From Innocent Children's Hero to Symbol of Bitter Controversy; from a Fifties Children's Book

Daily Mail (London), February 5, 2009 | Go to article overview

From Innocent Children's Hero to Symbol of Bitter Controversy; from a Fifties Children's Book


Byline: MARCUS DUNK

FOR most people, the golliwog will always be associated with Robertson's Jam the brand's smiling mascot and a comforting reminder of childhood.

But times have changed and he is now persona non grata, a symbol of reviled racist stereotyping.

This transformation would have come as a shock to his 22-year-old creator, Florence Kate Upton, who struck upon the character that would make her name in 1895.

Born into an eccentric English family who had recently emigrated to the United States, Florence studied as an artist in New York, and after her father died in 1889 found work as an illustrator.

But after a trip to London to visit relatives in 1893, Florence decided to stay in England and, hoping to raise money for further art tuition, began to formulate an idea for a children's book. Stuck for a main character, her aunt, with whom she was staying in Hampstead, North London, found an old battered black-face rag doll in the attic. As soon as Florence saw him, she knew she had found her protagonist.

'As the Golliwogg has always seemed to me to be telling me his own biography, so in the same way he must have told me his own name,' she later said.

'I picked him up from the table in my studio, and without intention of naming him, without the idea of a name passing through my mind, I called him "Golliwogg".'

It was a completely invented name and one that at the time had no negative connotations.

By 1894 the first story, The Adventures Of Two Dutch Dolls And A Golliwogg, was completed and was published the following year. In this tale, the Golliwogg was initially described as 'a horrid sight, the blackest gnome', but turns out in fact to be good, loveable and brave, with a 'kind face'.

Dressed in red trousers with white shirt and a blue coat, he proved an instant hit with the British public, and Florence and her mother Bertha (who wrote the words that accompanied the pictures) proceeded to publish a whole series of Golliwogg adventures. Twelve more books were published over the next 14 years as the Golliwogg bravely travelled the globe with the Dutch Dolls, Peg and Sarah Jane, in pursuit of adventure..

Never the most commercially astute of families, Florence and her mother failed to trademark the Golliwogg character, and after the books had proved such a hit in Britain and then Europe, Australia and, to a lesser extent, the United States, toy companies jumped on the bandwagon.

Slightly changing the name, they released a flurry of 'Golliwog' dolls, toys and badges.

These dolls proved enormously popular and only the Teddy Bear was more coveted by children in the mid 20th century.

Companies across Europe now began producing the dolls, including the German company Steiff, whose original golliwog dolls from 1908 now sell for more than [pounds sterling]10,000.

Then, in 1910, John Robertson of jam manufacturing family James Robertson & Sons saw some children playing with a golliwog doll and decided it should be the company's mascot. …

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