Jack Horner

☞ Public‐domain character. First appearance, —. Folkloric.

JACK HORNER. A boy who, by most accounts, uses his thumb to extract a plum from a pie. He later becomes a sort of heroic trickster who slays a giant, punishes dishonest people by using his coat of invisibility and his magic bagpipes and then goes on to have a number of further adventures over the next few centuries. (Says one chapbook, “Whene’er he took a ſword in hand, / He made his foes to bleed.”) His most frequent association is with pie, which he is eating or holding, or which is at least mentioned, in nearly every appearance.

Jack Horner is described as “A pretty boy, a curious wit” who is “proper, ſtrait, and trim.” Many young women fall in love with him, and “All people ſpoke his praiſe” (Hiſtory of Jack Horner).

Due to the tremendous popularity and widespread reprinting of The Hiſtory of Jack Horner, as well as its being the earliest work to tell of multiple adventures Jack undertakes, there is a temptation to accept it as a reliable and definitive work, but in actuality, Jack’s most important traits described in the book are thereafter almost entirely ignored. Despite Jack’s numerous appearances in public‐domain literature, his coat of invisibility, his magic bagpipes, his diminutive stature and the wife he takes are not mentioned in any subsequent text but for rare retellings of these early adventures. He is described in three chapters as being only thirteen inches tall, making him a character akin to Tom Thumb (although some of the woodcuts seem to depict him as a young man of normal height), but this trait is entirely absent from later stories. From the middle of the 19th century, he is rarely depicted in any way other than as a child, often living in a fantasyland among other nursery‐rhyme characters.

Sometime in the middle to late 18th century, yet said to be by the time he is twenty, Jack is living with a knight and serving as his page “To yield him much delight.” A source from the late 18th century suggests that Jack may have eventually become apprentice to a minced pie maker (Mother Goose’s Melody), something not confirmed by other sources.

Jack Horner is a variation of the archetypal stock folk hero Jack, and indeed some of his adventures are derived from those of the character Jack in “Jack and His Step‐dame” as well as Jack the Giant‐Killer. Different variations of the Jack archetype are frequently portrayed as separate characters that meet each other; for example, Jack Horner meets and interacts with Jack and Jill, Jack Sprat and Nimble Jack in multiple stories, and he meets Jack Frost in The Luck of Santa Claus.

Origin. Family. The nursery rhyme wherein Jack Horner first appears tells nothing of his origin other than that he is a boy, presumably English (“Little Jack Horner”). The Hiſtory of Jack Horner confirms that he lives “Near London,” and an 1899 text specifies he was born in Islington (“Pleasant Tale of Jack Horner”). A source from April–June 1818 claims that his ancestry is rather in the north, saying he is “descended from John Owens Horner, of Manchester county” (“Critical Researches of an Antiquary”). As Jack is commonly a nickname for John, a number of texts unsurprisingly refer to him as John Horner, implying that that is his real name. A text from 1906, however, says his real name is Jack Horne and that he is an American boy born on Christmas Day (Boy Blue and His Friends: ch. [13]—“Jack Horner’s Pie”).

His parents are Mr. and Mrs. Horner, who appear in a few stories but whose given names are not revealed. An 1897 story asserts that Jack is an orphan being raised by his poor grandparents—Grandma and Grandpa Horner, apparently his father’s parents—“in an old tumble‐down house at the edge of a big wood” (“What Jack Horner Did”), but this is contradicted by other texts wherein Jack’s parents are alive and well. By most accounts, Jack has an excellent relationship with his parents. “His Father’s heart he made full glad,” notes the narration in The Hiſtory of Jack Horner, and “His Mother lov’d him well.” In a 1915 story, Mrs. Horner is portrayed as a busy suffragette who henpecks her husband and leaves Jack to care for his little sister, and the suggestion is also made that Mr. Horner may be the same character as the piper who is Tom’s father (New Woman in Mother Goose Land).

