The name “Old Mother Slipper Slopper” is not something that we commonly add to our catalog records here at the NMSC archeology lab. So, when we came across fragments of a Pratt ware jug that tells her tale, we decided to share our find.
The jug fragments were recovered from the secular-use section of 290 Broadway, New York that is now part of the African Burial Ground National Monument (AFBG). These sherds are not associated with any burial; rather, they represent the residential use of the non-burial section of this city block. Pratt ware is a type of creamware or, more commonly, pearlware, characterized by underglaze painting and relief-molded decoration. This particular ware was produced in England and Scotland between 1785 and 1840. The colors were derived from metallic oxides and were limited to basic yellow, orange, green, blue, brown, black, and mulberry. Nursery rhymes were one common decorative motif on Pratt ware vessels, as were hunting scenes, drinking scenes, commemorative themes, and classical themes. Forms included the common jug as well as teapots, tea canisters, mugs, vases, flasks, candlestick, figures, and cow creamers.
Research into Pratt ware revealed that the images on AFBG’s sherds are part of a scene depicting the old nursery rhyme, “The Fox and The Goose,” also called “The Grey Goose.” We saw several examples of this motif in our reference books and online. The painting was different on each, as was the molded border, but the central molded design was identical, showing “Old Mother Slipper Slopper unleashing a savage dog, while John stands agape, pitchfork in hand.” (Lewis 181) The other side depicts the farmer pursuing the fox that is carrying off his goose.
Old Mother Slipper-slopper jumped out of bed,
And out of her window she popped her old head,
Crying, “John, John, John, the grey goose is gone,
And the Fox has rushed off to his den, O!
Then John, he went up to the top of the hill,
And blew his horn both loud and shrill.
Says the Fox, “That is very pretty music, still,
I’d rather by safe in my den, O!
At last Mr Fox got home to his den,
To his dear little foxes, eight, nine, ten,
Says he “We’re in luck, here’s a fine fat goose,
With her legs all dangling down, O!
Then the fox sat down with his cubs and his wife;
They did very well without fork and knife,
Nor ate a better goose in all their life,
And the little ones picked the bones, O!
Listed in Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes, edited by L. Edna Walter, A & C Black, Ltd., London, 1919
Today, we associate nursery rhymes with children. Children’s stores are full of bedding, mobiles, and board books featuring Humpty Dumpty, Baa Baa Black Sheep, and the Dish Running Away with the Spoon. Did the Grey Goose jug from AFBG belong to a child?
Child-oriented material culture is not uncommon in the archeological record. Child-sized dishes were common in the 19th century as reward pieces for well behaved boys and girls and also as practice pieces intended to teach children about proper table settings and manners. They were decorated with moral sayings, children’s names, letters of the alphabet, as well as scenes from nursery rhymes.
The jug in the collection from AFBG appears to be a full-sized vessel intended for use by all members of the family, not specifically children. Why the nursery rhyme theme? Actually, nursery rhymes were borrowed from traditional folk songs and stories intended for a general, largely adult audience. Many were originally shockingly harsh in tone. Not long ago, I played a cd of nursery rhymes while driving with my 2 young sons. I couldn’t hit the unload button quickly enough when Goosey Goosey Gander sang cheerfully about an old man forgetting his prayers and subsequently being thrown down the stairs. Yikes! But until the 19th century, these child-unfriendly tales were the sole form of children’s literature. John Newbery’s collection of nursery rhymes Mother Goose’s Melody, first published in 1760, is considered one of the first ever publications devoted to children.
The jug dates to ca. 1800, when Western society’s view of children and childhood was shifting toward the modern mindset. The Romantic Movement that began in the 18th century and blossomed in the 19th century endorsed a new outlook on childhood. Children were idealized by the Romantics as innocent, joyful, and close to nature. A child was no longer seen as simply a small adult whose willfulness needed curbing, which was the common perception in earlier centuries. As a result, the 19th century saw the proliferation of literature and material culture created specifically for children.
The Grey Goose Pratt ware jug from the African Burial Ground National Monument does not appear to be an example of the child-specific tableware that became common in the later 19th century. Instead, it reminds us that in 1800, the nursery rhymes relished by children were the same traditional stories and songs enjoyed by adults. As of 1800, the explosion of children’s literary and material culture that occurred later in the 19th century was still a couple of decades in the future.
Huff, Melinda Linderer. For a Good Child. Historic New England. Fall 2011, Vol 12, No. 2: 8-11.
Lewis, John and Griselda. Pratt Ware: English and Scottish relief decorated and underglaze coloured earthenware 1780-1840. Antique Collectors’ Club, 1984.
Perkins, George. A Medieval Carol Survival: The Fox and the Goose. Journal of American Folklore 74: 235-244.
Plotz, Judith. Romanticism and the Vocation of Childhood. New York: Palgrave, 2001 (via google books)
Walter, L. Edna. Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes. London: A & C Black, Ltd., 1919.