Archival Research Assignment

Group Members: Diego Flores, Mary Kathleen Feldsott, Ava Markham, Reilly Hayes, Kaushal Nair

Item Annotations:

First Item (From Archive): Woodblock prints of Uncle Tom and Topsy

The woodblock depicts two of the main characters, Uncle Tom and Topsy, from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The novel was originally written in 1852 and held great influence on feelings toward slavery, so much so that it is said the novel was a major precursor for the Civil War. As for the item above, the archive gives an estimated date of 1869 coming from the Northern States. There is no specific purpose for this item provided, however, in the writing below the characters, the word “poster” is mentioned, meaning this block could be a model for posters advertising the characters of the novel. In order to understand this item, background information on the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin is required to know who the two characters are and their significance in the novel.  While I am unsure of how the archive acquired this item, it ties to our class’ discussion of children’s literature and the concept of American girlhood as it relates to Topsy’s life as a slave. In skimming other items in the archive, the topic of American girlhood, literature, and race were major themes I noticed. This item speaks to a historic piece of literature that many believe set the groundwork for the Civil War, moreover, it is a fantastic look at the life of Topsy, the slave girl depicted above. Besides its ties to american girlhood and literature, this item reminded me of the Golliwog article we read, as Topsy was turned into a doll after the publishing of the novel. After conducting further research our group was able to find other items that not only relate to the woodblock of Topsy above, but parts of our class readings and discussions.

Second Item: Advertisement for Topsy and Eva Dolls

This advertisement we chose is of a Topsy-Turvy, Topsy and Eva doll. It is a reversible doll, with two different heads and bodies, each representing the characters Topsy and Eva from the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Topsy – Turvy dolls first emerged in the mid 19th century, and became very popular by the mid 20th century.  Made in Santa Monica California, the Topsy and Eva doll is a “soft doll” with “nothing to break or remove”. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Eva is a white child, portrayed as a perfect, angelic child, who is a devout Christian, and serves as a sort of role model for Topsy. In opposition, Topsy is a slave girl who is portrayed as untamed and uncivilized. This Topsy and Eva doll continues this contrast between “charming Eva” and Topsy. Eva is the center focus of the advertisement, with her golden hair and elegant blue dress, while topsy is shoved into the corner, with her dress folded up to expose her reversal into Eva. In the advertisements description, we can see that there is minimal description of Topsy’s dress or appearance, while Eva is described as having golden hair, and a dress that is “dainty” in style and pattern. We can see this advertisement’s significance to our study of American Girlhood through both the inequality between races, and how it perpetuates through doll play. As we read in Bernstein’s Children’s Books, Dolls, and the Performance of Race”, it has been historically common for children to have “used dolls to act out scenes of racialized violence and forced labor” (Bernstein 160). By creating a Topsy and Eva doll that is described as soft or “nothing to break or remove”, children are invited to play in a rough or violent manner with this doll that represents a slave girl. 

Third Item: Image and Article of Feel Better Dolls

This article describes a Northeastern retail chain called One Dollar Zone, which in 2019 had a black doll on it’s shelves that instructed the owners to hit and abuse the doll “whenever things don’t go well.” The doll is black and has strands of red, green, yellow, and black yarn hair. This racist toy is a present-day example of a doll that explicitly scripts violent and abuses play from its owner. NJ legislator Angela McKnight visited one of these stores to see the doll in person. She, as well as many other consumers, was highly disturbed by this doll and it was pulled from the shelves after this visit. This fits into what we’ve learned about how certain dolls “script” a certain type of play and the ubiquity of racism in the children’s toy industry. It is a clear pejorative representation of blackness and teaches children it is acceptable to mistreat or harm someone/something based on its color. This doll is very similar to the Topsy-Turvy dolls that were popular in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is less life-like than those dolls but is still a caricature of black people. What makes this doll even more vile is that the tag specifically instructs people to beat and hit the doll. In the 19th and 20th centuries children mistreated black dolls because of social forces they were exposed to. In this case, the doll itself was prescribing violent interaction. I’m not sure how this doll ended up on the shelf in any store, but this oversight is indicative of people overlooking clear demonstrations of racism.

