”—also moved from stage to children’s literature. Upton’s Golliwogg spawned many similar stories, and huge amounts of marketing as well. Most famously, Robertson’s Jam in the UK used the “golly” as a mascot from 1910; eventually, children could send in jam jar labels in return for golly badges.

 

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This is from a 1930s reading primer in the Bluebird reading series. Golly has on his striped pants and tie–and his crazy hair.

The golliwog figure was popular in children’s comics and picture books, as well as educational materials. Enid Blyton used a golliwog figure in her Toytown/Noddy stories. Golliwogs were especially popular as a toy and character in the UK prior to the end of World War II; after this time, the population in the UK began to change, and a higher percentage of people of African descent (from both African countries and from the Caribbean) began to find racial stereotypes such as the golliwog or the Black and White Minstrel Show (which lasted on the BBC until 1978) offensive and speak up about it.

 

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This was sent in by a reader of the magazine Story Time, in 1966.

But the golliwog did not disappear from children’s literature very quickly. Many children’s books depicted golliwogs incidentally. Whereas early on, golliwogs were given particular, predictable characteristics (mischievous or silly, for example), by the 1970s, golliwogs were just one of many toys depicted in a children’s nursery scene. Indeed, as protests grew louder, some children’s magazines seem to be deliberately insisting on the “normalcy” of the use of the golliwog. Treasure magazine (motto: “It Helps Little Children With Learning”) has stories about the wide, wide world that include people of African descent, but when it comes to stories and pictures about Britain, the entire world is white, even though the magazine was being published in the late 1960s when British Caribbeans would have been a common sight, at least in major urban centres. The only non-white figure I could find in three years (1968-1971—although I didn’t have access to the entire run, I certainly had most of them) of the magazine was one Indian gentleman and his daughter at the bank. The Indian girl has her doll with her—a golliwog.

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When the magazine became World of Wonder in 1971, they did a “historical” piece on the origin of the golliwog, but golliwogs were not entirely historical yet. A few years after this, in 1974, Ruth Ainsworth’s popular Rufty-Tufty stories were reprinted for the fifth time by children’s publisher William Heinemann.

 

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Still making print runs in the 1970s

In the 1980s, the journal Dragon’s Teeth, an anti-racist education journal begun by educational activist Rosemary Stones, mounted a protest against Robertson’s jam and its use of the golliwog image. Although the jam-maker had revised the character in the 1970s, they remained defiant about their right to use the character. The protest was embraced by many educators, but Robertson’s continued to send out golly badges and other paraphernalia until 2001—a move they described as a marketing decision rather than a bow to “political pressure” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/3660193/Robertsons-Jam-to-disappear.html).

 

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Dragons did not, unfortunately, have enough teeth to stop the Robertson’s golly.

Children’s literature seems to have taken the protests more seriously. The golliwog figure did not disappear, but its incidence lessened. And the increasing presence of Afro-Caribbean characters in children’s literature made a difference as well. Some characters even mention the golliwog and its effect on them; Geraldine Kaye’s A Breath of Fresh Air (London: Andre Deutsch, 1987) features a main character who turns the jam jar away so she doesn’t have to look at the golliwog while she is eating her breakfast. Also in the 1980s, Mr. Golly in Blyton’s Noddy books became Mr. Sparks.

The golliwog is a figure that seems anachronistic in today’s Britain—meant as a caricature of a caricature (a doll version of a blacked-up white person), tied to a past of colonialism and slavery, it should perhaps long ago have been relegated to the archive of questionable choices. But I fear that we have yet to see the last golliwog in British children’s literature.

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