Dorothy Sloan -- Books


Old Mother Hubbard

110.     [CHILDREN’S LITERATURE]. M[ARTIN], S[arah] C[atherine] (attributed). Mother Hubbard and Her Dog, A Continuation of the Comic Adventures, of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog by S.C.M. London, Pub. Jan.-1 1807, by J. Harris corner of S. Pauls Church Yard. London, 1807. 16 leaves (text and illustrations entirely engraved, printed on one side only), 15 copper-engraved comic illustrations by author (each about 8 x 8 cm), original bright hand coloring. 16mo (13 x 9.6 cm), stitched, sympathetic paper backstrip. Light wear and a few minor stains and dust-soiling to outer leaves, otherwise a fine copy, with contemporary ink ownership signature of Mr. Pick.

     Second edition. Moon 561 & Osborne II, 684. The first edition was published in 1806, quickly following the success of the original story, The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog (London, 1805), one of the earliest children’s books issued for amusement only. The combination of whimsical illustrations, absence of accompanying moral lessons, and the light, nonsensical and easily repeated verses, made Mother Hubbard a huge success at the time. The present work continues in the same vein. Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, pp. 317-322 (on the original work):

The character of Mother Hubbard was not new, she was known in the sixteenth century in much the same light as Tom Thumb and Mother Bunch. A satire titled Mother Hubberd’s Tale was published in 1590, however although a dog is mentioned, there is no apparent connection with the nursery rhyme. Sarah Catherine Martin (1768-1826) wrote the rhyme while staying with her future brother-in-law John Pollexfen Bastard, M.P., but it is not known whether she originated the entire rhyme or embellished verses known at the time. No copy of the rhyme has been found prior to her 1804 manuscript.

     It is thought that publisher Harris’ method of coloring the amusing copper-engraved illustrations was engaging children sitting around a table, each with his or her own pan of watercolor, a partially painted copy to use as a guide, and a stack of printed sheets to color. Following the guide, one child would paint the areas, and pass the sheet on to the next child, who would in turn paint the next color and pass it on, until the image was completely painted. Percy Muir comments on publisher John Harris in English Children’s Books (New York & Washington: Praeger, 1969), pp. 100-102:

One of the most significant events in the early nineteenth century was the taking-over of the Newbery business by John Harris, Elizabeth Newbery’s manager for many years. He was bursting with new ideas…. He gave his little books a new, gay, up-to-date appearance, was among the first to make extensive and effective use of metal engravings as opposed to woodcuts for the illustrations, and to make strikingly good use of colour.

Two of his most outstanding successes display very well the leading features of his methods. The first of these concerns the most famous and long-lived of all the dames in nursery literature—Old Mother Hubbard. Whether or not the character was invented by Sarah Catherine Martin, whose initials appear on the title-page of the first edition, does not really matter very much. The important thing is that the Adventures, with an admirable series of engravings after Miss Martin’s drawings, were first published by Harris on June 1, 1805. The book sold in thousands immediately, was reprinted over and over again from 1806 onwards, and was pirated and copied by many of Harris’s rivals….

Harris, wittingly or otherwise, had catered for the vast majority of children who just wanted to be amused, without having to pay the penalty of continual reminders to keep their faces clean, their hair tidy, and everything else up to scratch, including their morals.

There was nothing particularly new about this “discovery”; it was simply a belated realisation of the fact that the most persistent favourites with children have always been the old nursery rhymes and tales, in which there was no bothersome preoccupation with anything but the sheer delight of the jingles and stories.

The moralists kept their powder dry all right, but it never kindled very well. The return to full jam was a success no less with the parents than with the children, for the idea that enjoyment is sinful in itself, although by no means dead even to-day, was already less potent than it had been under the Puritans.

     Little that can be authenticated is known about Sarah Catherine Martin (1768-1826) except that she popularized these now famous adventures of Old Mother Hubbard (see Piermont Morgan Library, Early Children’s Books and their Illustration, Boston: Godine, 1975). As for the speculative side, Old Mother Hubbard allegedly was written under rather silly circumstances. Martin, once the lover of the man who would become England’s King Henry IV, while visiting the home of her future brother-in-law, John Bastard, who was highly irritated by her babbling. He shooed her away and told her to go “write one of your stupid little rhymes.” Supposedly, Mother Hubbard was the result of Bastard’s chastisement. Also, it has been speculated that the popularity of Mother Hubbard was in part due to its being political satire, or possibly commentary on Thomas Cardinal Wolsey’s refusal to grant Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The character of Mother Hubbard may have its origins in French martyr Saint Hubert, patron saint of dogs.