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Curious Origins of Nursery Rhymes: Mother Goose

Updated on October 11, 2016
Docmo profile image

Mohan is a family physician, film and TV aficionado, a keen bibliophile and an eclectic scribbler.

The oldest known Lullaby

The oldest known lullaby is one from a Roman wet Nurse. This was documented in the margin notes ( scholium) of Roman poet Aulus Persius Flaccus

'Lalla, Lalla, Lalla, aut dormi, aut lacte...' meaning lalla, lalla, lalla either sleep or nurse( feed)

As Rhyme goes by...

There is one universal constant that children the world over sing and delight their parents with - the humble nursery rhyme. They learn it at home and in their nursery schools, caring very little for any deeper meaning.They simply enjoy the use of words and their associated mimed actions.

Many of these nursery rhymes go back several hundred years. Originally they existed in oral tradition, passing from one generation to the next. With the advent of printing press and the rise of literacy, these collected rhymes became popular as an early reader owing to their simplicity, entertainment value and their memorable lyrics.

The earliest known forms are perhaps simple lullabies, created to sooth the baby to sleep. Some were riddles and others were counting or alphabetical rhymes. As their popularity grew, there were veiled propaganda and satire, nonsensical ballads, proverbs and in some cases a beautifully constructed poem.

Time goes by and meanings and lyrics change. The longer these rhymes are in existence, the more historians and puzzle seekers attribute hidden meanings to them.

While some of these rhymes do have some historical lineage, many are just simple nonsense poems created to entertain, educate and amuse children.

The oldest known publication of nursery rhymes is dated before 1744 and is the popular 'Tommy Thumb's song book' and its sequel' Tommy Thumb's pretty song book' by a 'Nurse Lovechild' .The frontispiece of the book quotes that it is 'for all little masters and mistresses' and ' to be sung by nurses until they can sing themselves'

Tommy Thumb's Song Book - The oldest published collection of nursery rhymes dates before 1744- this edition from 1788
Tommy Thumb's Song Book - The oldest published collection of nursery rhymes dates before 1744- this edition from 1788
"Contes de ma Mère l'Oye," or "Tales of My Mother Goose." by Charles Perrault c.1697
"Contes de ma Mère l'Oye," or "Tales of My Mother Goose." by Charles Perrault c.1697
Gravestone of Elizabeth Goose, interred in Boston c.1690
Gravestone of Elizabeth Goose, interred in Boston c.1690

Granary Burial Ground, Tremont St., Boston

A markerTremont Street, Boston -
Tremont Street, Boston, MA, USA
get directions

Granary Burial Ground, Tremont St., Boston

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Mother Goose's Melodies - the American EditionRichard Caldecott's 'Hey diddle diddle picture book'Arthur Rackham's 'Mother Goose'Arthur Rackham's Mother GooseL Frank Baum's Mother Goose in ProseDes Knaben Wunderhorn
Mother Goose's Melodies - the American Edition
Mother Goose's Melodies - the American Edition
Richard Caldecott's 'Hey diddle diddle picture book'
Richard Caldecott's 'Hey diddle diddle picture book'
Arthur Rackham's 'Mother Goose'
Arthur Rackham's 'Mother Goose'
Arthur Rackham's Mother Goose
Arthur Rackham's Mother Goose
L Frank Baum's Mother Goose in Prose
L Frank Baum's Mother Goose in Prose
Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Every pretty moral tale, o'er the infant mind prevail...

Perhaps the most popular compilation of English nursery rhymes is John Newberry's publication' Mother Goose's melodies or Sonnets for the Cradle. This publication dates back to 1765. There has been some speculation that some of the text of the book including the preface and additional 'fortune cookie' type morals in each page may have been penned by Oliver Goldsmith. This could be because Goldsmith was in employ of the publisher John Newberry between 1762 and 1768 as a 'hack' writer and is also known to be fond of children's rhymes and riddles.

The original edition also has William Shakespeare's Lullabies in part II.

The book was reprinted in America some twenty five years later in Massachusetts by Isaiah Thomas. This could be the reason why nursery rhymes are called 'Mother Goose rhymes' in the United States.

A Facsimile of the original Mother Goose's Melody can be found here at Project Gutenberg as an ebook in many formats. It makes a fascinating read and shows just how far back our popular nursery rhymes go and how long they have endured.

