Ring a Ring o’ Roses

Photo Credit: Nursery Rhymes

The classic rhyming game first appeared in print in 1881. Photo Credit: Nursery Rhymes

Ring a Ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.

Ring a Ring o’ roses, a child’s rhyming game, has entertained children for many years. I grew up knowing it as “ring-around-a-rosy” and often left my friends and I in a dizzy fit of laughter. However, reportedly, the origins of this song and dance routine occurred during a dark time in history. From 1665-1666, the Great Plague of London decimated England. Within London, around 70,000 died, a large percentage of the city’s total population of 460,000. Legend has it that the rhyming game found it’s origins during that event, though it was first printed in 1881 by Kate Greenaway.

Children playing "ring-around-a-rosy" in Chicago, Illinois. (Library of Congress/History By Zim)

Children playing “ring-around-a-rosy” in Chicago, Illinois. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Those that believe the nursery rhyme has its origins during the plague base it on the following verse breakdown:

  • Ring a Ring o’ roses – An early symptom of the plague was a red, circular rash.
  • A pocket full of posies – One superstition was that posies would help protect against the disease, so they would carry the herb with them. It was also used as a fragrance against the disease’s smell.
  • A-tishoo! A-tishoo! – Sneezing or coughing was one of the last symptoms before death. In later rhyme versions, Ashes! Ashes!, replaces this sentence. The bodies of plague victims were usually cremated, so this later adaption still works within the original idea.
  • We all fall down – This last line states the final result of the plague – death.

Regardless of its actual origins, whether in a dark period of history or a modern (less dark) one, Ring a Ring o’ roses has entertained children for generations. The words vary from area to area but the end result tends to be the same – mass dizziness and giggles!

Children playing "ring-around-a-rosy" at a Kentucky school in August 1914. Photo Credit: Lewis Wickes Hines/Library of Congress/History By Zim

Children playing “ring-around-a-rosy” at a Kentucky school in August 1914. Photo Credit: Lewis Wickes Hines/Library of Congress

Panati, Charles. Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. New York: Harper & Row, 1987, 196.
The Great Plague

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  • Brittany

    this is one of my favorite bits of history!! thanks for sharing it on your website!!

    • Leslie Graham

      Nice story – pity it’s not true.
      The theory about the plague doesn’t appear in folklore until around 1950. It doesn’t really fit the symptoms either. And the first recorded version of the rhyme doesn’t appear til the late 18th century.
      Whaatever it’s about it isn’t the plague.

      • Zim

        Leslie, thank you for your comment! I do understand that the origin behind “Ring a Ring o’ roses” is disputed. That is why I used the words “reportedly” and “legend” as well as the phrase: “Those that believe the nursery rhyme has its origins during the plague base it on the following verse breakdown.” This has been a legend for years. I first heard about it as a child partaking in the game. This post is talking about that – the legend – not the exact historical meaning since it is mostly unknown.

  • Marcia

    This is very interesting. I found it interesting that we always said it, ashes ashes; we all fall down.
    Probably a typo, but it says, ” From 1965-1966, the Great Plague of London decimated England.” I’m sure you meant an earlier date.
    I thought you might want me to point that out to you 🙂

  • Zim

    Marcia – Thank you so much for pointing out the typo! Fixed it! 🙂