Gorgeous Golly?

The story of the brave & charismatic, much misunderstood toy.

As the organiser & curator of the Kensington Dollshouse Festival, part of my job is to make sure that there is nothing on display at the show that may upset visitors.  There is one character that has had a checkered history & is often seen as a racist symbol.  Should the charismatic Golly be banned from the show?  While pondering this, I spoke to our very own Teeny Weeny Teddy-man, Dave Pennant.  Dave is not only an expert on childhood toys, but his ethnicity & childhood memories give a real understanding of what the Golly stands for.

Dave’s first memory of Golly was when shopping in the aisles of GEM supermarket (later renamed ADSA) with his mum and he saw the golly’s face smiling back at him from behind the marmalade pots.  He grew up in the 1970’s Nottingham, where P.C. was not yet a thing. Black people were definitely in the minority & he remembers being called a ‘Wog’ at primary school by kids calling each other names. 

However, In his experience, the golly was never a negative character & he believes it is important to  keep things in context, or we end up losing the meaning and importance of objects to an individual. He has heard many different views and opinions about this toy, but as a black man, he has no negative feelings about it.

I would see the images, as badges on people’s hats and clothing, there was a craze to collect them, similar to Pokémon or football cards. I remember at primary school, kids bringing in their favourite toy on rainy days. Some would come with a teddy, top trumps, games etc, and some would bring their Golly; clinging to him for comfort.

In the 1990’s, Dave now grown up & living in Birmingham, was at a rag market one day & saw a Golly on a pin. Thinking the Golly was £1 he tried to purchase it, but was rudely told it was £4.  He went off in a huff & decided to make his own.  These first creations were admired & he was encouraged to try to make them even smaller.  

It was around this time he also fell in love with Teddies & started making them out of pipe cleaners, colouring them with dye made with dandelion petals from his garden. He sold some at a Biddle & Webb Auction, which, when he was given a dolls house magazine & saw an advert for a Miniatures Show at Alexandra Palace. gave him the confidence exhibit, unsure whether he would make any money. That was just the beginning of his love affair with nostalgic toys.

The History of Golly

Golly was born in 1895, in a children’s book by Florence K Upton titled ‘The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls.’ It opens with 2 dolls playing in a toy shop when they stumble across ‘Gollywogg’ In red trousers and blue tailcoat, with a red bow tie on a high-collared white shirt.

Florence was inspired by a minstrel rag doll she played with while growing up with her English parents in New York. The book was an instant hit in the UK and beyond & over the next 14 years, 12 more volumes of the trio’s adventures were published, starring the Golliwogg – who was generally a brave, lovable character (though sometimes mischievous!)

Unfortunately, Florence failed to copyright her creation & Gollies started appearing in Britain, the US, Europe and Australia. At first they were homemade, but the German teddy bear manufacturer Steiff started mass producing them as early as 1908, followed by British rivals.

Robertson’s jams began featuring the Golly as its trademark in the early 1900s & Gollies soon appeared in other children’s books including titles by Enid Blyton. After the teddy, Golly was by far the most popular children’s soft toy in Europe for the first half of the 20th century. Sir Kenneth Clark wrote that the golliwogs of his childhood were “examples of chivalry, far more chivalrous than the unconvincing knights of the Arthurian legend”.

Things went wrong for this much loved character in the 1940’s, when the word ‘Wog’ became a racial insult.  From the 1960’s, books featuring Gollies were withdrawn from libraries & Robersons were petitioned to stop using their famous logo on their jams.

There is no denying that Golly was created during a racist era & was a caricature & racial stereotype, but his initial brave & charismatic personality has been lost & we are left with the nasty taste of prejudice & injustice.  The Golly was a much loved toy to many. It is important to remember that he also causes offence. I feel that talking about the Golly’s ‘Origin’ story, helps us understand the world from all points of view, rather than just scratching it out of our history & pretending it didn’t happen.  Our memories of our childhood can be tainted as an adult once we see things that maybe we didn’t understand as a child, so something we loved & we saw with innocent eyes, then begins to mean something different.

This is why I am happy to see him at the show & we were delighted to have a wonderful “Gorgeous Golly” display at the KDF Summer Show in May. This sparked conversations & comments from visitors about how he became such a contentious character & their memories of their childhood Golly. Here are a few of their memories:

I remember the Golly character from the Enid Blyton stories as a mischief-maker but loveable chap. I didn’t see any racism in any of her stories as a child, but reading them now I can see how people find them offensive.

Growing up, I would spot a Golly on a rare occasion & was told by my mum it was a racist chariacture. Until today, I had never considered otherwise, but Dave’s display has certainly encouraged me to learn a little more about the Golly’s history.

KDF visitor aged 20

I remember the golly on the marmalade jars. We didn’t think anything of it at the time. No one has ever asked me as a black woman about what we think about such things.

KDF visitor aged 50

We would love to hear your opinions & see photos of your favourite childhood toy.  Please post stories & comments on our facebook page ‘London Dollshouse Festivals’.