Controversial Golliwog dolls to be pulled from Aussie shelves after decades

A prominent Australian toy wholesaler says it is likely to discontinue supply of one of its most controversial dolls – the golliwog.

Golliwogs have continued to be sold in Australian shops despite them being widely seen as offensive in other western countries.

National sales manager for soft toy wholesaler Elka, Jan Johnco, said while the black-faced, red lipped dolls are an “innocent toy”, golliwogs offend people because they “don’t want to hear the truth about them”.

Pictured are golliwogs on display at a NSW newsagency. Source: Supplied
A golliwog display at a NSW newsagency. Source: Supplied

Ms Johnco noted that at one stage there were probably 30 suppliers at toy trade fairs selling the dolls, but now they have “run their time”.

“Now ‘gollies’ were in 30-odd years ago, and then they ran their cycle, I guess kind of like the yo-yo. The yo-yo might come back and it might never come back,” she said.

Golliwogs are still for sale around Australia, particularly in individual regional stores, but will be harder to find once Elka stops distributing them.

The Royal Adelaide Show last year was forced to apologise after complaints were received over the golliwog entries in the handicraft competition.

Golliwogs still in demand, shopkeeper says

One regional NSW newsagent who spoke on the condition of anonymity has a large golliwog display in his shop window, but he worries increased attention could lead to vigilante action against his store.

“I could end up with a brick through the window by an idiot,” he said.

The retailer maintains that while one person a month walks into his shop to complain about the storefront, he sells up to five golliwogs a week.

“A lot of the people that buy them are elderly people because they remember them at their time. That’s what their mothers and grandmothers used to knit them.”

He believes people who rally against their sale are trying to alter Australia’s past.

“The biggest problem is that we want to change history,” he said.

“Captain Cook landed in Australia, so we’ve changed history so he invaded Australia. Did he invade Australia or is that what was acceptable at that time?”

‘Not an innocent doll, but a mockery’

While Ms Johnco and the newsagent trace the origin of golliwogs to being a toy for Egyptian children, for Aboriginal actress Shari Sebbens they represent something less innocent.

Sebbens, the star of Redfern Now and The Sapphires notes that whilst some elderly white Australians have fond memories of the dolls, for many older Indigenous people golliwogs make them feel dehumanised.

Pictured is Indigenous actress Shari Sebbens who is glad to see the demise of the golliwog in Australia. Source: AAP Image/April Fonti
Indigenous actress Shari Sebbens. Source: AAP Image/April Fonti

“It’s really naive to assume that we’re not smart enough to assume the racial connotations behind those dolls,” she said, noting their association with “creepy” minstrel shows.

“It infantilises us; people of colour. It’s a mockery,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

A scene from the black and white minstrel show. Source: Mary Evans via AAP
A black and white minstrel show. Source: Mary Evans via AAP

For Sebbens and her family, golliwogs conjure up uncomfortable feelings of Australia’s history which for many was a “culture of oppression”.

“Especially in this country, it’s really naive to think that America’s Jim Crowe ideology didn’t filter through into Australia,” she said.

“White Australia got very good at forgetting how much of the American racism we adopted.”

Many trace the black dolls back to 1895, when artist Florence Kate Upton illustrated her children’s book with depictions of a ‘Negro minstrel doll’.

Upton’s character was loveable although “a horrid sight”, while later versions of golliwogs were often portrayed as “unkind, mean-spirited and even more visually hideous”, according to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.

Racism claims disputed

The newsagent believes racist connotations are just in people’s minds, arguing opponents are “not open minded enough to understand what’s going on”.

“Is it racist because you sell a black dog? Or in China would it be racist if you sold a yellow dog? I just don’t understand people’s concept of colour.”

Despite overall Australian sales figures dropping, for him they are a good seller.

“Why do I sell papers? Because people want them. Why do we sell lotteries? Because people want them. You know, if people didn’t want them, we wouldn’t sell them.”

Sebbens says Elka looking to discontinue the sale of golliwogs was amazing news.

“Racism doesn’t die out within a generation but if remnants and little crumbs can die off then that’s really good,” she said.

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