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NYPL Gallery

6 Forgotten Nursery Rhymes and Their Meanings

NYPL Gallery
NYPL Gallery

Recently, I found a beautiful 19th century children’s book called Mother Goose or the Old Nursery Rhymes. In it, illustrator Kate Greenaway had drawn the demure expressions and swan-like curvatures that had made her famous in her day, all in rare color. Many of the rhymes were familiar—Little Boy Blue and Little Miss Muffett—but some of the more baffling rhymes were new to me. Nursery rhymes often (but not always) contain more layers than first appear. Sometimes they were intrinsic parts of games, history, or political opinion. Here are some of the more unfamiliar rhymes and what, if anything, lies behind their meaning.

1. "Elsie Marley has grown so fine"

Elsie Marley has grown so fine,
She won’t get up to serve the swine;
But lies in bed till eight or nine,
And surely she does take her time. 

Old British pubs were a fertile ground to birth rhymes and song, especially if that song was about the lady who ran the pub. Elsie Marley was a real lady who ran a pub called The White Swan. She was much lauded, “her buxom presence and lively humour being the means of attracting customers of all ranks of society.” The swine in question were undoubtedly her clientele. These lines were only a tiny bit of a popular song, likely outliving their source because you can so easily fit in a lesson about arrogance and laziness for children.

While Marley might have started as an 18th century pub song, it was later appropriated by the Scottish to describe the battle for the crown between Scottish Charles Stuart and King James II. The Scottish version turns Elsie to “Eppie” and has her losing all her money following the Stuart cause. 

2. "Cross Patch, lift the latch"

Cross Patch, lift the latch,
Sit by the fire and spin;
Take a cup, and drink it up,
Then call your neighbours in. 

If you were to hear this nursery rhyme being chanted around the 18th century kindergarten monkeybars, it would probably be a taunt. A “crosspatch” was a person who was cranky, or cross. The “patch” meant fool or gossip, apparently because fools in centuries past were identifiable by their haphazard clothing repairs. In this little story, Miss Selfish locks her door, drinks all the good stuff up by herself, and then lets her neighbors come in.

In a slight variation, Cross Patch is compared to “Pleasant Face, dressed in lace, let the visitor in!” In that version nobody wants to play with ole Crosspatch, because she’s a pill. So she has to sit and make yarn all by herself all day. Whereas Pleasant Face is throwing a party.

3. "Tell Tale Tit"

Tell Tale Tit,
Your tongue shall be slit;
And all the dogs in the town
Shall have a little bit.

Here is another great example of the school yard taunt. Pinning down just what was meant with “tell tale tit” is the only complicated part of this rhyme. Our modern definition of “tit” has been in use for a very long time, though not nearly as sexualized. In a copy of Webster’s Dictionary from 1828 it is described in lovely, florid language as “the pap of a woman; the nipple. It consists of an elastic erectile substance, embracing the lactiferous ducts, which terminate on its surface, and thus serves to convey milk to the young of animals.” The same entry, strangely enough, identifies a tit as a tiny horse. Soon it evolved to mean anything small: tittering, titmouse, tit-bits (predecessor to tid-bits). A tell tale tit is a crybaby tattletale. It was a popular insult, having many variations just in English school yards alone. And we all know what happens to tattletales; it involves sharp knives and hungry dogs. Not a rhyme that succeeded into the sanitized gentility of the 20th century. 

4. "Goosey, goosey, gander, where shall I wander?"

Goosey, goosey, gander, where shall I wander?
Up stairs, down stairs, and in my lady's chamber.
There I met an old man who would not say his prayers,
Take him by the left leg, throw him down the stairs.

Sometimes nursery rhymes make absolutely no sense—unless there’s a hidden meaning to them. Of course, children seldom look for that meaning. Even by 1889, “goosey gander” was children’s slang for blockhead, but the phrase had to come from somewhere. Some people think it refers to a husband’s “gander month”—the last month of his wife’s pregnancy, where, in centuries past, she’d go into “confinement,” and not leave her home for fear of shocking the populace by her grotesque condition, so her husband was free to wander all the ladies' chambers he wanted. But most historians think this nursery rhyme is about “priest holes.” That was a place where a well-to-do family would hide their priest and thus their Catholic faith during the many times and places in history Catholicism was prosecutable, particularly during the reign of Henry VIII and the upheaval of Oliver Cromwell. “Left-footer” was slang for Catholic, and any person caught praying to the “Catholic” God was praying wrong. Throwing them down the stairs would be the least those mackerel-snappers would have to worry about. 

5. "My mother, and your mother"

My mother, and your mother,
Went over the way;
Said my mother, to your mother,
"It's chop-a-nose day." 

Sometimes, even rhymes that seem about to burst from the lurid story that spawned them turn out to be nothing more than a catchy rhyme. “Chop a nose day,” I suspected at first, had something to do with grotesque medieval social justice—but if it is, it has been lost to time. The Chop-a-Nose rhyme was more a medieval version of “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” Mothers and paid nurses would use it as part of a game to teach toddlers body parts, culminating in a pretend “chop” of the child’s nose. 

6. "All around the green gravel"

All around the green gravel
The grass grows so green
And all the pretty maids are fit to be seen;
Wash them in milk,
Dress them in silk,
And the first to go down shall be married!

The more you research nursery rhymes of previous centuries, the more you realize people used to really love forming circles together and singing. They were called “ring games,” and involved holding hands, walking in a circle, and chanting, usually culminating in everyone falling down. The most long-standing example was, of course, Ring Around the Rosie (which, by the way, almost certainly had nothing to do with Bubonic plague), but the Green Gravel circle game is even more interesting because nearly every geographic area of the UK had their own slightly different version of it. In this version, the first girl to plop down on her bottom (or more demurely, into a crouch) at the last line is either out, and turns her back to the circle (though still holding hands) or gets to kiss a boy standing in the center of the circle. In some versions he even gets to call out her name to end the game, increasing the chances that she just might be the first to marry.

Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol

Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.


While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.


But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.


Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”


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