University of Portsmouth's History Blog

The story of Lucky Jim and Twinkletoe: Is the material culture of folklore providential or problematic for the historian?

Daniel Millard, a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth, wrote the following blog on the toy mascots carried by Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown on the first Transatlantic flight for the Introduction to Historical Research Unit. Daniel discusses the ways in which we can use these items of material culture to ask better questions of the past. The unit is co-ordinated by Dr Maria Cannon, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Portsmouth.

Next year will see the centenary of the world’s first Transatlantic flight. For the historian this offers an exciting opportunity to re-acquaint with two notable aviators from the twentieth-century. I refer, of course, not to Captain John Alcock and Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown, but to the two cats that accompanied them on their sixteen-hour journey from Newfoundland to Ireland.

Twinkle toe mascot

‘Twinkletoe’ and ‘Lucky Jim’ were toy mascots presented to the airmen by their loved ones to keep them safe on their record-breaking trip alongside bunches of white heather “carried as evidence of our friend’s best wishes”. [1] This was a time when air crews – fresh from the First World War – had “an atavistic faith in magical powers”  with superstitious belief manifesting itself  in the carriage of amulets and charms in a cornucopia of size and form. [2] Brown himself later acknowledged his own delight in espying “ a large black cat […] saunter[ing] by the transatlantic machine as we stood by it early in the morning” for “such a cheerful omen made me more than ever anxious to start”. [3]

Five months – to the day – after Alcock and Brown’s biplane took to the skies, a lecture exploring the collection and use of lucky charms was held at the Royal Society of Arts in London at which Arthur Rackham, the then president of The London Society, kicked off proceedings with the words “It is a very general habit to regard folklore as […] something which concerns the historian”. [4] It is a subject field that retains our attention to this day for the material culture of ‘superstition’ – like that of other subject areas – offers the potential of “a more wide-ranging, more representative source of information than words” alone. [5] Tim Dant agrees, believing material culture “provides evidence of the distinctive form of a society […] because it is an integral part of what that society is; just as the individual cannot be understood independently of society, so society cannot be grasped independently of its material stuff”. [6]

Lucky Jim mascot

In a discussion in The American Historical Review , Leora Auslander, Amy Bentley, Leor Halevi, H. Otto Sibum, and Christopher Witmore declared that “for most historians material culture means stuff found in a museum,” and it is within this very institution that Lucky Jim and Twinkletoe reside – the former in the Air and Space Hall of the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, and the latter at the RAF Museum, Cosford. [7] Richard Grassby believes the relationship between museum-object and historian remained strained for such a long time because, until recently, curators “sought the unique, significant and noble to the neglect of the ordinary and utilitarian”. [8] Of course, few people can deny that Twinkletoe and Lucky Jim were added to the nation’s collections because of their “iconic or associational value”. [9] In addition, their confinement behind glass also raises important questions around Sibum’s belief that in order to make sense of an artefact it makes a difference as to whether you physically touch it. [10] There are, then, other challenges the mascots pose. For example, three-dimensional objects “are multifarious entities whose nature and heuristic value is often determined by the diverse range of narratives that historians bring with them”. [11] We therefore find many researchers devising “their own models to engage with and analyse the different types of material evidence”. [12] These range from Jules David Prown’s straightforward three-tiered approach involving description, deduction and speculation to Beverly Gordon’s use of proxemics to “illuminate women’s relationships to things such as quilts”. [13]

So, how should we go about beginning to unlock the mascots’ evidence? For Adrienne Hood the starting point is to “uncover [their] collecting […] history” by researching textual and photographic documents found within the Museum’s registration files. [14] Whilst that, in itself, sounds easy to accomplish paper evidence can, in reality, often disappoint. Documented information frequently reveals little more than from where the items were sourced at time of donation, whereas historians “place great significance on the way objects were acquired – through scavenging […] hunting […] means of trade […] gift giving […] conquest or piracy” at every stage of an object’s existence. [15] Whilst we are told from contemporary newspaper accounts that Alcock gave his cat mascot as a souvenir to the welcoming party on arrival in Ireland, Lucky Jim’s registry file does not contain any detailed information as to what happened to the toy in the years between 1919 and its acquisition by the Museum of Science and Industry some seventy-two years later. [16]

