The Search for the Real Humpty
While sifting around in the archives, I came across a collection of children’s books and decided to take a peek to see what the kiddos were into “back then.” After recovering from the sting of finding the same Little Golden Books edition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer I had as a child (apparently 1980 is considered “history” or whatever nowadays…) I pulled out a colorful 1881 booklet titled Humpty Dumpty and his Wonderful Adventures. Ha. At least I wasn’t around back then, I thought triumphantly. As I began leafing through, I saw a rather creepy-looking clown figure who seemed to be perched on what was presumably Humpty’s wall, sans egg. Wait…Humpty IS an egg, right?
Nope. It turns out Humpty Dumpty was not necessarily an egg. The little nursery rhyme never specifies what he is, as the first known printing of the rhyme in 1810 was intended to be a riddle:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
Threescore men and threescore more
Could not put Humpty Dumpty as he was before
Is the answer to the riddle an egg? I don't know - I'm not great at riddles, but is this screaming "egg" to anyone else? What would an egg be doing up on a wall, anyway? And how did it fall? I began to look into it and found that this subject has been explored in depth with no definitive answers, unfortunately. I apologize, because I’m sure you thought I was going to say I researched it and got to the bottom of it, didn’t you?
According to the Oxford English dictionary, the first mention of Humpty Dumpty was in the late 1600s in reference to a drink of boiled ale and brandy. Hm. Ok, so not very eggy. Then around 1785 it became a slang term to describe a short, squat person...somewhat eggish, I suppose. Then Humpty was portrayed as an actual egg in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in 1871, and forever egg-shaped our image of him. This illustration by John Tenniel, as well as the accompanying rhyme, is the one we are most familiar with:
Being of English origin, other theories suggest that Humpty Dumpty was the name of a large cannon that was situated on a tower wall during the Siege at Colchester in 1648. The wall was bombarded by enemy fire, causing the cannon to fall. This theory has been refuted by die-hard Humpty historians on the basis that the riddle emerged over a century after the event. So what? It sure sounds more likely than the egg theory to me. Other theories attribute the origins to a variety of English monarchs and cardinals from Richard III to Charles I. Out of all of them, the cannon explanation seems to be the most plausible.
In any case, the color plates in our 1881 copy of the booklet depict Humpty Dumpty as a clown in various situations, the first of which mentions that he did indeed fall from the wall, but his fall was broken by...you'll never guess...an egg. What is the deal with these eggs? From posing as a mannequin to steal from the ladies of the town, to feeding a baby he had kidnapped and then sitting on it to stop it from crying, to beating the vagrants of the streets with a club (this is a kids’ book, right?), he was finally eaten by a whale. I don’t know about you, but I found the title of this book to be somewhat misleading and not so wonderful, seeing as how Humpty was a real jerk. I liked it better when I thought of him as a well-dressed egg hanging out on a wall for no particular reason whatsoever.