Although writing can help decipher history, it’s our humanity which keeps all of us striving for an improved future.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Dark Origins of 11 Classic Nursery Rhymes

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In the canon of great horror writing, Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley tend to dominate the craft. But Mother Goose isn’t too far behind. Yes, that fictional grande dame of kiddie poems has got a bit of a dark streak, as evidenced by the unexpectedly sinister theories surrounding the origins of these 11 well-known nursery rhymes.

1. BAA, BAA, BLACK SHEEP (1731)

Though most scholars agree that “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” is about the Great Custom, a tax on wool that was introduced in 1275, its use of the color black and the word “master” led some to wonder whether there was a racial message at its center. Its political correctness was called into question yet again in the latter part of the 20th century, with some schools banning it from being repeated in classrooms, and others simply switching out the word “black” for something deemed less offensive. In 2011, news.com.au reported on the proliferation of “Baa, Baa Rainbow Sheep” as an alternative.

2. GOOSEY GOOSEY GANDER (1784)

It’s hard to imagine that any rhyme with the phrase “goosey goosey” in its title could be described as anything but feelgood. But it’s actually a tale of religious persecution, during the days when Catholic priests would hide themselves in order to say their Latin-based prayers, a major no-no at the time—not even in the privacy of one’s own home. In the original version, the narrator comes upon an old man “who wouldn’t say his prayers. So I took him by his left leg. And threw him down the stairs.” Ouch!

3. JACK AND JILL (1765)

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Admit it, you fooled around with the lyrics to “Jack and Jill” a bit yourself when you were younger, turning what you thought was an innocent poem into something a little bit naughty. But its origins aren’t as clean-cut as you probably imagined. One of the most common theories surrounding the story’s origin is that it’s about France’s Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, who were both found guilty of treason and subsequently beheaded. The only problem is that those events occurred nearly 30 years after “Jack and Jill” was first written. The more likely possibility is that it’s an account of King Charles I’s attempt to reform the tax on liquid measures. When Parliament rejected his suggestion, he instead made sure that the volume was reduced on half- and quarter-pints, known as jacks and gills, respectively.

4. LONDON BRIDGE IS FALLING DOWN (1744)

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In 2006, Fergie got saucy with some of this classic kid tune’s lyrics. But the original song wasn’t much better. Depending on whom you ask, “London Bridge is Falling Down” could be about a 1014 Viking attack, child sacrifice, or the normal deterioration of an old bridge. But the most popular theory seems to be that first one. More specifically: the alleged destruction of London Bridge at the hands of Olaf II of Norway some time in the early 1000s. (“Alleged” because some historians don’t believe that attack ever took place.) The song’s popularity around the world is often cited as further proof that it was the Vikings who created it, believing that they brought the tune to the many places they traveled. Oh, and that whole child sacrifice thing? That’s an idea that is also often debated (there’s no archaeological evidence to support it), but the theory goes that in order to keep London Bridge upright, its builders believed that it must be built on a foundation of human sacrifice, and that those same humans—mostly children—would help to watch over the bridge and maintain its sturdiness. Which we’re pretty sure isn’t a practice they teach you in architecture school.

5. MARY, MARY, QUITE CONTRARY (1744)

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“Contrary” is one way to describe a murderous psychopath. This popular English nursery rhyme, which reads like a solicitation for gardening advice, is actually a recounting of the homicidal nature of Queen Mary I of England, a.k.a. Bloody Mary. A fierce believer in Catholicism, her reign as queen—from 1553 to 1558—was marked by the execution of hundreds of Protestants. (Silver bells and cockle shells are torture devices, not garden accouterments.)

6. THREE BLIND MICE (1805)

“Three Blind Mice” is supposedly yet another ode to Bloody Mary’s reign, with the trio in question believed to be a group of Protestant bishops—Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Radley, and The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer—who (unsuccessfully) conspired to overthrow the queen and were burned at the stake for their heresy. Critics suggest that the blindness in the title refers to their religious beliefs.

7. EENY, MEENY, MINY, MO

No, there’s nothing particularly inflammatory about the lines “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo, Catch a tiger by his toe.” But there is when you consider that the word “tiger” is a relatively new development in this counting rhyme, as a replacement for the n-word. Even with the lyrical switch-out, any reference to the poem still has the ability to offend. In 2004, two passengers sued Southwest Airlines was for intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress, following an incident where a flight attendant used the rhyme in a humorous fashion during takeoff when she told passengers: "Eeny meeny miny mo, Please sit down it's time to go.” (The court sided with the airline.)

8. HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH (1840)

“Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” is often sung as part of a children’s game. According to historian R. S. Duncan, a former governor of England’s Wakefield Prison, the song originated with that 420-year-old institution’s female prisoners, who were exercised around a mulberry tree. Which is probably not the connotation your six-year-old self had in mind.

9. ROCK-A-BYE BABY (1765)

One interpretation of this famous lullaby is that it is about the son of King James II of England and Mary of Modena. It is widely believed that the boy was not their son at all, but a child who was brought into the birthing room and passed off as their own in order to ensure a Roman Catholic heir to the throne.

