Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Elves and Fairies and Brownies

Elves and Fairies and Brownies

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 13, 2009

Fairy-folk of all kind — elves, trolls, fairies, brownies, wee creatures driving coaches drawn by grasshoppers or living in snail shells — inhabit the LDS children’s magazines (both Children’s Friend and Juvenile Instructor) throughout the first half of the 20th century. It took me only an hour to pull together these images, most of them illustrating complete fairy stories printed in the magazines.

. . . . . . . . . . .


Primed with my recent exposure to so many fanciful “little people” pictures and stories, you can understand why I expected another such story when I began to read this article —

Primary Brownies of Hawaii
by Mary E. Rhees
(Children’s Friend, November 1927)

To be sure you have heard of Brownies and, of course, you don’t believe in them at all. But if hidden away back in the corner of your heart is the old childish desire to see a really, truly live brownie, why, just get on a boat and sail the ocean blue to Fair Hawaii and your wish shall be granted.

There are nearly fifteen hundred of them enrolled in the Primary Association. They are just as lively and full of pranks as any brownie you have ever read about, and are very apt to disappear if the teacher is not well prepared with her lesson.

At a first glance they all look alike and you wonder how the teacher can tell Jacob from Isaac, Lu Momi from Keala or Takeko from Sueyo. On becoming better acquainted with the elfish group you find they are as variable and individual as their white sisters and brothers in the Rockies; that the little personalities are as interesting, their characters as loving, and their souls as precious in the sight of the Father in Heaven. And in spite of their little bare feet and faded clothes, they work their way right into your heart.

There is the Hawaiian with snapping black eyes and a goodly supply of self assurance; the Samoan that changes from sunshine to storm and then back to sunshine all within a minute; the Japanese, timid, shy, and ever eager to gain a new idea; the Chinese, alert, reliable and proud of his ancestors; the Filipino with ever ready smile and quiet manners, and the Portuguese, impregnable and egotistical, all within the group. All are so widely different and yet all interested in the truths taught. At least one-third of them are not members of the Church, and many are not even Christians, but they love to hear the Bible stories and join in singing the Primary songs.

The majority of the officers and teachers are Hawaiian sisters, but we have one primary presided over by a Japanese and another by a Chinese sister. All are earnest, energetic workers and with few exceptions are doing their duty to the best of their ability. One good sister walked and carried her baby five miles over a rough muddy mountain road to be in attendance at her meeting.

Most of the forty-six associations in the mission are small and have an enrollment of from fifteen to forty members and all of the children are taught in one group. But the Laie Primary has an enrollment of one hundred sixty. Every child in the school is a member and nearly every one is present at each meeting. We feel that this is one of the best associations in the Church, not only for enrollment and attendance, but in every phase of Primary work. In the preliminary program there have been numbers given in Hawaiian, Samoan, and Japanese, an impossibility in almost any other place in the world.



  1. Wow. A good example of the parternalistic and racist growing pains of a a nascent international church.

    Comment by Christopher — November 13, 2009 @ 8:21 am

  2. Wow. I can sense somewhat the kind intent but wow. I would like to think we’ve learned a few things.

    Comment by Dovie — November 13, 2009 @ 9:17 am

  3. Paternalism! That’s the word I couldn’t think of! (Condescension wasn’t it; neither was patronizing — I couldn’t dredge up paternalism.) Thanks.

    Me, too, Dovie. This is very different in intent and — perhaps — in effect from garden-variety bigotry, but it still stings.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 13, 2009 @ 9:49 am

  4. My step-grandmother was a missionary in Hawaii a few years before 1927, and taught at the school in Laie.

    So, Ardis, let’s find a few pictures from the early 1920s!

    Comment by Mark B. — November 13, 2009 @ 9:51 am

  5. Oh, man, there are loads of such pictures around, Mark B.! I’ve stopped collecting them for the “Latter-day Saints Images” series in order to get a little variety into those posts! (I’ll go back to collecting them.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 13, 2009 @ 10:04 am

  6. My word. I was anticipating a post about Brownie Guides!

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — November 13, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

  7. I know that by admitting the following I risk incurring the wrath of other commenters, but I didn’t sense a racist tone to the article. Paternalistic, yes. Racialist, yes. But I took the author’s use of the word “brownie” in the magical, fantasy-like way, or to quote the author, “the elfish group.” To be sure, some of the rhetoric is highly offensive, but I just didn’t sense a a racist attitude. (The author even states that these little ones are as precious in the eyes of God as any of the anglos back home. And the author also extols the virtues of this multi-cultural primary.) Racialist, yes. Racist, nah. But maybe it’s just me?

    Sorry if I started a war.

    Comment by Hunter — November 13, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

  8. Ready, aim, FIRE ON HUNTER!!

    Naw. This is nowhere near as offensive as much of what was said and drawn about blacks. As Dovie sensed, there is kindness rather than hatred in it, and maybe that makes a big difference.

    There is an older man who used to bring groups of stake members for tours of the old church library. I cringed every time he came in, because sooner or later he would make me an exhibit in his tour. He thought it was so cute that I came in day after day to play historian instead of staying at home in the kitchen where I belonged. He all but patted me on the head like a puppy dog. I *hated* the way he treated me. And yet he never said anything cruel, he didn’t intend to make me angry or hurt my feelings or make me hate him the way I did — he had no idea that he provoked those reactions. But he did, by treating me as less than fully adult, as less than a serious person, as less than a functioning professional. It was wrong, it was inconsiderate, it was insulting.

