Mother Hubbard and Her Dog Go Abroad

It’s no coincidence that the very first two nursery rhyme anthologies, the song-books of Nancy Cock and Tommy Thumb, were collected and published in 1744 by some merry wags in London.   And it’s no exaggeration to say that English language nonsense is rooted in its vibrant and salty tradition of nursery rhymes.  Nonsense isn’t supposed to travel well because the humor depends so much on the resources of the language in which it was created.  If that were true, then why has Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland has been translated into so many languages?  A better explanation might be that when there is a will, there is a way to recast the wordplay so people in another culture can delight in its absurdities.

Old Mother Hubbard and the antics of her dog is another classic of English nonsense that has made people in Europe laugh too, a fact that you won’t learn from the indispensable Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes.  The Opies recorded the continuation and a sequel “by another hand” issued shortly after the John Harris first edition of 1805, imitations like Old Mother Lantry and her Goat (1819), the first pantomime version of 1833, and a translation into German ca. 1830.

The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog. Illustrated by Robert Branston? London: J. Harris, 1820 (Cotsen 3688).

What the Opies didn’t make clear is that it was the 1820 edition in Harris’s “Cabinet of Amusement and Instruction” with the hand-colored wood engravings attributed to Robert Branson that captured imaginations overseas, not the original edition illustrated with etchings.  See the beautiful high-relief carvings of the amazing dog’s head in the corners of the elaborate gilt frame of the good old lady’s portrait?

Her steeple-crowned hat on top of a mob-cap, the gown with a laced stomacher and ruffled sleeves over a quilted petticoat, became iconic internationally, as did her dog’s ensemble of an opera hat, powdered wig, waistcoat, breeches, stockings with clocks and buckled shoes.  They are both unmistakable in the New Adventures of Mother Hubbard, when they visit the sights of London ca. 1840, the year Victoria married her cousin Albert.

Cotsen 3688.


Cock Robin and the New Mother Hubbard. London: James March, not before 1840 (Cotsen 26792).

Audot published a French prose translation, Aventures plaisantes de Madame Gaudichon et de son chien, in 1832.  Baumgaertner in Leipzig quickly picked it up and repackaged it as an entertaining text carefully annotated for German-speaking children to learn French.   The dog is named “Zozo” here (he isn’t called anything in the English original).

Cotsen 3708.

The German translation,  unlike the French one, is in verse and it tries to preserve  something of the rhythm in English.   The illustrations are very careful copies of Branston’s for the Harris Cabinet edition, although the colorist occasionally changed the palette.  Mother Hubbard’s cloak is still crimson and her stomacher green, but her quilted petticoat is light yellow and her hat pale green with crimson trim.  In some of the illustrations, the stomacher is Dutch blue!  Frau Hubbard offers her Liebchen a more generous portion of beer than Mother Hubbard did in a stein redrawn with gently swelling contours.  Unfortunately it conforms to one national stereotype of Germans as beer swillers…

Komische Abentheuer der Frau Hubbard und ihrein Hunde. Mainz: Joseph Scholz, ca. 1830 (Cotsen 23460).

Mother Hubbard and her spaniel turn up in an 1840 Baumgaertner picture book, Herr Kickebusch und sein Katzchen Schnurr, which seems to be inspired partly by old Dame Trot, the owner of a clever kitty, whose rhyme predated the first appearance of Mother Hubbard both in English and in German translation by a few years.   The story accompanying plate VIII describes how  Madame Kickebusch, the lady in the Mother Hubbard costume comes to visit Herr Kickebusch with her gallant little gentleman, Azor.  Here the two pets are being introduced to each other.

Cotsen 5450.

There are no less than four Russian translations of Alice in Wonderland, included one by Vladimir Nabokov, so why not two radically different ones of Mother Hubbard?   Russia’s first fine art book publisher Knebel’ was responsible for the earlier one. Josef Nikolaevich Knebel is a fascinating figure, who apparently had no scruples about issuing unauthorized reprints of famous modern Western European picture books like Elsa Beskov’s Olles skifard and Tomtebobarnen.  There are no clues in  Knebel’ translation of Mother Hubbard, Babushka Zabavushka i sobachka Bum [The Jolly Grandma and her Little Dog Boom], as to who wrote the text or drew the pictures.  The mystery author was Raisa Kudasheva (1878-1964), who also translated the Knebel rip-off of one of the Beskow picture books.  While the illustrations are in the unmistakable style of W. W. Denslow, whoever drew them was not copying the American’s  version of Mother Hubbard.  

