The Golliwog Dilemma

Robertson's Golly

Since we started emptying our off-site storage, we’ve come across a wide range of objects: everything from doors to toy trains, and from postcards to shop interiors. Another remarkable object we found is this plaster Golly from the 1970s. For almost one hundred years, from 1910 to 2002, this figure was the face of Robertson’s Golden Shred Marmalade. Starring not only on the jars, but in all adverts and souvenirs, Golly became a celebrity and an integral part of British culture.

The golliwog on which Robertson’s based their Golly was created in a children’s book written by Florence Kate Upton in 1895: The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwog. The golliwog, a ragdoll that looked like a blackface minstrel, became extremely popular and a common sight in England and other European countries.

Two golliwog dolls from our collection

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the popularity of the golliwog started to get questioned. As our society changed and became more diverse, racial issues became increasingly important and minority groups started to get a stronger voice. The blackface minstrels were no longer seen as entertaining, but as racist caricatures and crude stereotypes. The same was true for the golliwog: he may have had a more gentle character, but he was still an expression of the negative way Black people were formerly seen.

Although the golliwog obviously offended many people, not everyone agreed with the view that he was racist. The golliwog had become such a part of our culture that many people felt personally connected to him, having grown up with the Robertson’s Golly. Many saw him as a positive figure that wouldn’t hurt or offend anyone, at least not deliberately. Most of all, some felt that he was never created with any racist intentions in mind and should not be perceived in that way.

When thinking about displaying objects like this golliwog, museums are faced with difficult questions. In some of the time periods we cover at Beamish the golliwog would have been a very common sight. So if we want to be historically accurate we should display him. But how important is historical detail if it may offend large groups of people? On the other hand, leaving it out might suggest that racism didn’t exist in the past, so maybe telling the story within the right context would be better? The story of Golly can tell us a lot about how our society has grown and changed.

Golly’s days as the face of Robertson’s marmalade might be gone, but he remains an instantly recognisable and controversial 20th century figure. There aren’t many children’s book characters who can inspire warm nostalgia and offence in equal measure! It leaves museums like Beamish with an interesting but sensitive problem. What do you think about the golliwog dilemma?

4 thoughts on “The Golliwog Dilemma

  1. M Mcphail

    It’s a fact of history, you portray history as it was, so feel that with your excellent explanation should use. However I’m white, working class, (raised to treat all as equals) so views may differ.

  2. D.H. Wallace

    Like it or not, ‘gollies’ are offensive and even using the historically-correct ‘g word’ is now frowned upon, if not completely taboo.

    Although I seem to be in a minority, I do not agree that offensive words, practices, or items should be wiped from history; I believe they should be confined to history. For if the mistakes of the past are completely erased, then future generations can’t learn from them. With this in mind my personal view is that your golly should be included/displayed on an educational basis, along with an objective and sensitive narrative.

    Surely a museum is precisely where he belongs?

  3. David

    The problem of the Golliwog lies with the people who find it offensive, more than the Golliwog being offensive.


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