In December 1911, Santa Claus asks Jack whether his mother has ever told him not to pick out plums from pies, at which point Mother Goose interjects “Of course I ’ve told him” (“Christmas Conspiracy”). While this could be taken as evidence that Mother Goose is literally Jack Horner’s mother, one must remember that Mother Goose often figuratively refers to nursery‐rhyme characters as her children. This may also be an attempt on the chronicler’s part to link Jack Horner with Mother Goose’s son Jack who appears in her own nursery rhyme (“Old Mother Goose”).

Jack has at least one sister, named Patty Horner, who appears in a story that does not state whether she is older or younger than he is (Renowned History of Little Jack Horner). In a 1900 story, Jack has an unnamed older sister (possibly Patty) (“Discouraging Discovery of Little Jack Horner”), and in a 1915 story, he has a younger sister called Rockaby Baby (also possibly Patty). That same story also asserts that Tom, the Piper’s Son, is Jack’s brother (New Woman in Mother Goose Land), but this relationship is not mentioned in other stories wherein the two characters appear together. Jack has an aunt named Mrs. Prim who disciplines him on at least one occasion (“Master Jack Horner”). In one of his early adventures, Jack takes an unnamed wife after slaying the giant Galligantus (Hiſtory of Jack Horner).

Pie episode. Sometime before 1726, Jack Horner sits in a corner, presumably of his home in England, uses his thumb to pull a plum from a “Chriſtmas‐pie” he is eating and then praises himself therefor (“Namby Pamby” and others). “[W]hat a good Boy am I,” he proclaims (Hiſtory of Jack Horner and others), although sources differ.

According to The Hiſtory of Jack Horner, Jack’s sitting in a corner and pulling plums from a pie is an annual Christmastime tradition of his childhood years. A story from 1897 claims that Grandma Horner bakes him the pie on the day before Christmas to reward him for rescuing a wealthy man from drowning in a bog near their home who, in gratitude, has lavished gifts and gold coins on Jack and his family (“What Jack Horner Did”). According to a 1900 story, however, it is Jack’s sister who bakes the famous pie, and Jack breaks a tooth on a plum stone accidentally left within it (“Discouraging Discovery of Little Jack Horner”).

An 1834 text makes the bizarre assertion that the original nursery rhyme is not in Modern English but in “Low‐Saxon” and is thus not about Jack Horner at all but about “Jacke Hoornaê,” or Justice Allproper, a greedy and unscrupulous lawyer (Essay on the Archaiology of Popular English Phrases and Nursery Rhymes). As this is the only text to make this claim, and as there is abundant evidence of Jack Horner and his adventures in other texts, it may best be dismissed as inaccurate.

The Texts. Locales. The Hiſtory of Jack Horner specifies that Jack lives “Near London,” and his earliest adventures apparently take place in England; however, later texts frequently change his location without explanation. In an 1881 story, he lives in an unspecified location with Mother Goose before going to live with Santa Claus after Santa proposes to her (“Marriage of Santa Claus”), and a 1906 book claims he lives in the United States (Boy Blue and His Friends), an unlikely scenario as the pie episode predates the 1776 founding of the United States. Numerous later texts assert instead that he lives in some fantasyland with other nursery‐rhyme characters: A story in St. Nicholas from December 1911 says he lives inside “a huge book of nursery rhymes” in the home of children Harry, Nell, Bobby and Dot (“Christmas Conspiracy”); a 1915 story (New Woman in Mother Goose Land) and a 1918 story (Luck of Santa Claus) say he lives in Mother Goose Land, with a 1916 story similarly stating he lives in Gooseland (Modern Mother Goose); and a story in The Ladies’ Home Journal from December 1921 claims he lives in Cole’s kingdom (“There Was a Boy Who Lived on Pudding Lane”).

Developments. Sometime before 1726, Jack Horner uses his thumb to pull a plum from a pie he is eating and then praises himself therefor (“Little Jack Horner” and others).

