Behind the Meaning of the Nursery Rhyme “Miss Mary Mack”

Oh, the games they’ll play.

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On many playgrounds, from elementary school to high school, students often enjoy playing and singing the rhyme “Miss Mary Mack.”

Perhaps the most fun aspect of the ditty is the clapping games that go along with it. Seemingly every word or phrase is broken up by a clap of hands, often shared between two people as they sing the rhyme in unison.

But what is the meaning of the verse and the game? And how has it lasted for so long?

That’s what we’ll dive into here today.


Publication of “Miss Mary Mack” goes back to the 1888 book, The Counting Out Rhymes of Children, by Henry Carrington Bolton. And the origin of the rhyme is thought to be West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Today, though, the rhyme is known throughout English-speaking regions, such as the entire United States, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand.

It is known as “the most common hand-clapping game in the English-speaking world.”

How to Play

Two children sit or stand opposite to each other and clap hands in rhythm while singing the song. First they clap hands with themselves in front of their bodies and then cross-clap one hand each before clapping again solo and crossing the other hands. This is done repeatedly as the rhyme is sung in unison.

Other performance options include putting your arms across your chest between words or slapping your knees instead of clapping. “Miss Mary Mack” is also sung often while children jump rope, keeping rhythm.

The Verses

As one might expect, there are several versions of the song. But the most common version today goes:

Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
All dressed in black, black, black
With silver buttons, buttons, buttons
All down her back, back, back (or “Up and down her back, back, back”)
She asked her mother, mother, mother
For 50 cents, cents, cents
To see the elephants, elephants, elephants
Jump over the fence, fence, fence
They jumped so high, high, high
They reached the sky, sky, sky
And didn’t (or never) come back, back, back (or come down, down, down)
Till the 4th of July ly ly

An alternate version that’s often sung in Canada includes:

She could not read, read, read
She could not write, write, write
But she could smoke, smoke, smoke
Her father’s pipe, pipe, pipe

And yet another alternate version often sung in the American South includes:

Mary Mack
Dressed in black
Silver buttons all down her back.
She combed her hair
And broke the comb.
She’s gonna get a whoopin’ when her Momma comes home
Gonna get a whoopin’ when her Momma comes home.

Who Was “Miss Mary Mack

According to lore, Miss Mary Mack was a performer in Ephraim Williams’ circus in the 1880s, and the song, which includes verses about elephants, may be in reference to her and the pachyderms in the show.

Other theories have less to do with a person and more to do with objects like ships or even a river.

Various theories have been pitched as to the meaning and origin of the nursery rhyme’s title. One theory states that “Mary Mack” could refer to the U.S.S. Merrimack, a United States warship from the mid-1800s that was named after the Merrimack River.

That ship would have been black, with silvery rivets (or buttons). This might imply that the first verse of the rhyme refers to the Battle of Hampton Roads in the American Civil War, say some scholars.

Final Thoughts

At first blush, this nursery rhyme seems rather nonsensical.

50 cents to see the elephants jump over a fence? What does this even mean?

What is clear, more than anything, is when this rhyme is enjoyed. It’s not done at home with parents. Rather, it’s often executed between adolescent friends on the playground. Therefore, it would seem, that the rhyme has something to do with independence and children breaking away from the tethers of their parents.

Mary Mack is dressed in black—funeral colors. There are silver buttons down her back, valuable things that juxtapose the dark color of her dress.

She wants money from her parent to go off and see some of the world’s wonders, which, in reality, are fantastical things: large elephants jumping to the moon (practically) and not coming down for who knows how long.

These elephants are jumping over a boundary—a fence—perhaps indicating the young people passing some unseen demarcation in their own lives.

Either way, no matter how you interpret the rhyme, it’s catchy as all get-out, as they say, and something that will likely stay on the schoolyard playgrounds for decades to come.

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