The Golliwog, originally Golliwogg and also known as Gollywog, first appeared in 1895 as the protagonist of several children's books by Bertha Upton and illustrated by her daughter Florence. In the books he was accompanied by his friends, the Dutch Dolls. The golliwog dolls that followed were first made in 1908, aided by the fact that the figure was never copyrighted. These days the doll is much better known than the books.

The illustrations accompanying the books show Golliwog to be a somewhat grotesque negro doll with a pitch-black face, a bright red, smiling mouth that stood out and frizzy hair. It's directly connected to the peculiar brand of American theatre known as the minstrels and there were black minstrel dolls which apparently provided a model for both the character and the dolls that followed.

The negro figure that stars in the books strikes me more as a typically ignorant rather than malicious stereotype. In fact, Golliwog himself is a likeable, slightly mischievous, adventurous and helpful character. Much like Noddy, just cooler. The story of Golliwog and the Dutch Dolls with the very English names ignores a social taboo of associating black males with white females. A lot of damage to the image of the golliwog was done by Enid Blyton who portrayed the golliwog as a scoundrel in several books written in the mid to late 1940s and added a strong racist element which took it deeply into the realm of political incorrectness by today's standards. The books themselves, I may say, were not her best work. The fact that the doll's name also found its way into the vernacular in the form of wog did not help.

The golliwog stories, although American in origin, were popular especially with English children to whom a black protagonist was more acceptable. This may be because English society did not have as much race-related baggage as the US and the character was regarded as exotic rather than as a caricature. Of course it may be argued that the same society at the same time might have been thoroughly disapproving of an Irish hero who would have been quite acceptable in the US.

Golliwog dolls are typically average sized rag dolls and tend to be cheerful and dressed in brightly coloured early 20th century outfits. Their heyday was in the 1950s. Between 1960 and 1990, when race relations and political correctness became major issues on both sides of the Atlantic, they fell out of favour and were branded as representatives of a racist mentality. The late 1990s saw a resurgence in their popularity and golliwog dolls are currently a popular collectors' item, reigniting the debate over whether the golliwog is an adorable culture icon or just disrespectful racist trash.

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