Once upon a time, these United States were a polyglot nation. In the big cities, sometimes, people who live four blocks from each other couldn’t make out each other’s version of English, while in rural areas, people knew immediately if you had crossed the Mississippi to come to market. Before the radio networks decided to go for a Midwestern English as the least annoying American tongue, we struggled with each other’s way of talking.
There has always been a hearty discussion of ethnic accents in pop culture: where they are a symbol of group solidarity and when they are unpleasant satire. But if one looks at the thousands of different postcards issued between 1908 and 1920 featuring a group of heavily accented youngsters, one realizes there was another reason to exploit a group’s accent: it gave the publisher a new way to say some not very new sentiment.
Design after design featured one or more Dutch children, clattering into view in their traditional footwear and immediately identifiable hats, speaking a Dutch0accented form of English (somewhat akin to Pennsylvania Dutch, which was derived, ultimately, from German, not Dutch, but precision was not the name of the game.
I’ve been hunting around for some explanation of why these Dutch children appeared suddenly in the cultural mix, some stage or cinematic version of Hans Brinker, say, or some campaign by Dutch Cleanser (introduced in 1905 by a meat packing company run by an Irishman.) Nothing quite explains this craze for Dutch children on postcards.
It isn’t that there were no other ethnic accents used to spice up ideas in the world of postcards. There was the Irish accent
Or the German accent
One artist even tried to make a line of cute Italian kids a substitute for the Dutch ones
And Dutch adults were not left out of the mix
While some artists went just for the accent
But somehow the Dutch kids outnumbered them all, providing ammunition for, say, birthday party invitations
Or holiday greetings
Though their chief occupation was explaining love and romance, a topic which benefited from having the young and cute explain, and which we can study more in our next thrilling installment.