Here we are, in the midst of the summer dog days and I am going to take this opportunity to honor a dog who gets much less credit and respect than he deserves. This dog was so wonderful that his owner gave him rich dainties whenever she fed him and she erected a monument to him when he died, for good, the second time. This dog, of course, is that antic creature who belonged to Old Mother Hubbard.
So what did he do that deserves our respect? Nothing less than help usher in what one historian calls the "dawn of levity" in books for children.1 Generally, Alice in Wonderland, published in 1865, is given credit for championing nonsense in children's reading, but long before that, in 1805, Sarah Catherine Martin penned the verses to The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and her Wonderful Dog, and the first promising rays of frivolity glowed on the horizon of children's literature. The dog, through the years, has been portrayed as a variety of breeds: lab, beagle, terrier, mutt, even poodle. The dog actually had a name in one of the versions. He performed a variety of amazing tricks for a dog: He died and came back to life and laughed about it; he smoked a pipe, read the newspaper, stood on his head, rode a goat, played a flute, dressed up in clothes, and spun yarn. Over the years, he dropped some bad habits and even learned a few new tricks. By 1900 he was no longer eating tripe or smoking a pipe. He was eating a chop and spinning a top. Nor was he drinking beer or wine. He acquired a new skill: candy making. Old Mother Hubbard went to the grocer's to buy him some coffee, but when she came back he was making some toffee.2
This little book was unlike anything that had been hitherto produced for the young. It was a composition with no apparent meaning. Take the last verse, for instance: The dame made a curtsey, the dog made a bow; the dame said your servant, the dog said bow-wow. What does that mean anyway? Of course, that is the point. It has no meaning and it is delightful in its meaninglessness. There is not a thing to be learned from it, is there? It was morning, indeed, in the land of children's literature, thanks to the foolish antics of Mother Hubbard's wonderful dog, Tray. Oh, yes, that was the dog's name, revealed only once that I found -- in an edition published about 1820 by James Kendrew of York. Old Mother Hubbard's dog's name was Tray.3
Notes1 Darton, F.J. Harvey, Children's Books In England, p. 202.
2 Mother Hubbard, p. <7>
3 The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog, p. <2>
SourcesDarton, F.J. Harvey, Children's Books In England: Five Centuries of Social Life. Third revised ed. Published by the British Library and Oak Knoll Press, 1999.
The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog. Colliergate, Eng.: James Kendrew, ca. 1820.
Mother Hubbard. New York, London: Raphael Tuck & Sons, <1901>.
Copyright 2004 © Rita Smith
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