10. RING AROUND THE ROSIE (1881)

Considering that some of today’s classic nursery rhymes are more than two centuries old, there are often several theories surrounding their origins—and not a lot of sound proof about which argument is correct. But of all the alleged nursery rhyme backstories, “Ring Around the Rosie” is probably the most infamous. Though its lyrics and even its title have gone through some changes over the years, the most popular contention is that the sing-songy verse refers to the 1665 Great Plague of London.“The rosie” is the rash that covered the afflicted, the smell from which they attempted to cover up with “a pocket full of posies.” The plague killed nearly 15 percent of the country’s population, which makes the final verse—“Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down”—rather self-explanatory.
But Snopes labels this reading false, and quotes folklorist Philip Hiscock with a more likely suggestion: That the nursery rhyme probably has its origins "in the religious ban on dancing among many Protestants in the nineteenth century, in Britain as well as here in North America. Adolescents found a way around the dancing ban with what was called in the United States the 'play-party.' Play-parties consisted of ring games which differed from square dances only in their name and their lack of musical accompaniment. They were hugely popular, and younger children got into the act, too."

11. OLD MOTHER HUBBARD (1805)

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To many, “Old Mother Hubbard” is not a mother at all—nor a woman. The poem is speculated to have been written as a mockery of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, whose refusal to grant an annulment to King Henry VIII, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, led to his political downfall.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Labor Day

No One Really Knows Who Invented It

As the legend goes, young carpenter Peter McGuire stood before the New York Central Labor Union in May 1882 proclaiming his plan to honor all workers with a parade through the city. But another union worker, the similarly named machinist Matthew Maguire, is also credited with proposing a day off for laborers. A New Jersey newspaper published an opinion article touting Maguire as the Father of Labor Day, but only after the day became a national holiday in 1894.




The Holiday Marks the End of Hot-Dog Season

According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, during "hot dog season," which runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Americans consume roughly 7 billion hot dogs, or about 818 hot dogs every second. That total is thanks in large part to another holiday, Independence Day. 

Union Membership Is at a 60-Year Low

Labor unions aren't what they used to be. In the 1950s, at the height of union participation in the U.S., more than a third of all American workers belonged to unions. Participation has waned for decades, which has weakened many unions across the country. Remember the Wisconsin public employees who fought Republican Governor Scott Walker earlier this year over collective-bargaining rights? Well, they lost most of those rights. 

A Fire Ignited the Labor Movement

The infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 took the lives of 136 people in just 18 minutes. Though the factory owners were indicted on charges of manslaughter, they were later acquitted and actually profited from insurance claims. The tragic blaze — likely caused by a cigarette — did, however, raise awareness of poor working conditions at the factory and other warehouses like it, prompting the start of the labor movement and a call for safer work environments.


President Cleveland Didn't Like Unions

Although President Grover Cleveland signed the 1894 law that made Labor Day a federal holiday, he did so with political motives in mind. The President was concerned only with the fact that the strike had spread to other states, disrupting mail service and interstate commerce. Mindful of his future re-election campaign, made appeasement a top priority, so labor legislation was rushed through Congress and the bill passed just six days after the strike's end.

Oregon Was the First State to Declare Labor Day a Holiday

Oregon was the first state to pass a law declaring Labor Day a state holiday on Feb. 21, 1887, giving the state's workers a free pass to not come in that day. However, the Beaver State inexplicably placed the holiday on the first Saturday in June. Thankfully, when Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York each made Labor Day an official holiday in 1887, they chose to observe it on a weekday, giving workers the extra-long weekend we still enjoy to this day.

Labor Day's Origins Are Canadian

Following labor disputes in Toronto, the first worker parades occurred in 1872. Soon after, anti–labor union laws were repealed. A decade later, union activist Peter McGuire, whom some call the founder of our American Labor Day, spoke at a Canadian labor festival in 1882 and was so impressed that he proposed the idea of a workers' national holiday to a New York labor union later that same year.



Labor Day Was Almost May 1

In 1884, the American Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions declared that by May 1, 1886, all employers institute an eight-hour workday. When that proclamation failed to come to fruition, workers moved to strike, sparking the brutal Haymarket Riot in Chicago. Years later in 1894, fearing the tainted history of that date would continually lead to radical movements commemorating the riots, President Grover Cleveland decided to follow the lead of several states and make the first Monday in September the official holiday for laborers.

The Rule 'No White After Labor Day' Has Historical Roots

Historians think this maxim stems from class divisions at the turn of the century when lightweight clothes were a symbol of the leisure classes.  While there's a practical reason for the rule — white clothes dirty easily thus making them ill-suited for heavy autumn rains and winter slush — those who carried the rule through the decades had a less than practical reason for doing so. Indeed, as the years went by, traditionalists and nouveau riche alike continued to eschew winter whites throughout the 20th century in order to remain acceptable in high society. 

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About Me

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Even though I am from Kansas, I enjoy venturing into other worlds from around the globe which is why my writing focuses on diversity. With fluid accessibility to modern media and traveling opportunities, my Midwestern world can expand and explore beyond my own backyard. In addition to studying cultures, I take pleasure in studying history. Submitting to a moment in time allows us to remember, or to muse even, over our society’s past. Although writing can educate as well as entertain, yet what makes art incredibly amazing, to that of paintings, photographs, and music, it transposes emotion into another form of humanity, and therefore, it is our humanity which keeps all of us striving for an improved future.

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