Friday, November 30, 2007
First, the disambiguation: these are not Brownies as in a young girl's Brownie troop, these are not the bake-sale staple, but these are related, sort of to the ubiquitous Brownie camera made by Eastman Kodak for about a hundred years.
I was looking online yesterday looking for a good beginner camera for the Budza, who will be eight later this month. He loved taking a disposable camera to the Lego meetup Brickfest in Vermont this summer, and to Bar Island, Maine, for our family getaway. I quickly discovered that first digital cameras aimed at the 5 to 10 year old set are disappointing. They seem to be either hard to use or to yield disappointing pictures, or to have inadequate memory. So I ended up ordered a refurbished camera from Kodak's online shop. But in the process of looking, I got all nostalgic not just for my old Brownie camera, which I took around the capiltals of Europe and Asia during my jet-setting childhood, but for the little Brownie characters devised by Palmer Cox (1840-1924) in the 1880s, which were used to sell an early version of the camera. By the time Kodak put the Brownies in their ads for the $1 camera, Palmer's cartoon creations were famous and already heavily merchanised, much like Kewpie dolls at the time or Spongebob today. There's even an 1894 review in the NYT archive of a play staged in Philadelphia based on the Brownies. It opened a month later in New York and later toured for five years. When I was growing up, we had a Dover reprint edition of The Brownies: Their Book, and while I confess it was the kind of long epic poem with which I had, at the age of ten, zero patience, I pored over the images. I always liked to find the Brownie with the monocle, kind of like trying to find Waldo in one of those crowded Where's Waldo images.
So, if they were so popular a century ago, why aren't they better remembered today? Like Hugh Lofting's Doctor Dolittle, the Brownies haven't survived the transition to the twenty-first century. Probably just as well, because to an adult's eye they appear as a parade of ethnic stereotype and racial charicature:
the Irishman, the Scot, the Russian, the effete London dandy, the Indian, the Eskimo, and the Chinaman with his queue. As Palmer draws them, they're not in the least fey or magical, but Palmer did his best to draw them with a sturdy farmhouse charm about them, true to the actual Brownie folklore. And I think it's in that spirit that I enjoyed them as a child, poring over the details of the crammed images. Would I enjoy them now? I might have to go up in the attic and find the old Dover reprint and see.
Read more about them on the web at Toonpedia, the site of an apparently fanatical Dutch collector of Brownieabilia, and these really thorough webpages from the Freemasons of British Columbia and the Yukon dedicated to the memory of Cox's great grand nephew.