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Britain’s Golly Problem


by Katee Houlihan



Golly dolls, those peculiar and controversial figurines, have captivated and perplexed the British nation for decades. With their wide grins, brightly colored clothing, and exaggerated features, golly dolls have secured a unique place in the realm of Weird & Amazing collectibles.


Originally popularized in the late 19th century as characters in children’s books by Florence Kate Upton, golly dolls quickly gained popularity and became a staple of British toy shelves. However, their iconic presence is not without controversy. These dolls have sparked heated debates regarding racial stereotypes, cultural appropriation, and the perpetuation of harmful imagery.


The discussion surrounding golly dolls forces us to confront uncomfortable questions about the intersection of play, representation, and social responsibility. Is it possible to enjoy these dolls as innocent relics of the past, or do they carry a burden of racial insensitivity? Join us on a journey as we examine the historical origins, controversy, impact, and ongoing presence of golly dolls in Britain.


Historical origins of golly dolls in Britain

The origins of golly dolls can be traced back to the late 19th century in Britain. The creation of these dolls can be attributed to Florence Kate Upton, an American-born illustrator and author who moved to the UK in the late 1800s.


In 1895, Upton published a children’s book titled “The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a ‘Golliwogg’.” The main character, the Golliwogg, was depicted as a lovable, mischievous black doll with a wide smile and colorful clothing. The Golliwogg’s popularity soared, and soon after the book’s release, dolls and other merchandise featuring the character flooded the market.


Upton’s Golliwogg character represented a departure from the conventional dolls of the time, which were typically white and portrayed more refined and aristocratic characters. The Golliwogg dolls were unique in their representation of a black character, and they gained a significant following among children and collectors alike.


Although the Golliwoggs were initially intended as innocent storybook characters, their depiction attracted controversy even in the early 1900s. Critics argued that the dolls perpetuated racial stereotypes through their exaggerated features and clothing, which depicted black people as exotic and uncivilized.


Despite the controversy, golly dolls persisted in popularity throughout the 20th century, maintaining a strong presence in British culture. These dolls became beloved toys, handed down through generations and even inspiring collectibles and memorabilia.


It’s important to note that the perception and understanding of racial representation have evolved over time. What was once seen as harmless or even endearing may now be viewed as offensive or insensitive.


Controversy surrounding golly dolls

Golly dolls have been the subject of considerable controversy and criticism due to their portrayal of racial stereotypes. The exaggerated features, such as large mouths, wide grins, and frizzy hair, perpetuated harmful caricatures of black people.


Many argue that the dolls reinforce negative stereotypes and promote a distorted view of black individuals. The portrayal of black characters as minstrels or entertainers further deepened the controversy, as it harked back to a time when black people were marginalized and exploited for entertainment purposes.


The controversy surrounding golly dolls intensified during the civil rights movements of the 1960s, as society became more attuned to issues of racial equality and representation. Activists and advocates argued that these dolls perpetuated harmful imagery and were offensive to black communities.


Additionally, the use of the term “golliwogg” itself has been criticized. The origins of the term are rooted in racial slurs and derogatory language, further adding to the offense caused by the dolls.


Despite the outcry, many collectors and enthusiasts defended the dolls, arguing that they were innocent childhood relics and should not be viewed through a modern lens. They emphasized the nostalgic value and connection to cherished memories that golly dolls held for them.


However, it is essential to recognize that the impact of these dolls extends beyond individual sentiments. The perpetuation of racial stereotypes has broader societal implications and can contribute to the marginalization of minority groups.


As society becomes more aware and sensitive to issues of racial representation, the controversy surrounding golly dolls has led to calls for a reassessment of their place in British culture and the need for greater understanding and dialogue surrounding racial dynamics.


Impact of golly dolls on racial stereotypes

The presence of golly dolls has had a lasting impact on racial stereotypes in British culture. These dolls, with their exaggerated features and caricaturesque depictions of black individuals, have contributed to the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes and distorted perceptions.


Children who grew up playing with golly dolls may have internalized and normalized these racialized images, unwittingly reinforcing the notion that black people should be seen as exotic and comedic figures rather than as equals. This can further contribute to the marginalization and othering of black individuals in society.


Moreover, the influence of golly dolls extends beyond childhood play. Collectors and enthusiasts’ continued interest in these dolls reinforces the idea that these racial caricatures hold value and historical significance. This can inadvertently validate and perpetuate negative stereotypes in the minds of both collectors and the general public.


The impact of golly dolls reaches beyond the individual realm into the broader cultural landscape. Media and popular culture often draw inspiration from these vintage characters, leading to the continued portrayal of black individuals in stereotypical and degrading ways.


It is important to recognize the harm caused by golly dolls and the need for education and awareness about the impact of racial stereotypes. By acknowledging the negative influence of these dolls, society can actively work towards dismantling racial biases and promoting more accurate and inclusive representations of all individuals.


Efforts to challenge and confront these stereotypes have gained momentum over the years, with individuals, organizations, and activists using their voices to advocate for change. Through education, dialogue, and the promotion of diverse and authentic representation, we can dismantle racial stereotypes and work towards a more equitable and inclusive society.


Efforts to ban golly dolls and related merchandise

Over the years, there have been numerous efforts to ban golly dolls and related merchandise due to concerns about racial insensitivity and the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes. These efforts have come from activists, organizations, and individuals who believe that these dolls have no place in the modern world.


One of the earliest notable attempts to ban golly dolls occurred in the 1970s when the Greater London Council (GLC) attempted to remove the dolls from their souvenir shops. The GLC argued that golly dolls promoted racial stereotypes and were offensive to black communities. However, these attempts faced significant backlash from collectors and those who viewed the dolls as innocent artifacts of the past.


