New Canaan Historical Society exhibits explores Little Red Riding Hood
"Seeing Red: Little Red Riding Hood Visits the Historical Society" is set up to mimic the story it celebrates.
At the New Canaan Historical Society, visitors begin the tour outside of a wooden skeleton of a house built into the corner of the room, meant to be Little Red Riding Hood's house. A walk down a corridor -- strewn with stones, hay and ivy -- finally reaching an elaborately framed room, with a bed and a sleeping grandma.
All along the walls and in the houses are the results of more than 50 years of Little Red Riding Hood antiques and memorabilia collection of dolls, coat hangers, advertisements, oven mitts, plates, and more.
The collection belongs to Peggy Rice, who explained that she fell in love with the imagery when she became a mother.
"I have four children and my youngest daughter Maggie was 4 or 5 and she loved the story. I bought her some Little Red Riding Hood stuff and she didn't care, but I became hooked," Rice said.
In the years that followed, Rice's collection grew to more than just memorabilia, also acting as a historical record of the tale in popular culture.
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Examples of changes in culture over time are displayed by looking at Little Red Riding Hood in a 1930s propaganda-style advertisement, a Victorian-era needlepoint or in a more recently made backpack. The items in the exhibit come from all over the world, with numerous European languages represented.
There is a pair of salt and pepper shakers, one of the wolf and one of Little Red, and there is even Little Red Riding Hood toilet paper from Yugoslavia. "Somehow you don't think of it having all these utilitarian uses," said Janet Lindstrom, the executive director of the historical society, who created the concept for the exhibit design. "You can trim a whole tree in nothing but ornaments of Little Red."
The Little Red Riding Hood tale was immortalized by the Brothers Grimm in their 1812 collection, "Children's and Household Tales." The earliest written instance of the story is the 1697 version "Le Petit Chaperon Rouge" by Charles Perrault. Each version tells the story differently, and according to Dr. Jack Zipes, a retired professor of German at the University of Minnesota and editor of the book, "The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood," there are more than 35 versions of it, each of which he compiled into the collection.
Through his research, he said, the most reliable origin of the story is one of a coming-of-age narrative mothers would tell their daughters.
"My thesis is that the tale originally was one that women in the 17th and maybe 16th century in France and Northern Italy used to tell in huts where they were sewers," said Zipes in an interview. "When the men would go out hunting, the women would get together in one big cottage and sew for their family and exchange stories. The girls who were there were learning how to sew and weave."
According to Zipes, this original story was much more gruesome than the Disney version, or even the Brothers Grimm one. In the earliest versions, Little Red would choose between a path of pins or a path of needles, picking needles to mark her place with the adult sewers. The girl and a werewolf would race to the cottage, with the werewolf getting there first and eating the grandmother. The werewolf leaves some of her flesh in a bowl and some of her blood in a glass and places them on the table. When Little Red arrives, the werewolf instructs her to eat and drink, cannibalizing her mother. The were wolf then instructs her to take off her clothes and come into bed. When Little Red exclaims over the grandmother's large teeth, she knows something is really wrong and escapes, tricking the werewolf.
"She knows full well that the werewolf is about to kill her and rape her and then she outsmarts him. It's a tale about initiation. You can imagine women laughing when they tell the tale; she's ready to join the women," Zipes said of the earliest tales.
In the Perrault version, Little Red is simply eaten by a wolf, and that's the end of the story. The moral is that Little Red got what was coming to her for engaging with an unknown man.
In the Grimm version, a lumberjack comes and saves the day, splitting open the wolf's stomach, allowing Little Red and the grandmother to walk out. Disney it's not.
"All of the fairy tales were violent. Kids don't seem to be frightened," Rice said. "There are so many different versions of the story. I was interested in the series of drawings where she's in bed with the wolf and her clothes are on the floor. That puts a sort of sexy image of her that's not really known."
Rice's collection shows how others have tried to extrapolate even more messages out of the story. The advertising industry is heavily represented. In the collection, there is a large print ad with Little Red eating a candy bar and the wolf looking jealously at the bar. "Nougat Croc," it reads at the bottom. There's another print ad for South End Poultry Co. on 322 Albany St., Boston, Mass. Beside that is a vintage print ad that appears to be from the 1930s or '40s that reads, "Schaller and Weber Inc. Imported style specialties of home-made bolognas at retail. 85th-86th and 2nd. 28-28 Steinway, Astoria." Schaller and Weber now reside at 85th and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan, though it has opted for a more upscale brand, labeling itself "Masters of Charcuterie," according to its website. Most recently, the carmaker Volvo included Little Red Riding Hood in its television ad, "Little Red," wherein Little Red is driven safely past a menacing wolf in the back seat of a red Volvo.
The exhibit runs through March 2. The historical society, 134 Oenoke Ridge, is open Tuesday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. For information, visit nchistory.org or call 203-966-1776.
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