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Mary and Her Little Lamb

Most nursery rhymes are so old that their origins are lost to history, but that is not the case with "Mary Had a Little Lamb​."  Not only do we know when it was written and by whom, we also know that there really was a Mary, a lamb, and a schoolroom full of children who laughed!

From "Denslow's Mother Goose" by W.W. Denslow, 1902

A page from "Denslow's Mother Goose"
by W.W. Denslow, 1902.

Mary Sawyer was born in 1806, and the story of her lamb started when she was ten years old.

For the most part, lambs aren't very interested in people.  They stick close to their mother, bleating and crying when separated from her and while a bold lamb may investigate a person in the barn she will run back to her mother at the slightest movement or noise.

But bottle lambs are an exception to that rule.  When a ewe dies or for any other reason abandons her lamb, a farmer will feed the lamb with a bottle.  These bottle lambs grow extremely attached to their human handlers, and will follow "their" human around like a friendly dog, bleating and crying when the human is out of sight, just like any other lamb will baa for its mother.  This was the case with Mary's lamb.

Young Mary went out to the barn with her father on a cold March morning in 1816.  There they found a ewe that had twins and was taking good care of one but had abandoned the other.  Mary asked if she could take the abandoned lamb into the house and her father told her no.  But as every kid knows, if Dad says no then ask Mom!  Mary snuck it into the house and asked her mother if she could keep it. 

Not only did her mother say yes, she also made the lamb some catnip tea.  Mary fed the tea to the lamb and while she initially couldn't swallow she eventually was able to take some.  Mary spent the day in the kitchen, sitting on the floor next to the stove with the lamb wrapped in a blanket and feeding her sips of tea.  By the end of the day the lamb had improved some.  But Mary was afraid that it would die if left alone during the night, so she spent the night on the kitchen floor with the lamb. 

When a lamb starts to improve they tend to improve quickly and that was the case with Mary's lamb.  Soon she was able to drink milk and Mary continued to care for her.  The lamb was put in the barn with the other sheep, but she always preferred to be with Mary.  Mary treated the lamb like a doll, dressing her up in a shawl and pantalets, washing her and combing her fleece and putting bright ribbons on her head.  In her later years Mary said that she didn't have many dolls and there were few girls her own age near her farm.  She said she and the lamb were "companions and fast friends."

One day as Mary and her brother were walking to school she heard the lamb bleating.  She called out to the lamb and the lamb ran to Mary's side.  Her brother suggested that they bring the lamb to school.  What could possibly go wrong?  So they did.

Inside the Redstone School, where Mary went to school, used as a school from 1798 to 1856.

Mary's Little Lamb Schoolhouse,
where Mary was a student.
The school was used from
1798 to 1856 and is now a historic site.

Mary and her brother arrived before the teacher ... she had the lamb lay down under her seat and covered the lamb with a blanket.  The day progressed without any incident and Mary noted that she even took her turn at the blackboard a few times without the lamb making a peep!  But then the lamb let out a bleat and stood up (probably because she was bored and tired of laying still!).  Mary was mortified to have been caught with her contraband!  But the teacher just laughed and told her to put the lamb outside the schoolhouse ... at lunch time Mary walked the lamb home.

That would have been the end of it, except that the school had a visitor that morning:  John Roulstone, a teenage boy who was preparing for college by studying with his uncle, a local minister.  He was impressed with the little lamb's devotion to Mary and the next day he came back to the school and gave Mary a poem he had written:

Mary had a little lamb;
Its fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go.

It followed her to school one day,
Which was against the rule;
It made the children laugh and play
To see a lamb at school.

And so the teacher turned it out;
But still it lingered near,
And waited patiently about
Till Mary did appear.

Factoid:  Sheep produce an oil called lanolin.  Lambs are born white, but life in a barn and out in the pasture is dirty, dirt sticks to the lanolin on their fleece, and they quickly start to look like they are a dull gray color.  It's just dirt and washes out easily - but nobody washes a sheep, you are supposed to wait and wash the wool after it has been shorn.  Mary's frequent washing of her lamb would be why Roulstone said the lamb had "fleece as white a snow," which would have been very unusual for a sheep!

