Nursery Rhyme Origins Quiz: Meanings & History behind the Rhymes

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary provides another fun quiz to test your knowledge of the origins of some familiar nursery rhymes—and provides examples from historical newspapers.

What was “Ring-a-Round the Rosie” really all about? Eventually all genealogists hear rumors about the historical origins and meanings behind popular nursery rhymes, such as:

  • “Ring-a-Round the Rosie” describes people dying from the bubonic plague.
  • Mary of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was a real person.

I decided to research some of the common nursery rhyme claims, and came to the conclusion that you can’t believe everything you read or hear!

It turns out that one of the above rumors about the meanings of the nursery rhymes is true and the other is an unsubstantiated myth. Do you know which claim is correct? To find out how well you know the true origins of nursery rhymes, test your knowledge with my Nursery Rhyme Origins Genealogy Quiz. Select S for “substantiated” and U for “unsubstantiated.”

early nursery rhymes genealogy quiz

Origins of “Baa Baa Black Sheep”

The first known publication of this famous nursery rhyme was in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, a sequel to the lost publication Tommy Thumb’s Song Book of 1744.

Baa, baa, black sheep,

Have you any wool?

Yes, sir, yes, sir,

Three bags full;

One for the master,

And one for the dame,

And one for the little boy

Who lives down the lane.

Some report that the song had a connection to a British tax on wool, or sadly even the slave trade. Of the two explanations the tax on wool seems most realistic, since black wool was prized because it eliminated the need to dye the wool before making clothing.

Neither of these explanations about the meaning of the rhyme is substantiated. However, after reading the lyrics carefully, it appears to me that the song describes a common system of sharing the fruits of one’s labor. Although not proved, I believe this is the not-so-hidden meaning behind “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”

A 17th or 18th Century laborer typically paid his master (probably a Lord of a manor) in goods or crops, and if he had a helper, he would also share in the bounty. Logically, the “little boy who lives down the lane” could have been an assistant, or someone who benefited from his charity.

History of “Jack and Jill”

This popular nursery rhyme dates to the 16th Century. There is no evidence as to the origin, but you may be surprised to learn that many early versions refer to Jack and “Gill” instead of Jill, as seen in this 1884 newspaper article.

Old Nursery Rhyme, Wheeling Register newspaper article 24 June 1884

Wheeling Register (Wheeling, West Virginia), 24 June 1884, page 2

Meaning of “Jack Be Nimble”

This is another famous rhyme of unknown origin. However, some think it refers to Black Jack, a 16th Century English pirate, or that it alludes to an old game of jumping over fires in celebration of the Feast Day of St. Catherine on November 25.

"Jack Be Nimble" nursery rhyme, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 8 May 1806

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 8 May 1806, page 6

Origins of “Little Jack Horner”

The true origin of this nursery rhyme is not known. Although widely debated, some suggest that “Little Jack Horner” refers to a 16th Century thief named Jack Horner, who acted as a courier for Richard Whiting, the Abbot of Glastonbury.

One year Whiting decided to send his courier Jack to bring a Christmas pie to King Henry VIII (1491-1547). Hidden inside the pie were twelve property deeds—which Jack discovered, promptly stealing one.

When he returned to the Abbot, Jack reported that King Henry had given him one of the property deeds as a present for delivering the gift. However, he was reportedly later found guilty of the theft and put to death.

I noticed that in this 1802 newspaper article, the spelling of plums was changed to plumbs.

"Little Jack Horner" nursery rhyme, New-York Herald newspaper article 9 October 1802

New-York Herald (New York, New York), 9 October 1802, page 2

History of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”

Mary had a little lamb,

whose fleece was white as snow.

And everywhere that Mary went,

the lamb was sure to go.

 

It followed her to school one day,

which was against the rule.

It made the children laugh and play,

to see a lamb at school.

 

And so the teacher turned it out,

but still it lingered near.

And waited patiently about,

till Mary did appear.

 

“Why does the lamb love Mary so?”

the eager children cry.

“Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know,”

the teacher did reply.

For obvious reasons, I’ve always had an affinity to this song, so I was delighted to learn that Mary was a real person.

Mary Sawyer (later Tyler) caused a commotion when she took her pet lamb to school. That same day, a man named John Roulstone was visiting the school.

