Why is Athens like the wick of a candle? Dad Jokes from 1850

“Why is Athens like the wick of a candle? ”
“Because it is in the midst of Greece (grease).”

cover of The New London Riddle Book

There’s nothing new about corny jokes and riddles, as the New London Riddle Book reveals. This small chapbook (only 12 pages including both covers) sold for a penny, and was promoted “for Christmas parties.”

Inside cover and first two riddlesSeven pages of long riddles in verse reinforce the idea that the book is meant for use by groups. Most of the illustrations that accompany the riddles reveal the answers. This might be amusing for younger or impatient individual readers, but it makes more sense in the context of one person reading the riddles to an audience, and prompting them to guess. It would also let you give a hint to the youngest participants if they could not come up with the answer on their own.

Further riddles. No. 3 reads: 3. —Though it be cold, I wear no clothes, The frost and snow I never fear, I value neither shoes nor hose, And yet I wander far and near. My diet is for ever free, I drink no cider, port, or sack; A Providence provides for me, And watcheth that I do not lack.

Some of the riddles are more rewarding than others (surely no one could actually guess the correct answer to No. 3, above from among all the possibilities). But No. 5 seems likely to provoke amusement on its own:
“I do not live, and yet have breath,
I shield the vital spark from death:
My lungs are wonderfully strong.
My mouth at least six inches long.”

The silly short “puzzles and conundrums”, which are more like the riddles familiar to us, are punny, corny, and cringe-worthy – perfect to share with Dad on Father’s Day, unless they are already among his favorites. Try him on some of these:

“Why is the capital of Ireland increasing daily ?
—Because it’s always doubling (Dublin).”

“Why is a spoon in a cup of tea like a nice young lady ?
—Because it’s in tea resting (interesting).”

Or enjoy a brief tribute to the future Edward VII:
“Why is the little Prince of Wales like a threatening cloud ?
—Because he intends to reign (rain).”

We’ve hidden the answers to the long riddles in the image above, but you can read the entire book on the Internet Archive. And give our regards to the Dad of your choice!

Back cover, with crown, figure of Britannia, and Victorian penny with the profile of the Queen as a young woman

The New London Riddle Book. London ;: William Walker, Publisher, 1850.

With the continuing closure of the Library, we are blogging regularly about books from the exhibition, The Girl’s Own Book. The exhibition’s run has been extended through the 2020-2021 academic year. Information about when it will open to visitors and related programming will be available when we are able to give it. Please follow us on Facebook or subscribe here for notices of new blog posts.

Aspirational Music Education

“I often tell young ladies, that no excellence in music is to be acquired, without constant practice,” says Lady Catherine de Bourg, in Pride and Prejudice. Anyone who has learned to play an instrument knows that, for once, she is correct, but that practice is not enough. In early 19th-century families of social standing, learning music meant not just playing “by ear”, but also learning to play from printed sheet music.

Ann offers to teach Marianto playThe Gamut and Time-Table in Verse offers a minimal introduction to the notes of the bass and treble clefs, and to the duration of different types of notes, the two most basic skills in reading music. This information is necessary, but far from sufficient. Anyone who learned “Every Good Boy Does Fine” in their first music lesson knows that you soon stop repeating the phrase as you look at the score. How much more so if you had learned, “Then the second space A, is here to be seen,/ The third line is B.–C, the third space between.”

In spite of its rudimentary information, The Gamut was a very successful book. It was first printed in the early 1820s by Dean & Munday and sold throughout the decade under their name and also with A.K. Newman named as the publisher. Much of the attraction of the work must have been the appeal to gentility; the booksellers were peddling not just music education, but also social aspiration. Well-educated upper-class children, and especially girls, played and sang, providing music for impromptu and informal dancing, and as entertainment in private households. The Gamut conveys the expectation of fitting into a society of well-bred individuals not just through its ostensible topic, but also through a series of class markers that would have been understood by the contemporary reader.

The Gamut is illustrated extensively with wood engravings – in spite of their name, a type of relief prints that can be set in the press at the same time as the type and printed simultaneously. The music as well was printed in relief, rather than from engraved copper plates; each note and its lines are a single piece of type and they are lined up to create a (slightly wobbly) staff. The illustrations have been colored by hand. These features hint at the prospective audience: the book is meant to be attractive, but not expensive. At one shilling it was well within the reach of a family of moderate means, including those of respectable merchants and tradesmen who were doing well. It might also have been bought by a more elevated clientele, to which group the lesser aligned itself by purchase.

