Introduction to Illustrations of Mother Goose's Melodies

However gratefully received by Irving, instructing the future author of Knickerbocker's Sketches in the art of the clarionet would not ordinarily have commended Dr. Alexander Anderson to posterity. Nevertheless, the small, compactly built, Scottish doctor, described by Irving as "full of good humor, and as gentle as a woman"is well-remembered, more than one hundred  and thirty years after his death, not only for administering the music lessons, but for his more important accomplishments as the Father of American Wood Engraving. 

The technique of engraving a block of boxwood across the grain, the most common method of book illustration during the nineteenth century, could be seen at no greater advantage than in Dr. Anderson's own creations. Happily, we are left with an abundance of these. More than eight thousand different illustrations can be counted among the hundreds of books Anderson illustrated. Many of these can be admired among the finest book illustrations of the period. Dr. Anderson's productive years consumed almost the entirety of his long lifetime (1775-1870); he executed his first engraving on wood in 1792, a young man of 18 years, and continued to practice his craft up to the very end of his life, in January of 1870. The illustrations reprinted in Illustrations to Mother Goose's Melodies (1872), and reproduced on this website,  were rendered in 1835, at the zenith of his powers. Although printed for children, they embody an unmistakably adult vision, in which the conventional foils of satire, i.e., scoundrels, halfwits, inebriates, naifs, traipse about in a world of mystery and wonder. In conception and detail, they assert eloquently the full fruit of Anderson's acclaimed comic genius. Washington Irving's whimsical pronouncement quoted above jibes with the reminiscences of other distinguished acquaintances of Dr, Anderson's. Benson J. Lossing, the noted historian, wrote with affection and admiration:

Dr. Anderson worked industriously with an ever-cheerful
spirit; was kind and loving, and generous to all around ...
He was genial in thought and conversation and had a quick
perception and a genuine humor. To him the world was a
delightful place to life in, because it was a reflex of
his own sweet spirit."*1
Also prominent among the cultural lions constituting of Dr. Anderson's admirers,*2 Evert A. Duyckinck, co-editor of The Cyclopaedia of American Literature, had grown up in a household where Anderson was a regular visitor. His father, Evert Duyckinck the publisher, had employed the "ingenious Anderson's" illustrative talents as early as 1805, and continued to engage him for at least 22 years, or until 1827, when Evert Augustus was yet only a boy of 11.

In 1870, Evert A. Duyckinck drafted a letter to Anderson's son in law, Dr. Edward Lewis (with whom Anderson had resided since 1868 and at whose residence he had recently passed away), in which he praised the "range of [Dr. Anderson's] intellectual cultivation and the independence and strength of his mind." Conjuring up an image of his own youthful high-spirits, which maturer souls may have found trying,  Duyckinck confided: "I will always retain a most grateful recollection of the kind manner in which I was received."*3 Duyckinck concludes this note by asserting, in his capacity as Domestic Corresponding Secretary of the New-York Historical Society, that the Society would be "a watchful guardian of the good fame of its honorary member." As good as his word, he proposed to the Society the Memorial, published in 1872, and, a year later, he undertook to publish two selections of Dr. Anderson's engravings. For these now exceedingly rare volumes he chose the recondite Analectic Press, and its proprietor, Charles L. Moreau, to be his printer. Illustrations of Mother Goose's Melodies*4 formed the second of these Duyckinck/Moreau collaborations.*5

Evert A. Duyckinck's contemporaries would have been very familiar with the text honored in this extract. The Munroe & Francis editions of Mother Goose's Melodies, first published in about 1822-1825, rearranged significantly in 1833 and 1835, had enjoyed unprecedented popularity for nearly a quarter of a century and engendered numerous imitations of varying quality and fidelity. They were so successful, in fact, Mother Goose's Melodies succeeded in permanently establishing the figure of Mother Goose as the sole author and inspiration of what was only then coming to be called nursery rhymes. Before, Mother Goose had been merely one of a number of fictitious personages, which included Nurse Lovechild, Tommy Thumb, Gammer Gurton and Nancy Cock. By their sheer popularity, Munroe & Francis's Mother Goose's Melodies married the epigrammatic rhymes and their titular muse once for all.


Dr. Anderson's engravings appeared in the Munroe & Francis edition of 1835, and remained in each subsequent edition thereafter--whether published by Munroe & Francis or their multiple successors--until 1860. Some of these engravings, for example, illustrations #10, and #12, were freely interpreted from eighteenth century models. (It was a commonplace for engravers to copy illustrations from other books. Not until the late-Victorian period was this conceived to beplagiarism .) Other illustrations appear to have sprung from Anderson's own imagination, and these particularly excited Duyckinck's enthusiasm, as is evident in the rhapsodical tones with which he describes illustration number five (shown here) as: "the old woman sailing against the wind in that aerial broomstick navigation beyond the 'reaches of the moon'." The tension suggested by the opposing efforts of witch and wind evokes the deceptively simple rhyme's underlying theme of mutability. 

