The “golliwog” is a black doll character created by Florence Kate Upton for children’s books in the late 1800s and usually depicted as a type of rag doll.
It was reproduced as a children’s toy which was very popular in the UK and Australia up until the 1970s. The doll had black skin, eyes rimmed in white, clown lips and frizzy hair, a product of the blackface minstrel tradition, white men who blacked up to perform songs in a manner that was itself a caricature.
The golliwog also appeared in the form of children’s literature, dolls, children’s china and other toys, ladies’ perfume, and jewellery. Golliwogg’s Cakewalk is the sixth and final piece in the Children’s Corner, a suite for piano published by Claude Debussy in 1908.
The image of the doll is now controversial. While some people see the doll as an innocent toy, its depiction of African people is characterized as racist, along with pickaninnies, minstrels, mammy figures, and other such caricatures. In recent years, changing political attitudes with regard to race have reduced the popularity and sales of golliwogs as toys.
Manufacturers who have used golliwogs as a motif (for example, Robertson’s Marmalade in the UK) have either withdrawn them as an icon, or changed the name. Today, Robertson’s Golly badges remain highly collectible, with the very rarest sometimes selling for more than £1,000. An aniseed-flavoured chewy confection called a Blackjack was marketed in the UK from the 1920s with a golliwog’s face on the wrapper. In the late 1980s, the manufacturer replaced the image with the face of a black-bearded pirate.
Various people have defended the character. Gollywog’s Picture Book [AE Kennedy c.1950] presents an uplifting view of Golly. Of his toy and real friends, some are white. Like Upton’s Golliwog, Kennedy’s Golly is gracious, adventurous and eager to help. Always well-dressed, he is an equal in every situation. The caring (if not loving) tone throughout may have been the author’s attempt to foster positive views of Gollywogs and the real people they represented, or at least to counter negative perceptions.
Art historian Sir Kenneth Clark said that the golliwogs of his childhood were “examples of chivalry, far more persuasive than the unconvincing Knights of the Arthurian legend.” Alan Moore said that the Upton’s original Golliwog “was a dignified and respectable figure. His courage and strength of character were ably demonstrated in his picaresque adventures, as was his intellectual acumen.”
There exists a theory that golliwog may have given rise to the word “wog,” a disparaging and offensive term for a nonwhite, especially a dark-skinned native of the Middle East or Southeast Asia.
Another theory says that “golliwog” itself was derived from the Egyptian people who worked for the British. They had the initials W.O.G.S. on their dress, which stood for Working On Government Service. Acronyms often end up as words, but we can’t go back now and ask Florence Upton if that’s where she came up with the name of her character.
I had a knitted golliwog as a kid of five or six. I’d never seen nor heard of black people and therefore, to me, a doll with black skin was just some adult’s idea of being “different.” The skin could have been green or purple, for all I knew or cared.