For any object the need “to locate, and correctly interpret, the ‘culture’ in material culture is important”. [17] For Nicole Boivin “the consideration of emotion is often crucial to understanding the role that objects […] can have in human affairs and particularly in processes of memory, identity and personhood”. [18] That “people invest things with elaborate meanings” is clear, but from looking at the mascots can we truly get closer to understanding what was going through Alcock and Brown’s minds as they placed the cats within the aircraft or the sentiment that went into their production and presentation by their relatives? [19] It is an enquiry Leor Halevi is fully justified in raising when he states: “I do agree that emotions can be expressed through objects in unique ways that cannot be captured by language, but the question then arises, how can we access those emotions and sense experiences as historians?” [20] For Riello the answer is simple for objects, like Lucky Jim and Twinkletoe, “should not be used as an aid for providing enhanced answers”, but for helping historians “ask […] better questions”. [21] This is a viewpoint that is shared by Adrienne Hood, who believes that “a systematic and detailed consideration of the chosen ‘thing’ leads to a series of questions that would not arise in any other way”. [22]

As Alcock and Brown embarked upon their pioneering voyage Brown reported that Lucky Jim wore “a hopeful expression […] whereas Twinkletoe […] expressed surprise and anxiety”. [23] These are emotions that mirror those of historians as, from the 1970s onwards, they began to emerge from “two centuries [of] little or no engagement with objects”. [24] Whilst the mascots’ validity in helping tell the story of the world’s first Transatlantic flight “is no longer suspect, how to unlock [their] secrets in a meaningful way remains challenging”. [25] Therefore, we must echo Alcock and Brown’s own reaction in readying themselves for the journey: “we hoped for and expected the best, but it was as well to be prepared for the worst”. [26]



[1] Arthur Whitten Brown and Alan Bott, Flying the Atlantic in Sixteen Hours: With a Discussion of Aircraft in Commerce and Transportation, (New York: Frederick A Stokes Company, 1920), 32.

[2] Bill Wallrich, “Superstition and the Air Force”, Western Folklore, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jan., 1960): 11.

[3] Brown and Bott, Flying the Atlantic, 32.

[4] Ross MacFarlane, “London’s Lost Amulets and Forgotten Folklore”, The Telegraph, October 28, 2011. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/uk/london/8854074/Londons-lost-amulets-and-forgotten-folklore.html

[5] Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method”, Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 17, No.1, (Spring 1982): 3.

[6] Tim Dant, Material Culture in the Social World: Values, Activities, Lifestyles, (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1999), 2.

[7] Leora Auslander, Amy Bentley, Leor Halevi, H. Otto Sibum, and Christopher Witmore, “AHR conversation: Historians and the Study of Material Culture”, American Historical Review 114, No. 5 (2009): 1365.

[8] Richard Grassby, “Material Culture and Cultural History”, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Spring, 2005): 598.

[9] Prown, ‘Mind in Matter’, 4.

[10] Auslander et al., ‘AHR Conversation’, 1384.

[11] Giorgio Riello, “Things that Shape History:Material Culture and Historical Narratives”, in History and Material Culture: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Source edited by Karen Harvey 24-46, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), 30.

[12] Adrienne D Hood, “Material Culture: The Object”, in History Beyond the Text: A Student’s Guide to Approaching Alternative Sources edited by Sarah Barber and Corinna M Peniston-Bird, 176-198. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), 180.

[13] Prown, ‘Mind in Matter’, 7; Hood, ‘Material Culture’, 180.

[14] Hood, ‘Material Culture’, 182.

[15] Auslander et al., ‘AHR Conversation’, 1366.

[16] The Lancashire Daily Post, “Atlantic Crossed”, June 16 1919, 5; Museum of Science and Industry registered file, (Ref: Y1991.437.5).

[17] Auslander et al., ‘AHR Conversation’, 1367.

[18] Nicole Boivin, Material Cultures, Material Minds: The Impact of Things on Human Thought, Society, and Evolution, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 112.

[19] Ludmilla J Jordonova, The Look of the Past: Visual and Material Evidence in Historical Practice, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 5.

[20] Auslander et al., ‘AHR Conversation’, 1364.

[21] Riello, ‘Things that Shape History’, 30.

[22] Hood, ‘Material Culture’, 178.

[23] Brown and Bott, Flying the Atlantic, 32.

[24] Alan Mayne, “Material Culture”, in Research Methods for History, Second Edition edited by Simon Gunn and Lucy Faire, 49-67, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 49; Riello, ‘Things that Shape History’, 25.

[25] Hood, ‘Material Culture’, 176.

[26] Brown and Bott, Flying the Atlantic, 34.

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