Objects histories from my garden #9 – A Golliwog on a child’s cup

It never occurred to me that I would find any politically incorrect objects in the garden, but this is certainly a contender.  I dug it out of one of the flower beds when doing some planting last summer, and for a moment couldn’t figure out what it was I was looking at, partly because I was holding it upside down, but partly because it was so unexpected.

I remember that Robertson marmalade and other Robertson products were everywhere, with the distinctive Golliwog logo on their labels, with its bright clothing and crudely caricatured face.  ln spite of the Golliwog’s big red smile, or perhaps because of it, I found it threatening.  For others, however, it was (and still is) a cheerful and entertaining character, rather absurd but benign.

The Golliwogg as it first appeared in Florence Kate Upton’s “The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls” of 1895. Source: Wikipedia

The name “Golliwogg” (with the double g at the end) was invented by Florence Kate Upton, whose parents had emigrated from England to New York in 1870, and who had a black minstrel soft toy as a child, which was at the heart of many childhood games.  When the family returned to England in the late 1880s, Upton began to illustrate children’s books to raise money to attend art school, with verses for the books written by her mother Bertha.   The Golliwogg was introduced in their 1895 book The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls, complete with the shaggy hair, clown-like grin, bright clothes and bow tie.  This was the first of fourteen very popular books that featured Golliwogg as a central character, a jolly, benevolent, and good-natured friend who embarked on international adventures.

The name and character invented by the Uptons were not copyrighted, and the character was incorporated into works by other authors.  It became a popular home-made rag doll, but it soon went into production as a soft toy, mainly in Germany and Britain, marketed as a “Golliwog” (without the final g). The German Steiff Company became the first to mass produce them in 1908, going on to produce a female version of the doll.

Robertson’s Golden Shred Golly Badge, Pre-War Issue dating from 1937 commemorating the coronation of King George VI. Source: Portable Antiquities Scheme via Wikipedia

In the 1910 James Robertson and Sons  (based in Droylsden in Greater Manchester) first adopted the “Golly” on its branding after James’s son John had seen them being played with on a trip to the U.S., and by the early 1920s had been rolled out to many of their products.  In 1928, the company began to offer Golly brooches in return for tokens printed on product labels as a marketing gimmick.  The first were a series of Gollies engaged in different sporting activities and the Golly became a runaway success for Robertson’s.

It was only in the 1960s when increasing issues surrounding attitudes to race and the growth of  racism became dominant that the role and significance of the Golly became questionable, and began to seem like very bad taste, offensive to many, potentially encouraging unconscious bias in children.  In some countries today the word, either in its entirety or split into “golly” or “wog” is categorized as a racial slur, and the image of the Golliwog has been banned from some of them.  At the same time, Golliwog-themed items, particularly vintage ones, have become collectable.  Indeed, the Robertson’s Golly was not actually retired until 2001.  The BBC reported that it was to be replaced by characters from Roald Dahl books, illustrated by Quentin Blake.  Robertson’s Brand Director Ginny Knox commented on the changeover:

We sell 45 million jars of jam and marmalade each year and they have pretty much all got Golly on them.  We also sell 250,000 Golly badges to collectors and only get 10 letters a year from people who don’t like the Golly.  Whereas we are concerned about those people and it’s not our intention to be offensive with the Golly, we have to look at what our research says and what the sales say.  The feedback has consistently been that for the vast majority of people, the Golly is a positive thing that they like.

One wonders what, in particular, people said that they liked about the Golly.

The very battered sherd from my garden was probably part of a child’s teacup or similar.  The fabric is just over 2mm thick, and the diameter is probably something a little in excess of 7cm diameter.  This would be more accurate if this as a rim piece, which can be measured by laying the rim on a simple map of concentric circles, (a rim chart or radius chart) but even though this is just a body sherd, the curvature is obvious and it is unlikely that it will have been much wider at the top.

The head of the Gollywog is typical, with the big round eyes, spiky hair and wide red mouth.  The bow tie is yellow and the waistcoat or jacket is blue, fastened with a big white button.  Just visible across the base of the waistcoat/jacket is a splash of red, which could either be a jacket buttoned across the base of a waistcoat or the top of the trousers.

The eyes look slightly down to its left, which was a standard feature of the Robertson’s Golly.  The most familiar Robertson’s Golly was usually shown with a bright yellow waistcoat, red bow tie, blue jacket and red trousers but there variants.  In spite of making myself substantially uncomfortable by paging through dozens of images on specialist websites, as well as paging through Google Images, I have not found one that looks like the piece from the garden.

The  paragraphs looking at the history of the Golliwog on this post were based on Dr. David Pilgrim’s detailed article The Golliwog Caricature on the Ferris State University / Jim Crow Museum website (dated November 2000, edited 2012), which includes a full bibliography.   For the really fascinating, if often disturbing full story, with a useful discussion of the racism issue,  see the link below.   Dr Pilgrim is Professor of Sociology at the Ferris State University.  https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/golliwog/homepage.htm

The above-mentioned story about the end of the Golly as a Robertson’s brand in 2001 is on the BBC website.

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For other objects in the series,
see the History in Garden Objects page

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