The Three Bears Before Goldilocks: The History of a Fairy Tale

January 25, 2021 | Myrna

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The story of the Three Bears is a familiar one. A troublesome interloper breaks into the home of three bears. She samples food and breaks furniture before being sent on her way. But, did you know that the housebreaker was originally an old woman, not a little girl named Goldilocks? Or, that the first Three Bears were friends instead of Mama Bear, Papa Bear and Baby Bear?

The Three Bears started as an oral tale and was first written down almost 200 years ago. Over the decades, the story has changed and grown into the tale we know today. Our Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books has materials which reveal the history of The Three Bears story.

Eleanor Mure’s manuscript

Eleanor Mure wrote the first recorded version of The Three Bears story in 1831. Osborne Collection has Mure’s original manuscript, a handmade book created as a gift for her nephew Horace Broke. The story is set at Cecil Lodge, the Mure family estate in Hertfordshire, England. Mure's The Story of Three Bears (1831) (see digitized book or records for our physical copies) is told in verse and illustrated with original watercolours.

Illusionist of The Three Bears discovering their milk has been drunk. Caption reads "Who's been drinking my milk, and drunk it all up."
The Three Bears discover their milk has been drunk in The Story of the Three Bears (1831).


Described as “the celebrated nursery tale,” the story was shared orally by Mure’s family long before she set it to paper. In Mure’s telling, the Bears are not a family. They are three friends who “fancy a home amongst the dwellings of men.”

Illustration of the Old Woman being dragged by the Three Bears. Caption reads "And drag forth the dame, half expiring with fear."
The Old Woman is discovered by the Three Bears in The Story of the Three Bears (1831).


Instead of a little girl, the Bears’ house is invaded by an old woman. Mure’s old woman meets a bad end. As punishment for housebreaking, the Bears try to burn and drown the old woman. When nothing works, they “chuck her aloft on St. Paul’s church-yard steeple.” 

Illustration of The Three Bears dancing with St. Paul's Cathedral and the Old Woman in the background. Caption reads "And chucj her aloft on St Paul's church-yard steeple."
The Three Bears celebrate after throwing the old woman atop St. Paul's Cathedral in The Story of the Three Bears (1831).


Robert Southey’s published story

In 1837, English poet Robert Southey released the first printed version of The Three Bears. The story appeared in Southey’s prose anthology The Doctor (1834-47). As with Mure's family, The Three Bears was a popular story among Southey’s family. Southey likely heard The Three Bears from his uncle, William Tyler. Tyler was illiterate, but had a great memory for folktales.

Text reading "Somebody has been at my porridge" repeated three times in different fonts.
The bears' size difference is illustrated through font in Southey's The Three Bears (1837).


Southey’s story is the first version to discuss the Bears’ size. He introduces the Three Bears as Little, Small, Wee Bear; Middle Bear; and Great, Huge Bear. The story has no illustrations, but the Bears’ size is represented by typography. Great, Huge Bear speaks in large gothic letters. Little, Small, Wee Bear speaks in tiny italics.

Unlike Mure’s telling, the Southey’s bears do not punish the intruding old woman. Instead she makes an escape through an open window. Southey speculates that she might be “sent to the House of Correction” for vagrancy, or perhaps “she broke her neck in the fall.”

Illustration of old woman eating the bears' porridge
The old woman samples the Bears' porridge. From George Nicol's verse adaptation of The Story of the Three Bears (1837) illustrated by Robert Hart.


Southey’s The Three Bears was an instant hit. Within months publisher George Nicol released his own version of The Story of the Three Bears (1837). Nicol’s story was in verse, but otherwise was a direct retelling of Southey’s version.


A little girl with metallic hair

In early tellings of The Three Bears, the protagonist was an old woman. But, in 1850 Joseph Cundall wrote the first retelling featuring a little girl. Cundall called his character Silver-Hair and justified the switch by saying “there are so many other stories of old women.” Published in A Treasury of Pleasure Books for Young Children (1850), Cundall’s retelling otherwise closely followed Southey’s version of The Three Bears.

Illustration of The Three Bears discovering Silver-Hair sleeping
The Three Bears watch Silver-Hair sleep in A Treasury of Pleasure Books for Young Children (1850).


Following Cundall’s publication, little girl protagonists named Silver-Hair became a common feature of The Three Bears retellings. The character was sometimes called Silver-Locks, Golden Hair and other variant names. 


Goldilocks popularized

The name Goldilocks was first used for the Bears' nemesis in two 1904 fairy tale anthologies. Old Nursery Rhymes and Stories (1904) and Old Fairy Tales for Children (1904) both feature "Little Goldilocks" as The Three Bears' intruder. It is possible that the name Goldilocks was inspired by an entirely different fairy tale. French fairy tale writer Madame d'Aulnoy's story The Beauty with Golden Hair is sometimes translated as The Story of Pretty Goldilocks. 

Illustration of the Three Bears confronting Goldilocks. Caption reads "somebody has been lying in my bed and here she is!"
The Three Bears confront Goldilocks in English Fairy Tales (1918).


In the 20th century, Goldilocks became the character's standard name. Popular fairy tale collections like Flora Annie Steel's English Fairy Tales (1918) used the Goldilocks name. Now the story is sometimes simply titled Goldilocks without any mention of The Three Bears. 

Modern variations

The Three Bears continues to be reimagined by writers and illustrators. The Bears have been portrayed as dinosaurs, panda bears, polar bears, rhinos and everything in between.

Cover of Goldilocks and the Three Bears A Tale Moderne by Steven Guarnaccia

Goldilocks and the Three Bears: A Tale Moderne (2000) by Steven Guarnaccia combines the classic fairy tale with modernist art and design. In this version, Goldilocks breaks a "pint-sized" mid-century modern chair.  


Cover of The Ghanaian Goldilocks by Tamara Pizzoli

The Ghanaian Goldilocks (2014) by Tamara Pizzoli features Kofi, a little boy nicknamed Goldilocks. Instead of intruding on bears, he sneaks into the house of family friends. Pizzoli's version focuses on the story's moral message about good manners, while also exploring Ghanaian culture and traditions. 


Cover of Goldilocks A Hashtag Cautionary Tale by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross

#Goldilocks: A Hashtag Cautionary Tale (2019) by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross uses the story to teach internet safety. Their Goldilocks is an online video star. Her quest for views and likes goes too far when she sneaks into the Bears' home for video content.


Further reading