In 1830 Sarah Hale published "Poems for Our Children," which included the poem with twelve extra lines added:

And then he ran to her, and laid
His head upon her arm,
As if he said "I'm not afraid
You'll keep me from all harm."

"What makes the lamb love Mary so?"
The eager children cry
"O, Mary loves the lamb, you know,"
The Teacher did reply.

"And you each gentle animal
In confidence may bind,
And make them follow at your call,
If you are always kind."

from "Denslow's Mother Goose" by W.W. Denslow, 1902.

Page from "Denslow's Mother Goose" by W.W. Denslow, 1902.

While Roulstone's lines are just a silly poem about a girl and a lamb, Sarah Hale's additional lines give the story a moral lesson - which was very common for children's poems of the 19th century.

So what ever happened to Mary's lamb?  The lamb lived as a pampered pet for four years.  Mary reports that the lamb gave birth twice, once to a single and once to twins and that the lamb-turned-ewe was very devoted to her sheep family.  Her life ended when she was gored by a bull on the farm and the lamb died in Mary's arms.

And the lamb's name?  No one seems to know.  Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford (yup, the guy with the cars) moved Mary's school house from its original location in Sterling, MA to Sudbury, MA.  His plans were to build a museum of Americana in the area (he didn't, but he later realized his dream with the awesome Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI).  In 1928 they published an incredible and well researched 60-page booklet "The Story of Mary and Her Little Lamb."  The booklet republished a 1902 interview with Mary plus information from Mary's friends and relatives about the story of the lamb.  But no where is there any mention of the lamb's name.  The lamb was a pet for four years, surely she called it something!  But the lamb's name is forever lost to history.

Factoid:  Thomas Edison's first recording of a human voice was in 1877.  What did he record?  Himself reciting the first four lines of "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

Are you or someone you love expecting her own "little lamb"?  Join in on Michelle Hunter's newest Knit-Along - the "Adorable Ewe Baby Sweater."  Appropriate for a boy or a girl, the little sweater is sized to fit a six month old baby.  It is a mystery KAL, so we don't know what it will look like, but we are told it has a sheep theme and will be too cute to miss!

Happy Knitting! ... Scout

A Brief History of Paper Making

People were writing long before paper was invented.  In China they wrote on sheet made with strips of bamboo that were sewn together and then rolled into tablets.  The bamboo tablets worked well, but they were thick and heavy - there had to be a better way!

There was!  Cai Lun was an official in the Han Dynasty in China, born in the year 48 A.D. According to legend, he was inspired to invent paper by watching paper wasps make their nests.  He used tree bark, hemp, cloth rags and fishing nets to make paper in the year 105 A.D.  

Wait ... check that ... the oldest paper found predates Cai Lun by at least 100 years and maybe even more.  So while Cai Lun certainly improved the process, and very likely established a better recipe and equipment for making paper, he didn't actually invent paper.  No one knows who was the very first person to make paper. 

Paper is nothing more than a thin layer of fiber and the paper making process is quite simple.  First, the plant fibers are soaked in water to soften them.  Wood pulp, cotton or linen work as a plant fiber base.  After the fibers are softened they are smashed to make a pulp.

Ancient papermakers would have used some version of a mortar and pestle to pound the fiber.  Later paper mills used water power to mechanically pound the pulp with hammers.  The earliest known water powered paper mill was in Spain in 1282. 

Next, add water to the pulp to thin the solution ... then a screen is put into the tray of pulpy water and then pulled out with a thin layer of the pulpy mix stuck to it.  Paper mills use a giant screen, but at-home paper makers can use a piece of window screen stapled to a picture frame. 

The pulp on the screen is dried and then pealed off - and you have paper!  The paper can be left coarse and rugged-looking, or ironed to make it smooth and shinny.  (Want pictures?  Wikihow has a good tutorial on making paper at  home.)

