Friday, July 25, 2014

Palmer Cox and the Brownies

Leafing carefully through the pages of an 1892 Ladies' Home Journal, I came across a full page dedicated to the antics of some little fellows I'd seen before: the Brownies.  

The magazine was so large, I had to make two digital scans to cover the entire page:

Just so you don't hurt your eyes trying to see all those tiny Brownies at once, here's a close-up of two of them:

The Brownies were the creation of Palmer Cox (1840-1924), a Canadian artist, who based them on the Scottish folk stories told to him by his grandmother.  Cox moved to the United States in the 1870s and in 1883, the Brownies made their debut in print.  

A blog post for the Winterthur Museum describes them:

...the Brownies were an adventurous and mischievous group of little men who...lived, traveled, and performed good deeds together.

The Brownies first appeared in print in St. Nicholas, a children's magazine, in 1883, and they continued to appear regularly there and in the LHJ for 17 years.  Their adventures combined fantasy with little moral lessons, and the kids of the time loved them.

By the 1890s, the Brownies were doing licensed "endorsements" and their images appeared on everything from coffee to cookies, toys to teacups, soap and other products.  Cox is said to have been the first cartoonist (years before Walt Disney) to turn his characters into a commercial enterprise. The Brownies' most famous endorsement
was probably George Eastman's Kodak Brownie camera (although some sources I looked at reported that Eastman never had a formal agreement with Cox to use the Brownies' name and images).  Interestingly, younger Girl Scouts (US) and Girl Guides (UK) are called "Brownies" not because of these little guys, but after an 1870 story called "The Brownies" by British author Juliana Horatia Ewing.*

The Brownies' adventures reflected life in America at the time; they all had different ethnicities and different jobs.

Jeanne Solensky of Winterthur continues:

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. 

In one such adventure, the Brownies decide to help a farmer who is sick in bed and can't harvest his crops.  Cox wrote:

...While carrots, turnips, beets, and all
Received attention, great and small.
When morning dawned, no sight or sound
Of friendly Brownies could be found...

The honest farmer thought, of course,
His neighbors had turned out in force
While helpless on the bed he lay,
And kindly stowed his crop away.
But when he thanked them for their aid,
And hoped they yet might be repaid
For acting such a friendly part,
His words appeared to pierce each heart.
For well they knew that other hands
Than theirs had laid his grain in bands,
That other backs had bent in toil
To save the products of the soil.
And then they felt as such folk will
Who fail to nobly act, until
More earnest helpers, stepping in,
Do all the praise and honor win.

Even though we don't remember them very well now, the Brownies were certainly celebrities in their day.  How nice it would be if 21st century "celebrities" (who are, too often, only famous for being famous) would be remembered more than a century later, primarily for their own good works.  


Here is a link to The Brownies: Their Book, by Palmer Cox, that you can read online.  Make sure you open a version of it with illustrations:

Here's a link to the Winterthur blog post on the Brownies:

Interestingly, younger Girl Scouts (US) and Girl Guides (UK) are called "Brownies" not because of these little guys, but after an 1870 story called "The Brownies" by British author Juliana Horatia Ewing.  She wrote (Harry Potter fans, take note!):

"The Brownies, or, as they are sometimes called, the Small Folk, the Little People, or the Good People, are a race of tiny beings who domesticate themselves in a house of which some grown-up human being pays the rent and taxes. They are like small editions of men and women, they are too small and fragile for heavy work; they have not the strength of a man, but are a thousand times more fresh and nimble. They can run and jump, and roll and tumble, with marvellous agility and endurance, and of many of the aches and pains which men and women groan under, they do not even know the names. They have no trade or profession, and as they live entirely upon other people, they know nothing of domestic cares; in fact, they know very little upon any subject, though they are often intelligent and highly inquisitive. They love dainties, play, and mischief. They are apt to be greatly beloved, and are themselves capriciously affectionate. They are little people, and can only do little things. When they are idle and mischievous, they are called Boggarts, and are a curse to the house they live in. When they are useful and considerate, they are Brownies, and are a much-coveted blessing. Sometimes the Blessed Brownies will take up their abode with some worthy couple, cheer them with their romps and merry laughter, tidy the house, find things that have been lost, and take little troubles out of hands full of great anxieties. Then in time these Little People are Brownies no longer. They grow up into men and women. They do not care so much for dainties, play, or mischief. They cease to jump and tumble, and roll about the house. They know more, and laugh less. Then, when their heads begin to ache with anxiety, and they have to labour for their own living, and the great cares of life come on, other Brownies come and live with them, and take up their little cares, and supply their little comforts, and make the house merry once more."

Here's a link to that story online:

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