Is Humpty Dumpty Even an Egg? An Investigation

Some people think he’s King Richard III.
Edited from an illustration by André De Takacs for a 1914 rag called "Humpty Dumpty" by pianist Charley Straight.
Edited from an illustration by André De Takacs for a 1914 rag called "Humpty Dumpty" by pianist Charley Straight. / Indiana University Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The name Humpty Dumpty evokes an anthropomorphic egg, probably perched atop the wall that is soon to be, quite literally, his downfall. But recite the whole poem and you’ll notice something strange: Nowhere does it mention anything about an egg.

“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.”

So how exactly did we get here?

Will the Real Humpty Dumpty Please Stand Up?

The oral nature of nursery rhymes often makes it tough to nail down a precise point of origin for any given one, and “Humpty Dumpty” is no exception. Versions of it started appearing in print around 1800. The plot hasn’t changed since then—Humpty Dumpty suffers a severe injury, and nobody can fix him—but the finer details of the poem differ in some early iterations.

In this one from an 1810 edition of Gammer Gurton’s Garland, it’s not the king’s cavalry trying to save Humpty:

“Humpty Dumpty sate on a wall,
Humpti dumpti had a great fall;
Threescore men and threescore more,
Cannot place Humpty dumpty as he was before.”

a Humpty Dumpty statue at Hunter Valley Gardens' Storybook Garden in New South Wales, Australia
Humpty Dumpty at Hunter Valley Gardens' Storybook Garden in New South Wales, Australia. / Christopher Wood, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED

James Orchard Halliwell featured that same version (spelling inconsistencies included) in the first edition of The Nursery Rhymes of England, published in 1842, and he added another one to the fourth edition in 1846:

“Humpty Dumpty lay in a beck,
With all his sinews round his neck;
Forty doctors and forty wrights
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty to rights!”

(Beck is another word for brook, and wright describes a carpenter.) 

There’s even a rendition of “Humpty Dumpty” printed in 1837 that replaces the titular character with “Rowly bowly.” (Not to mention the many colorful European offshoots, from Scandinavia’s “Lille-Trille” to Germany’s “Hümpelken-Pümpelken.”) The “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” version was in play around this time, too—Halliwell mentions it in his second edition—and that’s the one that stuck.

During the 20th century, speculation abounded about the inspiration behind the rhyme. According to one popular theory, explained in Katherine Elwes Thomas’s 1930 book The Real Personages of Mother Goose, “Humpty Dumpty” is about King Richard III’s death during the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Not only was the king’s cavalry present at the time, but he’s often depicted (by no less than Shakespeare) as having a pronounced hump in his back (which isn’t historically accurate). That said, Thomas allowed that the poem might have predated its association with the doomed ruler.

A 19th-century illustration of the death of Richard III
A 19th-century illustration of the death of Richard III. / Print Collector/GettyImages

In a 1956 issue of The Oxford Magazine, scholar David Daube posited that Humpty Dumpty was a wheeled siege engine that shattered at the siege of Gloucester in 1643. (A similar theory suggests it was a cannon that fell from its perch during the siege of Colchester five years later.) Daube acknowledged that even if his hypothesis were true, it’s possible the creators of the poem had based it off an older one.

And there is fairly compelling evidence to support that “Humpty Dumpty” didn’t originate as a pithy account of any historical event, but as something else entirely: a riddle.

Say My Name, Say My Name

In an 1843 issue of The Orion magazine, editor William Carey Richards mentioned learning “Humpty Dumpty” at 5 years old “propounded as a riddle.” In other words, you’d recite the rhyme to children and ask them to guess what Humpty Dumpty was.

As Richards wrote, “Humpty-dumpty, reader, is the Dutch or something else for an egg!” Richards was way off about the Dutch word for egg (it’s ei), but he was right about the answer: A great fall would of course destroy an egg beyond repair, no matter how many royal resources you tossed at it.

