The Strange and Unusual Origins of 7 Nursery Rhymes


As someone who’s always been interested in history, I find the origins of nursery rhymes really intriguing. Even though they come from a time that’s very different from our own, they can still give us a glimpse into the past. Life was definitely tougher back then, but nursery rhymes can help us understand what it was like. Let’s take a closer look at some of these rhymes and see if they’re as harmless as we thought they were when we sang them as kids.

Nursery Rhyme Origins
Nursery Rhyme Origins

Mary had a little lamb

“Mary had a little lamb” was first published as a poem in 1830 by Sarah Josepha Hale, and was supposedly inspired by a true story. Sarah was a teacher at a small school in Newport, New Hampshire. One day a young girl, named Mary, came to school with a lamb in tow. While being very disruptive, Sarah had the lamb removed from the classroom. The lamb then waited patiently outside until after school, running up to Mary as soon as she stepped outside. The other children were curious as to why the lamb loved Mary so much. Sarah explained that Mary loved her pet. The incident became a teaching opportunity for her.

A few years after Sarah wrote the poem, a man by the name Lowell Mason set the poem to a cadence by adding repetition to the poem. The rest is history. In 1877, Thomas Edison recorded the song on his newly invented phonograph. It was the first instance of recorded song in English. This may be one of the most innocent nursery rhymes I’ll be talking about. In some cases, they become much darker.

Baa Baa Black Sheep

From lambs to sheep, the origins of this rhyme are a bit different. In the 13th century King Edward I, imposed a wool tax of 2/3rd of all wool. For every 3 sacks of wool you had, the King got one sack and the church got another, leaving you with only one. Black wool was much less lucrative because you couldn’t dye it, so it was less desirable. That’s why there was none left for the little shepherd boy down the lane.

Nursery rhyme origins
baa, baa, black sheep
baa baa black sheep

Ring around the Rosie

The 1665 Great plague of London killed about 15% of Britain’s population. Rosie was a reference to the rash people got from the bubonic plague. A pocketful of posies is a mention to the flowers people kept in their pockets, warding off the stench from the illness. Most people know, “ashes, ashes we all fall down.” But the original text was “A-tishoo, A-tishoo, we all fall down”. An allusion to the sneezing caused by the plague. Many variations of the rhyme have been passed down over the years. One of the earliest versions goes like this.

A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.

~James FitzGerald

Rock-a-bye Baby

The baby in this rhyme is supposedly the child of King James II. To ensure a Roman Catholic heir, the baby was snuck into the birthing room. His name was James Francis Edward. King James II first child, Mary II was a protestant, so James was the answer to continue on with a Roman Catholic dynasty. The rhyme is laced with connotations about the Glorious Revolution.

Rub a Dub Dub

This one goes all the way back to the 14th century. It’s referring to three maids in a tub. The equivalent to a modern day peep show. The rhyme is a finger wag to anyone attempting to catch a glimpse of naked women. We aren’t quite so prude as we were back then. Feast your eyes boys.

Three maids in a tub

Mary, Mary Quite Contrary

King Henry VIII had a daughter, her name was Mary. You may have heard of her. She is none other than the original Bloody Mary. Queen Mary I ascended to the throne, and was a hardline Catholic. This rhyme was about the religious persecution of the protestants, which she burned by the hundreds at the stake. The mention of the garden in the rhyme is of the graveyards filled with protestant martyrs. Silver bells is a referring to a torture device attached to male genitals. Talk about a ball buster.

“Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.”

Dark history

In today’s age letting children sing about such terrible things would not fly. Over the centuries, nursery rhymes have lost their edge. There is a disconnect from the origins of the rhymes, nowadays they are just fun songs to lull a child to sleep. Many years ago, rhymes were meant to be political satire. Yes, the poems and rhymes of yesteryear are today’s That’s why nursery rhyme origins are fascinating.

Want to know the origins of Thanksgiving? Click here.

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