By Jeanne Solensky, librarian in the Joseph Downs Collection & Manuscripts & Printed Ephemera
One of the joys of my job is “scavenging”—searching through manuscript and ephemera collections to find related items after happening upon one that grabs my fancy. One day, by chance, I found a cigar label in the Grossman Collection depicting writer and illustrator Palmer Cox (1840–1924), creator of the Brownies. Although the Winterthur Library doesn’t have one centralized collection of his papers, Cox and his Brownies are represented in several locations by children’s books and periodicals, advertising trade cards and catalogues, toys and games, and personal letters. Using the cigar label as my springboard, it was time to track all these down and “play.”
You might be wondering who Palmer Cox and the Brownies were. Have you ever heard of the Kodak Brownie Camera, introduced in 1900? The camera was named for Cox’s Brownies, then a 17-year phenomenon. While largely forgotten today, Cox was a beloved household name for children in the 1880s through the early 1900s. The Brownies were the first cartoon figures to be used in mass merchandising, later influencing Beatrix Potter and Walt Disney, among others.
Based on Scottish folklore figures, the Brownies were an adventurous and mischievous group of little men who evolved from being similarly illustrated characters into individuals with their own personalities, nationalities, and occupations who nevertheless lived, traveled, and performed good deeds together. They first appeared in “The Brownie’s Ride” in the February 1883 issue of St. Nicholas, a children’s periodical that published stories by writers such as Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rudyard Kipling, and Jack London. Brownie stories combining rhyming verses with illustrations continued semi-regularly in this magazine and in Ladies Home Journal for the next 30 years. Throughout, the Brownies were on the cutting edge of trends, engaging in sports like bicycle-riding and tennis, riding cars, and visiting the Brooklyn Bridge and the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago even before the fair opened. While they did experience minor accidents and problems along the way, the Brownies always overcame these with good cheer. The stories were later compiled into books like Brownies, Their Book and Brownies at Home.
A perfect blend of fantasy and adventure with gentle moral lessons of kindness and virtue made the stories enormously popular for children of the time. Fan mail from children inundated Palmer Cox who was reputed to answer every letter he received. An 1892 letter to a Miss Luckenboit in our collection describes why the Dude was one of the most-loved Brownies. Quite the dandy, the Dude wasn’t as fearless as the others, but always remained good-natured. As Cox explains, “He comes the nearest to being a girl of any one in the band, as he is the most admired, and at the same time the most harmless.” Other popular characters were Uncle Sam, the Cowboy (suggested by none other than fan Teddy Roosevelt!), the Policeman, the Sailor, the German, and the Chinaman. While the German, the Chinaman, and other figures based on nationalities may seem politically incorrect to us now, these characters and their stories of visiting their countries helped children learn and become familiar with other cultures at a time of massive immigration.
By the 1890s, the Brownies could not be confined to the printed page and burst into the advertising and merchandising worlds as companies sought to ride the Brownie wave to increased sales. Small Brownie paper dolls were placed in packages of Lion Coffee and the New York Biscuit Co., prompting children to beg parents to buy more to collect entire sets. A band of Brownies playing musical instruments paraded across trade cards for Estey Organ Co. Twelve characters were fashioned into seven-inch cloth toys manufactured by Arnold Print Works of Massachusetts, a very successful dress goods printer. The Brownies transformed into rubber stamps, card games, blocks, puzzles, and even bowling pins. They even appeared on household furnishings like carpets, wallpaper, fireplace sets, china, glassware, flatware, and of course, Kodak cameras. The Brownie empire reigned.
I have more research to do on these charming creatures and hope to share my findings online in upcoming months. Keep coming back to our online exhibitions Web page!