The Vault

Some Delightfully Scatological and Cruel Nursery Rhymes, From the Oldest Surviving Book of Them

The British Library holds this 1744 book of nursery rhymes, Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, which was sold in London and is the oldest surviving published collection in the genre. Some of the rhymes in Tommy Thumb’s are still familiar; others, like the wonderful “Piss a Bed,” have dropped out of circulation. 

While the mid-18th-century Tommy Thumb’s represents the oldest collection of nursery rhymes on paper, the oral tradition is, of course, much older. In a preface to his 1843 collection of English nursery rhymes, scholar James Halliwell-Phillips could pinpoint the origins of some verses in his collection to the 16th century but believed that some could be “ancient.” Later studies have dated most of today’s familiar rhymes to the 16th through 18th centuries, with some earlier outliers coming from the medieval period. 

Tommy Thumb’s is a milestone for another reason; as the British Library writes, it “represents one of the very first attempts to make books in which children would delight.” It’s small—3 by 1 ¾ inches—and has an engraved illustration on every page; the library suggests that the scheme of alternating ink colors (red, black, red, black) may have been intended to add even more interest for young readers. 

I first saw this book on the Tumblr of author and artist Kate Beaton

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The British Library

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The British Library

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The British Library

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The British Library