This once innocent child's doll, now at the extremity of political incorrectness, provides an opportunity to recount some fascinating stories. The sudden popularity of the Golliwog was due to two American ladies, Bertha Upton and her daughter Florence Kate Upton (1873-1922). Having been left, by bereavement, with the necessity of earning their own living, they relocated to London, where Florence intended to make ends meet by occasional writing and illustrating. She hit upon the idea of writing, with her own drawings, a series of children's books based on the adventures of nursery dolls. But she could not think of a lead character until an aunt provided her with an old doll that she had found in a cupboard. This was the familiar cloth doll with black face, frizzy hair and garish costume. Florence hit upon a name for it, “Golliwogg”, originally with two “g's”; this word was presumably derived from an old English and dialect word for “tadpole”, Pollywog. [When I was at school, the small children used “Pollywog Paste”, prised out of large tubs with a wooden spatula, to make artworks and Christmas decorations. The tubs bore a representation of a tadpole.]
Between 1894 and 1909 Florence wrote thirteen story books detailing the adventures of Golliwog with other nursery characters. They proved very popular. So much so that the German toy manufacturer Steiff made high quality golliwogs that nowadays, if they are in good condition, can fetch five-figure sums at auction. Thus they are as valuable as Steiff teddy bears. Teddy bears, originating in America where they were named after the gung-ho President Teddy Roosevelt (in office from 1901 to 1909), who liked letting off guns and speaking with a loud voice, became popular during this same period. The original dolls based on Florence's drawings were kept at Chequers, the Prime Minister's country residence, for many years but are now to be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green.
Florence made no effort to claim copyright of her creation, and Robertson's of Paisley, the jam manufacturers, made the golliwog their logo in 1910. Every jar of Robertson's jam or marmalade contained inside the lid a paper golliwog. A set number of these could be exchanged for an enamel brooch. There were, or came to be, fifty different golliwog brooches, so one imagines that numerous families were afflicted with diabetes in the effort of securing them all. How did golliwogs lose their popularity?
The process was clearly gradual. Maybe Enid Blyton in the 1930's started the process by rewriting golliwogs as malevolent creatures; the golliwogs stole Noddy's little car in one of her stories. My sister and I shared a toy box, and there was a golliwog in it. I thought it was sinister; it had goggling eyes and the sempstress had given it an unpleasant slant to the mouth. I made sure it stayed right at the bottom of the box underneath other toys.
After the Second World War the word “wog” came to be a well-recognized word of abuse particularly for dark-skinned people, not especially African. It seems to have come about in Egypt, where British Tommies would be importuned by the ancestors of internet scammers: “Soldier, you wanna buy my sister, very clean woman, only two shilling.” Such people, it is thought (though this is not proven), were called “Wily Oriental Gentlemen”, shortened to the acronym. When I was a young man, it was customary for retired military officers (and footballers, and hangmen) to invest their gratuities in purchasing public houses, where they sold expensive and tasteless frothy beer and took pleasure at acting as jovial Mine Host. One such jovial mine host, speaking with an accent similar to that of Lord Montgomery of Alamein, told me: “When I was Out East I met a man who controlled a million wogs. 'What are your qualifications for controlling a million wogs', I asked. He replied 'A first-class degree in History at Oxford.'” Predecessors of the now dominant political force in Britain were said to believe that “Wogs begin at Calais”. So it is very likely that the word “wog” was thought to be a contraction of “golliwog”, thus making “golliwog” a potential racial insult.
It was this, more than anything else, that brought about the downfall of this once-loved children's toy. Robertsons bravely carried on the struggle to use their golliwog logo to sell jam, but they had to give up in the end, thought not, remarkably, until 2001.
Let us hop back in time to 1908. In this year Debussy wrote the “Children's Corner Suite”, first performed in 1911. The sixth and last movement is called “Golliwogg's Cakewalk”. Well, we think we know what a golliwog was, but what on earth was a “Cakewalk” and what did it have to do with golliwogs? The answer to this question involves diving back another hundred years, and what I am going to suggest must be regarded as contentious.
In the eighteenth century the French controlled central North America. Their ability to hold on to it was drastically weakened by General Wolfe's capture of Quebec, but nominally they ruled the Mississippi Valley, called Louisiana, from New Orleans. After Trafalgar (1805), Napoleon could no longer gain access to French America, so, in order to make the best of a bad job and to stop the British from capturing it, he sold it for a ludicrously small price to the United States. However, New Orleans retained its French slave-owning culture, and the upper classes there were most anxious to retain their identity and status. One of the highlights of the season was the Hunt Ball, in French bal de chasse. Music would be provided for the dancing, and this would be called musique de chasse. Hence “Jazz”. Obviously the guests would be waited on by black slaves, who would have had their own private opinions of the upper-class pretensions of the French ascendancy.
What they did was to parody the behaviour of the whites. Using whatever musical instruments they could afford or make for themselves, they would play their own screeching, discordant, rubato imitation of the rather prim and proper minuets and schottisches of the ballroom. This was the music that evolved into Jazz music. As the musicians obtained better instruments, and developed greater skills in playing them, the music developed a life of its own, and an audience could be found from Nashville, Memphis, into Chicago and eventually New York. The small but influential black middle class would pay for their children to be taught music formally on expensive instruments, and Jazz became one of the most important ingredients in twentieth-century world music. Note that when Dvořák produced his Ninth, or “New World” Symphony in 1893, he said that the negroes of America had created all that was necessary for a vital musical tradition. However, the exponents of the new and highly sophisticated music were unwilling to acknowledge its coarse and crude beginnings.
The same thing happened with dance. Young black men would compete to demonstrate the most outlandish parody of the white people at the ball. They would dress in garish clothes, wore loud and gigantic ties, yellow kid gloves. Such young men were called beaux de chasse, or Jazzbos. Then of course they did ridiculous parodies of the white people's dance, with backs so stiff that they arched backwards, stupidly exaggerated steps, full of mincing and posing. The winner of such a dancing competition would be awarded a cake. Hence the name of the dance: cakewalk. The original golliwog doll was clearly not an impolite representation of any old black man; it was a representation of a Jazzbo. Debussy was obviously aware that the golliwog was a jazzbo, and knew that the jazzbo would have performed the cakewalk. He was also keenly interested in the new musical ideas that were starting to reach Paris from the United States.
Of course, after the abolition of slavery, legally in 1863, nobody, black or white, wanted to recognize the inauspicious beginnings of their culture. Perhaps that was when the jazzbo doll, eventually to become the template for the golliwog, was chucked in a drawer and abandoned. Human relationships under slavery were of course more complex than they appeared on the surface. Slave owners themselves would sometimes organise the jazzbo competitions and award the cake for the best silly dance.
So, the cultural background of the golliwog was carefully forgotten, and it is unlikely that Florence Kate Upton, from New York, would have had any idea of it. In the same way, people of our own time have very little concept of the cultural background of Florence's period. After the Civil Rights Act, and all the social conflict that led up to it, it became unacceptable to produce dolls that appeared to be simply a crude parody of a black man. Finally, knowing all this does not make a halfpence of difference to how we should behave. If people find golliwogs insulting, then good manners insist that we put them back in the drawer where Florence's aunt found the original one that started the whole story rolling.