Bass clef intoduced

The illustrator stakes the book’s claim to participation in canonical musical culture in the frontispiece, with the names of Haydn, Mozart, Handel, Purcell, and the immensely popular Rossini, on the book cover in the foreground. The group of players – possibly a family – arrange themselves casually as if they were playing for their own amusement. They present an ideal picture of the pleasures of music for accomplished amateurs, although the large organ and harp both belong only in very affluent establishments.

Frontispiece with musicians; title pageMost of the instruments depicted were available in the homes of the merely well to do. There is a grand piano (or an out of fashion harpsichord), a small organ, a mandolin, two harps, and a succession of square pianofortes through the book. The appearance of the word “SMART” on the pianoforte on page 30 establishes a terminus post quem for the undated book. Henry Smart was a successful violinist, composer, and orchestra and oratorio leader who opened a piano factory in 1821 and his name evokes the fashionable music scene of London.

Pianoforte with SMART on plaqueThe sisters are well-dressed and graceful – laudable examples of female accomplishment and behavior. Although the interiors are reduced to their essentials and set within curtains as if they were stage sets, the simplified paneled walls, patterned rugs, fashionable furniture, paintings of land- and seascapes, and a glimpse of a garden through the window convey comfort and prosperity.

The book’s final claim to gentility – identifying the author as C. Finch – is subtle and almost certainly fraudulent. There is no more complete contemporary attribution on record, but from the mid-century it was understood to refer to Lady Charlotte Finch (1725-1813), daughter of one earl and daughter-in-law of another, who served as royal governess to the fifteen children of King George III and Queen Charlotte. Although Finch retired in 1793, she was for three decades the most famous, and most noble, educator in England, and an early adopter of progressive educational theories and techniques. There is no reason to think she wrote the substandard verse which first appeared a decade after her death, and the publisher carefully did not say it was her work, but one suspects the implication was an additional attraction to purchase.

The audience for The Gamut was respectable and financially comfortable, but the book conveyed a whispered promise of something better – a nicer house, more fashionable company, an accomplished family. I doubt anyone ever learned to play by reading and memorizing the book, but it must surely have provided an inducement to persist through the tedium of scales and dozens of repetitions of country dance tunes or the latest quadrilles.

Finch, Charlotte. The Gamut and Time-Table in Verse: For the Instruction of Children. London: A.K. Newman and Co., 1823.

Our copy of The Gamut can be read on the Internet Archive.

With the continuing closure of the Library, we are blogging regularly about books from the exhibition, The Girl’s Own Book. The exhibition’s run has been extended through the 2020-2021 academic year; information about when it will open and related programming will be available when we are able to give it. Please follow us on Facebook or subscribe here for notices of new blog posts.

Pussy’s Road to Ruin – A Warning to Older Girls

Ttile pageIn a recurrent narrative arc in nineteenth-century literature, small acts of disobedience weaken the protagonist’s moral resilience, lead to increasingly serious offenses, and then inexorably to crime and punishment. Boys tell fibs, are shunned by more ethical companions, join criminal gangs, and end their lives on the gallows. Young women play hooky from church, associate with undesirable and lower-class girls – then their even worse brothers – and end up pregnant, prostituted, and disowned. The defining characteristics of these tragic narratives are bad companions, downward social movement, degradation, and destruction,

