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The Stories Behind 5 Of Your Favorite Nursery Rhymes

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

"Hush-a-bye, Baby"

                This classic children’s lullaby was first published in 1765 in a book entitled Mother Goose’s Melody.  This was the very first poem to be published in America.  The anonymous author added an interesting footnote to the song; “This may serve as a Warning to the Proud and Ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last.” 

                There is some evidence that suggests that the author was a pilgrim aboard the Mayflower, who spent some time with the Native Americans.  The poem hints at about how he was impressed with the way that the native women hung birch bark cradles from tree branches.  (Yes, there children were in them at the time.)  This practice is thought to be the origin of this poem. 

Mary and her Lamb
Credit: Vintage Digital Stamps

"Mary had a Little Lamb"

                The nice thing about this rhyme is that history has recorded this one’s past very nicely.  It was written in Boston in the year 1830.  Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, an editor with Ladies’ Magazine & Juvenile Miscellany, was informed of a child going to school and her pet lamb having followed her right into the country school house.  Mrs. Hale found the story so amusing she wrote a little poem about it and published it in the September-October edition of the children’s journal.

"Ring-around the Rosies"

                As much fun as it was to clasp hands and gallop in circles while singing this song, the root is deadly serious.  Remember all those stories back in school about this disease that ravished Europe… what was it called again?  Oh yeah, right… The Black Death, or Pasteurella pestis.    When it hit London in 1664-65, 70,000 people died.  Now at the time the total population was 460,000, that’s ruffly 15%.  So what does this cute poem have to do with a massive epidemic?

                Well, this poem is actually describing the symptoms of the epidemic.  “Ring around the rosies” Is about the rashes that were the first symptoms of the disease.  The line a “Pocket full of posies” referred to the herbs that were supposed to have protected them from getting sick in the first places.   The last two lines of the rhyme are talking about the last fatal sneeze that the person suffered before falling over dead from the contagion. 

"Jack be Nimble"

                This old rhyme is based upon an old British game played during the 1700’s.  In the game a lighted candle was placed in the center of the room.  Each person would take a turn jumping over the candle, whoever did it without extinguishing the flame was assured good luck for the following year.

Jack be Nimble
Credit: seligorscastle.zoomshare.com

"Jack and Jill"


Jack and Jill was originally ‘Jack and Gill’ with Gill being a boy’s name.  It is believed that Jack and Gill refer to Thomas Wolsey and Bishop Tarbes from the 1500’s.  Now during the 1500’s the Holy Roman Empire and France were not on very good terms, and Wolsey and Tarbes were both very keen on seeing some sort of peace negotiated between the two kingdoms, which of course was akin to an ‘uphill’ battle.  Unfortunately, their failure in regards to negotiating peace resulted in full scale war breaking out. 

Favorite Nursery Rhymes from Mother Goose
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  1. Charles Panati Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. New York: Harper and Row, 1943.

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