There are many apocryphal stories for the name of Mother Goose. One such story attributes the rhymes to a Mrs Elizabeth Goose of Boston ( c.1660) who allegedly had a large flock of grandchildren.Tales go that she crooned many melodies to appease the kids. After the death of her husband Isaiah, she went to live with her daughter and her son-in-law, Thomas Fleet, who was a printer by trade. Fleet is said to have published her verses for popular consumption as 'Mother Goose's melodies'. This story bears no truth as no such editions exist and there is no historical truth attached to it. However, tourists are still led to her gravestone at the Granary burial ground on Tremont Street in Boston.

It is more likely that when John Newberry published his collection, he was merely stealing the title from the famous French collection of fairy tales by Charles Perrault called 'Contes de ma Mère l'Oye,' or 'Tales of My Mother Goose.' This compendium was published in 1697 and contains many popular fairy tales collected by Perrault such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Tom Thumb.

English readers were familiar with the archetypal 'Mother Hubbard' figure from Edmund Spenser's ' Mother Hubbard's tale'.

There are others who attribute Mother Goose ( Mère l'Oye) to Berthe pied d'oie ("Goose-Foot Bertha" ) , the wife of Robert II of France. She is well known in France as a legendary spinner of tales. Once again this is mere speculation.

Popular Early Nursery Rhyme Collections

Tommy Thumb's song book
Nurse Lovechild
England <1744
Tommy Thumb's pretty song book
Nurse Lovechild
England <1744
Mother Goose's Melodies
John Newberry/ ? Oliver Goldsmith
England c. 1765
Popular Rhymes of Scotland
Robert Chambers
Scotland c.1826
Mother Goose's Melodies
Isaiah Thomas
USA c.1786
Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano,
Germany c.1805
The Nursery Rhymes of England
James Orchard Halliwell
England c.1842
Popular Rhymes and Tales
James Orchard Halliwell
England c.1849
Mother Goose
L. Frank Baum
USA c.1890
Book of Nursery Songs
Sabine Baring-Gould
England c.1895
The Nursery Rhyme Book
Andrew Lang
England 1897
Hey Diddle Diddle Picture Book
Randolph Caldecott
England c.1909
Mother Goose
Arthur Rackham
England c.1913
The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes
Iona and Peter Opie
England 1951
Popular classic Nursery Rhyme anthologies

Old Mother Goose - The Whole story

Old Mother Goose
When she wanted to wander
Would fly through the air
On a very fine gander.

Mother Goose had a house;
It stood in the wood
Where an owl at the door
As sentinel stood.

She had a son, Jack,
A plain looking lad,
'Twas not very good,
Nor yet very bad.

She sent him to market.
A live goose he bought,
"See, Mother?" he said,
"I have not been for naught."

Jack's goose and her Gander,
Soon grew very fond.
They'd both eat together,
Or swim in the pond.

Then, one fine morning,
As I have been told,
Jack's goose had laid him
An egg of pure gold.

He ran to his mother,
The news for to tell.
She called him a good boy,
And said it was well.

Jack sold his egg,
To a merchant untrue,
Who cheated him out,
Of half of his due.

Then Jack went courting,
A lady so gay,
As fair as the lily,
As sweet as the May.

The merchant and squire,
Soon came at his back,
And began to belabour,
The sides of poor Jack.

Then old Mother Goose,
That instant came in,
And turned her son Jack,
Into famed Harlequin.

She then with her wand,
Touched the lady so fine,
And turned her at once,
Into sweet Columbine.

The gold egg in the sea,
Was thrown away then,
When an odd fish brought her,
The egg back again.

The merchant then vowed,
The goose he would kill,
Resolving at once,
His pockets to fill.

Jack's mother came in,
And caught the goose soon,
And mounting its back,
Flew up to the moon.

Mother Goose Suite, A piano suite by Maurice Ravel
Mother Goose Suite, A piano suite by Maurice Ravel

Witchcraft and Wizardry

The sixteenth and seventeeth century were rife with superstitions. Everyone were frightened of witches and wizards and some used this as an excuse to extract unsavoury punishments to innocents accused of witchcraft. Some believe that Old Mother Goose refers to a witch. Instead of a broomstick she flies on a gander (when she wanted to wander, of course). Many witches were also known to have pet animals and birds as 'familiars' - Mother Goose had an owl.

The complete story of Old Mother Goose also features her son Jack and a Goose that laid a golden egg. The fact that she turns Jack into a Harlequin and his girlfriend into Columbine with her magic wand shows Mother Goose in the rhyme may indeed be a witch with some powers.

She eventually flies away on her Goose to the moon.

