Predators & Prey (Denslow’s Mother Goose), 2005–2017

Predators & Prey (The Denslow’s Mother Goose Project), 2005–2017

1. Automaton of Denslow’s Mother Goose, American, 1901
Life-size painted papier-mâché head articulated at the neck and beak, on a carved-wood body with hollow, hooped back containing an open-spring, key-wind clockwork motor and counterweight; webbed papier-mâché feet. Original yellow cotton cape with fringe and ribbon border beneath open-work cape tied with a black ribbon, pantaloons and felt bonnet trimmed with silk flowers. Figure stands on a dark-green, paper-covered wood base with printed gilt borders and lettering on four sides: “I am Denslow’s Mother Goose.” (Refers to the children's book: Denslow’s Mother Goose, McClure Philips, New York, 1901.)

When wound, Mother Goose nods her head, opens and closes her beak rhythmically and, as the spring unwinds, produces an occasional clucking sound. This automaton, originally displayed in the window of the Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago, is believed to be unique.

Denslow’s Mother Goose may also be the earliest automaton created to advertise a published American children’s book.
Removable key: 6.4 x 3.5 x 0.6 cm
94.6 (h) x 43.2 x 30.5 cm

The iconographic history of Mother Goose may be taken as part of the deep-rooted tradition of associating women with birds and winged goddesses. Such images are prevalent in Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology, but also date even further back to the pre-historic Neolithic and Upper Paleolithic eras.

However, the name of Mother Goose was not connected to children’s stories until 1650, when it first appeared in print in La Muse Historique, a French versified diary of current events that ran over many years. After that, three countries claim her as their own: France, England and America. In 1697, Charles Perrault published his Histoire, ou Contes du temps passé. Avec des Moralitez, a collection of eight folk tales that included the still-familiar “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” The frontispiece shows a woman in a bonnet telling stories to children by candle and firelight; behind them, a poster reads: “Contes de ma mère l’oye.” Although the storyteller has a rather prominent, beaky nose, she is neither old nor goose-like. In 1729, Robert Samber translated Perrault’s collection into English, which remains the first authenticated appearance of Mother Goose in the English language.

After crossing the channel, the history of Mother Goose becomes a trans-Atlantic story. In 1744, a London publisher, John Newbery, brought out The Little Pretty Pocket Book, which included rhymes and which was so successful that Newbery continued to publish juvenile literature until his death in 1767. His stepson, Thomas Carnan, took over the publishing business, and, in 1780, published what most regard as the first volume that associated Mother Goose with nursery rhymes: Songs for the Nursery, or Mother Goose’s Melodies of Children. It consisted of traditional English rhymes and nonsense patter songs, as well as some verses by Shakespeare.

Pirated editions of Carnan’s Songs for the Nursery appeared in the young American republic almost immediately until, in 1786, Isaiah Thomas of Worcester, Ohio, published the first authorized U.S. edition. The collections were popular in America, as in England, and went through several reprints. By the early years of the 19th century, Mother Goose had become almost exclusively associated with rhymes and children’s songs, effectively losing her original connection to the folk tales recounted by Perrault. After Thomas, the Boston publishing firm of Munroe and Francis published editions from the 1820s to the 1840s, which helped establish the character as a standard of American children’s literature.

There’s a curious twist to the tale later in the 19th century. In 1860, John Fleet Eliot wrote a letter to the Boston Transcript claiming that one of his ancestors, the colonial Boston printer Thomas Fleet, had printed a collection of nursery rhymes in 1719, under the title, Songs for the Nursery, or Mother Goose’s Melodies for Children. Not only does this book bear the same title used by Carnan in London in 1780, its publication is a decade before Samber’s translation of Perrault’s Contes. If true, Mother Goose would have been invented as a figure in children’s literature independently by Perrault in France and Fleet in England’s American colonies! Intriguingly, Fleet’s mother-in-law was named Elizabeth Foster Goose. However, no copy of the Fleet book has ever been found, and his claim to authorship remains conjecture.

