Yesterday my four-year-old granddaughter got into a little argument/debate with her mother concerning Humpty Dumpty. She insisted that Humpty Dumpty is not an egg, he’s a potato. She would not be moved on that opinion.
Haven’t we all assumed Humpty Dumpty is an egg? My interest in useless information piqued, I decided to pursue that supposition. Apparently many others have also sought answers, as I found a quite a number of articles and blog posts – some quite recently – on that very subject. One has to wonder if this generation of grandkids will not accept what they are handed and are asking the hard questions. Egg? Or Potato? I will summarize here and then get on to why a potato.
The original rhyme seems to have begun during medieval times. There are a number of different interpretations, apparently modified through the ages to fit whatever circumstances were happening during that period. One theory is that King Richard III of England, who happened to have a humped back due to scoliosis, rode a horse named “Wall” during The Battle of Bosworth in the late 1400’s, a battle which he lost. I came across this chart of the fatal wounds of King Richard III. As you can see, there is no way all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could put this guy back together again.
The most popular explanation seems to be that Humpty Dumpty was the nickname of a cannon mounted on the walls of Colchester during the reign of King Charles I, which was then knocked off by enemy fire during the English civil war in the mid 1600’s.
A Humpty Dumpty song with lyrics was published in Samuel Arnold’s Juvenile Amusements in 1797.
The poem itself was published in 1810 in a collection of children’s rhymes and poems entitled “Gammer Gurton’s Garland, Or, The Nursery Parnassus: A Choice Collection of Pretty Songs and Verses for the Amusement of All Little Good Children who Can Neither Read Nor Run” (how’s that for a title?)
In 1870 Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes and Nursery Songs Set to Music was published by J.W. Elliot, featuring Humpty. Yet up until this point there was no mention anywhere of an egg involved regarding Humpty Dumpty. In some versions he was a boy.
This all changed after Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carrol was published in 1871, and that is where your (somewhat trippy) He Is The Egg Man version actually begins:
“However, the egg only got larger and larger, and more and more human: when she had come within a few yards of it, she saw that it had eyes and a nose and mouth; and when she had come close to it, she saw clearly that it was Humpty Dumpty himself. ‘It can’t be anybody else!’ she said to herself. ‘I’m as certain of it, as if his name were written all over his face.“
‘And how exactly like an egg he is!’ she said aloud, standing with her hands ready to catch him, for she was every moment expecting him to fall.
‘It’s very provoking,’ Humpty Dumpty said after a long silence, looking away from Alice as he spoke, ‘to be called an egg — very!’
‘I said you looked like an egg, Sir,’ Alice gently explained. ‘And some eggs are very pretty, you know,’ she added, hoping to turn her remark into a sort of compliment.
And so an egg it became. W.W. Denslow’s 1904 illustration is another recognizable one. Denslow was the illustrator for the original Wonderful Wizard of Oz books. Going forward it seems all nursery rhyme storybooks depicted Humpty Dumpty as an egg.
Okay, so there is a bit of history, at least as much as I can find, accuracy debatable. Now, back to “Why does she think Humpty Dumpty is a potato”? Nobody really got into the nitty-gritty explanations with her, but when I see her next I will probably ask her, with no guarantees she will feel like discussing the details with me. She did say that when the potato breaks open that it is yellow(ish) inside, like an egg (if that makes any sense… to me it sort of does). My questions – is the potato a raw potato or is it baked or boiled (which would determine if the potato broke or squished after falling off the wall – given it is a high wall).
The other thing I was wondering about is the image of Mr. Potato Head, which in itself could evoke the similarities of an egg with human features. Of course, the Mr. Potato Head of my childhood is not the same Mr. Potato head of today. They ditched the use of an actual potato long ago, which I personally feel was kind of a shame.
You didn’t have to just use potatoes for the head either. All sorts of vegetables could be employed for a variety of silly characters. This still photo from the original commercial gives you an idea of what we used to do. There is a freaky vintage weirdness about them that I very much appreciate.
But the real potato thing – apparently there was an issue about kids playing with rotting vegetables. Government safety regulations ensued. So in 1964 Hasbro started including a plastic potato body in the kit. While it makes sense, the newer, totally plastic Mr. Potato Head always has looked a bit cheesy to me. I guess if children today don’t have the old potato man to compare to, they don’t know the difference. Mr. Potato Head has evolved further over the years to include a Mrs. Potato Head and the parts to make all different animal Potato Heads.
One more interesting discovery in this segue is that in Great Britain in the 1960’s you could buy Mr. Egg-Bodd and his friend Mr. Potato Head together in one kit. Mr. Egg-Bodd appears to be a plastic egg that sits inside a plastic egg cup. It seems Mr. Egg-Bodd did not land on our shores stateside, nor withstand the sands of popularity through the decades. But I digress…
My point being that in looking at a Mr. Potato Head, you can imagine how that image of a potato could be applied to a Humpty Dumpty. At least that’s how I see it in my own mind. I’m assuming perhaps my granddaughter’s brain has somehow followed the same circuitous path as mine, whether she realizes it or not. Of course I could be totally wrong about all of this. She might have a different explanation. Or perhaps her conclusion defies all reason. I will say that if you know either of us, there are genetics involved here for sure.