With upper- and middle-class Regency and Victorian hesitation to discuss sex openly with girls and women, loss-of-purity narratives become loci of linguistic negotiation. Lydia Bennett’s immoral connection with Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice is characterized by her conventional sister Mary: “Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable — that one false step involves her in endless ruin — that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful — and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex.” For younger readers, symbolism was more appropriate than even this circumlocution, and one common way to touch on charged relationships between adults was with stories about animals, especially cats.Pussy as a model kittenAt the beginning of Pussy’s Road to Ruin, Pussy is a model kitten. Her mother teaches her to purr when the children pet her, and absolutely not to scratch them. She helps with domestic work, and listens carefully to maternal good advice and cautionary stories about kittens who are disobedient, self-centered, and idle.Pussy helping her mother with the spinningAbove all, her mother teaches her to be industrious, to earn her place in the household, and to deserve the good opinion of their master by hunting mice.Mother cat teaching Pussy to hunt miceUnfortunately, Pussy is a typical teenager, and one day when she is wasting time on the stoop, a disreputable, older male cat (“a strange Grimalkin”) chats her up. Grimalin greets PussyAlthough she very properly rejects his casual familiarity to begin with, he invites her to meet him on the roof that evening. He begins his psychological assault by denigrating her style of life, disputing her interpretation of her mother’s rules, and coaxing her with promises of enjoyment.text describing the meetingPussy lets herself be persuaded, and they pass a pleasant hour, with the tomcat behaving like a gentleman. Pussy and Grimalkin on the roofBut like other manipulative males, as they part respectably, he sets Pussy up to comply with a less conventional request.text describing the stroll on the roofHe induces Pussy to become his accomplice in killing a jackdaw. The following day,  guided by Grimalkin’s advice on how tasty domestic chickens are, she undertakes two additional murders,. Pussy and Grimalkin killing the chickens He convinces her to commit the more serious offense – his own role being to restrain the rooster – while claiming he is taking care of her well-being during this crime, imposing gratitude upon her and tying her to him emotionally.text describing Pussy killing the chickensNext he suggests she take cooked mutton chops from the kitchen and later convinces her to steal a string of smoked sausages. Pussy escaping thorugh the windo into the night, carrying the sausagesMeanwhile he establishes his authority by criticizing Pussy’s knowledge and intelligence, and speaking abusively of her inexperience.text describing the sausage esacpadeLike other young females, Pussy internalizes the criticism, and anxious to overcome her perceived inadequacy and gain his good opinion, she commits a crime on her own initiative, with only the recollected prompting of the unscrupulous Grimalkin. text describing the canary slaughterShe kills the pet canary, perverting the skills her mother taught her to protect the household.Pussy kills the canaryOf course, at this point the master of the house catches Pussy and incarcerates her in the cellar, where she is obliged to subsist on mice, rather than the fine food she has become accustomed to under the tuition of her deceiver. Grimalkin disappears, leaving Pussy to suffer her fate while he entices some other foolish young cat to do what she ought not.Pussy looking out the barred window of the cellarThus Pussy reaps the certain fruits of having been too little guarded in her behavior towards the undeserving of the other sex. Whether this lesson can be learned by the juvenile reader – and whether she can translate the lesson about obedience into one of chastity – is left to the imagination.Our copy of Pussy’s Road to Ruin can be read on the Internet Archive.

With the continuing closure of the Library, we are blogging regularly about books from the exhibition, The Girl’s Own Book. Please follow us on Facebook or subscribe here for notices of new blog posts.

Clara de Chatelain. Pussy’s Road to Ruin, or, Do as You are Bid. Leipzig: W. Engelmann; London: A. & S. Joseph Myers, 1840. 2nd ed.

Remembering Jane Martin

Photograph of Jane Martin and workers at Nyema Smith's sugar cane production in Liberia (April 15, 1976); Catalog Card written by Jane Martin (c. 2000) from The Jane Martin Papers, Bryn Mawr College Archives

Photograph of Jane Martin and workers at Nyema Smith’s sugar cane production in Liberia (April 15, 1976); Catalog Card written by Jane Martin (c. 2000) from The Jane Martin Papers, Bryn Mawr College Archives

Special Collections remembers Dr. Jane Martin (Class of 1953, MA 1958), the generous donor of a significant collection of African Art and related papers from her professional work in Liberia, who died on April 14. After graduating from Bryn Mawr with two degrees, Martin went on to earn her PhD in African History from Boston University in 1968. Her research focused on the Glebo of Eastern Liberia, and many of her interests there are reflected in the archives she donated to the College, including material on specific individuals in the Kru tribe, African women and their roles in education and society, and governmental and non-profit organizations in Africa.

Martin lived and worked in West Africa for several years, teaching African History at the University of Calabar in Nigeria and the University of Liberia in the 1970s. Her papers demonstrate her careful thinking about how to teach history and what to teach, as well as research interviews she conducted during this time. From 1984 to 1989, she was Executive Director of the United States Educational and Cultural Foundation in Liberia, administering the Fulbright Program and other cultural exchange programs. She was a strong advocate for binationalism between the US and Liberia for all of her life, continuing this work at the African-American Institute in New York, when civil war forced Martin to leave Liberia in 1989.

Throughout her travels in Africa, Martin collected a wide variety of art and cultural objects, some 150 of which she donated to the Art & Artifacts Collection at Bryn Mawr. These include helmet masks danced by women of Liberia’s Sande society, Ashanti gold weights, baby carriers, toys made by the artist Saarenald T. S. Yaawaisan from recycled flip-flop sandals, and a Baule Chief’s chair. She documented her collecting with various field notes, photographs, and correspondences, all of which serve to enrich the gift of objects immeasurably.