In a selective catalogue of Anderson's published works, *6 Duyckinck also praised the cut accompanying "One misty, moisty morning" (ill. #4)  (see below), a more explicit, and sublunary, view of confrontation. Here Anderson has delineated, with judicious impartiality, the classic combat between the smug, anserine levity of youth and the ponderous outraged gravity of age.

Even in Dr. Anderson's adaptations of other people's illustrations, one can easily detect the palpable presence of what E. F. Bleiler has termed Anderson's "pawkish, sardonic vein of humor." Notice, for example, in cut #7, that obscure figure down at the heel, and how unconcerned he appears to be as he climbs back into that forever hellish shoe, in which there is always room for one less.

The Duyckinck/Moreau publication followed the sequence of these rhymes present in the Munroe & Francis original,*7 but for one puzzling departure: "Pretty John Watts," occurs nearer the middle of the original text, preceding "Three wise men of Gotham," not at the end. Its placement in the latter text, as well as its selection, appears almost as an afterthought.

But why a thought at all? This illustration plainly was not the work of Alexander Anderson, but of Abel Bowen, a later and lesser artist, whose cypher shows where it could not be overlooked, or misread for the characteristic "A" or "AA" of Dr. Anderson. More importantly, its quality is at sharp variance with its company, displaying neither their whimsy, compassion or their lucid intelligibility.

Whether the commiserable error is to be ascribed to Evert A. Duyckinck, or Charles L. Moreau, or to Charles S.Francis (son of David Francis, co-founder of the original publishing firm), who made the blocks available for this project, or, perhaps, to all three, we do no t know. The editors of this book, bemused though undaunted, find it more agreeable to preserve the integrity of Mr. Duyckinck's selection than attempt to improve upon it. (And, what harm in a little brown mouse, after all?)


In the Oxford Encyclopedia of Nursery Rhymes, *8, Peter & Iona Opie cite antecedents  for 13 of the 17 rhymes apparently coined no earlier than the eighteenth century. Two of the remaining verses (#4 and #13), are reported to have originated in the seventeenth century. Despite Evert A. Duyckinck's confident assumptions of their antiquity, a misconception endemic to the late nineteenth century and an integral part of the mythology surrounding nursery rhymes, only for one rhyme (#12), can any claim for antique parentage be pressed; and that relies tenuously on a single reference to the "foles of gotyam," uncovered in a mid fifteenth century manuscript. It should be noted, too, "The three wise men of Gotham" as we know it first appeared as recently as 1735. The Opies concluded that the largest number of those nursery rhymes still alive within our culture were conceived between 1700 and 1800. It was during the last quarter of this century that Alexander Anderson grew into adulthood, and thus, the rhymes he illustrated formed some part of the popular culture of his day. In contrast to the legions of artists that have followed him, Anderson's illustrations of nursery rhymes are not inherently nostalgic. 

According to the Opies, the rhymes' origins are wonderfully diverse: 'One misty moisty morning' (#4), broke off from a ballad; the dreamlike or Dada 'The sow came in with the saddle (#13), is likely to have been invented in a Mummer's Christmas play; "There was an old woman, she lived in a shoe" (#7) one of the few of these rhymes likely to remain current into the twenty-first century, may derive--though here the speculations of the Opies seem particularly fanciful--from a fertility ritual. But, although the roots and paradigms of nursery rhymes are diverse, as diverse, perhaps, as their themes, they do appear to share one common, and rather surprising, element: like the greater body of early children's literature, they were not composed for children. "Of those pieces which date from before 1800," the Opies write, " the only true nursery rhymes [specifically for children] are the rhyming alphabets, the infant amusements ... and the lullabies." *9  Of these three genres, Dr. Anderson seems to have illustrated nothing, at least for the Munroe & Francis text, and only rhymes #9, #11 & #17 appear to be post 1800 creations. Verse #9, with its comically abrupt shift of sympathy, is charged with the "adult jollity" characteristic of the older specimens. Thus, only rhymes #11 and #17 truly deserve the modifying appellation "nursery," and both are remarkable in fact, though for different reasons: Of "Pretty John Watts," nothing more need be said, except that its inclusion arose from an oversight bordering on perversity. "Jemmy Jed went into a shed" offers the rare example of a nursery verse of distinctly American vintage. Minor differences exist between many of the Duyckinck/ Moreau cum Munroe & Francis rhymes and those of the canonical texts offered by the Opies and yet in print, but these lend to the rhymes the flavor of unevenneess and eccentricity. But, in the instance of "Jemmy Jed," which exceeds the English exemplar in detail and substance, we have before us what the Opies term a rare specimen of American folk composition.

