Rhodri Marsden's Interesting Objects: 'Mary had a little lamb'


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

* In 1815, John Roulstone, a teenage boy on a mission, galloped over the fields to the schoolhouse on Redstone Hill in Sterling, Massachusetts. In his pocket was a piece of paper on which he'd written a 12-line poem, describing the scene he'd witnessed the previous day where a local girl, Mary Sawyer, had brought her pet lamb to class. While the lamb had caused a small commotion, Roulstone's verse was to become one of the most recognised in the English language.

* At least, that's one story. Today in 1830 saw the publication of a book by Sarah Josepha Hale with the snappy title Poems For Our Children, Designed For Families, Sabbath Schools, And Infant Schools, Written to Inculcate Moral Truths And Virtuous Sentiments. It was the first publication of "Mary Had a Little Lamb", and included some moralistic verses advising kindness to animals. Hale claimed that she'd written the whole poem herself; Sawyer stuck to her story.

* The lamb never lived to see its immortalisation in print, having been gored by a cow on Thanksgiving several years earlier. Mary, however, became something of a local celeb: "If I had known that the interest I took in my little pet was to have given me so much notoriety," she said later in life, "I don't know that I should have carried out the plan that I did." She, of course, never heard the song by Paul McCartney and Wings, which reached number 9 in May 1972.

* Motor magnate Henry Ford had a curious interest in Mary's story, buying her old schoolhouse and moving it 20 miles away. A statue of the lamb ("as symmetrical a sheep as ever walked," according to Mary) can be found in Sterling, while its place in the annals of recorded sound is forever assured, thanks to a recording made by Thomas Edison of a man bellowing the rhyme at preposterous volume on 22 June, 1878.