Works from Martin’s Collection have been featured in exhibitions organized by students since their arrival at the College in 2016, including On Selecting: Profiles of Alumnae Donors to the African Art & Artifacts Collection (Spring 2017) and Mirrors & Masks: Reflections and Constructions of the Self (Spring 2017). These materials are regularly used in courses across a variety of fields at the College.

To learn more, visit:

The Jane Martin Papers Finding Aid in College Archives

The Jane Martin Collection in Art & Artifacts

Bauhaus at Bryn Mawr: Museum Studies Praxis Intern Organizes Fall Exhibition

by Rachel Grand (BMC ’21)

Rachel Grand (BMC '21) stands next to an Egyptian Byzantine textile on view in the exhibition ReconTEXTILEize (Spring 2019).

Student curator Rachel Grand ’21 at opening of ReconTEXTILEize, the 360 course cluster’s exhibition that helped prepare her to organize her own exhibition this fall.

I began my internship with Special Collections as part of the Museum Studies Praxis course, where students find placements in local museums for a practical learning experience. I was placed with a History of Art PhD candidate, Nina Blomfield, who is curating an exhibition in the fall on Lockwood de Forest’s decorative arts program for the College. My initial assignment was to help with her research, but it grew into an opportunity to curate my own smaller exhibition in conjunction with hers on Marcel Breuer, another artist commissioned to design furniture for the College. Compared to my past internships, I felt extremely fortunate for this opportunity with Special Collections because of the real responsibilities that were entrusted to me. In this internship, I felt that the research that I produced for Nina was valued and impactful, and the exhibition that I was able to curate myself, has taught me an invaluable amount about curatorial work.  Because of the research opportunities afforded to me in Special Collections, I learned more about the history of Bryn Mawr College than I ever expected to know about my temporary home. 

Lockwood de Forest was a designer and architect who first came to Bryn Mawr College in the 1890s. His boss, and friend, was none other than M. Carey Thomas, for whom he designed and decorated a significant portion of her residence and other parts of campus. De Forest is not a well-known name nowadays among students and facultycompared to M. Carey Thomas, so it was surprising to learn that his architectural touch is all over the College, from the campus center and health center, to the ceiling of the Great Hall! When I walk around on campus now, knowing the history of the buildings enforces a sense of home. While reading correspondence between de Forest and Thomas, I got a sense of Thomas’ strong will, in regard to both interior decoration as well as the future of the college, which provided me with an educated perspective, amidst the controversy surrounding the renaming of Old Library. 

The second artist that I studied, Marcel Breuer, was commissioned for a specific project on campus. When Rhoads was built in 1937, he was approached by the college to design a set of furniture for the new dorm rooms. Marcel Breuer was a famous designer and architect who was trained at the Bauhaus, a radically modern art school in Weimar Germany.  

In order to learn more about Breuer’s furniture, I looked through the college’s archives. As I searched, I could not help but notice how the College used to place an emphasis on Bryn Mawr being “male friendly. The yearbook from 1939 boasted that women who lived in Rhoads were more likely to be engaged (to men) than any other dorm. Photographs of students in Rhoads dining hall in the 1960s depicted at least one man in each group of smiling students.  

I am told that the student body here has changed in recent years and learning more about the college’s history has only confirmed that. Today, Bryn Mawr students would not tolerate M. Carey Thomas, her elaborate expenditures, nor yearbooks boasting their marriageability. It was very impactful to be able to situate myself, as a student, in the timeline of Bryn Mawr’s past through this research at Special Collections.  

Rachel’s exhibition, Bauhaus at Bryn Mawr: Marcel Breuer’s Furniture for Rhoads, opens October 24 in the Coombe Suite Display Case on the second floor of Canaday Library.