Though not written down until the 18th century, nursery rhymes are of much older vintage in the oral tradition and there have been many interpretations of the rhymes as references to historical personages and events. The interpretations, however, are largely speculative. The reason the old rhymes have survived is probably due, as Henry Bett writes in Nursery Rhymes and Tales - Their Origin and History (Methuen & Co. Ltd., London, 1924), “to the astonishing persistence of popular tradition, reinforced by the characteristic conservatism of childhood which insists on having rhymes repeated the same way each time.”

In addition, some well-known English rhymes have counterparts in other popular cultures. The story of Humpty Dumpty, for example, is found across Europe under various titles: “Boule, Boule” in France, “Annebadadeli” in Switzerland, “Lille-Trille” in Denmark, and “Humpelken-Pumpelken” in different parts of Germany. “The House That Jack Built,” a cumulative rhyme, is also found in numerous variants. Bett cites an example in “Had Gadya,” one of two Aramaic rhymes recited at the end of the Passover Seder service to keep the children entertained:

It begins: ‘A kid, a kid! My father bought a kid for two zuzim.’ Then it proceeds to relate that a cat worried the kid, a dog bit the cat, and so forth. The splendid climax of the tale (possibly influenced by St. Paul’s words in 2 Tim. i, 10) is as follows: ‘then came the Holy One — blessed be He! — and destroyed the Angel of Death, who killed the butcher, who had slaughtered the ox, that had drunk the water, that had quenched the fire, that had burned the staff, that had smitten the dog, that had bitten the cat, that had worried the kid, that my father bought for two zuzim. A kid, a kid!’

The Rabbis explained it as a parable of the persecutions of Israel. The Hebrew nation is the kid; the two zuzim (pieces of money) were Moses and Aaron; the cat represented Assyria; the dog, Babylonia; the stick, Persia; the fire, Alexander the Great; the water, Rome; the ox, the Saracens; the butcher, the Crusaders; the Angel of Death, the Turks. The Holy One is the Messiah. The edition of the Haggadah printed in Prague in 1526 does not contain the tale, but the edition of 1590, published in the same city, prints it with a German translation.

Numerous collections of Mother Goose rhymes and songs have been published right up to the present day. She is an intriguing character, always a single woman, though one who has assumed several forms. She has been portrayed as an old crone in human form, sometimes in a witch’s conical hat. In Mother Goose: The Old Nursery Rhymes (1913), English illustrator Arthur Rackham represented her as a kindly looking witch flying on a goose. In the Denslow version, she is an anthropomorphic goose wearing an 18th-century American country wife’s costume, with a hand-crocheted shawl and a flowered bonnet.

One common element in her history is that she has always been a collector or curator, whether of the original folk tales or of the nursery rhymes. Moreover, her collections are much older than she is. In the case of the rhymes, especially, she is the curator of some of the oldest attempts to clarify and codify human experience. Bett persuasively shows how the origin of rhymes can be traced back to myth and early history as vestiges of our attempt to make sense of the world and the dynamic forces—natural and man-made—that have shaped human experience. In a sense, then, Mother Goose has always been much more than a literary device to entertain, educate or soothe children; she has also been the custodian of the enduring collective memory and experience from the childhood and adolescence of mankind itself.

1.1 Jumeau Triste or “Long-faced” Bébé Jumeau, Maison Jumeau, Montreuil-sous-Bois, France, c. 1885
Doll with fully articulated wood and composition body, jointed wrists; bisque head, impressed “13” on neck, old blonde mohair wig, flowered cap, lightly outlined closed mouth with white space between lips (small pink line at corner of mouth where the painter’s hand slipped), large applied ears with earrings, with paper label “Bébé Jumeau Diplome d’Honneur,” white cotton undergarments and white lawn dress with lace insertion, brown leather shoes with Jumeau bee imprint on sole
73.7 (h) x 25.4 x 15.2 cm

The outstretched arm gesture of the doll—her “show-and-tell” gesture to Mother Goose—is one of many body-language communications made with limbs. In this scenario, the articulated arm is posed stiffly in a straight-arm salute, alongside the goose, the gait of which inspired the goose-step military march favoured by Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini and still in use in many countries around the world. Although the distinctive straight-legged gait of the goose-step originated in military practice in Prussia in the 18th-century, the term is of later English origin. It is thought to come from a training drill in which recruits adopted a gait that had them standing alternately on one leg while swinging the other backwards and forwards. “Goose-step” appears to reference the way geese often stand on one leg.

