by Dorothy Jean Ray
When I moved to
By the time that I had returned to
Robert Henning, publisher of the Alaska Sportsman, and collector of Native Alaskan crafts, and whose magazine featured many articles with subjects other than "sportsman," suggested that I write what I had learned about the billiken for the magazine. I did, and that article appeared in the September 1960 issue.
That article created a new interest in the billiken, and over the years people sent me further information, and even billiken objects themselves. It had ballooned to the point where, by 1973, Henning, also publisher of the new Alaska Journal, and Robert N. DeArmond, its editor, suggested that I bring the billiken story up to date in the new journal. That greatly expanded version—the one included here—was published in the Winter 1974 issue.
Since then I have acquired more examples of the billiken journey, but they add only to "more of the same." A few are still made of ivory, but the valuable walrus ivory is now put to a better use, and in 2005 there are more career options for the carvers.
(Originally published in The Alaska Journal, Winter 1974)
Along with the horseshoe, the rabbit's foot, and the four-leaf clover, the billiken is one of
I saw my first billiken in Nome in 1945, but no one could tell me its history or origin ("It's something the Eskimos always made," was a common remark) until 10 years later when my field work in contemporary ivory carving introduced me to Big Mike Kazingnuk, a Little Diomede Island man. Big Mike told me that his brother-in-law, Happy Jack, or Angokwazhuk, the famous ivory carver of
Happy Jack had copied it from a figurine brought from "the States" that summer. This information clearly established the fact that the billiken was not a traditional Eskimo object, but there remained the mystery of its origin. A trip to a
My interest in the billiken had begun merely as an inquiry into one of the enduring and staple items of Eskimo ivory repertoire, but continued on as a fever of collecting original billikens and their later-day copies from the
Unlike Rose O'Neil, who designed the related kewpie figurine, Miss Pretz wrote nothing to my knowledge about the billiken, but she obviously had borrowed the shape from an Asian figure, possibly a Buddha or one of the many Taoist gods. However, her illustrations for children's books include pixy-like figures similar to the "Brownies" that were invented by Palmer Cox in 1887, and these Brownie-like figures, which floated on oak leaves or nestled on downy tree trunks look very much like her own tour-de-force, the billiken.
THE ORIGINAL BILLIKENS
When Happy Jack made his first ivory billiken in 1909, the commercial ones were at the height of their success—having taken the country by storm—but by 1912 they had plunged to oblivion. Original billikens were made into a variety of forms: bisque dolls, clay incense burners, marshmallow candies, and cardboard jigsaw puzzles and postcards. There were metal banks, hatpins, watchfobs, and belt buckles, and glass bottles and salt and pepper shakers. A coin-like token had a billiken in the center with "Grin and Begin to Win" printed around the edge. Young women set plaster-of-paris or alabaster billikens on their dressers for good luck, and said, when things went wrong, "Don't blame me, blame the billiken." The billiken was celebrated in the songs, "The Billiken Man" and "Uncle Josh and the Billiken," and dances with billiken dolls were performed on stage.
Other similar objects, like the kewpie doll, Gobbo, Silligan ("God of Laughter"), Joss, Billycan, and the subsequent "Billikant", which flooded the market around that time, apparently were inspired by Miss Pretz's billiken.
The kewpie was copyrighted by Rose O'Neil in 1909—a year after Miss Pretz's billiken—and her kewpie trademark was not taken out until 1913. Miss O'Neil also designed a cheerful figurine that she called Buddha Ho-Ho.
Gobbo, a cherubic figurine with a tilting head, a huge smile and fat hands resting on fat knees, was made to be placed on an automobile radiator cap. An advertisement in The Scientific American for
Silligan and Billycan apparently were names and objects changed merely enough not to infringe on the original copyright.
Joss was a seated figurine, skull cap on its head and a pigtail down its back, with hands clasping drawn-up knees. It was patented by the Florentine Alabaster Co. of Chicago the same year as the billiken, and one writer on dolls thinks that this figurine was the inspiration for the billiken, but it may have been the other way around.2 The name, Joss, was merely a pidgin English corruption of deos, the Portuguese word for god, and referred to Chinese gods and shrines in general.
Slogans and verses were distributed with the original billiken to advertise its magical qualities, thereby increasing its sales. These ads and verses suggested that placing faith in this man-made object could easily work wonderful changes in one's life, but its poor record as a manipulator of destiny may have had something to do with its short life outside
Slogans that were associated with the original billiken were "The God of Things as They Ought to Be" (a reinterpretation of Kipling's L'Envoi: "Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They Are!"); "Grin and Win"; and just plain "Good Luck."
Some pretty bad verses were printed for distribution with both the original four-inch high, red-headed alabaster figurine and the soft-bodied doll with the billiken face. The leaflets containing these verses are now very rare, but I found some that had been pasted to old postcards, which, when steamed off told me considerably more about the advertising schemes for the billiken.
