Nursery rhymes are timeless poems and songs that have been a part of children’s lives for hundreds of years. This post will look at the history of nursery rhymes and explain how some of the most popular tunes came about! Since many nursery rhymes are so old, it’s fascinating to read about their origins and where their popularity began.

Since many of the nursery rhymes we know and love have existed for centuries, nursery rhyme meanings are often uncertain. We can’t really say for definite where they came from, but there are a lot of interesting interpretations! 

The Origins of Nursery Rhymes

Little Miss Muffet 

“Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey,” until a scary spider came along and made her run away! 

This classic tale supposedly emerged from a famous physician Dr. Thomas Muffet, who did lots of scientific research into insects, including spiders! It’s believed that one of his spiders escaped and scared his stepdaughter, Little Miss Muffet, however, this has not been verified. The rhyme first appeared in print back in 1805!

Polly, Put The Kettle On

This fun, repetitive tune originated in England, making its first appearance in print in 1797. It was common for boys and girls to want to play their own games, and the rhyme allegedly refers to a case of this in the 18th century! Polly would put tea on while the girls waited for the boys to leave, and after which Sukey would take it off so they could play their game.

Sing a Song of Sixpence

This strange little rhyme is an interesting one to consider when looking at nursery rhyme meanings! Some believe the lyrics mock the luxurious life of English kings from centuries ago, with the rhyme first being published around 1744. In this interpretation, the origins can be traced back to the 1500s, where kings would often be served very bizarre meals in an attempt to be impressed!

With this rhyme, “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie” could be a way of joking about the strange food the rich were being served at the time!

The Grand Old Duke of York 

When looking at the history of nursery rhymes, one of the more intriguing rhymes is The Grand Old Duke Of York, since it may refer to an actual historical event! 

It’s believed that the rhyme mocks the defeat of Richard, “The Grand Old Duke Of York,” when he lost the War of the Roses in England in 1455! This war went on for 30 years and was fought between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, both battling for the English throne. Richard had “ten thousand men” and wanting to make a direct attack on his enemies by “marching them down again,” ending in his defeat! While it’s uncertain whether this is true, it’s an interesting take on the rhyme! 

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star

The lyrics to this rhyme emerged from a poem written by a poet from the 19th century, Jane Taylor. It was initially called “The Star” when it was published way back in 1806!

origins of nursery rhymes

The Wheels on the Bus

While a lot of nursery rhyme meanings date back to centuries ago, The Wheels on the Bus is actually a relatively new tune! It emerged in 1939 and was written by Verna Hills as an American folk song. The rhyme is very popular among young children, especially on school trips when they take the bus and on long car journeys! It’s perfect for keeping children entertained and happy while traveling.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Row, Row, Row Your Boat supposedly made an appearance in 19th century America! This simple, happy rhyme gives a positive outlook on life and always seems to put little ones in a cheery mood.

One, Two Buckle My Shoe

This rhyme is excellent for helping children learn to count! It was apparently first heard in Massachusetts as early as 1780 but it was first recorded in the “Songs for the Nursery” book in the 18th century. Rather than having a real story behind it, it’s likely this rhyme was created purely for the purpose of helping children with counting!

Hey Diddle Diddle

Interestingly, Hey Diddle Diddle actually coined the popular term “over the moon,” meaning really happy! However, the origins of the rhyme are unclear. Similar lyrics to the rhyme appearing centuries ago imply the poem has been around for a very long time, but we don’t know this for certain.

Hickory, Dickory Dock

This nursery rhyme was supposedly introduced to help children learn to count! Hickory, Dickory Dock was first published in 1744 and potentially has its origins in the United States, but some believe it relates back to Oliver Cromwell, the English military and political leader who opposed the monarchy.

One of Oliver Cromwell’s nicknames was Hickory Dick, and his rule in England didn’t last very long at all. Due to this, some believe the line “the mouse ran down” refers to him running down from power. However, as with most nursery rhyme meanings, we don’t know for sure!

where nursery rhymes actually came from

Two Little Dicky Birds

This fun little rhyme dates back to the 18th century, with it first appearing in “Mother Goose’s Melody” in 1765. Other than this publication date, the exact origins of the nursery rhyme are unknown!

Two Little Dicky Birds is often sung with hand gestures to accompany it, in which little ones mimic the birds sitting on the wall and flying away with their index fingers! This makes the nursery rhyme even more fun and engaging for children. 

Seesaw Margery Daw

Seesaw Margery Daw was first published in London around 1765. The tune of the rhyme’s song is associated with James William Elliott, who published his “National Nursery Rhymes and Nursery Songs” in 1870!

It’s assumed that the history of this rhyme refers to a seesaw, the age-old playground ride for little ones, and relates to children who play on it.

Round and Round the Garden

This rhyme emerged in Britain in the late 1940s, making it a relatively new rhyme compared to others! The second line of the rhyme says “like a teddy bear,” which is another way we can be sure the rhyme is more recent.

The term ‘teddy bear’ wasn’t actually coined until the 20th century began, showing that the words to the rhyme couldn’t have existed before this.

Little Bo Peep

Little Bo Peep made an appearance in print form for the first time in the 1800s, but the rhyme may have existed long before this! While the rhyme tells the tale of a young girl who has lost her sheep, there is no exact story behind it.

Humpty Dumpty

While we all picture Humpty Dumpty as an egg-like person sat on a wall and eventually falling and cracking, the Humpty Dumpty rhyme actually originated from something a lot different!

Humpty Dumpty was a huge siege cannon used by Royalist forces, also known as “the king’s men,” during the English civil war that took place between 1642 and 1651. The canon “sat on the wall” and protected the town from the opposing troops! Humpty Dumpty faced his “great fall” when the tower he was defending was blown up, and he couldn’t be put “together again”! 

Baa Baa Black Sheep

Unlike Humpty Dumpty that has a different meaning, Baa Baa Black Sheep really does refer to sheep! The rhyme shows how important sheep were to the English economy, since there was a lot of money in the wool trade back in the 1500s.

Supposedly the rhyme relates to the wool tax that was introduced and it shows how the wool was divided among the king, monasteries or church, and the shepherd. The last line was changed from “And none for the little boy who cries down the lane” to make the popular rhyme more positive for children!

Cover image credit: Wikimedia Commons