George Orwell extrapolated upon the menacing nature of the goose-step in his wartime essay, “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius” (1941). Sitting in Britain, while “highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me,” he wrote:

One rapid but fairly sure guide to the social atmosphere of a country is the parade-step of its army. … The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me.’ … Beyond a certain point, military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army.

In anti-Fascist propaganda, however, the goose-step was also ridiculed. As Mark Scheffler writes in “Marching Orders: Goose-stepping, the dance craze of tyrants” ( “Where there isn’t revulsion, there’s humour. Years of sarcastic derision —both in the popular culture at large and by comedians such as Mel Brooks and ex-Monty Python cast member John Cleese—have ultimately relegated the goose-step to the realm of the ridiculous.”

Historically, the American pledge of allegiance to the flag (“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one Nation, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all”), written by Francis Bellamy in August 1892, had the palm of the hand turned downwards until the words “to my flag,” when, as suggested by James Bailey Upham, who wrote the original drafts, it was then turned upwards and held like that to the end of the affirmation.

Even with the palm turned upwards, people later realized that the palm-down part of the original pledge had been appropriated (possibly from American films) by Germany’s National Socialists, which converted it into the “Heil Hitler” military salute. To eliminate any similarity or confusion in these straight-arm gestures, the American Congress adopted a bent arm, hand-over-the-heart gesture instead of the straight-arm salute in the U.S. Flag Code of June 22, 1942.

1.2 Child's Chair, Gustav Stickley (American, 1858–1942), c. 1905
Quarter sawn oak with leather upholstery
60.3 (h) x 35.6 x 33.0 cm

Gustav Stickley was a leading figure in American Arts and Crafts, his company’s introduction of the experimental New Line of furniture in 1900 doing much to launch the form and aesthetic of the style. New York State-based, the Gustav Stickley Company in 1903 became the Craftsmen Workshops, and while remaining primarily a furniture maker, branched out into other areas, including home design.

In the context of rapid industrialization, the philosophical aesthetic of the Arts and Craft Movement inclined towards plain and simple design emphasizing “honest” and quality craftsmanship to afford any household well-designed furniture that was good for the soul and mind. Stickley incorporated an old Flemish craftsman’s phrase, Als ik Kan (To the Best of My Ability), in a number of his branding marks. It was a “back-to-basics” philosophy of integrity, of objects crafted with “honest materials and honest labour,” of furniture made with sturdy hardwoods in geometric and vernacular forms that primarily served function. Decoration was often limited to the natural look of the materials or to the details of construction—large key tenons or exposed joinery, for example. Much of the furniture, even the cheaper-quality items, lasted for years. Evolving to some degree out of Gothic furniture, Shaker furniture and Japanese designs, the Arts and Craft style’s “form-follows-function” approach to design was also a critical precursor to Modernism

American Arts and Crafts was a high-minded movement. The desire was to go back to a time when things were made by hand––the era of guilds. It was a reaction to the forces of industrialization and mechanization that began to drive society in the later 19th century. The movement’s work expressed a wistful longing for an earlier age that valued individual craftsmanship and a lifestyle that was more in harmony with the natural world.

At the same time, as Kevin W. Tucker makes clear in his survey of the evolution of Stickley’s enterprise (Gustav Stickley and the American Arts & Crafts Movement, Dallas Museum of Art, Yale University Press, 2010), Stickley and his designers were keenly aware of and influenced by the work of contemporary European furniture designers, such as the English architect-designer, Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott (1865–1945). Stickley visited England and purchased furniture there, and the transatlantic connections of his approach were readily appreciated. Reviewing an exhibition organized by Stickley in 1903, The Rochester Herald noted under the headline, Arts and Crafts: Wonderful Exhibition in Mechanics Institute: “Every bit of the furniture is made by hand. The big old fashioned [settles] and the goodly proportioned Morris chairs suggest some baronial hall or some rustic English country seat. There is a dining room, all furnished, every article handmade. It is indeed a revelation to one who has lived all his life in a machine-made world” (quoted in Tucker, p. 44).

