I remember once, when driving with my grandmother on Long Island, my brothers and I were aghast when she unexpectedly used the word “pickaninny”—as in, “Oh, look at the cute little pickaninnies!” She seemed to be genuinely unaware that it was an offensive word.
She was clueless, but seeing the packaging above for Whitman’s “Pickaninny Peppermints” one is reminded just how common this sort of cluelessness once was. (See also: Time Magazine’s 1940 headline: “Smart Pickaninnies”)
Stephen F. Whitman & Sons appear to have been similarly clueless. Below is a 1939 letter to the company from Thurgood Marshall, as an attorney for the NAACP, attempting to clue them in:
April 5, 1939
A member of our Association has sent to us a package which had contained peppermint candy prepared by your company. The trade name on this package is “Whitman’s Pickaninny Peppermints—Chocolate Covered.”
On behalf of the members of this Association, we protest the use of the term “pickaninny” as applied to young Negro children whose pictures appear on your package. This term is extremely distasteful to Negroes.
We are calling this matter to your attention in the hope that you will discontinue the use of this term on packages of candy manufactured and distributed by you. We have not taken this matter up with our branches as yet, pending a reply from you. We will therefore appreciate an early reply.
Very truly yours,
Interesting to note that it’s only the term “pickaninny” that Marshall is asking them to remove. The illustrations here are not the out-and-out racist caricatures used elsewhere in those days. If it weren’t for the name (and maybe the watermelon) it could almost pass for a contemporary package design.
(The company’s response, after the fold…)
Like my grandmother, Charles Norris, Jr, an attorney for Whitman, denied that there was anything disparaging about the word:
“I should like to emphasize the fact that the Whitman company has not the slightest desire to offend the Negro race, and we are quite surprised that the word ‘Pickaninny’ is distasteful. Quite to the contrary, we feel that the term connotes a cute Negro child.”
Norris further reported that Whitman had been using the Pickaninny box since February 1899, and that because the company retained a great number of the boxes, “to discontinue their use would be quite a hardship.”
Marshall corresponded with the company for over 4 years, eventually getting an article published, entitled, “If You Want to Be Called a Name, Buy Whitman’s.”
Ultimately Whitman’s did discontinue this product, but the entire episode makes one want to contemplate the derivation of their name:
Old English surname having several possible derivations:
1) from Dutch wight “weighty, ponderous,” hence “stout man,”
2) from Old English wight “lively, quick,” hence “quick man,” or
3) simply “white man.”
(For more about driving with my grandmother see: Arrogant Bastard Ale)
Beach Packaging Design
i have one of these boxes
The two boxes featured in this article featured toned-down, realistic looking black children. Presumably these are the boxes people saved when they learned the candy was being discontinued. But the original design of the boxes had much darker illustrations reminiscent of racist caricature.