To Increase Your Delight – Sampling the Ellery Yale Wood Collection of Children’s Books and Young Adult Literature

Our first exhibition of the books in the Ellery Yale Wood collection opened today – To Increase Your Delight is showing in the Coombe Suite on the 2nd floor of Canaday Library through December, open during normal library hours. There was no shortage of wonderful books to show, and in fact the problem was the opposite one: how to begin to introduce a collection of something like 10,000 books in a very modest exhibition. I did, finally, choose twenty-two volumes to represent the whole – approximately two tenths of one percent of the books – and in spite of their number they give a taste of the riches we are still uncovering.

blogBFThe collection has hundreds of volumes of fairy tales and folk tales. We are showing a spectacular Sleeping Beauty (1876) illustrated by Walter Crane, an Ainu story (Ho-Limlim: A Rabbit Tale from Japan, 1990) illustrated by the modern woodcut artist Keizaburō Tejima, and an 1871 collection of fairy tales illustrated by Gustave Doré.blogCraneFantasy literature is very well represented in the collection from its beginnings in the nineteenth century right through The Hobbit, Harry Potter, and Philip Pullman’s work. The exhibition includes first editions of Mary Poppins (1934) and The Amber Spyglass (2000), and a beautifully illustrated French Alice in Wonderland from 1935.blogaliceOther young adult novels featured are The Sword in the Stone, by T.H. White,

blogSwordand Tennis Shoes, by Noel Streatfeild, (both 1938); Frances Hodgson Burnett’s first version of A Little Princess (1888); blogCreweRosemary’s Sutcliff’s The Armourer’s House (1951),  representing the important genre of historical novels; and one of the more than eighty novels written by Mrs Molesworth, a successful (although now little known) nineteenth-century author, The Trio in the Square (1898).

The collection includes many educational books, aimed at both the intellectual and the moral improvement of their young readers. We are showing Papa’s Gift for a Good Child (1850), blogPapaan ABC; an 1820 pamphlet on learning to read music; and the 1876 The Young Lady’s Book: A Manual of Amusements, Exercises, Studies, and Pursuits, with chapters on everything from cooking, sewing, and drawing to heraldry, stamp collecting, and archery. Attempts to make children better behaved are represented by Amy Catherine Walton’s religious novel Audrey, or, Children of Light (1897) blogAudrey and by The Daisy, or, Cautionary Stories in Verse: Adapted to the Ideas of Children from Four to Eight Years Old (1807). blogGiddySix Stories for the Nursery: In Words of One and Two Syllables crosses the mind/morals divide by trying to teach reading and manners simultaneously.

Nonsense verse is the last category we managed to fit in, with two early editions of Dame Trot and her Comical Cat (both between 1800 and 1810), and The New Butterfly’s Ball (1849), which begins:

From a sweet fairy grove, by the side of a pool,
Beneath a green willow, majestic and cool;
The Herald went forth, in most beautiful weather,
With trumpet, to summon the party together.
Saying “Little folks all,
Attend to my call,
The Butterfly gives an invite to a ball.
To increase your delight
She adds an invite
To an elegant supper, to finish the night.”

blogButterflyWe cannot offer you an elegant supper, but we do hope you will drop by to look at the books – and that you will be increasingly delighted.

– Marianne Hansen, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts

Prizes Richly Deserved – The Ellery Yale Wood Collection of Children’s Books and Young Adult Literature

Many of the Wood Collection books from the turn of the twentieth century are prize books (also referred to as reward books or premiums). Prize books were presented to children by schools, Sunday schools and religious associations as rewards for attendance, good behavior, or academic achievement. Prize books typically have an inscription or bookplate with the student’s name and the name of the awarding institution, along with the reason for the prize. MaudFlorenceNellie_Bookplate_01 Books awarded during the boom in popularity of prize books might also have more elaborate bindings and gilt edges.

PrizeBooks2aThe practice of giving children books as a reward has a long history, but the emergence of the prize book market and the significant role that these books played in the children’s book publishing industry have their roots in England’s Elementary Education Act of 1870. This Act introduced compulsory education for all children and the development of school boards to oversee children’s education in areas where new schools would be needed. CycleofLife_BookPlate_01

As the responsibility for children’s education shifted away from the church, concerns (expressed by religious and secular leaders alike) about popular juvenile fiction and the lack of appropriate models of behavior grew. The books that children received as prizes naturally reflected the values of the awarding institutions. Thus, books emphasizing the importance of hard work, temperance, and dedication to family values were typical prizes. Even when awarded by Sunday schools or other religious organizations, most prize books were not overtly religious, but encouraged piety and morality couched in social expectations for acceptable and respectable behavior.