John Roulstone knew Mary Josepha (Buell) Hale (1788-1879), the noted editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, later known as American Ladies’ Magazine, and one of the people we can thank for making Thanksgiving one of our national holidays.

Roulstone apparently related to Mary Hale the amusing incident of little Mary bringing her lamb to school, and the popular poem was written—either collaboratively, or by Hale—in response to Roulstone’s account. The evidence for this can be found in several of Mary (Sawyer) Tyler’s obituaries, such as this 1889 example from a Boston newspaper.

Mary Tyler obituary, Boston Journal newspaper article 11 December 1889

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 11 December 1889, page 4

History of the “Mother Goose” Rhymes

If you visit Granary Burial Ground in Boston, Massachusetts, you’ll find the tombstone of a Mother Goose, a photo of which can be found on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mother_Goose_Grave_Boston.jpg.

Her tombstone reads:

HERE LYES YE BODY OF

MARY GOOSE WIFE TO

ISAAC GOOSE, AGED 42

YEARS DECD OCTOBER

YE 19TH, 1690…

However, this Mary Goose was not the originator of the popular series of nursery rhymes by the same name.

That honor goes to Charles Perrault (1628-1703), a noted French author and advisor to Louis XIV. His compiled nursery rhymes were often rewritten, most notably by the Brothers Grimm during the 19th Century. For more information on Perrault, see:

The Real “Old King Cole”

“Old King Cole” was reportedly a king who lived during the 4th Century in Kaircoel, England, with Koel being an early spelling for Cole. One version is that after the Saxons overran Britain, the town was renamed Colchester, as chester was the Saxon word for city.

As the legend goes, King Cole’s musically-gifted daughter Helen married Constantine the Great, and it is rumored that she either inspired or authored this famous song.

"Old King Cole" nursery rhyme, Weekly Herald newspaper article 28 July 1849

Weekly Herald (New York, New York), 28 July 1849, page 236

Another suggestion is that “Old King Cole” referred to Thomas Cole-brook, a 12th Century cloth merchant, but there is no evidence that any of these explanations are correct.

Origins of “Ring-a-Round the Rosie”

One of the most common misconceptions about old nursery rhymes is that this poem describes people dying from the bubonic plague. Others suggest it is about putting flowers in a pocket to cover bad smells, or that this is merely describing a child’s dancing game.

Nobody knows the true origins of this delightful nursery rhyme, but if you examine the terms, you may come to your own conclusion.

"Ring-a-Round the Rosie" nursery rhyme

Were “rosies” roses, and “poseys” bundles of flowers? In America, we sing about ashes, but in Britain, they use the term “a-tishoo.” Sounds more like an allergic response to pollen, but that is purely my own speculation.

Do any of you have ancestral souvenirs of nursery rhymes? Do you have any additional information about the history that inspired these famous nursery rhymes? If so, please share with us on Facebook or in the GenealogyBank blog’s comments section. And if any of you happen to find a copy of Tommy Thumb’s Song Book, please blog about it here before it debuts on Antiques Roadshow!

Understanding Terms Found in Historical Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary explains some of the unusual or archaic terms often found in historical newspapers, and provides examples from period newspapers.

When I first started searching historical newspapers to help with my family history research, certain terms that I found in old papers confused me.

In the beginning, I found myself wondering: what was a “relict” or a “consort,” and why were there so many references to “inst.” or “instant,” and “ult.” or “ultimo”? It took some time to sort all these terms out, and I found various genealogical dictionaries useful.

Knowing that some of you may be having the same confusion about this terminology, I’d like to share some examples and definitions of the more commonly-found terms in old newspapers, with some insight on genealogical clues that these terms may provide.

MEANINGS OF GENERAL NEWSPAPER TERMS

Communicated (often abbreviated Com.): When reading old newspapers, you may spot the word communicated or its abbreviation, com. It can occur at the beginning of an article, or more typically it will be abbreviated at the end of the article, and indicates that the item was written by someone other than a staff writer, and “communicated” to the newspaper for publication. A notice at the beginning of the newspaper article will often look like this:

the term "communicated" from an old newspaper

Whenever you see the term communicated or its abbreviation com., look for additional articles in other newspapers. You never know if the first article you found is complete—often it has been edited from the original, and if you find that original article it may contain more family history information than the edited version of the article you found.

