Legacies: stereotypes, racism and the civil rights movement

Robertson's golliwogs

Made by James Robertson & Sons, 1960s
Painted plaster

Object number Oldham RH5
Unknown donor

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Robertson's golliwogs

The golliwog, with its stereotypically crude features, was a popular childhood toy across Europe and the USA during the 1800s and 1900s. It originated in a children’s story book, The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls, written by American author Florence Kate Upton in 1895. In the story, two dolls, Peg and Sara Jane, are let loose in a toy shop where they encounter Golliwog, ‘the blackest gnome’, dressed in red trousers, red bow tie and blue coat. He was visually crude, with a black face, unruly hair, thick lips and wide eyes. Golliwog was, in fact, a caricature of the American minstrels; white men who blacked up to perform songs in a manner that was itself a caricature.

Upton’s book was hugely popular in Britain and she went on to write twelve more stories, in which Golliwog became the main character. The golliwog quickly became a staple character in children’s books, gradually transformed from the original ugly but lovable creature of Upton's stories into a stereotypical villain, mean-spirited and devious.

The golliwog is now probably best remembered in Britain as the brand logo for Robertson’s jams. It first appeared on product labels and advertising material in 1910 and was immediately hugely popular. Robertson’s capitalised on this with marketing campaigns, producing a range of ‘Golly’ badges that were collected in exchange for coupons from their jams and marmalades. The golly went on to appear on pencils, knitting patterns, playing cards, toys and ornamental figures such as these in the collection at Gallery Oldham. As late as 1999 Robertson’s was still receiving thousands of requests for golly badges each year, despite calls to remove this racially insensitive and, to many, offensive image. After much criticism and prolonged campaigns to expose the racist history of the image, Robertson’s finally dropped the golly from its packaging in 2001.

For more information see The Golliwog Caricature by Jim Crow.

This information was provided by curators from Gallery Oldham.