The Real Mother Goose, first published in 1916 with cover and illustrations by Blanche Fisher Wright, may be the most famous collection of works attributed to the old crone. This scan of the cover is by Johanna Cormier.

Old Mother Goose

Old Mother Goose
When she wanted to wander
Would fly through the air
On a very fine gander.

Mother Goose had a house;
It stood in the wood
Where an owl at the door
As sentinel stood.

This childhood rhyme rambles into a surreal tale of Mother Goose's son Jack, a dishonest merchant, and a goose that lays a golden egg. It ends with the good Mother flying to the moon. I have no idea what any of this means; most rhymes ascribed to Mother Goose have been repeated, rewritten, and reinterpreted many times. Ring Around the Rosie has been read as a chant about the Bubonic Plague, and I'm sure Masters' theses have been written about the sexual implications of Jack and Jill. I'm answering a more fundamental question here: who is Mother Goose?

In 1650, Jean Loret used the term "Mother Goose story" (un conte de la Mere Oye) in La Muse Historique to suggest a story appropriate for children. He clearly expected his audience to know the term, which suggests its use was widespread by the mid- seventeenth century. Some real people have been creatively identified with "Mother Goose," including two french queens, both named Bertha or Bertrada (wives of Pepin the Short, 8th century, and of Robert II the Pious, 10th century-11nth century). No convincing evidence supports the notion that these women are the Good Mother.

Published Folk Tales and Fairy Tales, and imitations thereof, grew in popularity as belief in real-life magic waned. Charles Perrault published such a collection in 1697. The frontispiece featured an elderly woman and a subtitle, Contes de la Mere L'Oye (stories of Mother Goose or of the Goose Mother). Perrault's book was widely translated and no doubt helped popularize the term outside of France.

John Newbury's Mother Goose's Melody, published in 1765, switches the focus from Fairy Tales to Nursery Rhymes, and this association has remained in English.

A popular Suburban Myth, dating to the middle of the nineteenth century, claims that many of the traditional rhymes were written by an American woman from Boston, one Elizabeth Goose, supposedly for her children or grandchildren. Her figure has appeared in wax at San Francisco's Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum, while the Granary Burial Ground (in Boston, Massachusetts) gravesite of a woman named Goose (nee Foster) has become a pilgrim destination of sorts, promoted in some tourist literature. In fact, no evidence connects this woman to the Mother Goose tradition. Her alleged original book has never been found, and her Colonial American life post-dates the use of the term "Mother Goose," as well as the earliest versions of many of the rhymes which bear her name.

Equally suspect is a claim made by some witches of a Pagan origin for our woman. Yes, in many illustrations she looks an awful lot like a traditional witch, though in more festive colours. This is because our image of the Halloween witch ensemble has been modelled on an 18th century European country wife's costume. Given Goose's history, it's not surprising that she should wear similar gear. These days, she's just as frequently depicted as an anthropomorphic goose.

Mother Goose, in short, is as real as Santa Claus-- and about as popular.

An imaginative reconstruction of "Elizabeth Goose" from the Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum, San Fransisco. Evidence refutes the claim that the Mother Goose myth originates with this person.


This article first appeared at the the Everything database. Do not reprint without permission.

Some sources:

Gloria T. Dalamar. Mother Goose Society Homepage.

"Elizabeth 'Mother' Goose." Find a Grave.

Vicki Harris. "The History of Nursury Rhymes and Mother Goose."

Candace Savage. Witch: the Wild Ride from Wicked to Wicca.Vancouver, Greystone, 2000.