A (Very) Short History of “Mother Goose” in Print
In a recent posting on the Cotsen blog, I talked about how American children’s books publisher McLoughlin Brothers depicted the “traditional” figure of Mother Goose and how the always-innovative McLoughlin didn’t hesitate to change, update, or appropriate this depiction for their own purposes. In doing so, I talked in very general terms about the “traditional” associations of Mother Goose and the roots that stories connected with her have in folk tales. But no matter how much McLoughlin Brothers may have tried to lay claim to the figure of Mother Goose, they obviously didn’t invent her. What sort of traditional literary (and pictorial) antecedents for Mother Goose are they hearkening back to?
The earliest printed version of “Mother Goose” stories was published in Paris in 1697, as: “Histoires, ou Contes du Temps Passe” (“Histories, or Tales of Times Past”). Apparently, this was a popular book, because three unauthorized editions were published the end of the year, probably in Amsterdam. The title page of these versions (one shown at left) plays it cagey, noting: “Suivant la copie à Paris — “following the Paris copy” — with “à Paris” in large capitals, so a casual book-shopper (or unsuspecting cataloger!) might not notice that this isn’t actually the Paris first edition.
Mother Goose isn’t mentioned on the title page either, but the book’s engraved frontispiece has the inset caption: “Contes de ma Mere L’Oye”: “Tales of Mother Goose” (as you can see at right). The frontispiece depicts a somber, oldish woman, telling tales to three children at night, while she spins in front of a roaring fireplace. (Note the bright candle, the cat happily sitting near the fire, and the appearance of the three children, pictured much like miniature adults, as was generally the practice at this time.)
With the perspective of book history, this figure is recognizable as Mother Goose, but it’s definitely a sterner version than we saw in McLoughlin Brothers’ (much later) books — a not altogether surprisingly one for its era. Also worth pointing out is that “Contes de ma Mere L’Oye” was not first published as a children’s book, but rather as a literary form of tales popular with the French court.
Some thirty years later, the collection of tales was translated into English by Robert Samber and published as: “Histories, or Tales of Past Times” (1729). Numerous versions for children followed, including at least ten editions by Newbery & Carnan or Benjamin Collins, entitled: “Histories, or, Tales of Past Times, told by Mother Goose.”
As you can see from the photo above, Mother Goose is now cited in the title itself: “Tales … told by Mother Goose.” What had previously been suggested visually — that Mother Goose is the teller of the tales — is made explicit on this 1791 title page, which presents her as the nominal author.
And take a look at the woodcut frontispiece facing the title page in this edition. It looks an awful lot like the engraved frontispiece of our faux-Paris edition, doesn’t it? The English publishers are hearkening back to the earlier French versions by using such a similar illustration. And the frontispiece here also mentions Mother Goose in its inset caption — “Mother Goose’s Tales” — in a way that reinforces the idea that the teller of tales is Mother Goose herself. Illustration reiterates text here, as is often the case in children’s books.
“Fairburn’s Description of the Popular and Comic New Pantomime…”
While cataloging new Cotsen Library acquisitions recently, I came across another, quite different, version of Mother Goose: “Fairburn’s Description of the Popular and Comic New Pantomime, called Harlequin and Mother Goose, or the Golden Egg…” (1806). The text of this little book within paper wrappers is not a tale itself, but rather a play-text and description of a staged pantomime production, a very popular form of English comedic theater, featuring songs and fairly outrageous slapstick humor. (These stage productions often adapted familiar tales; “The White Cat,” one of the fairy tales collected by Madame d’Aulnoy, provided the basis for another popular English popular pantomime of this era.)
Let’s take a closer look at the frontispiece illustration of Mother Goose. Quite a different depiction than we saw above in the earlier books’ illustrations, or in the later McLoughlin versions! The caption below tells us this is: “Mr Simmons in the character of Mother Goose.” In other words, Mother Goose is portrayed as the man who played her role onstage in this pantomime, an interesting piece of gender and role reversal.
Samuel Simmons was one of the stars of the theater company, as evidenced by the 1807 playbill (shown below) for this production at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, where he receives top billing. (Even though the top of the playbill was cropped off by a prior owner, the name of the company remains quite visible). Note too, this pantomime was the second half of a “double-feature,” with “The Tempest”! Such twin-bills were common in theater at the time, usually presenting abridged versions of one or both plays. In an era before television or the Internet, the plays were indeed the thing in terms of popular entertainment.
Another, apparently later, version of “Fairburn’s New Pantomine” in Cotsen’s collection instead pictures the era’s famous clown Joseph Grimaldi on its frontispiece and replaces the title page text, “embellished with a colored frontispiece of Mother Goose” with printed decorative rules. (Both seem to be variations of the undated first edition; two later editions note “2nd” and “3rd” editions, resp.) Why this variation in what seems to be the first edition, though? Perhaps for the sake of variety, or to freshen up the item for sale? After all, the play opened in 1806 and ran for ninety two productions; buyers might not take a second took at an “old” booklet they had seen in the shop for months? Or perhaps Grimaldi got better reviews? Perhaps Fairburn decided that Grimaldi was a better sales incentive to a potential buyer of the printed “Descriptions”? Lacking more evidence from the items themselves or from an external source, I can’t say for certain at this point. But that’s something to work on a bit more, as is the question of dating Cotsen’s different versions of “Fairburn’s Description” with more certainty.
Printed materials like “Fairburn’s Description” or printed play-texts were meant to appeal both visually and textually to potential buyers, but they were ephemeral sports of publications not necessarily meant to last on the shelves of someone’s library; as such they often lack the basic sort of bibliographical information usually found in books, such as a date of publication. The same is true of playbooks from Shakespeare’s era, as hard as that may be for us to imagine now — relatively cheap pamphlet-like publications, usually undated.
The correlation between the sales of printed items issued by Fairburn (or printed playbooks authored by Shakespeare & Co.) and the sale of tickets to attend actual theater performances is a tricky one, as those who study Elizabethan playbooks and plays know all too well. (Changes on the title-pages or covers of Elizabethan playbooks — aka. “quartos” — sometimes seem to have been made just to prompt sales, not necessarily due to any real changes in the text itself, although usually there were indeed “additions” to the text or a new production staged.) But I think it’s safe to say that the combination of at least three printed editions of “Fairburn’s New Pantomine” and an opening run of over ninety performances of the play itself attests to noteworthy popularity of this version of “Mother Goose.”
And I hope you’ve seen how the depiction of the figure of Mother Goose changed over time, from the stern, story-telling woman of 1697 to the gender-challenging comic depiction in 1807 to the kindly old grandmother depicted by McLoughlin Brothers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Changes inevitably seem to come to even the most seemingly “traditional” literary or cultural figures, prompted by changing times. “Traditional” doesn’t necessarily mean fixed, static, or unchanging.