Sometime in the middle to late 18th century, Jack dons a goatskin and breaks into the home of a dishonest tailor, terrifying him by pretending to be the Devil. He later has an unusual altercation with his master’s cook Joan in which she hits him on the head with a ladle and he goes under her skirt to bite her on the leg and posterior. A cave‐dwelling hermit gives Jack a coat of invisibility and magical bagpipes that compel anyone who hears them to dance and follow the music, and Jack soon thereafter uses them to punish six fiddlers and six peddlers, whom he believes to be dishonest, by leading them over rough terrain so they tear their coats and trousers and break the possessions they were carrying, and then again when he exposes his friend’s unfaithful wife as having an affair with a neighbor. In a clear association with Jack the Giant Killer, Jack Horner slays the tremendous fire‐breathing giant Galligantus by using a five‐inch sword and his magic bagpipes, and then marries the daughter of a knight who had proffered her as reward (Hiſtory of Jack Horner).

Sometime before 1829, Jack encounters a beggar while on his way to school and sends her to his home so his mother can give her his leftover pie. So impressed is his mother with his charitable nature that she and his sister Patty Horner bake him a fresh new pie (Renowned History of Little Jack Horner).

In the 1830s or 1840s, Jack again finds himself in a corner when he is punished by his aunt, Mrs. Prim, “Because he would not spell PIE,” possibly suggesting that he is not particularly intelligent (Nursery Rhymes). A variant of this story, however, describes a similar episode as involving Jack Jelf (HathiTrust, 1846) (Internet Archive, 1858) (HathiTrust, 1895) (Internet Archive, 1902) and so may have been attributed to Jack Horner in error.

In 1881, … (“Marriage of Santa Claus”).

In a story from 1897, Jack rescues a man from drowning in a bog near his home who turns out to be quite wealthy and, in gratitude, lavishes gifts and gold coins on Jack and his family (“What Jack Horner Did”).

In a story from 1900 that recounts the original pie episode, Jack breaks a tooth on a plum stone accidentally left in the pie by his sister (“Discouraging Discovery of Little Jack Horner”).

In December 1904, … (“Message to Mother Goose”).

In 1905 … (Humorous Quartets for Men’s Voices).

In 1906, possibly on a visit to the United States, Jack is punched in the face by a Bryn Mawr alumna while he is standing on a street corner flirting with girls (Mrs. Goose). In a 1906 book that coincidentally states he is in the US, Jack arrives to school late and, in his haste, leaves the door ajar, and so is the one responsible for inadvertently letting in Mary’s lamb Fleecy. The “Christmas pie” is actually a fake pie fashioned by his mother for a party at their home, with the “plums” inside being wrapped party favors for the guests. Jack’s plum contains a watch so he would not be late to school again (Boy Blue and His Friends).

A 1910 story claims that Jack Horner and other nursery‐rhyme characters encounter Bo‐peep crying shortly after she has lost her sheep (“Little Bo‐Peep and Her Sheep”).

In December 1911, Jack Horner participates in a lighthearted plot on Christmas Eve to “capture” and confront Santa Claus to ask why he doesn’t bring gifts to nursery‐rhyme children. So confident is Jack that he will get the pie that he wants for Christmas that he gives his old pie to Simple Simon, saying “I picked out all the plums years ago.” Jack indeed receives a new pie from Santa, which is visible thereafter in the book in which the story claims he lives (“Christmas Conspiracy”).

In 1913, Jack Horner is the best man at Jack’s and Jill’s wedding (The Marriage of Jack and Jill).

In The New Woman in Mother Goose Land, Jack Horner is the brother of Tom, the Piper’s son, and by inference, is also himself the Piper’s son (and the Piper is Mr. Horner). Mrs. Horner is a busy suffragette who henpecks her husband and leaves Jack to care for his little sister, Rockaby Baby (1915).

