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Friday, June 21, 2013

Literary Landmarks: Mary Had a Little Lamb

Literary Landmarks: Mary Had a Little Lamb
(Third in the Series)

Written and photographed by Jenn Buliszak

"Mary Had a Little Lamb" is one of the most beloved nursery rhymes in the United States.  The poem appears in many nursery rhyme collections.  The authorship of this rhyme has been debated through the years.  Many have attributed the poem to Sarah Josepha Hale who included the rhyme in a collection,  Poems for Our Children, Designed for Families, Sabbath Schools, and Infant Schools, Written to Inculcate Moral Truths and Virtuous Sentiments in 1830 (Forgotten Chapters of Boston's Literary History: An Exhibition, 2012). Others credit the original poem to John Roulstone who based his verses on a true event.
Mary Elizabeth Sawyer grew up on a farm in Sterling, Massachusetts.  Legend has it that two lambs were born one evening; its mother rejected the smaller lamb. Mary asked her father if she could care for the lamb. Kathleen Powers writes, “After pleading with her father, she was allowed to bring it in the house, where she nursed it all day in front of the fireplace. She sat up all night with her new friend, feeding it catnip tea. By morning it had improved, but it thought Mary was its mother” (Powers, 2007).  Mary continued to take care of the lamb.

Mary Sawyer recounted the experience years later, writing “from the time it could walk about it would follow me anywhere if I called it” (Jack, 2013). Nate Sawyer, her brother, suggested “‘Let’s take the lamb to school with us.’ When the schoolhouse was reached, the teacher had not arrived but a few scholars were there. I took her down to my seat – you know we had the old-fashioned, high-boarded seats back then. Well, I put the lamb under the seat on a blanket and she lay down just as quietly as could be” (Jack, 2013).  Sawyer recounted that the problem arose when she had to recite something and the lamb followed her.  
Sawyer's teacher and fellow students laughed but Mary states that she was embarrassed by the event and put the lamb outside (Jack, 2013)
“Visiting the school that forenoon was a young man called John Roulstone. He was very pleased at the school incident and the next day he rode across the fields on horseback, came to the little old schoolhouse and handed me a slip of paper which had written on it three verses, which are the original lines, but since then there have been other verses added” (Jack, 2013).  
The town of Sterling has commemorated the rhyme with a statue of the lamb in the Town Commons and credits John Roulstone as the author of the nursery rhyme.

Authorship Debate
Sarah Josepha Hale has been credited as the author of the famous nursery rhyme as it was published by Hale as “Mary’s Lamb” in her book titled Poems for Our Children, Designed for Families, Sabbath Schools, and Infant Schools, Written to Inculcate Moral Truths and Virtuous Sentiments in 1830 (Forgotten Chapters of Boston's Literary History: An Exhibition, 2012). In 1913, an article was published in The American School Board Journal recounting the experience of Mary Sawyer. “There came to school that morning a visitor—a Mr. John Roulstone, a young man who was fitting himself at the time for college. It was he who wrote the immortal lines of the first three stanzas. The poem appeared in its completed form in 1829 in a book of verses for children published by Mrs. Sarah Josepha [Hale]. Three stanzas the authorship of which is unknown had been added” (Forgotten Chapters of Boston's Literary History: An Exhibition, 2012).

The Original Nursery Rhyme:
“Mary had a little lamb;
Its fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go.

It followed her to school one day,
Which was against the rule;
It made the children laugh and play
To see the lamb at school.

And so the teacher turned it out;
But still it lingered near,
And waited patiently about
Till Mary did appear” 

(Hale & Mavor, 1995)

There are several theories about the authorship of the nursery rhyme. Some supporters believe that Sarah Josepha Hale authored the entire poem herself, while others maintain that she added the additional stanzas to Roulstone’s original text to complete the poem, as we know it today. “The validity of the Sawyer story has long been challenged, particularly by Sarah  [Josepha] Hale, a famed author of the time, who claimed she wrote it much earlier” (Plumb, 2011, p. 113).
Nancy Smith refers to Margaret Whittemore's research in a Lawrence Journal Article.  Whittemore stated that John Roulstone gave the verses to Mary and she shared them with her teacher, Rebecca Kimball (Smith, 1987).  Rebecca Kimball share the poem with the other students and their families.  John Roulstone passed away on February 20, 1822 (Smith, 1987).  Roulstone's cousin, Nahum Capen, was an author and publisher with Marsh, Capen, and Lyon publishing firm.  Capen's firm eventually worked with Sarah Josepha Hale and published her 1830 poetry collection titled --> Poems for Our Children, Designed for Families, Sabbath Schools, and Infant Schools, Written to Inculcate Moral Truths and Virtuous Sentiments (Smith, 1987).  Sarah Josepha Hale's version was included in McGuffey's Second Reader in 1857 (Smith, 1987).  McGuffey's Second Reader was a national textbook and used by students across the United States (Smith, 1987)

The Redstone Schoolhouse
The Redstone Schoolhouse is thought to be the schoolhouse that Mary Sawyer attended and where the famous event happened.  Henry Ford, the automobile manufacturer, was responsible for salvaging the Redstone Schoolhouse in 1926. The Redstone Schoolhouse was originally located on Redstone Hill in Sterling, Massachusetts. The Redstone Schoolhouse was reconstructed and now located on the grounds of the Longfellow’s Wayside inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts.