Evert A. Duyckinck concluded his introduction, as a I will conclude mine, with the hint that possibly another verse in this collection had been spun at home: He implies that rhyme #14, the penultimate verse "Jacky, come give me thy fiddle," may have come from the hand of Dr. Anderson himself! The basis for Duyckinck's intriguing conjecture lay in Dr. Anderson's polyphenomenol musicality, or, as Duyckinck writes, in Dr. Anderson's love of the fiddle, "upon which instrument he was an accomplished adept." Disregarded by the Opies, Duyckinck's proxy claim for authorship may be true, nonetheless. Alexander Anderson may have composed "Jacky"--it may be involuntarily--believing himself to be transcribing a fragment of the Scottish ballad "O Rattlin', Roarin' Willie." The selection of the variant rhyme may have constituted part of Anderson's contribution to Mother Goose's Melodies (ed. 1835), offered, as Duyckinck suggested, as a gesture of his fondness for the fiddle, as well as, conceivably, for the rhyme. Jane Pomeroy, whose bibliography of "the ingenious Anderson" will resolve many of the issues surrounding Anderson, informs us that Doctor Anderson liked Burns' work tremendously. Burns, of course, had been closely linked with the ballad through his work on Johnson's Scots Musical Museum. His own embellishments upon it were famous. It is reasonable to assume that Dr. Anderson came to possess the ballad through his fondness for Burns. It is also possible that Anderson learned the piece, or a version of it, directly from a fellow Scott, John Roberts, whose prowess as a wood engraver had been praised by Burns. History remembers him best for having exposed Dr. Anderson to the art of wood-engraving, but by a great coincidence, history also remembers Roberts for having instructed the future Father of American Wood-Engraving in the art of the clarionet.


1.Benson Lossing. A Memorial of Alexander Anderson, M.D., the First Engraver on Wood in America ... (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1872), 84. (back)

2.Frederick M. Burr. Life and Works of Alexander Anderson, M.D.: The First American Wood Engraver ... (New York: Burr Brothers, 1893), 67-70, passim. (back)

3. Evert A. Duyckinck to Dr. E. Lewis, 18 January 1870, Misc. Mss. Duyckinck, Evert A., New-York Historical Society. (back)

4. Mother Goose's Melodies. The only pure edition. Containing all that have ever come to light of her memorable writings, together with all those which have been discovered among the mss. of Herculaneum, likewise every one recently found in the same stone box which hold [sic] the golden plates of the Book of Mormon. The whole compared, revised, and sanctioned, by one of the annotators of the Goose family (Boston: Munroe & Francis, ca. 1833) 

William H. Whitmore (1889), Codman Hislop (1938) and E.F. Bleiler (1970) have all attempted to fix a plausible chronology For the various undated editions of M&F Melodies. Bleiler, building upon the earlier research, provides the only indispensable collation of texts, but a more comprehensive survey is required. At least two editions unknown to Bleiler and apparently unique (one housed at the American Antiquarian Society, one at the New-York Historical Society) remain to be studied. (back)

5. It is typical of Duyckinck's independent turn of mind that he headed his introductory remarks by advocating John Fleet Eliot's maverick theory, posited 13 years earlier in his famous Requiescat letter to the "Boston Transcript," explaining that Mother Goose "was not, as had been generally supposed, a merely mythical personage but an actual lady who had enjoyed a hundred and fifty years or so since a veritable existence." She was, continued Duyckinck, Elizabeth Foster Vergoose, or, alternatively, Elizabeth Foster Goose, the mother-in-law of colonial Boston's picaresque printer, Thomas Fleet. Fleet, goes the theory, really deserves the bays for having been the first printer to publish nursery rhymes, or, as they were then known, sonnets for the cradle, under the rubric Mother Goose, which he was reputed to have done in an appreciation (not entirely altruistic) of his mother in law's inexhaustible capacity for jingles. The point of this theory, once much debated, was that Mother Goose (the lady) was an American, and that Mother Goose (the muse) was a unique American contribution to the history of children's literature.  Equally typical of Duyckinck's independence was his decision to stop short of crediting Dame Goose with composition, and mincing the ancestral claims of Perrault's M'ere l'Oye.

The best summary of the Goose wars, which raged, more or less, during the last 40 years of the 19th century, appears in Codman Hislop's "The Old Woman Who Lives in a Book, Colophon. Vol. I, No. 2 (New Series, Autumn, 1925), pp. 167-182, in which the question of the real Mother Goose is made to nicely, if uneasily, come to rest in the cool shade of the legendary existence of an undiscovered book.  (back)

6. Evert A. Duyckinck, A Brief Catalogue of Books Illustrated with Engravings by Dr. Alexander Anderson ... (New York: Thompson & Moreau, 1885) (back)

7.The copy-text used for the Duyckinck/Moreau reprint has not been determined, but the sequence of the rhymes they reprinted remained unaltered from 1835 on. (back)

8. Iona and Peter Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1952)
1-7. (back)

9. Ibid. (back)

Michael Scott Joseph