Curator’s Choice: A Set of Handmade Cards with Hunca Munca and Princess Margaret Meet Black Peter

Some children are lucky enough to know an adult with the skills to make them special toys and games.  Sometimes those objects survive against the odds are offered to lucky curators. This little set of Schwarzer Peter cards (a Continental variation on Old Maid)  is just one such find.    It has twenty-seven instead of the usual fifty-two cards, but it seems to be complete because it fits perfectly in the blue box.  The lid has an illustrated title label in German that reads in English: “This game of Black Peter was painted for her dear friends Ernst and Anneliese Grossenbacher in St. Gall.”  It is signed Gertrud Lendorff, who just might be the Swiss art historian from Basel (1900-1981).

The cards cannot be earlier than the 1930s: one of the pair with the Union Jack in the upper left hand corners shows “Margaret Rose aus England.”  Margaret Rose, a little girl in a blue coat and hat with a green scarf, must be the late Princess Margaret (1930-2002), Queen Elizabeth II’s sister.

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A famous character from children’s books also makes an appearance here: Beatrix Potter’s Hunca Munca from The Tale of Two Bad Mice, identified only as “nach einem Englischen Kinderbuch,” that is, “from an English children’s book.”  It’s amusing that the illustrations of Hunca Munca  were redrawn from ones where this bad little mouse was behaving well relatively well.  My guess is that  little Grossenbachers for whom Lendorff made the cards might have been reading The Tale of Two Bad Mice in German translation.  But perhaps Lendorff was introducing them to a childhood favorite of her own. The cards don’t provide any clues about the circumstances in which they were made or how they were received, but they are testimony to Potter’s appeal outside her homeland.

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Most of the cards illustrate toys made of porcelain, clay, celluloid, and wood, such as Hansli and the matryoshka doll Tatyiana and her five daughters below.

swiss_cards_babtanddollsOne thing we find unacceptable today is Lendorff’s inclusion of toys that perpetuate offensive stereotypes.  The title label depicts a black baby doll and Lendorff’s model might have been a Heubach bisque character doll.  She redrew the same doll on the card with the caption “Der Schwarze Peterli! Nicht der Schwarze Peter!” [The little Black Peter! Not the Black Peter!].  It is an opprobrious caricature with unnaturally bright red lips.  But unlike some Heubach black baby dolls, it wears what looks like a knitted onesie instead of some spurious form of “native dress.”

covertitle The “Schwarzer Peter”—that is, “Black Peter”–mentioned on the title label is the name that the Old Maid card goes by in German, Danish, Swedish, Hungarian, and Finnish.  The card with Black Peter is the hot potato that all the players try to get rid of as quickly as possible so it won’t be in their hands at the end of the game.  In this particular set, the Black Peter is depicted offensively as a black rag doll (possibly inspired by Florence Upton’s famous character, the Golliwog) instead of the more usual chimney sweep.

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The Black Peter card in the manuscript Schwarzer Peter deck. Cotsen in process item 6541473

In spite of the unpleasant images, this card set is a fascinating addition to Cotsen’s collection of manuscripts made for children over the last three hundred years..

See more Beatrix Potter at the Cotsen virtual exhibitions page