In 1916, Jack is a guest at one of Mistress Mary’s nightly parties on the moon (Modern Mother Goose).

In 1918, Jack Horner flies to Santa Claus Land on the back of one of Mother Goose’s wild geese in order to help her and other nursery‐rhyme characters deliver presents on Christmas Eve after Santa and his reindeer are injured in a sleighing accident (Luck of Santa Claus).

In a story from December 1921, Jack is one of the children rescued by Santa Claus after being entranced by the villainous Pied Piper (“There Was a Boy Who Lived on Pudding Lane”).

In 1922, Jack denies ever having pulled a plum from any pie, saying that the nursery rhyme is inaccurate, but it is revealed that the pig stolen by Tom, the Piper’s Son, which had only been taken temporarily as a prank, actually belonged to Jack (Strike Mother Goose Settled). He is also once again one of the children to fall victim to the nefarious Pied Piper (Children Who Followed the Piper).

Public‐domain bibliography

  • Little Jack Horner” (nursery rhyme), Roud 13027, 1720s or earlier.
    • Mother Goose’s Melody, compiled by John Newbery, ca. 1785. (Internet Archive)
    • Gammer Gurton’s Garland: or, The Nursery Parnassus; A Choice Collection of Pretty Songs and Verses, for the Amusement of All Little Good Children Who Can Neither Read nor Run, part 2, collected by Joseph Ritson, 1810. (HathiTrust) (Internet Archive)
    • The Nursery Rhymes of England, Collected Principally from Oral Tradition, collected by James Halliwell‐Phillipps, 1842. (Internet Archive)
    • The Royal Infant Opera, Composed Expressly for His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, & Inscribed to Every British Mother, music by Olivia Buckley, [1842?]. (HathiTrust)
    • Mother Goose; or, National Nursery Rhymes and Nursery Songs, music by James William Elliott, 1872. (HathiTrust)
    • Humorous Quartets for Men’s Voices, music and additional verse by Lee G. Kratz, 1905. (HathiTrust)
    • Melodic First Reader, by Frederic H. Ripley and Thomas Tapper, Natural Music Course, 1906. (Internet Archive)
    • Rhymes Set to Music, vol. 1, music by Herbert Hughes (d. 1937), 1913. (HathiTrust)
    • Songs from Mother Goose for Voice and Piano, music by Sidney Homer (op. 36), 1919. (Internet Archive)
  • Namby Pamby : or, A Panegyric on the New Verſification Addreſs’d to A⁠⸺ P⁠⸺ Eſq;” (poem), by Henry Carey, 1725. (HathiTrust)
  • The Pleaſant Hiſtory of Jack Horner: Containing the Witty Tricks and Pleaſant Pranks He Play’d from His Youth to His Riper Years; Pleaſant and Delightful Both for Winter and Summer Recreation, [ca. 1790] (presumably a later edition of the 1764 work cited in the Wikipedia article). (Internet Archive)
    • 1805 ed. with different illustrations. (Google Books)
    • 1810 ed. with different illustrations. (NLS)
    • 1811 ed. with different illustrations. (NLS)
    • 1823 ed. with different illustrations. (NLS)
    • Reprinted in The Boyd Smith Mother Goose, 1919, two illustrations by E. Boyd Smith. (Internet Archive) (HathiTrust)
  • “P‐⁠rs‐⁠n H‐⁠tt‐⁠n in View, or Jacky Horner Unkennelled,” The Dr⁠—⁠yt⁠—⁠n Review, or, Characteristic Sketches, pt. 1, by Yorick, 1793. (HathiTrust)
  • Epigram 22, The Poetical Works of the Rev. Samuel Bishop, A. M. …, vol. 2, 1796. (HathiTrust)