These kinds of “riddle-rhymes,” as Lina Eckenstein called them in 1906’s Comparative Studies in Nursery Rhymes, were common in the 19th century (or at least that’s when folklorists started printing them in books). A number of them share elements with “Humpty Dumpty,” right down to specific phrases. All the king’s horses, for example, appears in a riddle about a well: 

“As round as an apple, as deep as a cup,
And all the king’s horses can’t pull it up.”

W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty in 'Alice in Wonderland' (1933).
W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty in 'Alice in Wonderland' (1933). / John Springer Collection/GettyImages

And while the term humpty-dumpty did actually mean something—“a short clumsy person of either sex,” according to Francis Grose’s 1785 Classical Dictionary the Vulgar Tongue—plenty of other riddle-rhymes from the era featured the type of rhythmic nonsense that sounds great when chanted aloud, as in:

“Highty, tighty, paradighty, clothed in green,
The king could not read it, no more could the queen;
They sent for a wise man out of the East,
Who said it had horns, but was not a beast.”

(It’s a holly tree.)

There’s also this less catchy relic regarding a nettle:

“Hitty Pitty within the wall,
Hitty Pitty without the wall,
If you touch Hitty Pitty,
Hitty Pitty will bite you.”

Dorothy Gulliver sitting on a cliff wearing an egg costume in 1930
Film star Dorothy Gulliver as Humpty Dumpty in 1930. / Fox Photos/GettyImages

Published compilations, Halliwell’s included, typically printed the answers alongside the riddles. So there’s a long paper trail pretty much proving that Humpty Dumpty was always an egg, and the fact that the rhyme itself fails to mention so isn’t an odd omission—it’s the whole point.

The Image and the Style That You’re Used To

The reason everyone remembers Humpty Dumpty the egg—and hardly anyone remembers, say, Little Nancy Etticoat the candle—is largely thanks to some seminal 19th-century pop culture. 

In 1868, entertainer George L. Fox staged and starred in a pantomime musical in New York City titled Humpty Dumpty. Technically, Fox’s character was just named “Clown,” but part of his performance was a reenactment of the nursery rhyme, and he looked decidedly eggy while doing it—covered in white face makeup and a bald cap to boot. The show was a smashing success, and Fox became known as “the original Humpty Dumpty.”

pantomimer george l. fox in white face makeup and a bald cap as humpty dumpty
George L. Fox as Humpty Dumpty. / Napoleon Sarony, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Just a few years later, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found ThereLewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandhit shelves. The book devotes an entire chapter to Alice’s encounter with Humpty Dumpty, who bristles at being called an egg, sits on a wall, and insists that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men would easily pick him up should he fall. John Tenniel’s illustration of Alice with Humpty Dumpty has even been used as the cover image for some editions of the book. 

john tenniel's illustration of alice meeting humpty dumpty
John Tenniel's art for 'Through the Looking-Glass.' / duncan1890/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

Carroll wasn’t the only author to expand Humpty Dumpty’s lore beyond two paltry couplets. In 1903, W.W. Denslow—best known for illustrating The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—published Denslow’s Humpty Dumpty, wherein the title character is actually Humpty Dumpty’s son. Determined to avoid suffering his father’s fate, young Humpty hops in a copper kettle and emerges hard-boiled.

triptych of illustrations from 'denslow's humpty dumpty' showing humpty perched on a kettle, on a tight rope, and in the air
Humpty Dumpty's son feeling invincible post-boil. / Illustrations from ‘Denslow’s Humpty Dumpty,’ isolated on Wikimedia Commons by Theornamentalist: Picture 1, Picture 2, Picture 3 // Public Domain

At this point, Humpty Dumpty is so strongly associated with eggs that the character rendered in any other form simply wouldn’t read as Humpty Dumpty. But maybe in an alternate universe people answered the riddle differently, and the name Humpty Dumpty evokes, say, a bottle of wine—or King Richard III.

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