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Disgusting Lives

March 11, 2014 | by

Goops and how to Be Them

From the cover of Goops and How to Be Them, 1900.

The other day I visited with a four-year-old friend; we read a book called Manners. As the title implies, this is a guide to basic children’s etiquette, with an emphasis on consideration for others, and it was cute and instructive. But I couldn’t help thinking that it didn’t have quite the élan of The Goops.

Created by the humorist Gelett Burgess (also inventor of “the blurb”) in the late nineteenth century, the Goops were humanoid characters with enormous round heads who behaved disgracefully—children could profit from their example and get an illicit thrill from their antics. “The Goops” comic strip was a recurring feature in the children’s magazine St. Nicholas. The book, Goops and How to Be Them: A Manual of Manners for Polite Infants Inculcating Many Juvenile Virtues Both by Precept and Example, with Ninety Drawings, came out in 1900 to instant acclaim. I can still remember the opening lines:

The Goops, they lick their fingers,
and the Goops, they lick their knives;
They spill their broth on the tablecloth,
Oh, they lead disgusting lives!

All their malfeasance is conveyed with that sort of conspiratorial relish, and the fact that the Goops live in a world of regular-looking people (while they look more like balloons with small bodies attached) only adds to the indelible peculiarity of Burgess’s creation. Unlike the cautionary Struwwelpeter tales, the stories are not creepy or scary, and the Goops are less fellow children than repositories of all that is naughty. They also never seem to reform; to be a Goop is to be wicked.

The meanest trick I ever knew
Was one I know you never do.
I saw a Goop once try to do it,
And there was nothing funny to it.
He pulled a chair from under me
As I was sitting down; but he
Was sent to bed, and rightly, too.
It was a horrid thing to do!

Meanwhile, the advice to, presumably, little boys, is practically accompanied by a wink and a first cigar:

When you are playing with the girls,
you must not pull their pretty curls;
if you are gentle when you play,
you will be glad of it some day!

If the author seems to be somewhat in sympathy with his creations, maybe it’s because he, too, was a little bit Goop-like on occasion. In fact, he was fired from the UC Berkeley art department for what became known as “the Cogswell fountain incident.” The fountain in question was one of three donated to the city of San Francisco by a priggish temperance advocate called Henry Cogswell, and as the San Francisco Call reported in 1894,

Some iconoclastic spirits, probably made bold by too freely indulging in the convivialities of New Year’s day, found vent for their destructive proclivities in the small hours of the morning yesterday. With the greatest deliberation, apparently, a rope was coiled around the mock presentment of Dr. Cogswell and with a strong pull, and all together, he was toppled from his fountain pedestal at the Junction of California and Market streets.

But the field research would prove profitable: the Goops were part of what made Burgess’s name—along with his compendium of synonyms for the word drunken, a record he still holds, according to The Guinness Book of World Records.)  His name can be found on a children’s literary prize and the Gelett Burgess Center for Creative Expression, dedicated to “family-friendly books.” And now, his papers can be found at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. But then, maybe he had learned his lesson: The Goops enjoins specifically against the perils of “Disfiguration”:

Don’t you think it is a shame?
Are the Goops the ones to blame?
Did you ever catch them playing at their
Horrid little games?

 

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