One of the leaflets has an eight-line poem on one side, and an explanation of the miraculous billiken on the other. This leaflet calls the billiken "The Good-Luck God" in addition to the "God of Things as They Ought to Be," and its owner is instructed to "Tickle His Toes and See Him Smile." The billiken was also billed as an amateur psychiatrist, as he was "A Sure Cure for [listed]: The Blues, That Solemn Feeling, The Grouch, The Hoodoo Germ, Hard-Luck Melancholia, The Down-and-Out Bacillus." The recommended "dose" to make life rosy again was "One smile every ten minutes."
Another leaflet, also with a poem on one side, declared in 1908 (when the billiken had scarcely begun its life) that "the country is ringing with stories of men and women who claim that Billiken has turned the tide for them and opened the way to wonderful strokes of fortune." Furthermore, it gave the comforting information that "He throws a spell over you that has the same effect as mental healing. You feel that you can do anything—and back of all achievement lies confidence. That is why Billiken brings luck." It further added that "Billiken is not sold. That would break his spell. He is loaned to you for 100 years for a hundred cents, paid in advance."
The verses held promise of great expectations. One exploited a "happy" theme, and another, a "lucky" theme. The two verses were also used together as one poem:
I am the God of Happiness,
I simply make you smile,
I prove that life's worth living
And that everything's worth while;
I force the failure to his feet
And make the growler grin,
I am the God of Happiness,
My name is Billiken.
I am the God of Luckiness,
Observe my twinkling eye—
Success is sure to follow those
Who keep me closely by;
I make men fat and healthy
Who were quarrelsome and thin;
I am the God of Luckiness,
My name is Billiken.
One of the verses printed on the doll's box also contained the familiar lucky theme, embodied, however, in even more forgettable poetry:
I'm Billiken whose lucky grin
Makes gloom run out and joy run in
I'm fond of little boys and girls
I love to nestle 'gainst their curls
And so that it could be arranged
Into a doll myself I've changed.
The billiken doll has the earliest known patent on a complete doll (July 22, 1909) with a "Can't Break 'Em" head of a substance invented by Solomon Hoffman, and used on numerous dolls at that time.
Postcards (in addition to the pasted-up ones already mentioned) were printed with drawings of the billiken and with one or more of the various slogans or verses. A favorite couplet that was also used beneath the picture of a billiken on the box cover for a billiken jigsaw puzzle was:
As long as I smile at you
bad luck can't harm you.
The Gobbo radiator cap was also advertised with information written in the form of a poem:
The smiling god of good fortune,
The original divinity of optimism,
Whose cheerful countenance
Brings good luck
And happy days to all who
Observe this rule of life:
"BE CHEERFUL AND YOU WILL BE RICH IN EVERYTHING."
The first billikens in ivory were made to carry in the pocket or display on a table but they were later made into as great variety as the original billikens. I have seen billiken gavels, salt and pepper shakers, paper knives, pipes, cigar and cigarette holders, key rings, cocktail picks, handles for bottle openers, lariat ties, pendants, cuff links, earrings, zipper pulls, pickle forks, tie tacks, pawns in an ivory chess set, and links in necklaces, bracelets, and watch bands. They have also been made in bas relief on a number of objects like cribbage boards and napkin rings.
During World War II men stationed at Marks Field across the
The diagnostic features of the original billiken have endured in ivory to this day: the grinning mouth, peaked hair, large eyes, jaunty eyebrows, hands plastered to the sides of the body, and feet stuck straight out in front. However, since Eskimos were unable to make the billikens in molds like the original ones, and had to carve within the limitations of walrus tusk ivory-and often in a hurry, they devised stylized gashes or dots for the fingers, toes, nostrils, eyebrows, mouth, nipples, and navel. These features were often colored with India ink. The head was pointed to represent the original peaked hair. These characteristics were retained for many years, no matter whether the billiken was big or tiny, fat or thin, until commercial carvers in
Many of the old beliefs surrounding the billiken have continued to this day, although the popular Alaskan superstition of rubbing the billiken's stomach while making a wish was not devised by the early writers of billiken slogans and verses, but was probably borrowed later from the beliefs of Oriental Buddha-like figurines that were made as gift and souvenir items, also to bring good luck and happiness. The most common is the hotei (or hoti) figurine, made as statues or jewelry. Hotei is a standing figure with a huge drooping stomach; its arms are upraised and it appears to be laughing uproariously. Advertisements for the hotei say that a person will have good fortune all day long if his belly is rubbed.
Popular good-luck pieces in Hawaiian gift shops are similar gods of "happiness" and "good-luck." They are quite unlike the billiken in appearance, but the ideas connected with them are strikingly similar to those of the billiken today. Made of lava, the two most common are Hauoli Akua (Happy God) and Akaaka, also a "happy god." Directions that accompany both of them say that happiness comes by rubbing the tummy.
A popular belief in
Alaskan storekeepers have devised many verses over the years for brochures to accompany the ivory billiken. A verse in the 1950 catalogue brochure of a
Rub his tummy or tickle his toes,
You'll have good luck so the story goes.
