Buy Golly: The Story of The Golliwog

by Judith Coebly

Historians and sociologists don’t agree on much when it comes to the Golliwog. The term “golliwog” is not an acronym; it’s not part of a phrase “Oh by Golly”; it’s not a corruption of “Dolly”. According to the founder of “Golliwog”, Florence Upton in 1895, it is merely a term she used to describe her black homemade rag doll.

Black rag dolls were so popular in the UK during the early 1900’s that toy companies began to market them commercially. Since Florence did not copyright the term” Golliwog”, the doll went through many changes and shop windows were full of them. Even Steiff capitalized on this craze. The golliwog became the most popular doll of the time. Soon Florence incorporated her friend into books – 13 of them in all. Children couldn’t wait until the next book was published – like Star Wars and Harry Potter books.

The “Buy Golly” phenomenon exploded from dolls to everything imaginable: statues, books, magazines, china, pottery, glass, silverware, music boxes, greeting cards, puzzles, perfume bottles, handkerchiefs, sheet music, sheets, clothes, playing and swap cards and advertisements.

World events of the ‘30’s-40’s eroded the popularity of the golliwog. Hitler banned the image of blacks on everything. The ‘50’s and ‘60’s were eras of racial unrest and tension. Race riots in the United States and problems in the UK raised the political correctness of this playmate. Companies in the UK were forbidden to produce anything with the golliwog image; shopkeepers were forced to hide their stock or be jailed. People were not even allowed to mention the word in the media.

So where are we with the golliwog today? The production of golliwogs is coming back in Australia and U.K. They are found in antique stores worldwide – even the United States where the craze had not spread. Artists are making modern representations of this century old toy although it is no longer a toy but a collectible. Stores selling them are including the history of the golliwog in order to give an historical perspective to this widely misunderstood image.