“To Amuse Children and Excite them to Sleep.” Apparently that’s what Nursery Rhymes were supposed to do, back in the day. I mean, waaaaay back in the mid 1700’s. At least, that’s what is printed in the title page for Mother Goose’s Melody by John Newbery. (If that name sounds familiar, it’s no wonder. There’s a rather prestigious literary medal named after him!)
The history of Mother Goose (and English-language nursery rhymes as we know them today) is fascinating. People have been reciting rhymes with their children since the dawn of humanity. They entertain, encourage language development, and teach a lesson. I can imagine some early homo sapiens snuggled by the fire with a few younglings, grunting out the equivalent of, “Forest bad–don’t go there. You get eaten by a bear.”
In 1744 a London publisher by the name of Mary Cooper published what is considered the first book of children’s rhymes. It was titled Tommy Thumb’s Songbook and claimed to be edited by the aptly named “Nurse Lovechild”, clearly someone who knew a thing or two about nurturing young minds. Two months later, a Volume II was published, called Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Songbook. Copies of this volume still exist, though sadly the first only survives in later editions.
The character of Tom Thumb was well known. In 1621, he appeared in The History of Tom Thumb the Little. That book was immediately popular and others soon popped up utilizing the character. His name became synonymous with make-believe, so adding him to the title of a book of nursery rhymes must have made perfect sense to the publisher. It was an early form of successful branding.
Mother Goose was a similar invention. She may have some origin in the Mother Hubbard story from the 16th century, and she appeared in French novels by the 1600’s. It’s apparent that she was familiar to English readers when Robert Samber published the first translation of Contes de ma mère l’Oye, or Tales of my Mother Goose in 1729. It is interesting to note, however, that these were not nursery rhymes, but fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Puss in Boots.
Mother Goose made the move to nursery rhymes later in the 18th century. She appears in Mr. Newbery’s popular collection, Mother Goose’s Melody: or Sonnets for the Cradle, in 1780 and this seems to be the point where her identity solidified. She became the poultry-riding curator of English children’s rhyme.
Throughout the Victorian era her repertoire increased. Rhymes that had been around for a hundred or more years were added to Mother Goose collections, along with some newer rhymes. Printing processes became more advanced and more cost effective, so we see illustrations evolve from simple engravings to beautiful, colorful artwork. Some of the most popular images still associated with Mother Goose rhymes come from illustrations of the late 18th or early 19th centuries.
Although many of her intended lessons are lost on modern readers, Mother Goose’s rhymes have remained timeless. Most of us know exactly what Little Jack Horner was doing in that corner, or why the little dog laughed while the dish ran away with the spoon. As for what we should learn from the rhyme, well… this often requires some digging to find the take-away.
But I enjoy digging! As a writer of novels often set in England during the early 1800’s, I love digging into history and researching. It helps me gain a better understanding of the world my characters would have lived in. I’ve learned that they would have been as familiar with Jack and Jill as I am today, although they might have spelled her name “Gill.” And as for that mouse-infested clock, they would have started the rhyme with “Dickory, dickory dock” when all of us know the first word should be “Hickory.”
As I have studied these rhymes I began to wonder about the people mentioned in them. Did Jack Sprat really have an eating disorder? Who was Margery Daw and why did she have so many ups and downs? Would a person need to be so very nimble or quick if he wasn’t jumping over candlesticks all the time? And just why are so many guys named Jack?
These musings proved inspirational for me. I’m currently exploring nursery rhymes and writing a series of Sweet Regency Romance short stories based on them. This has been a lot of fun and hopefully my readers will enjoy the collection when it is finished. (If you’d like a sneak peak, sign up HERE for my mailing list . Each month you’ll get an email with a link to read the newest Short Story for FREE!)
Customs and culture might change, but people remain the same. The sound of words tripping delightfully over themselves in rhyme will always catch our attention. The songs we learn in the nursery stay with us forever. Mother Goose–and her modern counterparts–continue to amuse and excite all of us today.
Here I will leave you with one of Mother Goose’s rhymes from 1780 and the editor’s note that accompanied it:
Little Tom Tucker Sings for his supper;
What shall he eat? White bread and butter.
How will he cut it, Without e’er a knife?
How will he be married, Without e’er a wife?
“To be married without a wife is a terrible thing, and to be married with a bad wife is something worse; however, a good wife that sings well is the best musical instrument in the world.” –Puffendorff