R.P. likes garage sales, he writes, and 20 years ago found this "Bo Peep"-themed silverplated tumbler. The vessel bears the inscription "Robert 1888." The tale of a shepherdess losing her sheep is usually associated with female children, but like all nursery rhymes, the legend bears a moral directed to children in general.
Moralizing in stories for children was a habit of the late 19th century in both Victorian England and Rutherford B. Hayes' America (markings on the cup indicate either country of origin). "Bo Peep" is thought to be onomatopoeic for "Bleat Sheep"; another origin story credits the nursery rhyme with political symbolism, having to do with punishment. A "fine peep" (beau peep) referred to time spent with one's head in the pillory. In 1364, a barkeep named Alice was pilloried for a "short pour" (skimping on the liquor), says Louis Francis Salzman's "English Industries of the Middle Ages."
Bo Peep's song is an instructive one. The moral of the rhyme centers on the irresponsible Bo Peep who falls asleep while tending her sheep. When they return, they are tailless. Various versions and further stanza in the rhyme tell us that Bo Peep saw the bloodied tails arranged in a row along a fence. She gathered them up, haplessly attempting to reattach each one.
Always macabre, Mother Goose rhymes are a mystery of authorship. As early as 1626, the author of "Bo Peep" was given as "Mere l'oye"; by 1697, Charles Perrault gathered rhymes together in "Tales of My Mother Goose," republished in English in 1729 and brought to America in 1786. The revival of nursery rhymes in the late 19th century was part of a late Victorian interest in the regional folksong genre. It is easy to understand this fascination. In the light of growing industrialization, the loss of agrarian lifestyles, the rise of the big city, artists and writers turned to old folktales and ballads from the likes of Robert (Rabbie) Burns and Sir Walter Scott. Culture and identity were tied with regional ways of speaking and traditional poetry, English late medieval nursery rhymes like "Bo Peep" included. Across cultures, the late 19th century relished regional nationalistic poetry, and songs were recreated from folk traditions. Every major nation had versions of children's stories in themes from the 16th century told again in the late 19th century. Most were disturbing.
Children's eating and drinking utensils were a popular medium for the folktale revival, dovetailing nicely with the late Victorian propensity to turn story time into a morality tale. Across the 300 years since the unknown authorship of "Little Bo Peep," the late Victorian parents found the tale instructive — "don't dawdle!" Other silver and porcelain manufacturers did the same: Royal Doulton china bore "Old Mother Hubbard" and "Bunnykins"; Royal Bayreuth china carried "Sand Baby," a Russian tale; and Kate Greenaway's illustrations were pictured on china, in books, and on children themselves, as revivalist fashions were worn as children's clothing.
Christening mugs like R.P.'s were given to children with the image of the nursery rhyme characters picked out in repoussé (a raised relief) around the sides of the mug. Popular little mugs bore Red Riding Hood and Little Jack Horner, to name a couple, and I have seen other versions of R.P.'s Bo Peep mug. Middle- to upper-middle-class godmothers and fathers presented silverplated mugs to their godchildren. The upper classes gave sterling nursery rhyme mugs. R.P.'s is silverplated, and similar antique Bo Peep mugs are worth $50 to $75. The marking on the bottom, "1082," refers to the pattern. If the mug were sterling, we would find both a pattern mark and a hallmark (if British), or a stamp, "sterling," if American. If sterling, the mug would be worth $200 to $300.
The design of the mug features Bo Peep shielding her little eyes against a full sun. The back features a pack of dogs running under the moon. I have never seen a version of the Bo Peep rhyme featuring dogs. Perhaps dogs introduced on this innocent-looking christening mug have a 19th century interpretation — the dogs are responsible for the loss of the sheep tails! Notice the dogs running at night under a moon, ominously.
A Victorian interpretation of the old rhyme, the adding of dogs in the night to the Bo Peep tale is in character with the late 19th century, when children were alternatively idolized for their innocence and purity, or condemned for their cunning natures and wickedness. An object from a certain period of history gives a visual lesson of the culture and attitude of its time.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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