Fourth Item: Meme Displaying Racist Price Differentials

The picture shown above depicts the fact that black dolls at Walmart are being sold for a dollar and seventy six cents less than the white dolls, which is a sheer display of ignorance. The items on display are Baby Alive dolls made by the company Hasbro, which is the largest toy manufacturer in the world. The Baby Alive dolls were introduced in 1973 by Hasbro as the doll “that eats, drinks and wets.” The doll was one of the most realistic dolls made at the time with a mouth that could be fed packets of food mixed with water, which the doll would chew and the food would end up in the doll’s diaper. The doll was in popular demand in the mid-1970s and eventually was given a voice for communication with the owner. In my opinion, the image presented is rather appalling due to the fact that the Black dolls are priced lower than the White Dolls. Furthermore, the ideas from this image relate closely to our reading from Philip Nel’s Archive of Childhood : “The Golliwog”. This is about how as a child, Philip Nel treated his white dolls differently from his black doll or “The Golliwog”, whom he had a more distant relationship with. Simply put, a lower cost of the black doll than the white doll indicates the message that a company like Wal-mart is sending out to its customers, who happen to be families with little children. Much like Philip Nel, who treated his black doll differently, it is highly possible that these children might treat the Black dolls differently than the white doll, thereby “scripting” contrasting plays for the dolls. This is important to the ideas of American girlhood as this message being meted out by Walmart could negatively influence the childhood of American children as it corrupts their understanding of race and identity, only for them to grow up with an unhealthy sense of superiority that is heavily based on the color of their skin.   

Final Reflection:

The project began with a look into Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the woodlock archival item, as they both are essential artifiacts in understanding life during slavery. Looking at Topsey’s life can help with understanding what “Girlhood” means in the life of a slave girl. An example is that sexual assault was an unfortunate part of growing up as a slave girl, which is an aspect of life that a white reader would not  have experienced. We then transitioned to looking at the Topsy Turvey, Topsy and Eva Doll. This doll is described as “soft and not breakable”, which in many ways scripts how white children should play with this doll. Being made of soft material encourages white people to trash this doll and throw it around with no respect. To give a comparison, porcelain white dolls encourage children to play delicately with them. The way this  play is scripted by the material of these dolls is dangerous because it causes habits to develop in kids that translate into real life. Kids will treat African American people with disrespect and violence, as that is how they treated their dolls and treat white people with more respect. This is an unacceptable phenomenon created by literature and dolls, as all people should be treated with  equal respect. This caused us to reflect on what “Children’s literature” means as a keyword, and what kind of scripting it teaches children. Unfortunately, this scripting doesn’t only apply to children, but is present with adults in everyday life as well. From this discovery we transitioned to the “Feel better doll”, which is a black doll that people are supposed to hit in a store to take out their anger and to feel better. This again encourages people to not only treat African Americans as slaves, but with violence in modern times too. This doll shows the sad reality that scripting play is jumping off the pages of books and becoming present in real life as well. We lastly connected this to a meme of the same doll costing $1.76 less in black than white, which encourages valuing white people even further.

Scripting is a very important aspect of learning about dolls, because literature encourages white people to play with them, which translates into real life, and is what we were trying to prove with the four  items we chose from the archives above. We connected these ideas to the Berstien text that we read as a part of this course. The whipping of the dolls in this text scripted the same type of play that is implied by the four artifacts we chose. The unequal treatment of African Americans due to the way play with them is scripted is widely spread across literature and is something that needs to change. Readers should really be learning about the hardships that slave girls faced during “Girlhood” and treat them with the delicacy and respect that they deserve after enduring such hard times. Literature needs to be ammended so that “children’s literature” means respect and equality instead of being a symbol for violence and discrimination. The artifacts that we selected, divided up, and annotated allowed us to expand our knowledge about this unfair occurrence even further than the Berstein text that we examined earlier in this course. 


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