Of Moths and Mums

Frisson d’Automne‘ by Victor Divoir. Sheet Music cover illustrated by E.D. Published by Auguste Bosc, Paris, 1907.

Inspired by autumn I scanned our collection for chrysanthemums. And look what I found: no less than a dozen covers! That doesn’t come close to the number of sheet music romantically decorated with roses. But at least it shows that in the beginning of the 20th century mums (the informal name for cultivated chrysanthemums) were cherished. Perhaps because they seem to add a touch of exuberance to the music?

Left: ‘Les Chrysanthèmes’, a schottisch by Gaston Anglade. Illustrated by H. Viollet-Douhin and published by Emile Marchand in Bordeaux (s.d.). Right: ‘Les Chrysanthèmes’ a mazurka by Julien Heins. Published in Ghent by Paternotte- Gaucheron (s.d.).
Chrysanthèmes‘ by Alfred Margis and P. Jeanne de Fallois. Unknown illustrator. Édition Almar (Paris, 1907).
Music Kiosque
A cascade of chrysanthemums at a bandstand (De Kouter, Ghent 2017)

Chrysanthemums are botanically described as a genus of compositae with more than 200 species. The variety of colours and wildly arranged petals often reminds one of small fireworks.

Als Chrysanten bloeien’, by J.V.D. Brink and Stan Haag. Published by Ch. Bens (Brussels, 1944) and illustrated by J. Hgos (or Ilgos?).

It is probably their Chinese origin (and centuries later also Japanese roots) that explains their highly decorative value for many orientally inspired art nouveau images.

Dans nos deux coeurs‘, by Eug. Stoerkel and Henri Darsay. Cover illustration by H. Gillet, published by G. Ricordi & Cie (Paris, s.d.)
Fleur d’Hiver’, by Thérèse Wittmann. Unknown illustrator. Published by G. Ricordi & Cie (Paris, s.d.)

Twenty years later, art deco artists showed no lesser fascination for the orient. Look at de Valerio’s beautiful cover design for ‘a Japanese fox‘ or Granath’s Swedish illustration for a ‘Japansk serenad‘.

Chrysanthème Blues‘ by José Sentis. Published by Salabert (Paris, 1924) and illustrated by Roger De Valerio.
En vit chrysantheme‘ by Jules Sylvain and N. G. Granath (Edition Sylvain, Stockholm, 1929). Illustration: Granath.

As a finale, here is one more sheet music: charming, though I’m not really sure that it is an ‘official’ chrysanthemum…

Quelques Fleurs‘ by J.M. Zoubaloff and probably illustrated by himself. Editions Maurice Senart, Paris, s.d.

I was surprised to learn that one can brew tea from certain chrysanthemum flowers. For centuries it has been a popular drink in China and other parts of the world. It is praised for its floral aroma and health benefits.

Gukhwa-cha, a Korean infusion of dried flower heads. On the right a packet of ready-to-drink Yeo’s from Malaysia.

Chrysanthemums have also been used in the Chinese kitchen and in medicine. The flower heads of two particular species have traditionally been used in the Middle East and the Balkan as a repellent for insects. This effect is caused by the toxic substance pyrethrum which they contain.

Tanacetum cinerariifolium and Tanacetum coccineum, two species that contain pyrethrum, a  natural insecticide.

And here is where the moths enter our story. In 1814 a certain Johann Zacherl was born in Munich. Following the steps of his father he learned the pewter crafts. A few years and travels later he found employment in a pewter foundry in Vienna in 1836. He must have been an enterprising lad or a restless soul, because from there he travelled via St. Petersburg, over Moscow, Kiev, and Odessa to finally arrive in Constantinople. In the early 1840’s Zacharl moved again, this time to the Caucasus where he set up shop in Tbilisi. He had a pewter foundry, but also a wood and iron turning workshop.

Sheetmusic covers of chrysanthemums (partitions musicales chrysanthèmes)
Left: ‘Amusements pour Piano‘ by Wilhelm Aletter (Bosworth & C°, London, s.d.). Right: ‘Chrysanthème‘ by Eduardo Garcia-Mansilla and Charles Fuster (Au Ménestrel, Paris, s.d.).

In Georgie, Johann Zacherl moreover started trading tea, rum, amber, carpets and oil paintings. It is probably through his contacts with Armenian merchants in Tbilisi that he discovered ‘Persian powder’. This was in fact grounded chrysanthemum flower heads, which when mixed with water gave a powerful lotion against vermin, parasites and moths.

1907 advert for Zacherlin insect repellent (source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek)

In the West the demand was high for an efficient protection against insects, and moths in particular: think of the damage to precious carpets, curtains and furs. Gradually Zacherl increased his trade in Persian powder (which he branded as ‘Zacherlin’). It is said that he travelled deep into the Caucasian mountains in order to organise the picking of the wild-growing chrysanthemums.

