Mother Goose is an iconic figure in literature, associated with both fairy tales and nursery rhymes. The modern American reader may be most familiar with the classic book of short poems called The Real Mother Goose first published in 1916. Many of these poems are well known adaptations of poems or songs for children, long predating the publication of the book.
References to Mother Goose date back to the 17th century, and usually included the idea that she spun fairy tales in addition to poems. Any stories suitable to children were according to French writer Jean Loret in his 1650 La Muse Historique, like the Mother Goose tales. This suggests that the character was well known, and that she was essentially a figurehead description of a certain genre of literature. Poems of this genre would later be called nursery rhymes, as told in the nursery by mothers, perhaps fathers, and often children’s nurses or nannies.
There have been several hypotheses that a real Mother Goose at one point existed. Two French queens prior to 12th century were considered by some to be Mother Goose. This is largely discredited. Another refuted theory is that her poems were written by a 19th century American woman named Elizabeth Goose. This urban legend was enough to earn the possibly non-existent Elizabeth a place in Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum as a wax figure. In this case, don’t believe it; many of the works in The Real Mother Goose can be traced centuries back.
More likely, Mother Goose was a reference to any farmer woman who might raise geese, or who might care for children and collect them about her in flocks to tell tales. Some have also suggested that the figure is pagan in origin. Her costuming and appearance in illustrations does seem an early model for depictions of witches. Especially her pointed nose, glasses, and witch hat are suggestive in the 1916 collection.
Sometimes Mother Goose is merely depicted as a goose. This is definitely a modern take in keeping with the many anthropomorphic animals that entertain modern children in books and on television. The Real Mother Goose published in several forms retains the older illustrations and remains a delightful book for children. It often serves as an excellent way to teach quite young children about poetry, and to help them learn to memorize short rhythmic poems.