Racist Caricature of the Day: The Golliwog

Content Note:  The subject matter in this post contains images, words, and phrases of a racist nature, some of which may be graphic.

Those of African descent have long been ‘othered’…treated as if they aren’t part of the human race…treated as subhuman…or only part human; certainly not deserving of the same rights as everyone else (often read as white people). This othering has resulted in racist caricatures of Blacks. These denigrating caricatures treat Black people in a dehumanizing manner. One such racist caricature is ‘The Golliwog’:

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The Golliwog (originally spelled Golliwogg) is the least known of the major anti-black caricatures in the United States. Golliwogs are grotesque creatures, with very dark, often jet black skin, large white-rimmed eyes, red or white clown lips, and wild, frizzy hair. Typically, it’s a male dressed in a jacket, trousers, bow tie, and stand-up collar in a combination of red, white, blue, and occasionally yellow colors. The golliwog image, popular in England and other European countries, is found on a variety of items, including postcards, jam jars, paperweights, brooches, wallets, perfume bottles, wooden puzzles, sheet music, wall paper, pottery, jewelry, greeting cards, clocks, and dolls. For the past four decades Europeans have debated whether the Golliwog is a lovable icon or a racist symbol.

The Golliwog began life as a story book character created by Florence Kate Upton. Upton was born in 1873 in Flushing, New York, to English parents who had emigrated to the United States in 1870. She was the second of four children. When Upton was fourteen, her father died and, shortly thereafter, the family returned to England. For several years she honed her skills as an artist. Unable to afford art school, Upton illustrated her own children’s book in the hope of raising tuition money.

In 1895, her book, entitled The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls, was published in London. Upton drew the illustrations, and her mother, Bertha Upton, wrote the accompanying verse. The book’s main characters were two Dutch dolls, Peg and Sarah Jane, and the Golliwogg. The story begins with Peg and Sara Jane, on the loose in a toy shop, encountering “a horrid sight, the blackest gnome.” The little black “gnome” wore bright red trousers, a red bow tie on a high collared white shirt, and a blue swallow-tailed coat. He was a caricature of American black faced minstrels — in effect, the caricature of a caricature. She named him Golliwogg.

The Golliwogg was based on a Black minstrel doll that Upton had played with as a small child in New York. The then-nameless “Negro minstrel doll” was treated roughly by the Upton children. Upton reminiscenced: “Seated upon a flowerpot in the garden, his kindly face was a target for rubber balls…, the game being to knock him over backwards. It pains me now to think of those little rag legs flying ignominiously over his head, yet that was a long time ago, and before he had become a personality…. We knew he was ugly!” (Johnson).

Upton’s Golliwogg character, like the rag doll which inspired it, was ugly. He was often drawn with paws instead of hands and feet. He had a coal black face, thick lips, wide eyes, and a mass of long unruly hair.3 He was a cross between a dwarf-sized black minstrel and an animal. The appearance was distorted and frightening (MacGregor, p. 125).

Florence Upton’s ugly little creation was embraced by the English public. The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls was immensely popular in England, and Golliwogg became a national star. The second printing of the book was retitled The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg. For the next fourteen years, Bertha and Florence Upton created twelve more books featuring the Golliwogg and his adventures, traveling to such “exotic” places as Africa and the North Pole, accompanied by his friends, the Dutch Dolls (“Golliwog History”, n.d.). In those books the Uptons put the Golliwogg first in every title.

The Uptons did not copyright the Golliwogg, and the image entered into public domain. The Golliwogg name was changed to Golliwog, and he became a common toyland character in children’s books. The Upton Golliwogg was adventurous and sometimes silly, but, in the main, gallant and “lovable,” albeit, unsightly. Later Golliwogs were often unkind, mean-spirited, and even more visually hideous.

The earliest Golliwog dolls were rag dolls made by parents for their children. Many thousands were made. During the early twentieth century, many prominent doll manufacturers began producing Golliwog dolls. The major Golliwog producers were Steiff, Schuco, and Levin, all three Germany companies, and Merrythought and Deans, both from Great Britain. The Steiff Company is the most notable maker of Golliwog dolls. In 1908 Steiff became the first company to mass produce and distribute Golliwog dolls. Today, these early Steiff dolls sell for $10,000 to $15,000 each, making them the most expensive Golliwog collectibles. Some Steiff Golliwogs have been especially offensive, for example, in the 1970s they produced a Golliwog who looked like a wooly haired gorilla. In 1995, on the 100th anniversary of the Golliwog creation, Steiff produced two Golliwog dolls, including the company’s first girl Golliwog.

James Robertson & Sons, a British manufacturer of jams and preserves, began using the Golliwog as its trademark in the early 1900s. According to the company’s promotional literature, it was in the United States, just before World War I, that John Robertson (the owner’s son) first encountered the Golly doll. He saw rural children playing with little black rag dolls with white eyes. The children’s mothers made the dolls from discarded black skirts and blouses. John Robertson claimed that the children called the dolls “Golly” as a mispronunciation of “Dolly.” He returned to England with the Golly name and image.

By 1910 the Golly appeared on Robertson’s product labels, price lists, and advertising material. Its appeal led to an enormously popular mail-away campaign: in return for coupons from their marmalade, Robertson’s sent brooches (also called pins or badges) of Gollies playing various sports. The first brooch was the Golly Golfer in 1928 (“Gollies Through History,” n.d.). In 1932 a series of fruit badges (with Golly heads superimposed onto the berries) were distributed. In 1939 the popular brooch series was discontinued because the metal was needed for the war effort,4 but by 1946 the Golly returned. In 1999 a Robertson spokesperson said, “He’s still very popular. Each year we get more than 340,000 requests for Golly badges. Since 1910 we have sent out more than 20 million” (Clark). The Robertson Golly has also appeared on pencils, knitting patterns, playing cards, aprons, and children’s silverware sets.

Robertson pendant chains were introduced in 1956, and, soon after, the design of all Robertson Gollies changed from the Old Golly with pop eyes to the present Golly with eyes looking to the left. The words “Golden Shred” were removed from his waistcoat, his eyes were straightened, and his smile was broadened (“And There’s Even More: history”, n.d.).

(Here is the full article, which includes a discussion of Agatha Christie’s poem 10 Little Niggers, by Dr. David Pilgrim)

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Racist Caricature of the Day: The Golliwog
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