If you are older than 60, you might be familiar with our subject this month. If younger, you’re still affected by this trailblazer.
Our story begins with the birth of a little boy in a small Canadian farm town in 1840. At age 8, he joined the town folk in groups telling tall stories.
They often would entertain their audience with tall tales about imaginary little “sprites” that would be helpful and kind. These little creatures worked in the sunshine – and so would turn brown.
As a young man, Palmer Cox began to write and illustrate stories about his vision of these mischievous yet helpful small creatures, which he called “Brownies,” and their adventures.
Soon the local media printed his charming stories and his cartoon-style drawings. These stories came to the public’s attention in 1883 in St. Nicholas magazine and later in Ladies’ Home Journal. Cox eventually compiled his stories into books about them, the first of which was “The Brownies, Their Book” in 1887. From the stories came a demand for dolls and consumer goods.
The Brownies became the first cartoon figures used for merchandising products.
One of the best-known products to develop from Cox’s creations was the Eastman Kodak Brownie camera in 1900. Cookies, candies, coffee, games, books, rubber boots and bowling pins were just a few items featuring Brownies.
Cox soon became wealthy and inspired Rose O’Neill to create ewpies, R.F. Outcault’s Yellow Kid, the Teenie Weenies, and eventually even Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse.
This pioneer formed a whole new industry – simply from hearing folklore in the prairies of Quebec, Canada.
Today, because of the short supply of Brownie items, the values have soared. The Brownies appealed to all and became the most popular section of newspapers, magazines and shops everywhere.
Cox is long gone, but not forgotten to collectors. These same collectors are very reluctant to part with Brownie-related treasures. Estate sales might yield a few.
Today when you see “smurfs” or any recent version of a “sprite,” you can thank Palmer Cox for creating a love affair in the United States and beyond of fantasy characters from then and now.
Jerry Glenn is co-owner of Reminisce in Bluffton, where sports collectibles are bought and sold.