The ‘Health Fairy’ in this week’s Sepia Saturday photo prompt below was employed by the Child Health Organisation which enlisted local groups into co-sponsorship. In the prompt picture, and the second one in the set, she is talking to a group of enraptured schoolchildren at Ithaca High. She shared her duties with Cho-Cho the Health Clown, and it would appear from the photos that they put on plays and and mini-lectures in schools about the importance of eating a heathy diet and getting plenty of sleep. In my quest to discover more about the Health Fairy I came upon a book called ‘Children and Youth in Sickness and in Health: a Historical Handbook and Guide’ (2004) in Google Books. Here we can read Eleanor Glendower Griffiths’ story of the Health Fairy in full. In the 1920s authors of health education materials would typically use stories and poems to make health lessons fun and interesting for children.
‘The House the Children Built’ tells the story of how the fairy’s lovely house was burnt down by the wicked witch Ignorance. The house is fully restored brick by brick, shingle by shingle due to good children following healthy guidelines. The wise bird Education travelled to little towns and big cities alike to spread the word to teachers so that more children would eat wholesome food, sleep in the sweet fresh air, play and be happy. As the children grew more healthy and happy the fairy’s house was re-built.
Children of today would perhaps not be quite so easily swayed to eat their greens and get on their bikes, but in the twenties there was quite a lot of interest in fairies. J.M. Barrie had introduced fairies in 1902 in his novel for adults ‘The Little White Bird’ along with the character of Peter Pan. The play and stories which followed evolved into ‘Peter Pan and Wendy’ where the fairies don’t seem to set a very good example to children at all. When Peter is guarding Wendy from pirates, the story says:
“After a time he fell asleep and some unsteady fairies had to climb over him on their way home from an orgy. Any of the other boys obstructing the fairy path at night they would have mischiefed, but they just tweaked Peter’s nose and passed on.”
Up to 1921 there was still quite a lot of interest in the Cottingley Fairies too. Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, two schoolgirls, managed to convince even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author and spiritualist, that the fairies they had photographed were real. Amazingly they were also fashion-conscious fairies, appearing in the garments of the day. The story has fascinated for years, long after it was dismissed as a hoax using cut-out paper fairies, not least because of the ingenuity of two girls aged 10 and 16 with an early camera.
My own fairy photos are not of paper cut-outs, but of flesh and blood girls of about the same era as the Health Fairy, the Cottingley Fairies and even Barrie’s Tinkerbell. They are my mother-in-law, born in 1910, and my own mother, born in 1920 and both named Mary.
My mother-in-law seems to be in a school play or pageant. I can’t ask her as she died over twenty-five years ago. My own Mum is dressed in a crepe-paper and tinsel costume in the manner of a real Christmas Tree Fairy for a Sunday School play. My grandma made the whole outfit on her sewing machine. Mum was a good and attentive scholar and would have hung on every word the Health Fairy said if she had met her. She still follows a healthy lifestyle in her 92nd year, eating a balanced diet and swimming. That’s got to be worth a few extra bricks in the Health House.