If you’ve ever visited the Old Granary Burying Ground in Boston, Massachusetts, you may have stumbled upon the tombstone of Mary Goose, a woman believed by some to be the infamous author of countless cherished nursery rhymes: Mother Goose. Visitors toss coins at her tombstone, presumably to garner a bit of good luck, but the woman who was buried there in 1690 is undoubtedly not the original Mother Goose. According to local legend, it was the widowed Isaac Goose’s second wife, Elizabeth Foster Goose, who entertained her numerous grandchildren and other youngsters with songs and rhymes that were purportedly published by her son-in-law in 1719. Yet despite repeated searches for a copy of this collection, no evidence of its existence has ever been uncovered. Regardless, most historians agree that neither Mary nor Elizabeth created the stories that have passed on from generation to generation.
In fact, the etymology of the moniker “Mother Goose” may have evolved over centuries, originating as early as the 8th century with Bertrada II of Laon (mother of Charlemagne, the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire) who was a patroness of children known as “Goose-foot Bertha” or “Queen Goosefoot” due to a malformation of her foot.
By the mid-17th century, “mere l’oye” or “mere oye” (Mother Goose) was a phrase commonly used in France to describe a woman who captivated children with delightful tales. In 1697, Charles Perrault published a collection of folktales with the subtitle “Contes de ma mère l’oye” (Tales from my Mother Goose), which became beloved throughout France and was translated into English in 1729. And in England, circa 1765, John Newbery published the wildly popular “Mother Goose’s Melody, or, Sonnets for the Cradle,” which indelibly shifted the association of Mother Goose from folktales to nursery rhymes and children’s poetry, and which influenced nearly every subsequent Mother Goose publication.