Henry Ford was committed to preserving the building. Ford also sought to provide a school for his Wayside Inn employees at the time. 
Brian E. Plumb writes, “This structure was found in Sterling, Massachusetts, where it was long ago recycled into a barn. The original teacher’s chair and desk from the school were also found. Ford’s crew disassembled the old school and used its timbers to build the new classic looking red schoolhouse” (Plumb, 2011, p. 113).   

The Redstone Schoolhouse is open to the public from “mid May through mid October, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11:30AM to 5:00PM” (Longfellow's Wayside Inn). The Redstone Schoolhouse is a fun literary landmark to visit!
There are many great collections that feature Mary Had a Little Lamb. Some feature the original text and some offer fun parodies of the famous nursery rhyme.  Be sure to check out the following books:
  • Hale, Sarah Josepha. Mary had a little lamb. Illustrated by Salley Mavor. New York, NY: Orchard Books. 1995.
  •  Lobel, Arnold. The Arnold Lobel book of Mother Goose. Illustrated by Arnold Lobel. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. 1986.
  •  Moses, William. William Moses’ Mary and her little lamb: the true story of the famous nursery rhyme. Illustrated by William Moses. New York, NY: Philomel Books. 2011.
  • Seibold, J. Otto. Other Goose: re-nurseried, re-rhymed, re-mothered and re-goosed. Illustrated by J. Otto Seibold. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books. 2010. 76 p. 
  • Yaccarino, Dan. Dan Yaccarino’s Mother Goose. Illustrated by Dan Yaccarino. New York, NY: Golden Books. 2003. 48p.  


  •  Fannie M. Dickerson and Mary Sawyer’s Mary Had a Little Lamb: The True Story of the Real Mary and the Real Lamb. Illustrated by H. Alvin Owen. New York, NY: Frederick A.  Stokes Company. 1902. Free eBook available at:
  • Forgotten Chapters of Boston’s Literary History. Boston Public Library, Rare Books & Manuscripts Archives. (2012) “Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), ‘Mary’s Lamb,’ Poems for our Children, Designed for Families, Sabbath Schools, and Infant Schools… “  Chapter 1 of Trustees of Boston College.
  • Powers, Kathleen.  (12 Sept 2007) 1825: Mary Had a Little Lamb, Then She Moved to Somerville.  GateHouse News Service.
  • Mary’s Little Lamb: The True Story More in Detail Than Has Heretofore Been Published. Published by the New York Times on March 24, 1878. (This is a pdf copy of a historical document originally published in the Boston Advertiser on Mary 19, 1878, and subsequently published in the New York Times on March 24, 1878.
  • Longfellow's Wayside Inn.  (2008-2010) "The Redstone Schoolhouse | Wayside Inn." Longfellow's Wayside Inn: A Non-Profit Massachusetts Historic Landmark.


Forgotten Chapters of Boston's Literary History: An Exhibition. (2012). Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), "Mary's Lamb, " Poems for our Children, Designed for Families, Sabbath Schools and Infant Schools, Written to Inculate Moral Truths and Virtuous Sentiments. Retrieved June 10, 2013 from

Hale, Sarah Josepha, & Mavor, Salley (1995). Mary had a little lamb. New York, NY: Orchard Books.

Jack, Albert. (February 7, 2013). Mary Had a Little Lamb | Albert Jack. Retrieved 2013 June 8, 2013 from Albert Jack:
Longfellow's Wayside Inn.  The Redstone Schoolhouse | Wayside Inn. Retrieved June 11, 2013 from Longfellow's Wayside Inn: a Non-Profit Massachusetts Historic Landmark:
Plumb, Brian. E. (2011). A History of Longfellow's Wayside Inn. Charleston, SC: The History Press.
Powers, Kathleen. (September 12, 2007). 1825: Mary had a little lamb, then she moved to Somerville -Somerville, Massachusetts 02144 - Somerville Jounal. Retrieved June 8, 2013 from Wicked Local Somerville:

Smith, Nancy. (January 11, 1987). Local family treasures ties to "Mary Had a Little Lamb". Lawrence Journal World , p. 3C. PDF file available at


  1. This is wonderful! What a marvelous resource for those of us who love to know the back story. Thanks! Judy Freeman

  2. It's interesting to note that many "Mother Goose" collections include "Mary Had a Little Lamb" but this research reveals that not only did the poem not come from Mother Goose but neither does the poem originate in England.