Deborah Bower writes: “On to the myth and I think this is a tough one. The song “Pop goes the Weasel”. How old is it and does it refer to a wool winder, a hatter’s tool, or a tailors tool? I’ve had this discussion with balladeers in the tavern and they are in two camps, those who’d love to see it proven as an older tune and those who are convinced it’s 19th century. Nobody seems sure as to what exactly the weasel is, although most think it’s the wool winder. I’m confused because the words to the song talk about a cobbler’s bench. Do cobblers have a tool called a weasel? Is it a cobbler’s work song?”
There are many versions to the song, “Pop Goes the Weasel,” all of which end with that refrain. “All around the mulberry bush” is one first line; “All around the cobbler’s bench” is another; and there are more that shall remain nameless here.
First I consulted with my expert, Al Saguto, Colonial Williamsburg’s master shoemaker who was kind enough to spend some research time on this question. I learned that shoemakers and cobblers were originally different trades. Shoemakers were the skilled artisans who made shoes, and cobblers were the shoe repair men. It was a grave insult to call a shoemaker a cobbler, in fact, the Oxford English Dictionary gives a secondary definition of cobbler as a person who works clumsily, so it was a general insult as well. Think of the phrase “to cobble something together.”
From around 1600 to 1800, skilled shoemakers used workbenches in their trade. Poorer cobblers did not have such nice furniture; they used a three-legged stool. That changed around the middle of the 19th century when the two trades merged (Why? The introduction of manufactured shoes left the shoemaker with less work and forced him to lower himself to repair work.) The words “cobbler’s bench,” Saguto says, suggests that this version of the song could not have come about before the middle of the 1800s, when cobblers became synonymous with shoemakers and might have used a bench. Proving that we are on the right track, 1850 is also the earliest documented existence of the song.
So, did cobblers (or shoemakers) have a tool called a weasel? Saguto said no, and a check of the OED provided no evidence to the contrary. I then contacted the late Jay Gaynor, Director of Historic Trades at Colonial Williamsburg and a former curator of mechanical arts who had a passion for antique tools. Gaynor had heard of a weasel, in fact, he owned two. It is a yarn winder, often called a yarn weasel. Gaynor explained how the thing worked, winding and measuring yarn and making a distinct POP! as it registered a certain number of yards. When you examine the rest of the rhyme, “A penny for a spool of thread, A penny for a needle,” the words would seem to fit in with the yarn and thread subject.
What doesn’t fit is the cobbler’s bench. For that matter, neither does the mulberry bush or the monkey. Mulberry bushes were common in England and America, and figure in other children’s songs (“Here we go ‘round the mulberry bush”). The OED offers numerous definitions of the word “monkey,” but none that relate to spinning, weaving, yarn, sewing, or weasels.
So, where does this leave us? Clearly, this is not a song that a cobbler sang while working at his bench. A weasel is not a cobbler’s tool, it is a spinning tool used to measure and wind yarn. “Pop goes the weasel” refers to the clicking sound that the counter makes. The earliest known appearance of the song is around 1850 in Britain, so it probably isn’t very old. A few years later, it had made it to America where the lyrics changed: “All around the cobbler’s house,” or “All around the chicken coop,” or “All around the mulberry bush,” and our favorite, “All around the cobbler’s bench.”
A reasonable conclusion would be that the song is part nonsense with a strong link to the spinning craft. If you still haven’t read enough about “Pop! Goes the Weasel,” check out this web site: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-pop1.htm. For more about the British versions and the Cockney version, see http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/pop-goes-the-weasel.html.