Revisited Myth #25: “Pop Goes the Weasel” is a cobbler’s work song.

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?”

Antique Yarn Winder or Yarn Weasel

Antique Yarn Winder or Yarn Weasel

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.

another yarn weasel

another yarn weasel

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.”

another one

another one

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

8 Responses to Revisited Myth #25: “Pop Goes the Weasel” is a cobbler’s work song.

  1. Wolfie says:

    The tailoring trades by the 1850s called juniors learning the trade “table monkeys”. I understood use of “monkey” as an affectionate diminutive for a younger, less experienced person.
    Perhaps the spinning trades used “monkey” similarly.
    Total conjecture on my part.

  2. janice says:

    another very interesting post. i have sung that song for years.

  3. Clark Bunch says:

    My history professor in college tied this song to child labor during the industrial revolution. Silk worms are harvested after consuming copious amounts of mulberry leaves. Weasels are indeed used for winding thread and yarn. Before child labor laws and other regulation, children as young as six worked in the textile mills in Manchester and other industrial cities in England. We were taught that this was one song from that era that children would sing to pass the time and make their manual labor seem like a game.

  4. Liz says:

    I was introduced to this rhyme at a 19th-century farm museum. Their explanation was that “mulberry” was the type of wood used to make yarn winders and that the “monkey” was the child assigned the winding task. Very charming all in all.

  5. annacastle says:

    I must thank you for calling my attention to the difference between a shoemaker and a cobbler. I had thought the terms were interchangeable! It’s important because I’ve got Christopher Marlowe in my current book. His biographers interchange the terms, too, but I’ll bet his father was a shoemaker. Contemporaries referred to him as a cobbler when they wanted to insult Kit. A nice distinction!
    I do enjoy your blog. It’s useful for a writer of historical fiction and fun in terms of general knowledge.

  6. TheBear says:

    Or my favourite version:

    All around the microwave
    The monkey chased the weasel
    The monkey pushed the weasel in
    POP! goes the weasel.

  7. 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 … yawinder.wordpress.com

  8. Pepper says:

    I heard ‘pop goes the weasel’ was about pawning one’s Sunday coat. Pop meaning pawn and weasel comes from Cockney rhyming slang meaning coat. People who were poor often pawned their coat on Monday to get money to tide them over for the week, then, they’d get paid and retrieve their coat for Sunday and the circle repeated.

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