  • “The Loves of the Triangles: A Mathematical and Philosophical Poem,” canto 1, first installment, by Mr. Higgins (pseudonym of George Canning), The Anti‐Jacobin; or, Weekly Examiner, no. 23, 16 Apr. 1798. (HathiTrust)
  • “The Natural History of a Batchelor of Arts, an Ironical Oration, Delivered at the Commencement, by John Somers,” The Port Folio, ser. 2, vol. 4, no. 6, 8 Aug. 1807. Fans of Jack Horner. (HathiTrust)
  • “Plums,” Extracts from the Portfolio of a Man of Letters, by William Taylor?, The Monthly Magazine, vol. 35, no. 3, whole no. 239, Apr. 1813. Jack’s pie was supposedly filled with raisins or currants rather than plums. (HathiTrust)
  • Letter by Minimus, Fine Arts, The Satirist, or Monthly Meteor, vol. 2, no. 22, May 1814. Description of a (fictional) painting of Jack. (HathiTrust)
  • A Catalogue Raisonné of the Pictures Now Exhibiting in Pall Mall, pt. 2, item 81, 1816. Jack is apparently a sculptor who works in gingerbread. (Internet Archive) (HathiTrust)
  • “Mainchance Villa,” ch. 39 of Melincourt, by Thomas Love Peacock, 1817. (Internet Archive)
  • “Critical Researches of an Antiquary,” by Quizz, The Portico, vol. 5, nos. 4–6, Apr.–June 1818. (HathiTrust)
  • Etymologicon universale; or, Universal Etymological Dictionary: On a New Plan; in Which It Is Shewn, That Consonants Are Alone to Be Regarded in Discovering the Affinities of Words, and That the Vowels Are to Be Wholly Rejected; That Languages Contain the Same Fundamental Idea; and That They Are Derived from the Earth, and the Operations, Accidents, and Properties Belonging to It; with Illustrations Drawn from Various Languages: the Teutonic Dialects, English, Gothic, Saxon, German, Danish, &c. &c.—Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish;—the Celtic Dialects, Galic, Irish, Welsh, Bretagne, &c. &c.—the Dialects of Sclavonic, Russian, &c. &c.—the Eastern Languages, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Sanscrit, Gipsey, Coptic, &c. &c., vol. 2, by Walter Whiter, 1822. (Internet Archive) (HathiTrust)
  • Don Juan, by Lord Byron, canto 11, st. 69, 1823. (Internet Archive)
  • The Renowned History of Little Jack Horner, [before 1829]. (Internet Archive)
  • “Master Jack Horner” (rhyme), Nursery Rhymes …, [1830–49]. (Internet Archive) (HathiTrust) (Google Books)
  • An Essay on the Archaiology of Popular English Phrases and Nursery Rhymes, by John Bellenden Ker Gawler, 1834. (Internet Archive) (HathiTrust)
  • “Little Jack Horner” (song), by Fanny E. Lacy, [between 1844 and 1851]. (HathiTrust)
  • “Jack Horner,” Mother Goose for Grown Folks: A Christmas Reading, by Adeline Dutton Train Whitney, 1859. (Internet Archive)
  • “The True Story of Little Jack Horner,” Little Folks, vol. 2, no. 75, (July?) 1872. (HathiTrust)
  • Slices of Mother Goose, by Alice Parkman, illustrated by James Wells Champney, 1877. (Internet Archive)
  • “The Marriage of Santa Claus,” The Reading Club and Handy Speaker: Being Serious, Humorous, Pathetic, Patriotic, and Dramatic Selections in Prose and Poetry, for Readings and Recitations, no. 9, ed. George Melville Baker, 1881. (Internet Archive)
  • Jack Horner (war novel), by Mary Spear Tiernan, 1890. (Internet Archive) (HathiTrust)
  • “Hop‐o’‐my‐thumb and little Jack Horner” (rhyme), Sing‐Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book, by Christina Rossetti, 1893. (Internet Archive)