Mother Goose and Harlequin

The tale of Mother Goose has been further immortalised by popular Christmas pantomime Harlequin and Mother Goose: or, The Golden Egg. This was first performed in 1806-07 around Christmas Time at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London.

This original pantomime was written by Thomas Dibdin and featured the popular star of the day, the clown Joseph Grimaldi. It may well have reinstated Mother Goose as a witch figure who changes her son and his girlfriend into Harlequin and Columbine.

The pantomime is still performed as a Christmas favourite to this day.

The story may well be a mish-mash of Mother Goose fairy tales.

The Poet of Oz

Before he garnered fame as the creator of the famous Wizard of Oz, Lyman Frank Baum released a 'Mother Goose in Prose' book, illustrated by William Denslow. This book features a girl called Dorothy who talks to animals.

Baum changed the name to Doris in the book's subsequent editions, perhaps wanting to save her name for a later, grander adventure for the girl that was destined to be an immortal classic.

Ma mère l'oye - The Ballet

French composer, Maurice Ravel, composed five pieces for a piano duet under the title Ma mère l'oye.

The composition featured five pieces called 'cinq pièces enfantines' (five children's pieces) dedicated to his children. These are:

I. Pavane de la belle au bois dormant

Pavane of Sleeping Beauty

II. Petit Poucet

Little Tom Thumb / Hop o' My Thumb

III. Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes

Little Ugly Girl, Empress of the Pagodas

IV. Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête

Conversation of Beauty and the Beast

V. Le jardin féerique

The Fairy Garden

You can listen to the composition below.

Ravel later orchestrated this work and expanded the compositions into a ballet.

The Mother of all Rhymes

Thus commences our journey through nursery rhyme origins. Now that the mother of all rhymes has been dealt with we can move onto her various offspring - from the Horner who sat in the corner to the Gill who went up the hill ( yes I did spell that right, the original Gill who went up the hill with Jack was a boy!)

You will meet the ovoid Humpty and watch as London Bridge comes falling down.

So don't miss our next adventure.

In the blink of an eye

I bid you Goodbye

Be sure to come by

To find a blackberry pie.


Copyright © Mohan Kumar 2013

Ravel, Ma mère l'Oye, Cinq pièces enfantines


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      Danica Pavlovic 3 years ago


      It's an excellent article. However, I would be glad if you could provide me with references, such as books or articles you used for your detailed research.

      Kind regards,


    • profile image

      Danica 3 years ago


      It's an excellent article. However, I would be glad if you could provide me with references, such as books or articles you used for your detailed research.

      Kind regards,


    • Daisy Mariposa profile image

      Daisy Mariposa 3 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)

      Mohan (Docmo),

      I returned to read your well-researched article again. It brought back a lot of memories.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      Wow what a wonderful hub. I loved it and vote up.


    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 4 years ago from Riga, Latvia

      Really enjoyed. Mary, Mary quite contrary was one of my favorites. Passing this on.

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 4 years ago from UK

      @Michelle: Yes it is always good know a bit of history from these popular rhymes... I did enjoy the research.

      @Dianne: I think I will! thank you so much for your support.

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 4 years ago from UK

      @ruby: thank you so much- glad you enjoyed this history.

      @Opie Pride; Thank you very much.

      @Genna : Thank you so much. My insatiable curiosity leads me to down so many avenues and I am glad I can share it here with fellow hubbers.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 4 years ago

      I was fascinated by your share on the history of these verses. You should write a book!

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Glad our children will learn where these ideas come from! Thanks for sharing, Doc.

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 4 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      I have always loved lullabies and nursery rhymes. But when I recently sang one to my infant granddaughter, they took on a new and blissful meaning for me. Melodies in poetry are lyrical, and I often write in rhyme with a melody playing in my mind, “as thyme goes by.”

      I had no idea ‘Mother Goose’ had such a fascinating history – one that you introduced us to so captivatingly. I look forward to the next adventure in your series. This is interesting and fun. :-)

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 4 years ago from Southern Illinois

      This is beautiful Docmo. The history is interesting. Your presentation is excellent as always...Sharing...

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 4 years ago from UK

      @Mark- thank you very much for your visit.

      @Theater Girl- appreciate the comment. Thanks.

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 4 years ago from UK

      @drbj- great minds, drbj, great minds. gotta read your Mother Goose interview. thanks a bunch.

      @Audrey- much appreciated.

      @Cat- good to see a fellow lover of all things nursery and Oz. thank you very much for your visit and comment.

    • Theater girl profile image

      Jennifer 4 years ago from New Jersey

      Very interesting facts! Thanks for sharing this essay!