HerGreatAmbition_HerGreatAmbition_05Though rarely the main focus of the narrative, much of the appropriate behavior modeled in prize books reinforced traditional gender roles. Portrayals of boys and men were complicated in that they had to reinforce some traditional male characteristics while disregarding others – boys behaving appropriately in these books would be hard working and relatively independent, but not adventurous like the heroes in popular fiction.HerGreatAmbition_TrueUnderTrial_04Representation of girls and women was often outdated, stubbornly disregarding changes in women’s roles in society. Even as more women, regardless of marital status, worked outside the home, prize books persisted in the narrow portrayals of women as wives and mothers, planted firmly within the domestic realm.

DorothysStepmother_JoansVictory_04Preservation of the status quo was also encouraged with regard to class. For many recipients, prize books were the only ones (other than the Bible) present in their homes. Books were chosen by middle-class boards and teachers, and provided to their working-class students as models of acceptable behavior. Social striving was actively discouraged in many stories and the protagonists held up as model characters were praised for knowing their place in society.

Class distinctions played a pivotal role in the development and prevalence of prize books as a sort of genre as well. While schoolchildren of any class might receive a book as a reward for good conduct or achievement in a certain subject, upper- and middle-class students were more likely to be presented with books chosen specifically with their interests in mind. Meanwhile, working-class students typically received books that were pre-approved by committee and ordered in bulk from a publisher’s list of suggested reward books.

As the practice of awarding these prize books to schoolchildren gained popularity, publishers capitalized on it, searching lists for appropriate titles and producing inexpensive, decorated prize editions. While earlier books (especially those published and presented before the Education Act) had inscriptions or bookplates noting the reward, GiftBookofPoetry_Inscription_01prize editions had special bindings, gilt edges, and other decorations to make them stand out and appeal to children.

These decorated editions looked fancy, but were often printed in a compressed format on thin, low-quality paper, which kept costs low for publishers and for schools. Institutions could then purchase these books in bulk and award them as-is, or with the addition of an inscription or bookplate with the student’s name, the awarding institution, and the reason for the prize to personalize them for the recipient.


In addition to creating prize and reward series with books already in their catalog, publishers commissioned works for the explicit purpose of promoting them as prize books. These commissioned works were not necessarily held in high literary regard, but as the demand for “suitably moral,” wholesome books persisted, so did publishers. In driving the demand for specific kinds of fiction, prize books played an important role in the development of children’s literature by dictating both content and business models.

StarlightStories_CherrySeries_03Though special prize editions of books have mostly gone out of style, the practice of rewarding students for academic achievements with books persists. After all, a book is a fitting prize for a student who has shown diligence in her studies and a thirst for knowledge. What better way to encourage further academic achievement than to present a student with something that facilitates it?

– Rayna Andrews (BMC 2011), Project Coordinator

Unpacking Mrs. Molesworth: Rediscovering a Forgotten Author

By Cassidy Gruber Baruth

This summer, my coworkers and I unpacked over 630 boxes of primarily children’s books that were donated to Bryn Mawr by alum Ellery Yale Wood. I knew a few of the older authors–Lewis Carroll, Enid Blyton, and Louisa May Alcott–but the vast majority were unfamiliar. Dozens of authors, although prolific and beloved during their era, didn’t stand the test of time. Mrs. Molesworth was one such writer, a woman who wrote so extensively that we joked half of our ‘M’ section was comprised of her books. I became curious about her, an author who produced dozens of books over her lifetime and whom Edward Salmon, a critic for the periodical The Nineteenth Century, deemed “the best story-teller for children England has yet known,” but who is unknown today.


Mary Louisa Molesworth (nee Stewart) was born in Rotterdam in 1839. She moved from the Netherlands to England when she was still a child and lived in Manchester for the duration of her childhood. As a child, there were signs of the writer she would become. She devoured books and loved listening to the fairy stories of her grandmother. She began to repeat these fairy stories to other children, gradually inventing new tales. She enjoyed playing make-believe, but preferred shells over dolls, as they provided a blank, faceless canvas onto which she could project her stories.

She married Major R. Molesworth in 1861 and had four daughters. By 1869 she had begun writing a book when scarlet fever struck her family, killing her eldest daughter. The tragedy spurred her to finish and publish the book Lover and Husband, written under the pseudonym Ennis Graham. Her adult novels were given firmly lukewarm praise, acknowledging the grace and quality of her writing, but finding the final product lackluster. One critic called Lover and Husband, “written with good taste, naturally and simply; the conversations are easy, the characters, if not profoundly studied, are life-like…” Sir Noel Paton, a friend of Molesworth’s, thought her adult novels were written “indifferently,” but encouraged her to try writing children’s literature. Molesworth already had a supply of children’s stories at hand: she had continued the storytelling tradition of her grandmother, inventing new bedtime stories for her own children.