In recent years, there has been renewed focus on the issue, with campaigns calling for the ban of golly dolls gaining traction on social media platforms. These campaigns argue that the dolls perpetuate racism and discrimination, and that their continued presence in the marketplace normalizes harmful stereotypes.


In response to these concerns, some retailers and organizations have voluntarily chosen to cease the production and sale of golly dolls. They recognize the need to move towards more inclusive and sensitive representations of all individuals. This shift highlights a growing awareness and commitment to challenging racial biases in society.


However, despite the efforts to ban golly dolls, they can still be found in the collections of private collectors and on online marketplaces. Some argue that these dolls should be preserved as part of history, with the understanding that they represent a problematic past. Others believe that their continued presence perpetuates harmful imagery and that efforts to ban them must continue.


Ultimately, the debate surrounding the banning of golly dolls and related merchandise raises broader questions about the balance between historical preservation, free expression, and the responsibility to challenge and dismantle racial stereotypes. As society continues to evolve and become more inclusive, it is essential to engage in ongoing conversations about how we can best address and confront these sensitive issues.


Current presence of golly dolls in Britain

While the controversy surrounding golly dolls has led to decreased production and sales, these dolls can still be found in various forms in Britain today. Although their presence has diminished, they continue to evoke strong reactions and debates among individuals and communities.


One can still come across golly dolls in the collections of private enthusiasts and in antique shops, where they are seen as valuable relics of the past. Some collectors argue that these dolls should be preserved as historical artifacts that reflect the cultural attitudes and norms of a bygone era.


However, the sale and display of golly dolls have become increasingly rare in mainstream retail outlets. Many major retailers and online marketplaces have chosen to discontinue or ban the sale of these items due to concerns over racial insensitivity and the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes.


The diminished presence of golly dolls in the marketplace is reflective of the changing societal attitudes towards racial representation. It showcases a greater awareness and sensitivity to the harmful impact of racial stereotypes and a shift towards more inclusive and equitable forms of representation.


Despite the efforts to limit their availability, golly dolls still evoke strong emotions and opinions. Some argue that the banning and erasure of these dolls erases an aspect of history and limits free expression, while others maintain that they perpetuate harmful imagery and should be completely removed from public view.


The current presence of golly dolls in Britain serves as a reminder of the complex history and ongoing debates surrounding racial representation. It prompts society to critically examine the role of these dolls in shaping attitudes and perceptions, and to continuously work towards a more inclusive and respectful society.


Cultural appropriation and golly dolls

Another aspect of the controversy surrounding golly dolls is the issue of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation refers to the adoption or use of elements from one culture by another, often without proper understanding or respect for its cultural significance.


Golly dolls, with their exaggerated features and stereotypical clothing, can be seen as an example of cultural appropriation. The dolls borrow elements from black culture and present them in a distorted and caricatured form without an understanding of the cultural context or significance behind these elements.


By commodifying and commercializing these elements, golly dolls not only perpetuate harmful stereotypes but also fail to acknowledge or respect the contributions and experiences of black people. This further reinforces the power dynamics and inequalities that exist in society.


The cultural appropriation associated with golly dolls raises questions about the ethics of profiting from the appropriation of another culture’s symbols and aesthetics. It calls for a deeper examination of the ways in which cultural objects are portrayed and commodified, and the impact this has on the communities from which these objects originate.


It is important to listen to and amplify the voices of those directly affected by cultural appropriation. Black individuals and communities have expressed their discomfort and frustration with the continued presence of golly dolls, as they perpetuate harmful stereotypes and contribute to a sense of cultural erasure.


Efforts to address cultural appropriation require a commitment to education, awareness, and accountability. It is essential to listen to and learn from the experiences and perspectives of marginalized communities, and to actively work towards cultural understanding, respect, and equitable representation.


By engaging in these conversations and challenging the appropriation of cultural symbols, we can create a more inclusive and equitable society that values and celebrates diverse cultural identities.



The controversy surrounding golly dolls in Britain spans generations, provoking debates about racial stereotypes, cultural appropriation, and the responsibility of society to confront and challenge harmful imagery. These dolls, with their exaggerated features and caricatured representations of black individuals, have sparked discussions about the impact of racial imagery on our collective consciousness.


The historical origins of golly dolls can be traced back to their creation by Florence Kate Upton in the late 19th century. Initially popularized as characters in children’s books, these dolls quickly gained popularity as toys and collectibles. However, over time, concerns about racial insensitivity and perpetuating harmful stereotypes came to the forefront.


Efforts to ban golly dolls and related merchandise have been met with both support and resistance. While some argue for their preservation as historical artifacts, others advocate for their removal due to their role in perpetuating racial stereotypes. Major retailers and online marketplaces have discontinued or banned the sale of golly dolls in response to these concerns.


The current presence of golly dolls in Britain is diminishing, with these dolls mainly found in private collections and antique shops. This reflects a growing awareness and sensitivity to issues of racial representation and the need for more inclusive forms of expression.


The controversy surrounding golly dolls also intersects with the broader issue of cultural appropriation. The caricatured depictions and commodification of black culture without proper understanding or respect raise questions about the ethics of profiting from another culture’s symbols and aesthetics.


To address these concerns, it is essential to engage in ongoing conversations about the impact of racial stereotypes and cultural appropriation. Education, awareness, and accountability are crucial in challenging harmful imagery, promoting inclusivity, and respecting the experiences and perspectives of marginalized communities.


As we grapple with the legacy of golly dolls, it is important to acknowledge their historical significance while also recognizing their potential to perpetuate harmful stereotypes. By fostering greater understanding, sensitivity, and inclusivity, we can strive towards a society that respects and celebrates the diversity of people’s experiences and cultures.