The tall, butterfly-jointed settle in Hendeles's collection appeared in that 1903 show, introduced as a unique piece and perhaps made on commission. The only extant example of this form, it is the model for the custom-fabricated versions used in From her wooden sleep.

Even though most American Arts and Crafts furniture was built by machine, consumers believed they were buying quality, handcrafted products, usually oak with strong joints. Arts and Crafts furniture functioned like a sturdy protective forest. Frequently slatted seating designs also included oak “settles,” wooden benches with high backs as a protection from draughts, most frequently placed near the fire in a sitting room. The kitchen was particularly important as the central hearth of a house, where food is cooked and eaten. The practical design philosophy was expressed in down-to-earth moralizing mottos, such as this one for the kitchen: “A place for everything and everything in its place.”

The aesthetic colour palette of the American Arts and Crafts school was philosophically based and essentially autumnal. It celebrated the harvest moment in the seasonal cycle of fall in the northern hemisphere, where everything is about to die in winter. But every spring, God, or Mother Nature, brings back new life, completing the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. This movement glorifies the glowing fall fruits of the land.

The attempt to reconnect with some far-off, pre-industrial age is patently evident in prominent design elements, such as the medieval-looking leather coverings attached by large round-headed nails. As Wendy Kaplan wrote in The Arts and Crafts Movement in Europe & America, 1880–1920: Design for the Modern World (Thames and Hudson, London, 2004): “Arts and Crafts ornament was thus meant to carry the mind out to the countryside, just as the historical inspiration of Arts and Crafts work carries the mind back to the past. Nature and the past were the twin dream worlds of the 19th-century Romantic imagination, the opposites of the city and the modern. Antimodernism runs deep in the Arts and Crafts.”

William Morris (1834­–1896), one of the most important cultural voices in England during the Victorian era, was also an important influence. In 1903, Stickley even republished a compendium of his socialist writings about the current “conditions of manufacture” and outlining a vision for the modern enlightened factory in his magazine, The Craftsman. Perhaps the most conspicuous production crossover between Morris and Stickley was the popular “Morris chair” referred to in the review of Stickley’s 1903 show. It’s a slant-backed, adjustable reading chair with moderately high arm rests on which one can balance a book. The original design was popularized in England by Morris himself, produced by his own company, Morris & Co., from about 1866 based on the design of a chair found in the possession of an old Sussex carpenter.

Morris expressed disdain for the progressive dehumanization of the world in the 19th century. In keeping with his philosophy, the myth of the “noble savage” was revitalized in the form of a gratifyingly idealistic belief in living close to the land, in harmony with it and not disturbing the environment. One uses what one needs and no more, allowing nature to replenish itself. Whole communities were established on Arts and Crafts Movement principles, a leading one being Roycroft House and the Roycrofters Group in East Aurora, New York.

But the American Arts and Crafts philosophy of handmade products of integrity, utility and simple style was not the reason why most people bought the furniture. Indeed, the movement was beset with contradictions. As Stickley grew more successful, he increasingly relied on machines, albeit never in the grim factory settings characteristic of other industries and never utilizing a dehumanizing assembly-line process. However, his business was increasingly caught between the ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement and commercial practicalities.

Unlike the more flexible and more commercial company formed by his younger brothers, L. & J. G. Stickley, Gustav was staunchly unwilling to make compromises. Tucker argues that his commitment to the ideals “was genuine, leaving him to obligate his financial resources to championing its principles and works, well beyond the point when it was commercially logical to do so. Both idealistic and ambitious, Stickley can rightly be perceived as one who was particularly well suited to reconcile the progressive aspirations of early twentieth-century America with the established principles of the English Arts and Crafts movement of the nineteenth-century, with its exhortation of the virtues of the simple life, celebration of the handmade, expression of natural materials, and emphasis on the unity of design, creation, and use.”

