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  • Turn-of-the-Century Grotesque:The Uptons' Golliwogg and Dolls in Context
  • Marilynn Olson (bio)

The Golliwogg books, beginning with The Adventures of Two Dutch Dollsand a "Golliwogg" (1895), were extremely popular annual Christmas offerings from Longmans, Green until 1909. Aware of the annual anticipation, reviewers sometimes expressed a "Here's another Golliwogg book, it must be Christmas" resignation about them, occasionally shaking their heads over why the Golliwogg had taken over nursery life in the way that it had. But in spite of this prominent position in turn-of-the-century English children's literature, present-day histories of children's literature pay surprisingly little heed to the Golliwogg books.1 Given that the books had remarkable illustrations and influenced other works both technically and thematically, that they were the first English picture books with a black protagonist, that they had ubiquitous spin-off toys, greeting cards, games, dolls, and household items ("fortunes were made from the Golliwogg"),2 and that the series inspired Claude Debussy's popular Golliwogg's Cakewalk and considerable affection from those who were raised in its era, this lack of critical attention is unfortunate. That the Golliwogg books are perceived as icons of racism as well helps to explain critical reticence, but failure to study the Golliwogg seriously distorts its era in children's literature, an era in which interchange between children's culture and the adult avant-garde was particularly marked. The notable popularity of the Golliwogg motif when seen in its context suggests that this particular series said something significant to thinking adults as well as to children, that in its day it embodied the "spirit of the age."

The series was originated by Florence K. Upton, then twenty-one years old, the talented daughter of a talented family of British emigres to New York State. Like a number of young women of her era, she was motivated by the desire to support her family, since her father had died in 1889, leaving her mother to raise four children by giving voice lessons. Upton had already been illustrating for four years when she turned to the idea of picture books while on a visit to her relatives [End Page 73] in London. She and her mother used the comfortable royalties that resulted from the Golliwogg series to take her siblings to Paris so that they could all receive art training, an enterprise that eventually resulted in her painting career. After her training, Upton continued to live and work in England, while the rest of the family returned to the United States.3

Upton painted from models, and before painting she wired the figures (the wooden dolls are jointed and look much like artist's mannequins) into the ludicrous positions they assume in the stories (Norma Davis's book A Lark Ascends includes photographs of Upton at work).4 Her mother, Bertha, then wrote the galloping verses that describe the illustrations. That the books were produced in this fashion, with verses following preexisting illustrations, points to an extremely close collaboration between the mother and daughter, although they sometimes were not in the same country. Presumably plot notes by Florence must sometimes have accompanied the pictures, but the details of the working relation have not been documented.5

The characters in the Upton series are the Golliwogg (a term Upton invented), the model for which was a black ragdoll from her childhood unearthed by a London aunt, and five Dutch (deutsch) wooden dolls of varying sizes. The original ragdoll, an American toy purchased at a fair with a leather face and rather stiff-looking body, had been mistreated (used as a throwing target) by the Upton children in Florence's youth. He most closely resembles the Golliwogg of the first books—that is, he has thin lips and a triangular nose that bring a later doll hero, Raggedy Ann, to mind. The face of the Golliwogg evolved, eventually settling into gentler, more flexible features, but from the first he had a more attractive body and proportions than the original toy. Although Upton and others discussed his grotesque appearance, the pictured figure has pleasing compactness and flexibility and has decorative clothes. Though the original...


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