Raisa Kudasheva. Babushka Zabavushka u sobashka Bum. Moscow: I. Knebel’, ca. 1906 (Cotsen 27721).

A purely Russian addition to the dog’s remarkable accomplishments is sledding! Cotsen 27721.

Of all the versions here, perhaps the closest to the spirit of the English nursery rhyme is the poem Pudel’ [Pudel] by the great Soviet children’s poet, Samuil Marshak.  In some people’s opinion, Marshak beats the original cold and they may have a point.  To what extent the inspired illustrations by Vladimir Lebedev play into this is impossible to say.    It begins something like this:  An old lady who loves a quiet life drinking coffee and making croutons.  Or would, if she didn’t own a rumbustious purebred poodle.   She decides to get him a bone for lunch out of the cupboard, but what does she find inside? The poodle!

Samuil Marshak. Pudel’. Illustrated by Vladimir Lebedev. Moscow, Leningrad: Raduga, 1927 (Cotsen 26976).

There is no end to his naughty tricks.  This is what happens when he gets his paws on the old lady’s ball of knitting wool…

Marshak’s spin on Mother Hubbard is still so beloved in Russia that an animated film was made by Nina Shorina in 1985.  This version on You Tube has optional subtitles so the poetry and pictures can be enjoyed together by non-Russian speakers.

A world traveler, this very English bit of nonsense!


Good Job! English Reward of Merit Book Labels and Plates

If you know your Tom Sawyer, you probably remember the chapter where the hero swops the detritus in his pockets for any reward of merit tickets his mates have in theirs.  Tom reports to Sunday School, where he proudly presents his stash of tickets–nine yellow, nine red, and ten blue for a total of ten–to Mr. Walters and claims his prize, a Bible illustrated by Gustave Dore.

Did the Dore Bible also have a reward of merit bookplate pasted inside with a neat inscription noting that it was presented to Thomas Sawyer on the occasion of his having “warehoused two thousand sheaves of Scriptural wisdom?”  That detail isn’t mentioned by Twain, unfortunately.  Imagine the price that copy would sell for at auction!

No famous children owned any of Cotsen’s nineteenth-century British books with reward of merit plates . The British labels I’ll highlight here are not as heavily illustrated or color-printed like the better known American reward of merit tickets and bookplates.  The examples in Cotsen may be more modest, but are interesting as relics from particular schools.

A master at Mr. Clarke’s Academy at Enfield for dissenters presented one of Mrs. Wakefield’s tours to different parts of the globe to a pupil.  The names of the recipient and the teacher are written on the blue engraved label, but they are now so faded as to be very difficult to make out.  The signature at the head of the title page may be that of another owner.   Incidentally the poet John Keats was a schoolboy at Clarke’s Academy.

Cotsen 52847.

Cotsen 52847.

This neat little abridgment of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was given to a Master Trafford for excellent marks on his final Greek exam by his two clergyman teachers, who may have been private tutors like Fielding’s Thwackum and Square. The little manuscript plate has been carefully designed and elegantly calligraphed, perhaps in imitation of the engraved ones.

Cotsen 20588.

Cotsen 20588.

A full-length biography of Dick Whittington for young readers was thought suitable for presentation to Master Wilkinson of J. H. Abraham’s Milk Street Academy in Sheffield  late June 1816.  Milk Street was another dissenting academy with a good reputation. The master J. H. Abraham (1777-1846) was a Quaker. A member of Sheffield’s scientific community, he was among the first teachers in England to integrate modern science instruction into the curriculum.

School masters might paste printed or engraved labels in the books they presented to good students, but some teachers personally inscribed copies.  A teacher noted that Miss Caroline Weston was receiving The Picture Gallery Explored, with the awe-inspiring frontispiece of a father and his three daughters taking in the canvases hung floor to ceiling, for “good behavior and attention to her studies in school.”   There’s not enough evidence in the book to even hazard a guess as to the location of the school, there having been several schools named “Albion House” in Victorian England later in the century.

Cotsen 83475.

Cotsen 83475.

A recently acquired prize book from the 1890s bound in red calf stamped with the school’s arms shows that the practice of giving books to outstanding students had been reduced to a fine art.  The large printed reward plate states that Annie Rawbone of the upper third form received this adaptation of Josephus for getting first place in arithmetic with a mark of  93.  Annie’s school, which was founded in 1873, still exists today in a different location.

Cotsen in process 6347780.

You can see more examples of rewards of merit in a post by my colleague Julie Mellby on her Graphic Arts blog!