In the end, the American Arts and Craft Movement was not commercially viable and devolved into a trend of the times. Handmade furniture was then, as it is now, costly. With much of the American furniture made by machine, the sturdy pieces had become accessible to a wider market but never a mass market. That, ironically, became the preserve of the mail-order enterprise of Sears Roebuck and Company, which was established in 1893. This was how most people outfitted their homes. In fact, by 1908, the company sold entire houses as kits, marketed as Sears Modern Homes.

By the time Roycrofters founder Elbert Hubbard (1856–1915) died in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, the movement was already in decline. When Gustav Stickley’s Craftsmen enterprise went bankrupt in 1916, he moved in with his daughter, Barbara, and lived with her until his death 23 years later. Modernism and Art Deco had begun to thrive, alongside the return to luxury materials and design extravagance. After World War I, tastes changed and other philosophies prevailed.

Summing up Stickley’s achievement, Tucker might be speaking by extension about the whole Arts and Crafts Movement: “Having shaped a style through his efforts, he found that it could not be sustained indefinitely within a consumer culture driven by changes in fashion. Nonetheless, Stickley’s underlying principles of carefully considered and emphasized function, proportions, materials, and construction, would resonate throughout the following decades as a precursor to Modernism’s own tenets, which glorified the possibilities of the city and the machine over the Arts and Crafts movement and its romance of the country and nature.”

Just a few decades after Stickley went bankrupt and American Arts and Crafts had gone out of style, Morris’s writings would experience a resurgence in popularity and find a place in the development of Germany’s post-World War I sentimental and patriotic interest in folklore, with its attendant back-to-the-land movement. The embrace of the völkisch, with its connotations of folklore and populism, comes out of the German term Das Volk (“The People” as a nation).

In 1932, Adolf Hitler conceived the idea of the Volkswagen (the “people’s car”) at a time when only the economic elite owned cars. Hitler believed that everyone should own a car and enjoy it for vacation travel. He called the 1936 version of the car, which, Ferdinand Porsche designed, the KdF-Wagen (“Kraft durch Freude” or “Strength through Joy”). His, too, was an anti-urban populism that aspired to a self-sufficient life in a mystical relationship with the land. Another good idea going bad.

1.3 Cobweb card, German, c. 1840
Watercolour country scene. Pulling up the centre string creates a paper cage and reveals a watercolour of a songbird on a perch
10.5 cm, in diameter
7.0 cm in height when suspended
Frame: 30.8 x 30.8 x 4.8 cm

The child manikin in the vitrine is holding in her hand what turns out to be the final filmic frame of an animated paper puzzle. She is showing the Mother Goose figure the answer to the riddle of what is inside the antique card beneath the romantic pastoral scene (a foretaste of later sentimental longing in the Arts and Crafts movement). It is a small magic trick.

In the book Eyes, Lies and Illusions (Hayward Gallery Publishing, London, 2004), a catalogue for an exhibition of curiosities from the Werner Nekes Collection, this type of intricately cut, handmade paper is also described as a “beehive paper animation.” The Werner Nekes Collection has an example that opens up to show a rat caught in the paper cage.

Propped against the child’s chair is a frame displaying the original antique cobweb card closed; the exhibition replica hanging open from the manikin’s hand was crafted by artist David Armstrong Six. It is as if she has brought the card to the Antiques Roadshow, the popular television series that originated in Britain in 1979 but has given rise to similar shows elsewhere. In North America, the Public Broadcasting Service has touted its series at its “most watched, thanks to an addictive mix of suspense, history, and dramatic revelations—in bite-sized segments. It’s the alchemy of turning trash into treasure (and sometimes vice versa) before our very eyes, performed by some of the world’s most adept antiques and collectibles experts. Each appraisal reveals a new surprise — and that never gets old.”

The appraisers are often noted dealers, themselves in search of fresh material to sell in their own shops and auctions. Their knowledgeable status functions as a calling card to lure items to the marketplace.