  • Yale Yarns: Sketches of Life at Yale University, by John Seymour Wood, 1895. (Internet Archive)
  • Simple Simon: A Mother Goose Extravaganza, by Robert Ayres Barnet (d. 1933), music by Alfred Baldwin Sloane (d. 1925) and George L. Tracy (d. 1921), 1897. (review, HathiTrust)
  • “What Jack Horner Did,” Mother Goose in Prose, by L. Frank Baum, 1897. (Internet Archive)
  • “The Pleasant Tale of Jack Horner,” The Crock of Gold, by Sabine Baring‐Gould, 1899. (Internet Archive)
  • “The Discouraging Discovery of Little Jack Horner,” Mother Goose for Grown‐Ups, by Guy Wetmore Carryl, 1900. (Internet Archive)
  • “Little Jap Horner” (rhyme and political cartoon), by Bob Satterfield, Newspaper Enterprise Association, The Tacoma Times, vol. 1, no. 81, 23 Mar. 1904. (Library of Congress)
  • “A Message to Mother Goose,” by Ellen Manly, St. Nicholas, vol. 32, no. 2, Dec. 1904. (Internet Archive)
  • Boy Blue and His Friends, by Etta Austin Blaisdell and Mary Frances Blaisdell, 1906. (Internet Archive)
  • “Little Jack Horner/Stood on the corner” (rhyme), Mrs. Goose: Her Book, by Maurice Switzer, 1906. (HathiTrust) (with illustration)
  • “A Dream of Mother Goose,” by J. C. Marchant and S. J. Mayhew, and “A Mother Goose Party,” by G. B. Bartlett, A Dream of Mother Goose and Other Entertainments, 1908. (HathiTrust)
  • “Little Bo‐Peep and Her Sheep,” Rimes and Stories, by Lura Mary Eyestone, 1910. (HathiTrust)
  • “The Christmas Conspiracy: A Christmas Play for Boys and Girls,” by Elizabeth Woodbridge, St. Nicholas, vol. 39, no. 2, Dec. 1911. (Internet Archive)
  • “Vangoulderbilt Horner sat in a corner” (rhyme), The Bull Moose Mother Goose, by Sallie Macrum Cubbage, 1912. (HathiTrust)
  • The Marriage of Jack and Jill: A Mother Goose Entertainment in Two Scenes, by Lilian Clisby Bridgham, 1913. (Internet Archive)
  • Miss Muffet Lost and Found: A Mother Goose Play, by Katharine C. Baker, 1915. (HathiTrust)
  • The New Woman in Mother Goose Land: A Play for Children, by Edyth M. Wormwood, 1915. Noteworthy for not associating Jack in any way with plums or pies. (Internet Archive)
  • The Modern Mother Goose: A Play in Three Acts, by Helen Hamilton, 1916. (Internet Archive)
  • The Luck of Santa Claus: A Play for Young People, by B. C. Porter, 1918. (Internet Archive)
  • Mother Goose Comes to Portland, by Frederic W. Freeman, 1918. (Internet Archive)
  • “There Was a Boy Who Lived on Pudding Lane: A True Account, If Only You Believe It, of the Life and Ways of Santa, Eldest Son of Mr. and Mrs. Claus,” by Sarah Addington, The Ladies’ Home Journal, vol. 38, no. 12, Dec. 1921. (HathiTrust)
  • The Strike Mother Goose Settled, by Evelyn Hoxie, 1922. (Internet Archive)
  • The Children Who Followed the Piper, by Padraic Colum (d. 1972), illustrated by Dugald Stewart Walker (d. 1937), (Sept.) 1922. Appears to have been first published in the US. (1937, Internet Archive) (rev. ed., 1933, HathiTrust)
  • The Real Personages of Mother Goose, ch. 3, by Katherine Elwes Thomas, 1930. In the public domain from failure to renew copyright. (HathiTrust)
  • Dictionary of Mythology Folklore and Symbols, by Gertrude Jobes, 1961. In the public domain from failure to renew copyright. (HathiTrust)
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