The same catalogue featured an erroneous story that the billiken had been copied after a big wooden billiken on
FURTHER BORROWING OF THE BILLIKEN
The Alaskan Eskimo carver was not the only one to borrow the idea of the original billiken. At the height of its popularity it was also used as an emblem, trademark, and name by various enterprises, organizations, and publications. One of its earliest uses was as the patron saint for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in
In 1910 or 1911, the name became attached to the
In 1910, an
In 1911, "The Royal Order of Jesters" was founded by a group of Shriners en route to a convention in
The Jesters recently copyrighted the billiken, which members can purchase as gold-plated jewelry and statuettes, often with a crown on its head (i. e. "Mirth is King") and green glass eyes and a red glass navel. 4
After a period of obscurity on the commercial market, the billiken gradually reappeared, and many of the revivals—especially the hideous ceramic statuettes, banks, and salt and pepper shakers made in
In 1920, a literary magazine, Billiken; revista illustrada, began publication in
In 1929, "Bud Billiken" became the "mythical saint" or godfather of black children when the Billiken Club for Chicago Children was founded. A parade and a picnic have been an annual event in August ever since. In 1968, 40 floats, 12 brass bands, eight drum and bugle corps, and 100 cars participated in the parade sponsored by the Chicago Defender Charities. A feature of the parade was marching on the newly-named
Over the years, other institutions and organizations have adopted the billiken name, such as the Billiken Lounge (Fairbanks), Billiken Ski Club (Seattle), and Billiken Theater (
Probably the greatest heights to which a billiken has soared was as top man on a totem pole illustrated on the cover of a Bureau of Indian Affairs pamphlet, "Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts of Alaska" (1966). This combination of figures on a totem pole had also been reported in the April 1959 issue of the Alaska Sportsman as having been carved by one of its readers in
But this is scarcely less bizarre than the place of the billiken in the folklore of the Chukchi people of
The story concerns a young Chukchi girl, Emul, who, though offered a scholarship to a teachers college in
When her grandfather died, Emul finished carving a number of ivory "idols" (billikens), which had already been paid for. This figurine, it is explained, was a very popular souvenir: a "fat little god with screwed-up eyes [that] stood on shelves and desks and . . . even clipped to the ears of fashionable women." And, according to Chukchi mythology, this figurine originally had been used by every hunter who hung it on his hunting gear "so that everything bad in him would pass into the idol." That was quite a responsibility for a billiken from
One day a young archeologist asked Emul to make him a dozen "idols" to take back to
But his words, and something inside Emul prevented her from making the idol. Instead, she carved a sea lion—a rarity in that part of the country, but which she had once seen—with her whole mind and heart. When finished, it was a work of art like a walrus tusk engraved with beautiful scenes, which she had once found buried in her grandfather's toolbox, quite unlike the boring, monotonous "idols."
The young man was sorely disappointed when he got the sea lion instead of the billikens and asked Emul, "How will I be able to show my face in
This story, too, puts the billiken in its proper Alaskan perspective, because of all objects made by the Eskimo carver, few present less of a challenge to make, except possibly how best to use small bits of ivory. Despite the contemporary carver's reluctance to try innovations—mainly because of economic reasons—carving the billiken is regarded only as a necessity to make ends meet. The billiken is really a caricature of the carver himself, but to the tourist, few souvenirs so readily connote "
1. I am especially indebted to Gloria F. Huntington of
All billikens illustrated are from my collection, and all photographs are by my late husband Verne F. Ray, unless otherwise stated.
2. Clara H. Fawcett, "Billiken Dolls and Other Dolls of 1907-12," Hobbies, May 1962, p. 39.
3. Information from Father Francis J. Yealy, S. J.,
4. Information from Carnie A. Generaux, Rancho
6. V. V. Antropova, "Sovremennaia chukotskaia i eskimosskaia reznaia kost." Sbomik Muzeia Antropologii i Etnografii, vol. 15, 1953, plate 20; E.P. Orlova, Chukotskaia, Koriakskaia, Eskimosskaia, Aleutskaia reznaia kost. Akademiia Nauk, SSSR,
7. Soviet Life, December 1969, pp. 19-21, 58.
About the author:
Dorothy Jean Ray was an anthropologist whose Alaskan research has resulted in many books and professional papers, including The Eskimos of
She has also written for Alaska History, Alaska Journal,
She received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the
Note - Dorothy Jean Ray died
Copyright 1974, 2005, 2008 by Dorothy Jean Ray
Originally published in The Alaska Journal, (Winter 1974), pp. 25-31.
Copied and published in this form in 2008 by kind permission of the author’s son and heir, Eric Thompson.
Additional material copyright 2005 by Verbeck Smith. Used here by kind permission of the author.
Special thanks to Verbeck Smith and Neil Smith for making the contents of billikenlore.com available to the
To Billiken Lore Gallery for larger versions of the images that accompany this article
Here is another Billiken aticle you may enjoy
And here is another article on Billiken's Origins that has more historical information