Beguiled by billikens
Date: Jan. 10, 2002
in Bearcat country
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos by: Lisa Ventre
Archive: Research News
UC won't even be playing Saint Louis until Jan. 22 and Feb. 12, but already the campus has been besieged by billikens.
You can thank assistant professor of geography Wendy Eisner for that. She has a passion for billikens - with a small "b," the tiny good luck imps from which the college sports team took its name in 1911.
Her curiosity has nothing to do with basketball and everything to do with geography and the quirky little figures that define what became a popular culture item nearly 100 years ago.
"There are some people who think intellectual inquiry shouldn't be funny," explains Eisner, who is obviously not one of them. "This is geography," she insists with an empasis on the word "is." "Geography is always looking for spatial patterns, and the rise of billikens shows a strong spatial pattern."
With their pointy little heads, grinning faces, slitty eyes, round bellies and hands tightly pressed against the sides of their naked bodies, billikens have become a way for Eisner to show that the study of geography is fun. At their height, long before they became a focus of her attention, billikens were a craze. From about 1908 to 1911, Americans gave them as good luck charms in the form of tiny statues, postcards, coins and banks. The Royal Order of Jesters, a Masonic society, adopted the billiken as its mascot in 1911. Music makers even wrote two songs about them, "The Billiken Song" (1909) and "The Billiken Rag" (1913). The charms also enjoyed some popularity in World War II among Air Force pilots who carried them for good fortune.
Eisner recently presented a poster on her studies of the billikens' spatial patterns at the East Lakes Division meeting of the Association of American Geographers, a regional meeting hosted by UC's geography department. She also has a display on her billiken research in the new exhibit area on the fourth floor of Braunstein Hall, outside the geography department offices.
"I am finding that there is hearth for them in the United States. A company in Chicago started making them and it moves quickly across the United States and up into Alaska." The key event spreading the billiken phenomenon to Alaskan territory seems to have been the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle in 1909, when billikens served as the expo's "patron saint," Eisner theorizes. "From there they relocated to Nome."
In Alaska, billiken popularity never really disappeared as it did on the mainland. In fact Eisner first stumbled upon billikens on a research trip to the Arctic in the early 1990s. She tends to travel to northern Alaska twice a year, most recently to research thaw lake basins. She is working to gain a greater understanding of the influence of climate on the evolution of these lake basins and on the possible effects if these basins are adversely affected by global warming.
In Alaskan tourist shops, Eisner found hand-carved billikens offered as souvenirs (for about $40 each). Recently, the charms have become less plentiful than they were just a decade ago. The ivory to make them has become scarce, and artists don't think billiken-making is artistic enough, Eisner said.
From Alaska, billiken-mania somehow reached across the Bering Strait into Siberia and Japan. Eisner is still trying to understand the migration. She saw billikens herself on research trips to Siberia. In 1996, Japanese filmmakers released a movie called "The Billiken." In it, a billiken in a shrine in Osaka comes to life in order to revitalize a rundown section of the town.
Eisner also theorizes there might be a connection between billikens and two other figurines she came across. If you don't like toilet humor, stop reading now. Both figures show boys on the toilet - one says "Billy Can" and the other, "Billy Can't," with accompanying facial expressions. Given as carnival prizes, the statuettes probably predate the first Chicago billiken, so Eisner wonders if the woman who designed the first billikens modeled them after the Billy Can/Can't.
Her search for proof goes on (no pun intended). In the meantime as the owner of 12 billiken figures plus postcards and a doll, she promises to stop buying any more of them. But she can't promise to stop making geography fun.