A Tisket a Tasket, Three Little Fishies, Baa Baa Black Sheep — these nursery rhymes were an integral part of my childhood experience. The rhyme that most captured my attention when I was a child, however, was Miss Lucy Had a Baby:
Particularly fascinating to me were not the presence of the nurse, doctor, or even Tiny Tim (really, what an idiot) but rather the enigmatic Lady with the Alligator Purse. She seemed mysterious and powerful. Who was she? I wondered. Why did Miss Lucy call her when Tiny Tim ate everything in the bathroom? And, most importantly, what on earth was in that alligator purse?
“Miss Lucy Had a Baby,” in my memory, is conflated with my explorations of my own mother’s “pocketbook” (as it was called in 1970s Massachusetts). When I was small, my mom’s purse went everywhere with her. I sat in the car as she drove, and she let me look in the pocketbook. It was a mess, full of a treasure trove of endlessly fascinating items: Chapstick (always the original kind—the black packaging, wax-like, no flavor), a comb, cigarettes, tissues with small pieces of fragrant tobacco on them, baby pacifiers, Neosporin. And bandaids — always a necessity with four kids. My mom’s purse reflected not only her own needs but also her care work as a mother and, essentially, domestic healer.
More recently, my research on women’s history and material culture has me, albeit in another context, exploring the bags and purses that women carried around and the health-related things in them. I’m particularly interested in the bags of nurses and midwives. The classic 1950s educational film “All My Babies,” for example, documents the work of Mary Coley, an African-American midwife in rural Georgia.
As the camera follows Coley, highlighting her skills and her interactions with parturient women and infants, it hones in on the material culture of childbirth: the items, including cardboard boxes, that women collected to prepare for birth, and the bag that Coley carried.
In one particularly detailed scene, Coley arrives home late at night after a particularly exhausting birth. Still, she meticulously removes and cleans every item from her midwifery bag: brushes, scissors, gauze, linens for baby. Growing up, I wondered if Miss Lucy too had medical tools or potions in her mysterious alligator purse.
As a child, I thought that rhymes like Miss Lucy were unique creations made up by my mom and Nana, who boasted an impressive repertoire. Now, of course, I know a bit more about their long and often complex histories and meanings. The origins of Miss Lucy, for example, are contested. Some, like Melissa Martinez, link it with another rhyme called Miss Suzy and claim that both originally “came from the same source—probably an old Black-American banjo song from the late 1800s, ‘Shout Lulu.’” Others place its origins in the late to mid-twentieth century. Versions of it are found across the US as well as in Britain.
Recently, several blogs have addressed the possible identity of the Lady with the Alligator Purse, and thus the meaning of the rhyme. A thread on Pancocojams edited by Azizi Powell intriguingly posits that the rhyme originated in the early twentieth-century African-American community, with the lady representing a traditional herbalist who carried her physick in an alligator purse. In this reading, the lady’s traditional knowledge trumps that of the officially educated doctor and nurse.
An alternative (undated but presumably early twentieth-century) ending cited in Veronica Strong-Boag and Cheryl Warsh’s Children’s Health Issues in Historical Perspective does not identify the Lady but affirms her superior knowledge:
Here, the Lady’s expertise is rewarded with a payment. The nurse and doctor, meanwhile, face the wrath of Miss Lucy.
Another interpretation is posted on the Susan B. Anthony museum’s website. Anthony, it claims, was known for the alligator purse that she carried; indeed, one version of the rhyme substitutes the following lines in the second-to-last verse:
Perhaps, then, the Lady was really a healer, or a notorious feminist and suffragette, and the rhyme thus represents a form of resistance to a dominant patriarchal or medical culture.
As a girl I was (as I am now) most interested in stories that involve women with important yet somewhat hidden or overlooked roles and the ordinary, everyday items that reflected their lives and helped preserve the health of families and communities. Mary Coley was one of these women, the Lady with the Alligator Purse was one of these women, and maybe my own mother was as well.
“Miss Lucy Had a Baby” reminds me of the power of storytelling, the role played by popular culture in a child’s identity formation, and even how a nursery rhyme can inform a burgeoning feminist consciousness. This rhyme not only represents an affirmation of powerful women and traditional feminine health cultures, but it but also opens up questions about material culture and the things that women carry in their purses and indeed in their daily lives.
Sometimes, in my professional life as a historian of women’s health, I think of myself as the Lady with the Alligator Purse. I’m not the doctor or the nurse, but I’m someone who brings a different perspective to the study of health care, one that can be a necessary counterpoint to a more clinical point of view — or perhaps even one that, by recognizing women’s everyday objects as health tools, hints at power and resistance.
And I’m still fascinated by the things that ladies have in their purses.
- Veronica Jane Strong-Boag and Cheryl Lynn Krasnick Warsh, Children’s Health Issues in Historical Perspective (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005), vi. Return to text.
This is fantastic; I have always loved that song for this EXACT reason!!! In the version I learned as a kid, it’s a little TURTLE named Tiny Tim, and the little turtle is sick and the doctors and nurses are wrong about what the real problem is:
He drank up all the water,
He ate up all the soap,
And now he’s sick in bed
With a bubble in his throat!
I called for the doctor,
I called for the nurse,
I called for the lady with the alligator purse.
Mumps! said the doctor,
Measles! said the nurse,
BUBBLES! said the lady with the alligator purse!
I’ve thought of this song when my midwife gave me herbs and sent me for acupuncture that put me into labor when the medical model would have mandated an induction. I think of it every time my daughter has some minor illness, and the older ladies who take care of her at her daycare — who are Black; African and West Indian — know what’s wrong with her when the pediatrician is getting it wrong. ALWAYS trust the lady with the alligator purse! 🙂
I have some great stories about pads and tampons in purses in my book, The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America. Purses/pocketbooks were a major theme for women of my generation (growing up in the 1970s/80s). Many of us started carrying a pocketbook specifically so that we could have menstrual products with us at all times; this was often complemented with our first makeup, where I grew up. Later, as a new mother, I remember distinctly noting when I started to be able to pull a tissue or napkin out of my well-stocked purse at any time for any emergency (but no promises it isn’t a wrinkled ball from when I hurriedly wedged it in there last week), just like my own mom could always do, and I recognized it as a sign that I had become a real mom!
Thanks for this post, it’s really fascinating! The version I learned of this rhyme in the 1990s was about the same as the one you write out at the beginning, except for some reason, after mumps and measles, the lady with the alligator purse said, “Pizza!” 🙂
I learned the “Miss Suzy” variant of this song at preschool in the upper Midwest in the late ‘70’s, and nobody got punched in the version I learned:
Miss Suzy paid the doctor
The doctor paid the nurse
The nurse paid the Lady with the alligator purse
As a small child, I remember puzzling over the “alligator purse”; I pictured a purse shaped like an alligator, or maybe it WAS an alligator, and the alligator opened its mouth so the Lady could take things in or out, because maybe the alligator was the Lady’s friend and helped her by carrying stuff. How cool to think it might all have been a coded reference to midwifery!