The nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was originally published in 1830. It tells the story of Mary and her white-fleeced lamb that followed her everywhere.
According to the popular story, in 1815, at the age of nine, a girl named Mary Sawyer found a sick newborn lamb when she was assisting her father on their Sterling, Massachusetts farm. Mary convinced her father to let her keep the little lamb for a pet, her dad fearing the lamb would not survive. But to his great surprise, Mary took loving care of her little lamb and it grew up to be healthy and strong.
On one occasion, Mary was walking to school and turned to find that the lamb was following her. Delighted, she managed to get the lamb over the gate of the schoolhouse. Not wanting to part with her beloved pet, even for the school day, Mary took her lamb inside and tucked a blanket around its little body to keep it hidden. She was almost successful, but the teacher called her up to the blackboard and then the lamb emerged from underneath the blanket and trotted behind her to the front of the classroom.
The teacher instructed her to put it outside where it waited dutifully until Mary brought it home over the lunch hour. During that week, a fellow classmate, John Roulstone, wrote a poem detailing the day’s previous events. It started like this:
“Mary had a little lamb;
Its fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.”
That little lamb stayed loyal to Mary and lived its entire life on her family’s farm. She had three lambs. Tragically, the lamb was killed by a farm cow when she was four.
In 1830, Poems for Our Children was published. The edition included “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The author was Sarah Josepha Hale, a well-known writer and editor. According to one of Hale’s biographies, she took inspiration for the nursery rhyme from her own personal experiences while teaching boys and girls at school near her New Hampshire home. This contradicts Sawyer’s origin story.
In fact, it wouldn’t be until 1876, at the age of 70 years old, that Mary Sawyer would come forward with her account, repeating that it was her classmate John Roulstone who wrote the poem–something Hale denied. And unfortunately for Sawyer, with no hard evidence to back her claim, Hale’s sole authorship is typically supported.
Still, that did not stop some from siding with Sawyer. By the time the 1920s rolled around, both Sarah Hale and Mary Sawyer had passed away. But it was then that Henry Ford got involved in the age-old debate. He claimed he sided with Mary in terms of the poem’s origin story. Ford purchased the one-room schoolhouse that housed the alleged events of the famous nursery rhyme. Today, multiple sites in the town of Sterling, Massachusetts, continue to perpetuate this claim.
Once the poem was released into the world, it blew up into one of the most widely recited rhymes of all time. The craze for the poem started in the 1800s. In 1877, Thomas Edison read it over his phonograph, making it the first English audio recording in history. In Sterling, they carry on celebrating Mary Sawyer, the girl who gained loyalty and companionship from a lamb after nursing it back to life. And in Mary’s home town, there is a statue of the lamb.
In the 1830s, Lowell Mason set the nursery rhyme to a melody adding repetition in the verses:
Mary had a little lamb,
Little lamb, little lamb,
Mary had a little lamb
Whose fleece was white as snow.
And everywhere that Mary went,
Mary went, Mary went,
Everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go…
Happy English learning!!