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Where Have All the Fairies Gone?

By Wayne Curtis

The Victorians were apparently much plagued by fairies. Accounts suggest that these little creatures flitted around the margins of mid and late 19th century life, all skittish and shy and showing up when one least expected them. Painters such as Richard Dadd made a career of depicting these beings of “a middle nature between man and angels;” in 1894 William Butler Yeats famously implored, “Faeries, come take me out of this dull world.” They were most readily spotted in Europe, but were also intermittently active across the Atlantic, some possibly having arrived on these shores as stowaways with Irish immigrants.

Fairies persisted beyond Queen Victoria and even King Edward VII. The noted Cottingley fairies appeared in grainy black and white photographs shot in 1917, which depicted wee, winged fairies gamboling with two young sisters. These became even more famous after Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle lent his not-inconsiderable credibility to them in 1920. (A surviving sister admitted in the 1980s that the fairies were actually cardboard cutouts, which, not surprisingly, is exactly what they look like in the photos.)

Then, sometime shortly after these photos, fairies seemed to have been brutally, efficiently exterminated. Google Ngram, which tracks how frequently a term appears in millions of books worldwide, reports that fairies were abundant in print until 1926, whereupon they suffered what population ecology types would call an overshoot, followed by a die-off. In other words, we crested “peak fairy.”

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