1.4 Handbag in form of French poodle, Belgian (made for Walborg Corp., USA), 1950s
Handmade beaded purse with hand-strap at collar and concealed zippered back, Walborg Corp. label affixed to interior of purse
33 x 27.9 x 12.7 cm

Although there is no general agreement on the exact timeline, Hilde Cahn Weinberg (1905–1976) founded the Walborg Corp. as a specialist manufacturer of high-fashion purses and bags in the late 1940s. She had been an executive in a cosmetics company, although her involvement in that industry seems to have come to an end after she and the distribution company of which she was vice-president were charged and found guilty of trading in cleansing creams adulterated with “uncertified coal-tar colours” (she was put on probation for one year and, along with the company, fined US$1,500). She then apparently studied bag design and construction for a period before launching what through the 1950s and 1960s would become a very successful enterprise. Besides running the company alongside her husband, she also served as its chief designer. Her beaded bags were particularly notable and popular, valued not only for their design but also for their first-class construction. In the 1950s, most of them were made in Italy, France or Belgium, although later, for economic reasons, manufacture shifted to Asia. An astute businesswoman, Hilde maintained a high-profile, central location for the company on Madison Avenue, she and her husband were prominent in New York’s commercial society, and she would be officially honoured by Belgium, Italy and Hungary for her role in developing international markets. The company was sold in 1974, two years before her death.

1.5 Custom-made disassemblable display vitrine, 2005
Mahogany, linen, double curved glass showcase with bow front and back, side doors (keyed) for access, brass hardware
Fabricated by Michael Buchanan, Toronto
204.5 (h) x 177.0 x 156.1 cm

The choice of wood, mouldings and fittings references well-appointed, 19th-century libraries. The double-curved glass panels reference snow globes and 19th-century museum dioramas, while the surrealist reflections created under the exhibition lighting recall the ghostly imagery captured in Eugène Atget’s photographs of Paris store fronts.

2. Denslow’s Mother Goose, McClure Philips, New York, 1901
Illustrated by William Wallace Denslow (American, 1956–1915), verses hand-lettered by Frederic Goudy (American, 1865–1947)
Colour lithographic process, cloth-bound
First edition issue
Presented on a stand as a book in the vitrine, and with the pages in a grid of 49 ebonized oak frames on the wall.
Stand: 20.3 (h) x 17.8 x 8.9 cm
Book: 28.3 x 22.5 x 1.9 cm
Each sheet: 27.6 x 21.6 cm
Each frame: 51.9 x 35.6 x 3.2 cm
Overall installation (frames): 250.5 x 363.7 x 3.2 cm

Frederic W. Goudy was a world-renowned type designer whose classic fonts, created in consciously archaic styles, are still widely used. Goudy drew all his letters by hand, and would not let the large commercial foundries translate his designs into commercial type. He also insisted on achieving a hand-lettered look in lithographed books, such as the Denslow on display. To achieve his vision of a harmony of design and production, he opened his own foundry in 1925, personally engraving his matrices. After the enterprise ran into economic difficulties, he went on to design type, becoming an instructor and lecturer for the next 50 years.

Goudy’s attempt to capture the essence of what is handmade even though it would be realized by machine in the printing process is an example of a cultural dichotomy in his own time. In our own time, his handcrafted fonts have been made available digitally for mass use.

William Wallace Denslow was the original illustrator of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and held, with Baum, joint copyright to the book. With his portion of the royalties from the book and its first staging (as The Wizard of Oz), Denslow bought himself an island off Bermuda, crowned himself King Denslow I, drank away his money and died of pneumonia in obscurity. Denslow and Baum achieved their first success with Father Goose, His Story in 1899, one year before the Oz book. By the time Denslow produced the Mother Goose volume two years after, his playful, juvenile style was well-established and hugely popular, albeit some renderings of non-white characters, although innocently conceived, are considered offensive caricatures today.

