Curator’s Choice: Playing Cards Featuring Beatrix Potter’s Hunca Munca

When I was little, playing Old Maid with a specially designed set of cards beat a standard deck hands down.   The peculiar characters were much more satisfying than the expressionless flat faces of the kings, queens and jacks in the old Bicycle deck, with the cupids peddling for dear life on the blue backs…

When my daughter was little, it never occurred to me to make her a unique deck of Old Maid cards (cards were not all that high on the list of fun things to do until Five Crowns came along).  Designing the twenty-odd pairs of characters would have a bit a challenge: my daughter’s repeated requests for the beautiful Chicken of the Sea mermaid strained my ability to draw to the breaking point!

However, some children are lucky enough to know adults who have the skill to craft toys and games for them and sometimes the rare specimens that survived against the odds are offered to lucky curators. This little set of Schwarzer Peter cards is just one such find. The cards cannot be earlier than the 1930s: the pair with the Union Jack in the upper left hand corners consist of Pamela and “Margaret Rose aus England.”  Margaret Rose is a little girl in a blue coat and hat with a green scarf, who must be the late Princess Margaret (1930-2002), Queen Elizabeth II’s sister.

swiss_cards_britFor the most part, the cards depict all kinds of toys made of porcelain, clay, celluloid, and wood, such as Hansli and the matryoshka doll Tatyiana and her five daughters shown below.

swiss_cards_babtanddollsA 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.

swiss cards_coverAnother interesting feature of this homemade pastime is the size: it has twenty-seven instead of the usual fifty-two cards.   It seems to be complete because it fits perfectly in the blue box with the illustrated title label that reads in German: “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).  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 s 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.

One 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.

inprocess item 6541473

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