Publicity poster for the Zacharl factory (source: Zacherlfabrik)

After having put in place an export network to Europe, Zacharl moved to Vienna in 1855. He first set up a shop and then a real production factory. His business expanded successfully, and later his eldest son joined the flourishing company. Today one can still admire the Oriental facade of the Viennese workplace. Part of the building is used for cultural events and exhibitions.

The Zachherl factory in Vienna. Photo by Eva Offenthaler
Statue of Johann Zacharl (source: it.wikipedia.org)

Johann Zacharl senior died in 1888. A bronze statue in the staircase of the former factory shows the company founder in Circassian costume. He holds a chrysanthemum in his hand.

We’ve already told you that in these days they made songs about almost anything. Well…

Zacharl und sein Pulver!‘ by Moritz Kässmayer and Josef Weyl (s.d.). source: Wienbibliothek im Rathaus, via ÖBL.

Since I started preparing this post, and all through the writing of it, another song has persisted in my mind. It still is, and I can’t get rid of it. I know Jacques Brel’s lyrics so well.

De chrysanthèmes en chrysanthèmes
Les autres fleurs font ce qu’elles peuvent
De chrysanthèmes en chrysanthèmes
Les hommes pleurent les femmes pleuvent…

Well, it can linger in your head now, until it really gets under your skin!


Further reading on Johann Zacharl (in German): Österreichisches Biographisches Lexikon, Biographie des Monats, by Eva Offenthaler.

All Quiet on the Western Front

…geen nieuws van het westelijk front” by Henri Theunisse, published by N.V. Algemene Muziekhandel en Uitgeversmaatschappij van Esso en Co (Rotterdam, 1929) and illustrated by Haas.

“But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony–Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?” – Carl Maria Remarque

In 1929 the German novelist Carl Maria Remarque wrote his anti-war masterpiece Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front). This book about war’s physical horror was the inspiration for a Dutch song by Henri Theunisse. You can hear his wife Jeanne Horsten sing the song together with Louis Noiret.

The book follows a young German, barely nineteen, and his fellow German classmates who fight in the Great War. They joined the army voluntarily after listening to the patriotic speeches of their teacher. After weeks of fighting Paul Baumer realizes that war is not glorious nor honourable, and that it makes enemies of people who have no grudge against one another. Amidst the ravages of poison gas, artillery bombs, destroyed horses and lost limbs Paul faces sorrowful disillusionment.

Left: ‘Kriegers los‘ by Fritz Redl & Hermann Frey, published by Fülnhorn Verlag (Berlin) Right: ‘Vision…‘ by P. Jullien, published by Schott Frères (Brussels) and illustrated by Amedée Lynen (1917).

The book became an international bestseller. A year later, in 1930, it was adapted as an American film. It became one of the first talkies to win the Oscar for best picture. Because of the defeatist view on war’s meaningless slaughter the book and film were vilified by the emerging National Socialists In Germany. Goebbels led some Brownshirts into tossing stink bombs from the balcony of a Berlin theatre, throwing sneezing powder in the air and releasing white mice. These obnoxious pranks however went further by shouting insults to Jews and even beating people thought to be Jewish. The show was stopped. The next evenings rallies were organised against the film and similar riots erupted across Germany. The film was banned.

When I was in my early teens All Quiet on the Western Front was required reading at school. It moved me so much though that I couldn’t sleep for nights in a row. Since then I’ve been a committed pacifist.

My language teacher —who was responsible for the class’ reading list— was quite an appearance! She was a short, matronly lady with a heavily made-up face: white powder and ruby lips. Her hair was painted raven-black, which she wore in an imposing chignon. A heavy bosom completed her formidable look. At the time I thought her to be at least 100 years old. She held her husband, a now long forgotten poet and writer, in adulation. Her boundless admiration for him led her to tell us interminable stories about him and his works. Boring, but sometimes surprisingly interesting… Contrary to her old-fashioned demeanour, she was a feminist, a pacifist and atheist.

On the right my language teacher next to her husband, the poet and writer Paul Rogghé. Picture taken in 1948, some 20 years before I became one of her pupils. (source: AMVC-Letterenhuis, Antwerpen)


She not only taught us to appreciate literature but told us all about  Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxième sexe and the role of Bernadette Devlin in the student-led civil rights movement in 1968. At the same time, as she found us an unruly bunch of young teenage girls, she taught us about etiquette, which magazines were appropriate for young women, and how to decorate our future homes. After all, you wouldn’t want to live in a petty-bourgeois interior, now would you?

Speaking for myself, I’m inclined to say: mission accomplished Mrs R.! Except maybe for the etiquette thing.
This song is for you.

Debussy’s Controversial Golliwog

‘The Golliwogg’s Dance’ by Alexandre Duval published by Enoch & C° (Paris, 1906) and illustrated by Moriss.

