Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog: The Nursery Rhyme that Changed Children’s Books
The contrary and hilarious adventures of Mother Hubbard and her dog have entertained readers for centuries. First published in 1805, The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog represented a new kind of children’s literature. The nursery rhyme book integrated text with coloured pictures and focused on amusement over imparting moral lessons.
Our Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books has materials that document the history of Mother Hubbard and her clever dog. They're currently on display our Dog Days: Dogs in Children's Books exhibit, which runs at Lillian H. Smith branch until October 14, 2023.
Sarah Catherine Martin's rhymes
Family legend says that Sarah Catherine Martin wrote Mother Hubbard and Her Dog after her future brother-in-law told her to “run away and write one of [her] stupid little rhymes.” She ended up dedicating Mother Hubbard and Her Dog to that brother-in-law, John Pollexfen Bastard, a wealthy landowner and British member of parliament. The dedication to John Pollexfen Bastard reads: "at whose suggestion and at whose House these Notable Sketches were design't. This Volume is with all suitable deference Dedicated by his Humble Servant."
Nursery rhyme scholars believe the early verses of Mother Hubbard and Her Dog came from a rhyme in oral circulation. Martin elaborated on the traditional poem and added additional verses, creating the first written record of Mother Hubbard. Her take on the nursery rhyme won some unexpected fans. Sarah Trimmer, a writer and critic known for championing “rational” children’s books, admitted in a review, “though full of inconsistencies we confess, [Mother Hubbard] afforded us much entertainment.”
John Harris's publishing success
Sarah Catherine Martin's so-called "stupid little rhymes" proved very successful. In just a few months, publisher John Harris sold more than 10,000 copies of Martin's The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog (1805). Following that success, John Harris rapidly published two sequels. Sarah Catherine Martin penned A Continuation of The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and her Dog (1806). In this continuation, Mother Hubbard’s dog finds love with another clever canine. Then later that same year, Harris released A Sequel to The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog (1806), written by an unidentified poet.
Neither Mother Hubbard sequel matched the success of Martin’s first poem, but the book’s format proved successful for Harris. Prior to Mother Hubbard and Her Dog, most English children's books were educational or had a strong moral message. Sarah Catherine Martin's rhymes were innovative in that they were written to entertain and delight. Harris would continue to publish children’s books, which combined thoughtful illustrations with delightful, non-moralistic stories. Popular Harris titles in this style included The Butterfly's Ball, and the Grasshopper's Feast (1807) and The History of the Apple Pie (1808).
Mother Hubbard's fame grows
Mother Hubbard and Her Dog quickly entered the English nursery rhyme canon. In addition to John Harris, other English publishers began producing their own editions of Sarah Catherine Martin's poem. Each of these Mother Hubbard and Her Dog editions put their own unique spin on the nursery rhyme.
Mother Hubbard and Her Dog quickly became a chapbook staple, as well. Chapbooks were cheaply produced and widely available pamphlets, usually printed on a single folded sheet of paper. Chapbook editions of Mother Hubbard and Her Dog were more affordable than John Harris's publications.
Publisher Marcus Ward Co.'s Old Mother Hubbard (approximately 1890) reimagined the poem in shape book format. In the late 19th century, shape books became a popular format for fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Die-cut technology allowed publishers to explore shapes beyond standard rectangles and squares. Marcus Ward Co.'s edition is shaped like Mother Hubbard’s infamously bare cupboard.
In the 20th century, Mother Hubbard's reach further expanded. Poets began translating the nursery rhyme into other languages. Russian poet Samuil Marshak reimagined Mother Hubbard and Her Dog as Pudelʹ (1934). Some bilingual readers claim Marshak’s verses improve on Sarah Catherine Martin's original work. Unlike the English rhyme, Marshak’s old woman is forced to contend with a harsh Russian winter when she ventures out on errands.
Over 200 years after its first publication, Mother Hubbard continues to appear in nursery rhyme collections and picture book editions around the world. This tale of a mischievous dog and his faithful owner has serious staying power.
- John Harris's books for youth, 1801-1843 compiled by Marjorie Moon (only available in person at the Osborne Collection)
- The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes edited by Iona and Peter Opie.
- Making Amusement the Vehicle of Instruction: Key Developments in the Nursery Reading Market 1783-1900 by Lesley Jane Delaney
- “Mister Gobwin” and His “Interesting Little Books, Adorned with Beautiful Copper-Plates” from The Princeton University Library Chronicle
- Mother Hubbard and Her Dog Go Abroad in Translation from Cotsen Children’s Library Blog