Photography lesson

The lamb of Mary and the lesson of kindness

Only one of the three famous nursery rhymes featuring sheep originated in America. According The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” and “Little Bo Peep” first appeared in England, and antiquity has clouded their origins. The story is different for “Mary’s Lamb”, which first appeared in Poems for our children, a book published in 1830 by Sarah Josepha Hale, one of the most remarkable women of the 19th century.

In 1828, Sarah Josepha Hale became editor of The American Ladies Magazine— the first women’s magazine, edited by a woman. It featured essays, fiction and fashion illustrations. After a merger, this periodical became The Lady of Godey’s book. Although Hale is not as well known in our time as she was in hers, she is still remembered for two things. One is Thanksgiving.

Hale was the most vocal and famous proponent of designating the last Thursday in November as a time for Americans to give thanks. Lincoln issued an executive order shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg, but Hale’s role in the November recess goes deeper. Although Lincoln’s proclamation made Thanksgiving official, it was merely an acknowledgment of a custom that Americans had long observed.

The novel of 1827 Northwood: A Tale of New England gives a first account of the tradition. A description of the perfect Thanksgiving setting reads: “The roast turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table… giving off the rich aroma of its savory stuffing and thinly covered with the foam of the painting”. For dessert, the account continues, “pumpkin pie occupied the most distinguished niche.” The author of Northwood? Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale was influential in having Thanksgiving become a federal holiday and in How? ‘Or’ What we celebrate this important Thursday.

Hale is perhaps best known for the story of a lamb following a girl to school.

British writer and humorist EV Lucas has deemed the stanzas of “Mary’s Lamb” to be the best-known four-line verses in the English language.

In Hale’s book, the poem has three eight-line verses, for a total of twenty-four lines, but most printings present it as four four-line stanzas. It’s only sixteen lines, which means that in many places you can read “The Lamb of Mary” as it is published, you don’t see a third of the original text.

Courtesy of University of California Libraries, Young Research Library Department of Special Collections at UCLA

Poems for our children

Courtesy of University of California Libraries, Young Research Library Department of Special Collections at UCLA


On the title page of Hale’s 1830 book is an inscription stating that the poems were “written to inculcate moral truths and virtuous sentiments”. Then, in a short preface to her book, Hale warmly addresses the children, telling them that she “wrote this book to please and instruct you…and, I hope, to inspire you to love truth and goodness. “. The eight lines left out in the “Mary’s Lamb” of the anthologies most emphatically emphasize the virtue and goodness that Hale endorsed.

Here is the full text of Poems for our children. Lines that are often abbreviated are in italics:

Mary had a little lamb,
His fleece was white as snow,
And everywhere Mary went
The lamb was sure to go;
He followed her to school one day…
It was against the rule
He made the children laugh and play,
See a lamb at school.

And so the teacher kicked him out,
But he always lingered near,
And waited patiently,
Until Mary appears;
And then he ran to her, and put
His head on his arm,
Like he’s saying—’I’m not afraid—
You will keep me from all harm.

“What makes the lamb love Mary so much? »
Impatient children cry—
‘O, Mary loves lamb, you know,’
The teacher answered;—
‘And you every sweet animal
Confidentiality may bind,
And forward them to your call,
If you are always nice’

These eight oft excised lines showcase the virtue and kindness promoted by Sarah Josepha Hale. They are also important in understanding two critical points of the poem: sheep and most animals often reward kindness with trust; and second, the teacher makes the most of a memorable lesson in exemplary behavior by emphasizing its importance for schoolchildren. It is perhaps unsurprising to learn that Hale was a teacher herself.

The Atlanta History Center’s heritage breed sheep and goats often enjoy interacting with visitors on their weekly campus walk with Brett, our Animal Collections Manager. Guests are always welcome to greet the animals at Smith Farm and encouraged to ask questions about our living collections.