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Palmer Cox Brownies
Winterthur Museum Garden & Library
One of the joys of my job is to search through manuscripts and ephemera for related items after finding something that grabs my fancy. One day, by chance, I found a cigar label depicting writer and illustrator Palmer Cox (1840Ð1924), creator of the Brownies. Although the Winterthur Library does not have a centralized collection of his papers, I found Cox and his Brownies in several of the Winterthur's collections: 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."

Based on Scottish folklore, the Brownies were an adventurous and mischievous group of little men who evolved from being similarly illustrated characters into many individuals with their own personalities, nationalities, and occupations. They all lived, traveled, and performed good deeds together. The Brownies first publicly appeared in "The Brownies' 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 for the next 30 years in the magazine and in the Ladies Home Journal. Throughout, the Brownies were on the cutting edge of trends, engaging in sports such as bicycle-riding and tennis, riding cars, and visiting the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, even before the fair opened. The stories were later compiled into books like Brownies, Their Book, and Brownies at Home, among others.

Perfect blends of fantasy and adventure with gentle moral lessons of kindness and virtue, the stories were enormously popular among children of the time. Fan mail from children inundated Palmer Cox, who was reputed to answer every letter he received.

The "Dude" character was one of the most-loved Brownies. Quite the dandy, the Dude, though not as fearless as the others, was always good-natured. As Cox explained, "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, and other nationalities. These may seem politically incorrect to us now, but the stories of these Brownies visiting their countries helped children learn geography and become familiar with other cultures.

By the 1890s, the Brownies burst into the advertising and merchandising worlds. Small Brownie paper dolls were placed in packages of Lion Coffee and the New York Biscuit Co.; a band of Brownies playing musical instruments paraded across trade cards for Estey Organ Co.; 12 characters were fashioned into seven-inch cloth toys manufactured by Arnold Print Works of Massachusetts. The Brownies were transformed into rubber stamps, card games, blocks, puzzles, and even bowling pins. They even appeared on household furnishings such as carpets, wallpaper, fireplace sets, china, glassware, flatware, and of course, the famous Kodak Brownie box camera. The Brownie empire reigned well into the 20th century.

While largely forgotten today, Palmer Cox was a beloved household name starting in the 1880s and lasting through the early 1900s. The Brownies, the first cartoon figures to be used in mass merchandising, undoubtedly figured in the later marketing of Beatrix Potter and Walt Disney, among others.

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 webpage.

This article is excerpted from an article on the Winterthur Museum Garden & Library website and is reprinted with the generous permission of Jeanne Solensky, librarian in the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts & Printed Ephemera. To read the article in its entirety visit http://museumblog.winterthur.org/2011/11/16/the-brownie-empire-of-palmer-cox/

About Palmer Cox
Born April 28, 1840 in the town of Granby, Quebec, Palmer Cox was the fifth son of a family of nine children. He left Canada in 1858 for California, arriving in San Francisco in 1863 seeking work as an illustrator and writer.

By 1864 he was contributing his illustrated stories to the San Francisco Examiner and other local publications. He published "Squibs of California," his first book, in 1874. Cox moved the following year to New York City.

Although brownie-type characters had appeared on-and-off in his earlier stories, including "The Battle of the Types" (February 1881 in Wide Awake magazine), it was the "The Brownies' Ride" in the February 1883 issue of St. Nicholas that is considered their first official appearance and which launched Cox and his Brownies to fame.

Cox's many stories and illustrations also appeared in Harper's Young People, Ladies' Home Journal, and Scribner's Monthly, among others. He also wrote two plays in 1894, "The Brownies in Fairyland," and "Palmer Cox's Brownies," which opened November 12 of that year at the Fourteenth Street Theatre in New York. It ran for 100 performances and went on tour for five years. In his lifetime he published a total of 25 books, 16 of which were about the Brownies.

Cox had a home and studio in London as well as a residence in New York City and traveled extensively abroad. He returned to Granby, Quebec in 1905 to build Brownie Castle, a 17-room mansion complete with a tower four stories high. From here he submitted his stories for publication and was actively involved in the advertising campaigns for the Brownies empire. Products included everything from stomach remedies to 100s of toys of all descriptions. Palmer Cox died at Brownie Castle on July 24, 1924. His tombstone, complete with a Brownie figure, reads: "In creating the Brownies he bestowed a priceless heritage on childhood."

You can read more about Palmer Cox in "Bugaboo Bill," reprinted in 1971, and "The Brownie Yearbook," reprinted in 1988.

Thanks to the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi for allowing me access to their Palmer Cox Brownies literature collection.
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