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If there’s a prize for the world’s most politically incorrect book title then The Golliwogs Go Foxhunting  is pretty much a shoe-in.

I was reminded of this by a story last week about Charlotte Nightingale, a retired midwife, originally from Ghana, who is raising money for charity by selling “golly dolls” and trying to rehabilitate the once ubiquitous stuffed toy through her “Bring Back Golly” campaign.

Mrs Nightingale argues that the much-abused items are not only innocent of any charge of racial stereotyping, but were originally a type of traditional rag doll made for African children which made its way to America via the slave trade and that they should be reclaimed as part of African culture.

Personally, I sit in the “innocent stuffed toy” camp. I had a golly when I was little and it was just that – no different from a teddy bear. It was a nice thing – hand knitted by one of my mother’s friends and distinctly more cuddleable than teddy with his wood shaving stuffing. It wasn’t a person. Or a representation of a person.Or a representation of a black person.


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Robertson’s badges

I also collected Robertson’s gollies – the little paper ones stuffed down the back of jam labels. When you had enough, you could send off for either an enamel badge or a statuette. I had quite a collection – they were nice things – colourful and suprisingly good quality. The range was extensive – mainly musicians, but extending to figures playing various sports. I even wore the badges to school.

Here’s the problem, though. Like it or not, the Robertson figures were clearly derived from the American black-face minstrel tradition which was always about racial stereotyping.

Sadly, I think that this is also the origin of the stuffed toy. Despite various alternative theories, the real origin of the golly seems to be with a doll given to an American girl called Florence Kate Upton in the late 19th century. Upton later turned the toy into a character in a children’s book. And, like it or not, the figure is always dressed in a variation of the traditional black-face minstrel costume.

Was it an innocent child’s toy? Yes. Did it turn generations of white children into rabid racists? No, of course it didn’t. But it was based on an unpleasant racial stereotype and so – not without a little sadness – golly must be put to the back of the cupboard to become a curious footnote in the history of childhood.