The colourful cover for Alexandre Duval‘s The Golliwogg’s Dance (1906) was drawn by illustrator, cartoonist and comedian Maurice Boyer, aka Moriss (1874 – 1963).  The music and cover clearly wanted to build on the success of the series of children’s picture book illustrated by Florence Upton.

golliwog2
Illustration from the book ‘The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg’ by Florence Kate Upton, 1895

This series around a ‘Golliwogg‘ character started in 1895 when the American-born English illustrator Florence Kate Upton drew the pictures for The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg. Her mother Bertha wrote the verse. The two ‘dutch dolls’ referred to in the story’s title were peg wooden dolls, that thanked their name to their Dutch and German toymakers. These inexpensive and very popular dolls were sold undressed. Children would use scraps of fabric to make their clothing. For the third doll, the striking Golliwog, Florence sought inspiration from an old rag doll from her childhood.

Left and middle: peg wooden dolls, late 19th century. Right: Golliwog doll by Steiff (1908-1918).

Unluckily, Florence and Bertha did not trademark the Golliwog and soon, following the success of the children’s books, all kinds of doll manufacturers began producing Golliwog dolls. They were stuffed black figures, with a friendly look but having a bad hair day, wearing red pants and a bow tie. In England during the first half of the twentieth century, the Golliwog became almost as popular as the Teddy Bear.

childrens corner
Golliwog’s Cakewalk‘ by Claude Debussy. Published by Durand (Paris, 1908).

In France the Golliwog inspired Claude Debussy. Golliwog’s Cakewalk is the sixth and final piece in his piano solo suite Children’s Corner (1908). Debussy dedicated this suite, about toys coming to life, to his much beloved daughter Emma, nicknamed Chouchou. The cover with a small elephant holding a gigantic Golliwog balloon is rather surrealistic, and was drawn by Debussy himself. The Golliwog’s cakewalk is clearly influenced by Afro-American ragtime and jazz.

The doll created by Florence Upton had everything of the blackface minstrel tradition: black skin, big mouth, frizzy hair, a festive dress with bow tie and tailcoat jacket. In 1913, the always wayward ballet dancer Alexander Sacharoff made his own ‘white’ interpretation of Debussy’s Golliwog. In it he patently declared his love for outrageous costumes and wigs.

Alexander Sacharoff as Golliwog. Photo by By Hans Holdt.

While Florence’s original Golliwog character was jovial and friendly some later specimens were sinister or menacing. This is also true in Marcel L’Herbier’s short phantasy film from 1936.  A little girl, together with her toys, watch the fearful dance of a Gollywog-Jack-in-the-box. The world-famous Alfred Cortot is at the piano, playing three pieces from Debussy’s Children’s Corner. The Golliwog’s Cakewalk starts at 5:32. That scene is preceded by a message —now considered overtly racist— warning the audience to certainly applaud the ‘terrible nègre‘ who can otherwise become very mean.

Even the famous Enid Blython also incorporated a rather evil Golliwog in her books. But it was later banished from revised editions.The popularity of the Gollywog contributed to the spread of the blackface iconography in Europe. Unaffected by a few fearsome embodiments, European children adored their doll. Like their parents they were racially insensitive and not aware that the blackface itself represents a demeaning image of black people. The prolific illustrator Clérice even paired a gentle ‘Gollyvog‘ (yes, the difficult double-U for the French ) with his characteristic cupid.

‘Monsieur Gollyvog’ by P. Codini & Richter published by P. Codini (Paris, 1919) and illustrated by Clérice frères. The song is dedicated to the Blue Cross, an animal welfare organisation that cared for sick and injured horses during World War One.

And of course the Golliwog was also used for marketing other things than sheet music.

De Vigny created a spicy, floral, oriental perfume for ladies. The fragrance was launched in France in 1919 as ‘Golliwogg’. Its bottle was designed by Michel de Brunhoff, who worked for Vogue France. He was the brother of Jean de Brunhoff, creator of Babar. The top of the stopper was fitted with real seal fur. These flasks were sold until the late 1960s. Robertson & Sons, a British manufacturer of jams and preserves, began using the Golliwog —or Gollie as the British lovingly called him— as the company’s mascot in 1910.

The advert above was distributed as late as 1984 when it became muddled by protests, indignation and outcry against its racism. 

The Golliwog was also known as a classic contortionist act. A sketch by the Florida Trio from the early fifties gives an idea of the torturous feat. An  extremely double-jointed figure in a golliwog costume is doing amazing foldings and bendings. Don’t try this at home!

Let’s end with a quiz question. Into what name did the Golliwogs change their name in 1967, the year in which they recorded their single Tell Me? Not too difficult, if you ask me. Just listen to the first two singing notes and you’ll know the answer.