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Did You Know ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ Is Based on a Real Story?

We all know the delightful story of a young girl named Mary who brought her beloved pet lamb with her to school one day. In fact, I’d bet money that you have the sing-songy tune playing in your head right now just reading about it. That said, did you know the whole thing was based on a real-life little lady and her lamb?

The lyrics of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” were inspired by Mary Sawyer, who lived in Sterling, Massachusetts, in the 1800s, reports the New England Historical Society. Mary took the young animal under her care after the poor thing was rejected by her sheep mother on the family’s farm. After nursing her unusual pet to good health, the lamb became Mary’s shadow and, indeed, “everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.” 

When Mary described the day her lamb joined her at school, she said, “I hadn’t seen her before starting off and, not wanting to go without seeing her, I called. She recognized my voice, and soon I heard a faint bleating far down the field. More and more distinctly I heard it, and I knew my pet was coming to greet me. My brother Nat said, ‘Let’s take the lamb to school with us.’” Makes you wonder if Nat was ever annoyed that he didn’t merit a mention in the classic rhyme.

As the story goes, Mary did try to hide the lamb under her desk in a basket at her feet, but she was quickly discovered by the teacher who made the animal wait outside until class was over. The original poem was penned by one of Mary’s schoolmates, John Roustone, who witnessed the whole thing. In 1830, poet Sarah Josepha Hale added a few stanzas with a moral lesson about treating others with kindness and love. 

Later in life, Mary donated socks made with “knitted wool from the first fleece of Mary’s Little Lamb.” She wasn’t trying to profit off her fuzzy friend, but instead raise funds to save a local historical building, the Old South Meeting House in Somerville, Massachusetts. It worked and further secured Mary and her lamb’s impressive (and adorable) legacy.

Now you can share this fascinating backstory with the little ones in your life the next time you enjoy the nursery rhyme together!

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