Her first children’s book, a collection of short stories entitled Tell Me a Story, was a resounding success, and a second book quickly followed, and then a third, and a fourth. The qualities which dragged her down as an adult novelist – her simple, easy-going manner of writing – proved valuable to her as a children’s author. Her characters and stories were simple enough for children to follow, but still fresh and engaging. Molesworth wrote with a joy that sprang through the page, using italics, exclamations, and colloquial speech to emote childish joy and delight. She often invented words or wrote in a slangy manner in order to imitate a child’s speech. As Jane Darcy expresses in ‘Works not Realized: The Work of Louisa Molesworth,’ Molesworth wasn’t interested in moralizing or lecturing, as previous authors of children’s fiction had been; rather, she wrote in a child-like voice about topics that children cared about. Her interest and compassion for children comes across, even to a 21st century reader. As I skimmed her novels, I was struck by the energy of her characters and the vibrancy of her prose. Some of what she wrote is indubitably quaint and outdated, but I was unexpectedly impressed by how approachable her stories remain.


Molesworth was part of a new generation of children’s writers who wrote during the age of literary realism, a movement that moved away from romantic and idealized forms of literature and instead promoted more life-like characters and settings. She constantly drew on her own life experiences for inspiration, writing her children into stories such as ‘Goodnight, Winny’; featuring Holland in one of her most famous books, The Cuckoo Clock; and depicting aspects of her own childhood in the story ‘My Pink Pet.’

Molesworth’s stories dealt with children and growing up: their interests, trip-ups, relationships, and triumphs. Carrots, one of her most popular books, is the growing-up story of a little boy nicknamed Carrots and his older sister, Floss. The novel is a sweet vignette of growing up, making mistakes, and moving forward as Carrots accidentally steals a coin from his nurse and must learn to make amends. Another book, The Cuckoo Clock, similarly deals with themes of mistakes, forgiveness, and friendship after a young girl ruins her aunt’s cuckoo clock in a fit of anger, later discovering that the cuckoo inside is actually a magical creature who wants to be her friend. Although the children in Molesworth’s stories are far from perfect, the tone she takes is patient and understanding, not moralizing or condescending. It is understood that making mistakes is a natural part of growing up, and she gives them the freedom to explore and reflect.


Although Molesworth wrote for children, the quality of her writing and characters were recognized by some of the finest writers of the day. The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne commended Molesworth’s abilities, stating:

It seems to me not at all easier to draw a life-like child than to draw a life-like man or woman. Shakespeare and Webster were the only two men of their age who could do it with perfect delicacy and success . . . . Our own age is more fortunate, on this single score at least, having a larger and far nobler proportion of women writers: among whom, since the death of George Eliot, there is none left whose touch is so exquisite and masterly, whose love is so thoroughly according to knowledge, whose bright and sweet invention is so fruitful, so truthful, or so delightful as Mrs. Molesworth’s.”

One of the greatest lessons I have learned from this job, and from Mrs. Molesworth especially, is that there is a story behind everything. It is a joy to unearth the person behind the title page, and discover their contributions, however big or small they may be. Mary Louisa Molesworth left behind over 100 novels and stories for both adults and children after her death in 1921. She has been largely forgotten, but her influence lives on. Her style inspired writers such as E. Nesbit, author of Five Children and It, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. Due in no small part to Molesworth’s many stories, realistic fiction proved a wildly popular children’s genre and remains so to this day.

Cassidy Gruber Baruth (BMC 2019) has been working this summer in Special Collections. Among many other tasks, she has unpacked, cleaned, sorted and inventoried books from the Ellery Yale Wood Collection.

Who is the Golliwog? – The Ellery Yale Wood Collection of Children’s Books and Young Adult Literature

By Isabella Nugent

Over the course of the summer, the most treasured literary characters from my childhood swam out of the 634 boxes we unpacked, cleaned, and shelved. But between the hobbits and the Beatrix Potter bunnies, appeared a kind of character I’ve never seen before in my own books: the golliwog. Golliwogs are dolls with large, white-rimmed eyes, cartoonishly big lips, frizzy hair, and jet black skin. The golliwog is an example of a “darky”, a racist representation of Blackness intended for white audiences. Golliwogs are caricatures based on blackface portrayals in American minstrel shows. In these minstrel shows, white men would don blackface and perform a wide array of racial stereotypes through stock characters, presenting black Americans as lazy, uneducated, happy-go-lucky, etc. I was shocked by how prevalent these ugly caricatures were. Golliwogs were spilling off the pages of the Wood Collection, starring in many twentieth-century books involving toys and games. I decided to investigate the origin of the golliwog and explore the kinds of stories white authors are telling with this blackface iconography.

