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Origins: Polly Put the Kettle On

It's what all young girls do, all the time.

Polly put the kettle on,
Polly put the kettle on,
Polly put the kettle on,
We’ll all have tea.

Sukey take it off again,
Sukey take it off again,
Sukey take it off again,
They’ve all gone away.

Gender stereotyping is key to a number of nursery rhymes and  Polly Put the Kettle On is no different. The myth goes that a family of five nameless children (though one assumes there was a Polly and a Susan in the mix) were forced to play indoors. Two of the children, the boys, would play raucously and noisily, jumping on the furniture and generally being a bit of a nuisance. The girls, crafty and manipulative, would set up a tea party in the room in which they wished to play, at which point the boys, presumably horrified at the idea of being within sight of a tea-party lest they caught girl-cooties, would take to their heels and run away to do Manly Things in another room. Thus the girls would be left to play in peace.

The children’s father, tickled by his daughters’ trickery, wrote the rhyme and set it to music.

My source calls this a ‘charming’ story, and assuming charming has a secondary meaning of ‘horribly gender essentialist’, I’d tend to agree. It is, as readers of TI have probably come to expect, a pile of guff.

The traditional tune to which Polly Puts the Kettle On is set belongs to an old Scottish song, Jenny’s Bawbee*. The tune was published in Dublin under the title of Jenny’s Baubie or Molly Put the Kettle On at some point between 1790 and 1810, and as Molly Put the Kettle On in New York around 1805, suggesting the rhyme became popular in the late sixteenth century. Around 1810 the song appeared in The Vocal Museum, containing Twenty-One of the Newest Songs Sung at Vauxhall, the Theatres, and Societies thus:

Molly put the kettle on, Molly put the kettle on,
Molly put the kettle on, we’ll all have tea.
Suckey take it off again, Suckey take it off again,
Suckey take it off again, they’ve run away.

Oh what did Jenny do, oh what did Jenny do,
Oh what did Jenny do, for a bawbee?
She turned up her peticoat, her blue fring’d peticoat
She turned up her peticoat above her knee.

The song continues with a Sailor returning from a voyage and a dance takes place, during which Jenny declares “it is no sin for girls to have a drop of gin”. It is somewhat removed from the innocence of the children’s rhyme.

The first time the rhyme is referenced in print with a subject named Polly is in Charles Dickens Barnaby Rudge, published 1840:

Hurrah! Polly put the ket-le 0n, we’ll all have tea; Polly put the ket-le 0n, we’ll all have tea, Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!

Dickens’ influence must have been strong, for when the rhyme was published in Halliwell’s The Nursery Rhymes of England in 1853 the name Polly was used.

* a bawbee or baubie was a Scottish half-penny minted between around 1542-1558 and 1677.

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