    • Mark Johann profile image

      Mark Johann 4 years ago from Italy

      That is nice! You have shared a very important and unique hub here.

      Thanks for sharing and keep writing. Vote up and up!

    • Cantuhearmescream profile image

      Cat 4 years ago from New York


      This certainly was interesting! I've always been a lover of nursery rhymes, especially considering they were probably the first stories I was truly able to read myself and I would just read them over and over again. In a history book, in school, I had remembered reading about the truth behind "Ring Around the Rosy" and its connection to the bubonic plague. I thought that was quite interesting, though I'm glad I was unaware as a child. :-)

      Also a huge lover of L. Frank Baum; I have a collection of everything "Wizard of Oz" but I would love to get some of his other books.

      Excellent hub, I'm so glad I stopped by!


    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 4 years ago from California

      Just wonderful Mohan! I have a special place in my heart for nursery rhymes!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 4 years ago from south Florida

      I, too, Mohan, have long been fascinated by the so-called Mother Goose nursery rhymes and how they all came to be. In fact I wrote two hubs exploring interviews with Mme. Goose: '"Interview with Mother Goose - Part One and Part Two." Thank you for your educated take on the subject which I shall happily follow.

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 4 years ago from UK

      @Ian- good call, I will include a section on pantomime for international consumption in then ext hub. Glad you like this hub. thank you.

      @KoffeeKlatch girls- thank you for your visit and appreciation.

      @Nithya- I'm glad you like this. Thanks.

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 4 years ago from UK

      @Justsilvie- good to see a fellow lover of nursery rhymes. I have outlines for several already. I enjoyed doing the research and will be delighted to share.

      @Mary ( tillsontitan) mother Goose may have been suspected of being a witch, but I bet you are dear angel in a mother goose costume. thank you for your support, as always.

      @Ruchira- thank you very much, much appreciated. Humpty dumpty is on his way.

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 4 years ago from UK

      @Mar- you can come back any time. Perhaps you should consider the nickname' Nurse Lovechild'...;-) thank you.

      @Daisy- thank you very much. Glad you like the presentation of this hub.

      @livingsta- thanks for the vote of confidence on this series - much appreciated.

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 4 years ago from Dubai

      Interesting read I never thought beyond the rhyme. Now I know that a rhyme has a history and an interesting one at that. Thank you for sharing.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Haze 4 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Nursery rhymes are such a big part of a child's young life. I will certainly love reading your series as it develops. I think it's kind of funny that there was a thought of Mother Goose representing a witch.

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 4 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      Mohan, I think you might need to explain 'pantomime' to our North American cousins. I have a friend from Canada who, when seeing her first pantomime, was more than a little confused.

      She has only recently come to terms with the fact that men dress up as ladies (and ugly ones at that) and that the Principle Boy is a girl and that...

      I think I'll leave it to you to explain.

      Nice hub, by the way.


    • Ruchira profile image

      Ruchira 4 years ago from United States

      Honestly, I was clueless on the above.

      Gotta visit you when you write about humpty fav.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 4 years ago from New York

      I have a special place in my heart

      For all that is know to be such a part

      Of the nursery rhymes that we all hold so dear

      And need to repeat so the children can hear.

      This was a great hub Mohan. You know I love the nursery rhymes from my past hubs AND this past Halloween I was Mother Goose. Now that that's out of the way, this was so interesting. I wonder if Mother Goose really was a witch? Can't wait for the next in this entertaining series. Its always good to learn about our past.

      Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting. Oh, and shared and pinned.

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      Justsilvie 4 years ago

      Rally interesting Docmo as a lover of Nursery Rhymes and Fairy Tails without the Disney Slant I loved reading this... Please do more.. Voted and shared!

    • livingsta profile image

      livingsta 4 years ago from United Kingdom

      A very interesting read Mohan. Thank you for this. Would love to read the series ...

      Voted up and sharing!

    • Daisy Mariposa profile image

      Daisy Mariposa 4 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)

      Mohan (Docmo),

      What a fun series of articles this is going to be! I learned so much from reading about Mother Goose. Thanks for taking the time to do such a thorough job of researching the subject. Your writing and formatting of this Hub are first-rate.

    • marcoujor profile image

      Maria Jordan 4 years ago from Jeffersonville PA

      Nurse Lovechild... loves her some blackberry I am coming back for seconds of this curious, yet so delightful series...

      Nursery rhymes, fables, fairy tales...are ageless to me.

      Beautiful research and presentation, Docmo!