3. Quelle Idole or Kelly Doll purse, Hermès International S.A., Paris, 2000
Swift leather; posable arms, palladium eyes and turn-lock clasp nose; displayed on custom white-painted wooden pedestal and linen-covered riser, under acrylic cover
Designed under the direction of Jean-Louis Dumas (French, 1938–2010) and produced as an edition of 50
Purse: 18.4 (h) x 16.5 x 11.4 cm
Linen risers: 7.6(h) x 21.6 x 21.6 cm and 1.0 x 19.1 x 8.9 cm
Pedestal with cover: 150 (h) x 38.1 x 38.1 cm

Family-owned for five generations, Hermès is one of France’s preeminent international enterprises specializing in luxury fashion goods and accessories. The business was founded in Paris in the early 19th century by Thomas Hermès, who parlayed his training as a leather maker into a successful business crafting harnesses and other related goods for an age in which horses provided the main means of transportation. By the mid-century, the Hermès name was already widely respected for fine craftsmanship and the company built up a wealthy and influential clientele. After Thomas died in 1878, the business was developed by his son, Charles-Emile, who moved the business’s headquarters to Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, where it now counts most of the major fashion houses as neighbours. The company’s early focus on leather goods for the horse-and-carriage trade, still referenced in the graphic that is part of the corporate logo, continued up to the rapid development of mechanized transport after World War I. By this time, the company was controlled by Charles-Emile’s son, Emile-Maurice, who, through the interwar years, expanded the lines to include handbags, couture and fashion accessories. Today, Hermès stands as the last high-end global brand that is still in private hands. While most other luxury brands have gone public, Hermès has resisted takeover, most recently the controversial and bitterly contested attempt by Maisons LVMH (the conglomerate including Louis Vuitton and Moët Hennessy).

The trapezium-shaped Kelly Bag is one of Hermès’s most distinctive and successful products. With long handles and a studded, reinforced bottom that allows it to stand on the ground, it owes its origins to a large bag designed by the company in the early 1890s to hold saddles. It was redesigned in the 1920s to fit into a car door (the primary purpose still to hold saddles) and then again in the 1930s, when it was refashioned as a spacious travel bag called a sac à dépêches. The bag remained a low-key element in the Hermès line until the mid-1950s, when its popularity surged through celebrity association. The costume designer Edith Head used Hermès products in Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, which starred American actress Grace Kelly alongside Cary Grant. Kelly’s first encounter with the bag in the movie turned her into a life-long customer as well as (albeit inadvertently) one of the bag’s biggest advertisers when she was frequently photographed with one after she became Princess Grace of Monaco. Photos of Kelly appearing in Life magazine, including a 1956 cover photo in which she clearly uses the bag to hide her pregnancy, were particularly influential in turning the accessory into a fashion statement for the well-heeled. Indeed, so close was Kelly’s association with the bag that eventually her name became the name of the product itself.

Only 50 of the Kelly Doll bags were made (for adults and not for children), the vintage example from Europe in the exhibition made of smooth, fine-grained “Swift” leather rather than pebbled “Togo” leather. Today, Hermès uses the “Kelly” name on bags and accessories in a range of sizes and materials. Very few of the original Kelly Bags are made, however, and are unattainable for most even if they can afford them. Some high-profile would-be customers have been turned away at Hermès stores, including, in 2005, a widely reported rebuke of American media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who was turned away from the signature Paris boutique. The company apologized for the misunderstanding, but the incident is emblematic of the extent of exclusivity that has grown up around the brand and become an important element in its marketing. Offered exclusively and discreetly to selected clients in private rooms in stores, Kelly Bags have acquired additional status as finely crafted rare objects, and, as with the best of artworks, an active secondary market has grown up around them. One recent study has shown that the price appreciation for the related line of Birkin Bags (created for and subsequently named for actress Jane Birkin) has outpaced the S&P 500 on Wall Street over the 35 years from 1980 to 2015.

It takes a trained craftsperson about 25 hours to make a Kelly Bag by hand, which contributes to the comparative rarity of the goods produced. There used to be waiting lists of five years or more, although the company now claims greater availability. Still, the desire and demand for the coveted bags serves the company well to market its range of more-accessible products, from scarves and jewellery to clothing and fine china.