Paper Mill - Hammers - Diderot Encyclopedie - 1751-1765

A river or steam turns the water wheel
which power the hammers as they
stamp thefiber into pulp, 1751-1765

With all this paper being made, how long do you think it took for someone to think of using it for toilet paper?  Not very long!  The first written reference to toilet paper is in 589 A.D. when a Chinese scholar wrote "Paper on which there are quotations or commentaries from the Five Classics or the names of sages, I dare not use for toilet purposes."

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the best source of fiber for papermaking was old clothes and rags (but only clothes and rags with plant fibers, such as linen and cotton - not wool).  Rag-pickers collected rags off the street or went door-to-door asking for old clothes. 

"In the Rag Trade" by Arthur Boyd Houghton, 1870

"In the Rag Trade"
by Arthur Boyd Houghton, 1870

Newspaper printers needed a lot of paper and the quality of the paper was not important. Quicklime was added to the rag pulp to bleach the paper to a nice printable white, but it also deteriorated the quality of the paper, which made it crumble over time.  Because of the poor quality of the rag paper used in newspapers, it was common to insult a newspaper by calling it a "rag".

Want some paper?  We have plenty!  All of our paper products are on sale at 25% off.  That's books, magazines, paper patterns, pamphlets - anything printed on paper. 

Happy Knitting! ... Scout

Everything Paper 25% Off!

Tumbling Blocks and Two Presidents!

Rhombille Tiling

Rhombille Tiling

Math geeks and fans of optical illusions are familiar with the rhombille tiling, more commonly known as tumbling blocks or reversible cubes.  The design is made with diamonds, with some diamonds set vertically and others set on their sides.  The cool visual effect is that cubes seem to be popping out of the page ... or, wait, are they sinking down into the page?  No, they're popping out ... in ... out ...

"Tumbling Blocks" has been a popular quilt pattern since at least the 1850s, and according to legend the pattern was used as a symbol on the Underground Railroad.  When a tumbling blocks quilt was hung on a fence the "boxes" were a signal to slaves to "box up" their clothes - the signal to leave would be coming soon! 

Even today, to "box up" means to pack.  To 19th century aristocrat planning a summer-long tour of Europe this referred to packing their clothes in a large steamer trunk - a box.  To a run-away slave boxing up meant carrying some extra clothes in a sack, not an actual box.

Some of our presidents have been tumbling blocks quilters!  Well, sort of.  It was common in the 19th century for boys to copy their mother's chores at a young age, often learning to knit, sew and quilt as they followed mother around doing her daily tasks.  As they grew older they moved out of their mother's sphere and into their father's world, learning the more masculine chores associated with farming and business.  Most men denied that they had ever done domestic tasks as a child, but in the case of Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower we have proof that they did!

Calvin Coolidge, president from 1923 - 1929, was born in 1872.  ​When he was ten years old he pieced together a tumbling blocks quilt that is displayed at the Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site. His mother died about a year after the quilt was completed, which would have made this project all the more special to young Calvin.

Coolidge's Tumbling Blocks quilt in the Shed Room at Calvin Coolidge Museum

  Calvin Coolidge's tumbling blocks quilt in the Shed Room at the Calvin Coolidge Museum

Dwight D. Eisenhower, president from 1953 to 1961, was born in 1890.  He and his brother pieced together a tumbling blocks quilt, now at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library and Museum.  According to the museum, his mother sewed the quilt together around 1910.  Eisenhower would have been around 20 years old at the time, much to old for a boy to be piecing together a quilt.  It is more likely that young Eisenhower did the piecing much earlier - and Mrs. Eisenhower had a great big pile of unfinished projects that took her a while to complete (we have so much in common!).

Kaffe Fassett Knit-Along afghan

Kaffe Fassett's Knit-Along afghan,
featuring the popular tumbling blocks.

But you don't have to be a quilter - or a future president - to enjoy the tumbling blocks design!  Kaffe Fassett (his name rhymes with "safe asset") is a painter, knitter and needlepoint designer who is famous for his love of color!  Lots of color!

The new Kaffe Fassett Knit-Along is a vibrant knit afghan that has a total of 48 squares knit from 13 unique patterns - including his instantly recognizable tumbling block design using the intarsia colorwork method. 

Happy Knitting! ... Scout

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