Behind the Salacious History and Modern Meaning of the Bath Time Bop “Rub-A-Dub-Dub”

It’s time to reconnect with our old friends: the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker. It’s time to dive deep into the tub and remember the song, “Rub-A-Dub-Dub”!

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The Meaning

The nursery rhyme, which was first published in the late 1700s in the second volume of Hook’s Christmas Box under the name “Dub a dub dub,” has, over time, become a common refrain during bath time for kids and just as a goofy nursery rhyme to recite.

But the original meaning, even before the rhyme was popularized for more family-friendly use, came from the 14th century and it had a more salacious slant.

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Today, the rhyme goes:

Three men in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker,
And all of them out to sea.

But the original verse stems from peep shows and more sexual activities. Keeping reading to find out more.

The Tub

In the 14th century, the “tub” was a carnival attraction similar to a peep show where men would watch women.

So when people said the words “rub-a-dub-dub” it was shorthand for the seedy people who might visit such shows. It was a way of verbally wagging your finger at these lesser-thans who want to see some skin.

The rhyme was created, therefore, to warn people not to behave this way. You don’t want to be thought of as a “rub-a-dub-dub,” do you?

As such, the original rhyme, which involved women, went:

Hey! rub-a-dub, ho! rub-a-dub, three maids in a tub,
And who do you think were there?
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker,
And all of them gone to the fair.

The Butcher, the Baker, and the Candlestick Maker

Given the salacious connotation of the original verse, it stands to reason that the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker were visitors to the maids in the tub. Working men who spent their free time ogling. You don’t want to be like those men, the rhyme says, and you’d ladies definitely don’t want to be like the maids!

[RELATED: Behind the Deeper Origin of the Nursery Rhyme, “Ants Go Marching”]

But it was around 1830 that the more sing-song jovial nature of the verse took hold and the salacious qualities and the maids were removed. Now, it’s a nonsense poem where the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker hop in a tub and float off the sea for no apparent reason.

A version from 1842 reads:

Rub a dub dub,
Three fools in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker,
The candlestick maker.
Turn them out, knaves all three.

These men, together, are to be turned out of society, says the verse. Perhaps because they’re goofy and doing nothing, perhaps because they went to the “tub” and no maids were there, but they were caught. Or, perhaps, they didn’t need women to have a salacious time, and, that in and of itself in an old-fashioned more puritanical time, wasn’t meant to be part of society, either.

Final Thoughts

Thankfully, none of these obscure, weirdly sexual connotations have subsisted when it comes to the rhyme. The power of words has taken control of the poem and not outdated conventions.

Today, the rhyme is enjoyed for its sonic quality, and its bouncy verbiage. That way, it will live together in cartoonish ways like the video below.

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