Here is an example where the abbreviation com. has been inserted at the end of the newspaper article. Note also that this example has a “Request to Insert,” explained next.

the abbreviation "com." from the Newburyport Herald newspaper 7 August 1838

Newburyport Herald (Newburyport, Massachusetts), 7 August 1838, page 3

Requests to Insert: An often overlooked clue in old newspapers is a request for printers to republish a notice in other locations. Generally, this indicates that a person or family once resided elsewhere, or has a familial or business connection outside of the published location, and therefore readers in that additional location will have an interest in news about the individual or family. This is a great clue to steer your family history searches to locations you might not have considered otherwise.

Mastheads: Typically located at the top of the front page, the masthead is the printed matter consisting of the name of the newspaper, along with details of its publication (date, location, etc.).

Here is an example of a masthead from a New Hampshire newspaper:

masthead, New-Hampshire Patriot newspaper 20 January 1823

New-Hampshire Patriot (Concord, New Hampshire), 20 January 1823, page 1

When saving important proofs for genealogical purposes, it is advisable to review the masthead. You may also learn something interesting, such as that Isaac Hill, printer of the New-Hampshire Patriot & State Gazette, was also a publisher of the “Laws of the United States.”

DEFINITIONS OF RELATIONSHIP REFERENCE TERMS

Banns or Bans (or Publishing of the Banns): This is an ancient matrimonial term, originating from the Middle Ages. A Banns proclamation was typically published on three consecutive Sundays prior to a wedding. The requirement was abolished by the Roman Catholic Church in 1983, but is still used in some parts of the world. Original Banns certificates are rare, but you may be able to locate a few in some archives.

In this 20th century newspaper notice, the entire announcement is about a couple’s wedding banns:

Voellinger-Ehrstein wedding, Belleville News Democrat newspaper article 28 March 1921

Belleville News Democrat (Belleville, Illinois), 28 March 1921, page 2

In this 19th century newspaper article, we see an amusing story about how important the banns requirement was:

amusing wedding story, Daily Advertiser newspaper article 22 August 1807

Daily Advertiser (New York, New York), 22 August 1807, page 3

Because he had no proof the banns had been “regularly published” as required, the Minister postponed the wedding until the following day. However, the groom would not be deterred! He pulled off his hat, handed it to his bride-to-be, and took off running at “full speed.” He returned “in exactly two hours and thirty-five minutes, to the great joy of the betrothed damsel” with the requisite proof that the banns had indeed been published—whereupon the Minister performed the ceremony!

Consort: A consort is a partner, and in the case of a death, a female who leaves a surviving spouse. An easy way to remember the term consort is to think of a marriage as a “consortium” between a husband and wife. A corresponding term is relict (see the next entry), along with spinster or bachelor, for persons who remain single.

In this example from an 1802 newspaper announcing Eleanor Harris’s death, she is described as the “consort” of Thomas Harris. Note the representation of the “s” as an “f,” common in 18th and early 19th century newspapers, so that “consort” actually reads “confort.” Also note that her death date is reported as “the 8th instant” (again, with the “s” spelled with an “f” so that it actually reads “inftant”). I’ll explain what “instant” means shortly.

Eleanor Harris obituary, Republican newspaper article 22 February 1802

Republican (Baltimore, Maryland), 22 February 1802, page 3

Relict (relictus): Relictus is a Latin term meaning having inherited or been bequeathed. Ergo, the relict is the survivor (usually a widow) of the marriage union.

The first sentence of this 1907 newspaper article reads: “Mrs. Prudence Hale, relict of the late Marshall Hale, died early yesterday morning at the home of her son…” It is lamentable that the typesetter misspelled her late husband’s name as Marshall “Hall” in the headline.

Noble Woman's Useful Life Ended, San Jose Mercury News newspaper article 21 January 1907

San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, California), 21 January 1907, page 1

DEFINITONS OF TIME FRAME TERMS IN NEWSPAPERS

Rather than print a specific date, old newspapers sometimes refer to a date by using terms such as instant, proximo and ultimo. Occasionally they do this for religious reasons, which I’ll explain shortly.

Instant (often abbreviated inst.): This term refers to a recent occurrence in the present or current month. In the consort example above, Eleanor Harris’s death date is reported as “the 8th instant.” Since her death notice was published on 22 February 1802, this means she died on 8 February 1802.