7r Golliwogs (originally a single character called “Golliwogg”) were created by the artist, Florence Kate Upton. After the death of her father, Upton pursued a career in children’s book illustration as a way to fund her art training. Inspired by a minstrel show doll her aunt pulled from the attic, Upton created her own blackface character called, “Golliwogg.” In the first book in the series The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a “Golliwogg” the Golliwogg is introduced, “Then all look round, as well they may—-To see a horrid sight! The blackest gnome—Stands there alone,—They scatter in their fright.” As this “gnome” is revealed to be brave and kind-hearted despite his “horrid” appearance, he continues on thirteen more adventures illustrated by Florence Kate Upton and penned by her mother, Bertha Upton. The Wood collection contains ten out of these thirteen books (many of them first editions). The series features Golliwogg and his two Dutch peg doll friends traveling to “exotic” lands and getting into trouble. Upton completed the series in 1909, but did not trademark her character, permitting golliwogs to be picked up by countless other authors, such as Enid Blyton (another prolific author within the collection). Following the popularity of the series, golliwogs were adapted into dolls. Although minstrel dolls existed beforehand, Golliwog dolls became massively popular in Great Britain, explaining their appearance in multiple books set in “Toyland.”

10vGolliwogg in Upton’s series is depicted as friendly, lovable, and adventurous. Based on the ugliness of her illustration and its roots in minstrel caricature, I was surprised to see how Golliwogg was written as the resourceful, courageous leader of the group of dolls (especially as the other dolls looked white). Despite the wide array of characters in blackface minstrel shows, Golliwogg’s personality doesn’t seem to match those defamatory stereotypes. In other writers’ depictions, golliwogs are less positively drawn, often becoming more mischievous and even monstrous as they were adapted into twentieth-century literature. However, I found that many people who grew up reading the original Golliwogg series greatly admired the character. For instance, Sir Kenneth Clarke defended him, saying that golliwogs were, “examples of chivalry, far more persuasive than the unconvincing knights of Arthurian legend.” Many children were touched by the virtues of Golliwogg’s character, but what did the Golliwogg truly represent?

37r Reading through the Golliwogg series, I was left with the feeling that these books were enormously harmful, even as Golliwogg diverged from the American minstrel tradition. In Upton’s series, Black characters appear only as Golliwogg or as “primitive” African/Pacific Islander natives, who are often villainous and cannibalistic.

53vThrough Golliwog’s worldly travels, Upton is able to create mocking caricatures of multiple ethnic groups, reducing them to their barest stereotypes. Unlike the white dolls, the features of Black characters are grotesquely exaggerated. Golliwogs are sometimes even drawn with paws, blatantly depicting them as nonhuman. Florence and Bertha Upton contort Blackness through their stories, limiting Black representation to villains and dolls. I feel that Upton’s cultural appropriation through the golliwogs dangerously warps her audience’s understanding of the Black community and Black experience. If generations of British children (both Black and white) were exposed to images of beautiful, angelic-looking white children holding up ugly black dolls, how does this shape their ideas of race, identity, and hierarchy? I was also struck by how Golliwogg’s adventures mimic imperialist exploits. His stories glorify war and exoticize other countries; at one point, Golliwogg even steals animals from the “African safari” for his personal zoo. Many children viewed Golliwogg as a hero, but perhaps he’s a hero within a skewed worldview.

26rMy exploration into the Golliwogg series has made me realize how important children’s literature is to determining our values and perceptions of the world. If Golliwogg fans were exposed to children’s literature written by Black writers instead, would they have grown up into different people, perhaps people with a more understanding, open-minded perspective? One very immediate consequence of golliwogs is the emergence of the racial slur, “wog,” which many people believe stemmed from the series. The ramifications of Golliwogg and characters like him are real and this experience has made me wonder what kinds of prejudice exist within me because of what I was read to as a child.

42vIsabella Nugent (BMC 2018) has been working this summer in Special Collections. Among many other tasks, she has unpacked, cleaned, sorted and inventoried books from the Ellery Yale Wood Collection.