    And that’s what I sense in this article. I would be insulted to be on the receiving end of the ethnic stereotyping. I would be angry to have me or my children portrayed this way to the white children of Utah. I would feel like the writer was treating me not as a sister in the gospel, but as an “other.”

    But there’s no conscious intent on the part of the writer to be insulting or show dislike.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 13, 2009 @ 3:17 pm

  9. But there’s no conscious intent on the part of the writer to be insulting or show dislike.

    Exactly. The essay reflects the insensitivity and unthoughtful attitude of the writer. But not necessarily a malicious or hurtful one. The one is pitiable, the other contemptible.

    Comment by Hunter — November 13, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

  10. Hunter, I won’t start a war with you, both because I don’t disagree with your general summation of the article’s tone and because you seem, based on your comments, like a thoughtful and intelligent fellow. I also agree with Ardis’s #9.

    But I will defend my description of this article as “racist.” It is clear that the author was intending to promote the gospel in this article, not at the community’s expense in a straightforwardly mean way, but rather by pointing out that in spite of each ethnic group’s inherent inferiority, they are “all interested in the truths taught.” It is racist because it assumes that certain characteristics are inherent to any one race, and that racism is compounded by the fact that most of those characteristics are negative (seriously, she couldn’t even say one nice thing about the Portuguese?). Even when she speaks of the Hawaiians’ “goodly supply of self assurance” and the Chinese’s “pride in his ancestors,” there is a tone of condescension there. This mode of backhanded compliments is especially evident in the characterization of Filipinos. With his “ever ready smile and quiet manners,” the Filipino is granted no discernible personality. This is paternalism at its finest. But it is a paternalism based on race and ethnicity, and is this indeed racist.

    But let me be clear that I’m not simply hurling around the label as an epithet to demean the author or the Church who published the article. Like I said in my comment number one, this is an excellent example of a nascent international church dealing with growing pains as it seeks to make sense of disparate cultures within an inherited worldview that privileges white skin and reasonable Christianity. This does not, in my opinion, excuse the author or the church from holding those views. They were and are racist. But it does make sense of those views, which I consider to be my job as a historian.

    In the same sense that simply labeling Brigham Young a racist (which I have done and do*) is not helpful in an of itself, analyzing the source(s) of Brigham Young’s views on race help us better understand why he held those views, which in turn helps us better understand Brigham Young. Ideally, such an understanding would then lead to each of us more critically analyzing why we hold certain views and whether those views are indeed crucial aspects of believing the gospel or whether they are cultural baggage better left tossed aside.

    Which is all to say in an overly-long an drawn out way that when I say this passage is racist, I don’t mean it as an empty insult, but rather as an historical assessment of the words and tone used by the author. If I had the time, I would be genuinely interested in teasing out the cultural context in which each of these characterizations of various ethnicities emerged. That, it seems to me, would be the most productive use of this article for those of us today.**

    *I know that Brigham Young and his views on race are a controversial subject, and that Ardis is very sensitive about criticisms of President Young (which all too often are merely drive-by assaults on his character). Let me be clear that I mean no such insult in discussing his views on race here. Rather, I chose him because he is the most controversial example I could think of off the top of my head to make my central point.

    **Yes, I did indeed just footnote a blog comment. Forgive my nerdiness, please.

    Comment by Christopher — November 13, 2009 @ 10:09 pm

  11. Forgive your nerdiness, Chris? Let’s *celebrate* it!

    You have the skill to analyze this in a professional way, using terms of art that are not available to those of us who are feeling our way through laymen’s responses. This means that although we’re using the same words — racist, in particular — we’re using them in somewhat different ways.

    If we recognize that Chris is using some words in a precise, clinical way, and most others are drawing on more emotional connotations, there won’t be any reason to call in the artillery.

    Thanks for taking the time to spell out such a thoughtful expansion of your first comment. Even Brigham Young should appreciate it. :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 13, 2009 @ 10:41 pm

  12. Thanks for that, Chris. I really enjoyed your comments.*

    To be sure, I didn’t think you were using the term “racist” as a lazy insult to demean the author or the Church. And a large part of my comment was merely an admission that I had missed some of the offensive aspects of the article (rather than just taking you to task for your use of the word).

    But on first reading I did understand the author’s (condescending) racialist focus as merely a reflection of the times, and less as part of an overt racist attitude. To me, the fact that the author’s racial attitudes seemed somewhat benign (if still offensive) is what prevented me from labelling the article as “racist.” I can see better where you were coming from using that term, and I can respect your choice to use it. In large respects, I guess I do have to admit that I think you’re accurate.

    *If enough people do something nerdy, like footnoting comments, that makes it less nerdy, right?

    Comment by Hunter — November 14, 2009 @ 9:53 pm

  13. Thanks, Ardis, for your generous assessment of my rambling comment, and for celebrating my nerdiness.

    And thank you, Hunter, for joining in the footnoting nerdiness and for your kind response.

    Comment by Christopher — November 14, 2009 @ 11:42 pm

  14. Ardis, Thanks for sharing this. I immediately associated the term “Brownie” with girl scouts and would have loved it if the church had ever endorsed it like they do boy scouts. It is interesting to note the tone and terminology and really see how overall culture has changed.

    Comment by Kelly Ann — November 15, 2009 @ 8:28 pm

  15. Kelly Ann, the closest we came to that, I suppose, was the single year that we endorsed Camp Fire Girls as the outdoor part of the girls’ program. Shall we have a post about that?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 15, 2009 @ 9:00 pm

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