Proximo (often abbreviated prox.): Proximo refers to something that will occur in the future, or next month, as seen in this advertisement for the British armed ship Louisa, which was scheduled to sail on the “20th proximo.” Since this announcement was published on 27 February 1800, this means the Louisa will sail on 20 March 1800.

shipping notice about British ship Louisa, Georgia Gazette newspaper article 27 February 1800

Georgia Gazette (Savannah, Georgia), 27 February 1800, page 2

Ultimo (often abbreviated ult.): Ultimo or Ultimo Mense is a Latin term/phrase that refers to an occurrence from last month.

For example, in one old newspaper death notice Lt. Elliott’s death was specified as December 6, and in another (published in January), his death was reported as having occurred on “the 6th ult,” which is another way of saying December 6.

Boston Courier (Boston, Massachusetts), 23 December 1841, page 4:

  • “DIED, In Chester, N. H. Dec 6, Lieut Jacob Elliott, 86, a soldier of the revolution.”

Bellows Falls Gazette (Bellows Falls, Vermont), 10 January 1842, page 3:

  • “In Chester, N. H. very suddenly on the 6th ult. Lieut. Jacob Elliott, 86…”

Whenever you find an “ultimo” reference, cross-reference the date with vital records, since the newspaper in this case is reporting on an event that happened the previous month and is not immediate. Reports were often reprinted from one paper to another, and after sufficient time had passed the original date may have become unclear. In addition, some historical newspapers occasionally used the “ultimo” reference to refer to an event from two months prior.

In this notice from 1842, one’s first inclination is to record Mr. Basset’s death as having occurred in December of 1841, since the death notice was published in January and referred to the “23d ult.” However, upon further examination, I’ve uncovered some citations that report his death as having occurred in November.

Abel Basset death notice, Bellows Falls Gazette newspaper article 10 January 1842

Bellows Falls Gazette (Bellows Falls, Vermont), 10 January 1842, page 3

I suggest you consider recording “ultimo” dates as approximations (died circa or about).

New and Old Style References for Dates (often abbreviated N.S. and O.S.): Another reason that dates in historical newspaper notices may not be specific pertains to beliefs held by various religions, such as the Society of Friends, aka Quakers.

Since the commonly-used names for months are based upon pagan Gods (e.g., January from Janus, February from Februus, etc.), the early Quakers deemed it sacrilegious to use such names. Instead, the Quakers referred to months by the order in which they appeared during the year.

In this example from a 1788 newspaper, the time of the yearly meeting is recorded as being “from the 12th [Day] of the fifth Month, 1788, to the 19th Day of the same inclusive.”

notice about a Quaker yearly meeting, New-York Morning Post newspaper article 30 September 1788

New-York Morning Post (New York, New York), 30 September 1788, page 2

The conversion for Quaker dates is complicated, so if you find it necessary to record one, seek out a calendar converter and undertake further research. Mistakes are all too common.

Prior to 1752 (when the American colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar), the first month of the year was not January; the year started with the Spring Equinox in the middle of March.

The reason the calendar changed (from the Julian to the Gregorian system) was to accommodate for leap years. After several centuries the equinoxes were not falling on the calendar at the proper time, so various days were removed and the first of the year became January 1. When it was necessary to explain an old or new style date, an abbreviation of N.S. or O.S. was added.

In this 1822 newspaper article, both dating systems are used to give John Stark’s birth date: “Aug. 28, 1728, old style, corresponding to Aug. 17, N.S.”

John Stark obituary, Republican Chronicle newspaper article 29 May 1822

Republican Chronicle (Ithaca, New York), 29 May 1822, page 3

You may wish to consult one of my early RootsWeb Review articles, “Dates and Calendars through the Ages,” located at http://ftp.rootsweb.ancestry.com/pub/review/2007/0606.txt

You may also find it helpful to read “Quaker Dating before 1752” at the Swarthmore Friends Historical Library Website at www.swarthmore.edu/academics/friends-historical-library/quaker-meeting-records/quaker-calendar.xml.

I hope these definitions and genealogy tips helped you gain a better understanding of the newspaper terminology often found in old newspapers. Have you discovered any perplexing newspaper terms in your genealogy research? Share them with us in the comments!