Tropes: The Little Dutch Boy (Holland)


The Little Dutch Boy image is an example of a trope, a figurative use of a word, expression, or image, that has been used over time and become part of American pop culture.  The original story of the Little Dutch Boy was created by the author Mary Mapes Dodge in 1865 in her book titled Hans Brinker; or the Silver Skates:  A Story of Life in Holland.  It is a story of a little Dutch boy who saves Holland from a flood by putting his finger in a small hole in the dike to stop it from flooding the town.  It was nighttime and he called for help, but no one came so he stayed all night with his finger plugging the dike until a priest came by the next morning and heard his cries for help.  He was rescued by the townspeople and carried home and regarded as a hero.  The story is actually American and has no Dutch origins, but his character is synonymous with courage, strength, and the hero who rescues or saves the day.





This statue in Harlingen in the Netherlands is one of my first examples.   I have always assumed that the Little Dutch Boy was a hero in Holland and had truly saved the town from a disastrous flood from a break in the dike.  I was surprised to learn that this statue had no historical meaning and came from an American tale.  When we think about why statues are erected, it is to honor someone who has done something that resulted in a monumental and positive impact on society.  Presidents, men, and women who have impacted our world today through change like Martin Luther King, Jr, and in situations of tragedy that we don’t want to forget and honor lives lost like the 9/11 memorial in New York City.  It I had been a visitor to Madurodam in the Netherlands and seen the statue of the Little Dutch Boy I would have believed that he saved the city, and they were paying homage to him through the statue.


The above poster advertisement for Dutch Boy Paints uses the Little Dutch Boy trope as their trademark icon.  The company selected the Little Dutch Boy to present their company in 1907.  One reason they may have selected him is because their paint is created through a high end expensive Dutch process and they wanted to link their product to who everyone assumes is a national Dutch hero.  The artist, Lawrence Earle, created the painting and modeled him after an Irish American boy living in New Jersey.   The enthusiastic expression and use of bright blue in his hat, eyes and overalls and bright yellow in the unnatural hue of his hair may represent the sharp paint hues of the company and rich heritage.  The caption “Dutch Boy” does it…. best” is used as the paint logo to link them to the heroic and superhuman strength of the Little Dutch Boy who saved the Netherlands.  Dutch paint should be durable, high quality, superior and have integrity based on the reference to the Little Dutch Boy.  For over 100 years the company has continued to use the Dutch Boy advertising icon.  Even though it was originally a white lead paint that we now know is extremely harmful to humans, the icon was kept when lead was removed from the paint formula and did not seem to leave a negative association with their products.

May 26, 2009 Satirical Advertisement

The advertisement is a satire of The Little Dutch Boy in three different scenarios.   The first is helping to stop a leaking pipe outside a house, the second is to stop a wife from complaining to her husband, and the third is to cure a cold. In each situation all the character portraying the Little Dutch Boy has to do is put one finger to “block” the offender or problem and it is successfully stopped. The water in the pipe is plugged, the wife is quiet, and the cold symptoms abate. Just like how the Little Dutch Boy was able to stop the leak with one small finger to hold the mighty waters in check. At the end of the commercial you can order your own Little Dutch Boy for $19.99 to solve all of your problems! We see through this commercial, although satirical, that through modern day the legend of the Little Dutch Boy lives and he is associated with being able to stop any problem with a single finger. The trope represents someone who is a problem solver or fixer.



This cartoon was published on December 17, 2013, in the Carolina Journal referencing the Republican Party’s budget proposal for the U.S. fiscal year.  It was drafted by Representative Paul Ryan who was Chairman of the House Budget Committee and was coined “The Path to Prosperity:  A Blueprint for American Renewal” and referred to as the Ryan budget.  Even though Medicare and Medicaid cuts would be made, the cartoon depicts that this little plug in federal spending did little to stop the massive and often unnecessary spending that added to the ocean of U.S. debt.  The Little Dutch Boy trope, who is Ryan, is not strong enough to stop spending from breaking the dike although he is attempting to stop the outflow with his one finger.  Ryan is mocked when compared to the hero in trying to stop the outflow of spending and debt, he is unsuccessful.  We see in the background the windmills to reference the origins of the story in the Netherlands.

The three trope examples for the Little Dutch Boy span from 1907 to 2013 and although his image is used in completely different mediums such as an advertising poster, an online fake advertisement, and a political cartoon the meaning communicated through all three is similar.  The image in the paint advertisement is meant to express superior quality and dependability with their products, the online advertisement pokes fun at how the Little Dutch Boy can solve any problem, and the political cartoon mocks the work of Ryan to that of the Little Dutch Boy who is strong enough to stop the outpouring of spending and resulting debt.




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Why the Little Dutch Boy Never Put his Finger in the Dike